Fellowship at NIAS

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I am very pleased to announce that I have been awarded an Instituut Gak Fellowship at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences. I will be joining the NIAS in Amsterdam from early September 2018 until the end of January 2019. While at NIAS, I will be completing my book manuscript on the financialization of the Dutch pension system.

From my proposal: The project is a historical political economy of the Dutch pension system that investigates how the mutually constitutive relationship between the welfare state and the financial system shaped its development. Despite the international prominence of this case in academic scholarship and policy circles, a historical account of the Dutch pension system that integrates the study of social and financial policy has not yet been written. Five case studies of selected historical episodes from the early 20th century to the current period show how state, business and labor actors sometimes opposed, sometimes advanced financial development in order to achieve their social policy goals. This historical account of the Dutch pension system advances theoretical understandings of financialization in relation to the welfare state. The United States and Germany serve as shadow cases. Evidence is collected from national and international historical archives. The fellowship period would be used for the final write-up of the manuscript.

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Lost and Found

When we designed our RM course, we very consciously included modules on finding primary and secondary sources. Of course, our students should already possess these skills. Nonetheless, we were often still surprised to read papers in which a student had missed a major author on a topic of interest or had used a wildly unreliable source as evidentiary basis for a research paper. While it’s quite easy for a university teacher to be appalled at reading such omissions or errors, we figured it would probably be more productive to offer students a refresher course in how to find high-quality and relevant primary and secondary sources.

Developing this curriculum meant also increasing our own understanding of how the current generation of students use the vast amount of online resources that are at our disposal. As someone who was introduced to the internet somewhat later in life (by which I mean, as a teenager) than my students were, I will find and use sources for my research in a much different way than many of my students – something I did not fully understand until watching videos like these. It’s a point that is also central to Andrew Abbott’s wonderful book Digital Paper, which translates the old skill of locating books in a brick-and-mortar library to the online environments in which we often work today. Celebrating the antiquated pastime of browsing through library stacks without being snobby or nostalgic about it, the book offers very practical advice on how to locate and use online resources. It’s a great book and I often assign chapters from it in my courses. It also shaped the development of some of the assignments I currently teach in Research Methods, one of which I will describe below.

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Credit: Niki Odolphie from Frome, England (Longleat Maze) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

As part of the workshop for our module on “Working with documents,” students need to carry out an in-class assignment. The assignment is a simple one: go online and find primary sources that will help you write a research paper on a historic event. The students can find actual primary sources online or they may find the location of where these sources are kept (e.g. a historical archive). Seems easy, right? Here comes the catch: the historic event the students need to research predates the internet, reducing the odds that actual digital primary sources will be available. During the last few workshops, for instance, I chose the 1909 shirtwaist workers’ strike in New York City as topic for this assignment.

Students will need to do a focused search, using specialized search engines and databases to find the sources they need for this assignment. I don’t share this information with the students beforehand. After explaining the assignment, I give students some time (15 minutes or so) to find anything they deem relevant. I walk around the classroom, often a computer lab, looking at the students’ computer screens to see what they are searching for and how. The typical search looks something like this:

  1. The student googles the strike and reads basic information on Wikipedia.
  2. The student uses the university library’s catalogue and/or Google Scholar to search for secondary sources on the historic event.
  3. The student googles “skirtwaist workers’ strike 1909 sources” and checks the first few pages that come up.

This is a completely reasonable search strategy when your instructor confronts you with a historic event you have never heard of, you quickly need to find material related to this event, and you have no idea where to start. I do exactly the same when, for instance, I am asked to teach about a topic I know very little about (this happens sometimes unfortunately). The problem is that this search strategy very rarely results in sources, primary or secondary, that are relevant and reliable. In the case of the skirtwaist workers’ strike, for instance, most students will find a few photographs taken during the strike, a diary entry, and perhaps a New York Times article or two, but not enough sources to write an in-depth case study on the event.

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Credit: Bain News Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Students generally reach this conclusion themselves. After their initial search, we discuss their findings with the entire group. I ask the students not only what they have found, but also how they found it. Since I have observed them doing the assignment, I can call on specific people to share specific search strategies. After discussing a few of these strategies, an inevitable question is raised: what could we have done better? We then spend the following 30 minutes or so discussing the alternatives. Often there is a student present during the workshop who has made good use of specialized databases. I often ask that student to show the others what they could have done better. On other occasions, I do this myself.

The central message of the assignment is this: 1) know which databases are available to use, for which purpose and what their limitations are; 2) know how to work with them. The graduate students in our program (a MSc in Public Administration) will be most familiar with LexisNexis, because it stores Dutch newspaper articles from the 1990s until today. Since our program is international in orientation and courses are taught in English, LexisNexis will not be of help for many of the cases we study. I therefore also make sure to mention other databases that Dutch students are often less familiar with, such as Delpher, ProQuest Historical or Factiva. Finally, we use WorldCat to locate archival collections around the world.

By the time students leave the workshop, we will have discussed a number of ways in which they could have found primary sources on the 1909 shirtwaist workers’ strike. I often carry out these searches on the instructor computer in the lab, which is connected to a projector and thus allows students to follow along. After the workshop, students need to repeat the skills we have practiced in class as part of a graded assignment.

While the in-class exercise has certainly been very useful to serve as a refresher course on one of the most basic academic skills students need to possess, it has also been incredibly useful for me as the course instructor. Seeing in class what students normally do at home has helped me better understand why some research papers draw ‘evidence’ from unreliable websites or grey literature and why others do not. It made me realize that simply dismissing students who produce such work as ‘incapable’ is doing them injustice. Ultimately, this is about habits and not about capacities, and that is something I can help them with.

If you would like to read more about this in-class exercise or use it for your courses, click here.

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Full Blog Series Now Online

The final blog in our series on Flipping the Research Methods classroom is now online at activelearningps.com! We saved the best for last: what did students think of our new blended learning course? Find out here or read the entire series of blogs heresalto_ornamental_-_unbBy Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil [CC BY 3.0 br (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Interview Bingo

One of the biggest challenges in higher education is getting students to actively participate during class time, especially in larger groups. The traditional lecture format simply does not lend itself well for this. Luckily, there are plenty of other teaching techniques that not only motivate students to participate actively during class, but also ensure that the quality of participation increases. As a former quiet student myself, I find it important that class participation does not simply involve giving the loudest students a platform to comment on the course material. Instead, it should give all students the tools to find their voice and use it during class.

For that reason, I love doing fishbowl discussions during my classes. A fishbowl is a different way of organizing a debate. Students are divided into two concentric circles: a small group of students takes place in an inner circle, while the remainder of the class forms an outer circle around them. The students in the inner circle – within the fishbowl, if you will – take part in the discussion. The students in the outer circle observe the discussion and take note of what happens. After a few minutes, the course instructor halts the discussion in the inner circle and asks the observing students to reflect on what happened.  This way, even students who are not speaking are involved in the discussion. Several variations of the fishbowl discussion also exist.

Having used fishbowl discussion for various purposes in my courses over the years, I recently decided to do one in my Research Methods course. This course is part of the flipped classroom that I have written about here. With the lecture part of the course taking place online, it is even more important that class time is being spent in an active manner. For this reason, I decided to combine a fishbowl discussion with a mock interview for the workshop on qualitative interviewing.

This is how it worked: before coming to class, all students had to prepare a list of interview questions on a given topic. The type of respondent was also given. So in one workshop, students were to interview a fictional senior bureaucrat on government budget cutbacks, while in another workshop the mock interview was held with a fictional citizen on tax evasion. During the workshop, two volunteers played out the interview inside “the fishbowl”. The other students observed. To structure their observations, I had made bingo cards with a number of good and bad interviewing practices, using this website . Each time the students observed something from their bingo cards, they crossed off that box – until somebody had bingo of course!

Bingo Picture

At that point, we would halt the mock interview and have the student calling bingo comment on the observations he/she made and what had been missing from the interview. After a brief discussion, we would continue the interview with a new interviewer and interviewee. With the first round covering the beginning of the interview to approximately the half-way point and the second round picking up where we had left off until the end of the conversation, we were able to cover a full interview from start to finish.

Having taught this exercise a number of times now, I have found that it has consistently led to interesting observations and discussions, especially when students disagree on what they had observed!* It has also served the original purpose of the fishbowl exercise by allowing those students, who feel uncomfortable being at the center of attention in the classroom, to actively participate in the mock interview. For this reason, interview bingo has become a standard feature of my interviewing workshop. If you would like to try interview bingo for yourself, feel free to use this link to download the bingo cards (simply click on the bingo card shown to download a pdf-file).

*It should be added that the stakes are high: in the Netherlands, it is customary for the person who erroneously calls bingo to sing a song of choice as penalty 😊.

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Flipping the Research Methods Classroom, Part 1

Curious how my colleague Alexandre Afonso and I have revamped our Research Methods course from a traditional seminar format into a flipped classroom, using blended learning? The first instalment in a new blog series on our course has appeared on the Active Learning in Political Science blog!

Here’s a sneak peak:

The idea behind our Research Methods 3.0 course was simple: in order to be able to spend more class time on practicing hands-on research skills, we needed to move some of our teaching online. In our department, graduate courses often only meet once a week and the duration of a typical course is seven weeks, too short a time to cover the full range of social science methodologies. We quickly learned that our students did not need such a broad survey to carry out their own thesis projects. This led to our second decision: not only would part of the course be moved online, but it would also be modular, allowing students to pick and choose which research methods they wanted to specialize in.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be discussing how we built the online environment for our flipped classroom, the set-up of our offline workshops, using the flipped classroom for collaborative teaching and what our students thought of our flip.

Read along!

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Performativity and Governance of Actuarial Models @ FMSH

Today and tomorrow I will be attending the international meeting on the “Performativity and Governance of Actuarial Models,” hosted by the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’homme in Paris. I will be presenting parts of my research on the financial origins of the Dutch pension system. Looking forward!

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New Article on Financialization and the Pension System

My article “Financialisation and the Pension System: Lessons from the United States and the Netherlands” was recently published in the Journal of Modern European History (Vol. 15, No. 4). The article explores the financialisation of private pensions in the United States and the Netherlands. It proposes two distinct arguments. First, the article shows that both the American and the Dutch pension systems stand out internationally for their high degrees of capitalisation and the absence of substantive investment restrictions for pension funds. The article posits that both pension systems are highly financialised, yet the process of financialisation has proceeded along different historical paths and within different institutional contexts.

Second, the article maintains that the financialisation of pension systems is accompanied by its own political dynamics. In both political economies, different groups of actors (employers, labour unions, financial professionals) have made claims over the growing concentration of pension assets. Here, particular emphasis is given to the role of the state. It shows how since the mid-1970s, both American and Dutch pension funds have altered their investment strategies, abandoning public debt as the dominant investment category.

The article explains this change in terms of the rising popularity of modern portfolio theory and the immense growth of pension capital in need of new investment options. As austerity politics have made governments more dependent on financial markets, pension funds have become more assertive in leveraging their assets and demanding political reform which are in the interest of the financial industries. Financialisation has thus fundamentally altered the balance of power between the state and financial market actors.

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Filed under Financialization, Netherlands, Pension Funds, Publications, United States