The House of Commons workshop approach

Dr Andrew Law, Senior Lecturer

School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape

Humanities and Social Sciences

What did you do?

Developed a House of Commons series of workshops for the Stage 3 Planning Theory and Politics course. It is a very political course that allows students to debate philosophical and political issues, from the environment, to capitalism to more specific issues relating to exclusion such as racism in the planning process. The aim of this approach was to try and include students who have right-wing political views and who often find Social Science ideas hard to swallow because they see the disciplinary area as generally left-liberal leaning.

Who is involved?

Dr Andrew Law. Undergraduate (Stage 3) students.

How do you do it?

In week 1 students were asked to use the political compass web site to understand their political position. I asked students if they would be willing to share their political positions with the cohort. Those who did not want to share their political positions were asked to come to the front and remain neutral. And those who still had not decided or did not want to declare their position could also come to the front and become neutral commentators.

Generally however, most students found they had a political position and each year I have done this, there has often been a good balance of liberals, socialists, Tories, Greens and for the first time this year UKIPers.

The position of myself in these sessions is to be Mr/Mrs speaker. That is whilst I tell the students I have a political position, I try and avoid dumping it on the students as much as possible by remaining neutral. However, I also remind the students that whilst we are using categories of left, middle and right to define our sessions this does not mean we fit into nice political boxes; indeed, all human subjects have a mix of views. Nevertheless, I have adopted this approach for a few of the sessions for the reasons I shall now illustrate below. For international students who come from non-democratic countries, I explain to them in very broad terms the differences between political parties.

Why do you do it?

1) Social science particularly sociology and human geography presents itself as neutral or objective. But the reality is, social science and particularly sociological and human geographical approaches are strongly left-liberal leaning; to pretend otherwise is epistemologically dishonest.

2) right wing students are often quite annoyed by left leaning lecturers who seem to politically rant during the lectures and who ignore their own positions; this leads to a form of political exclusion and I have read countless feedback statements that complain about the opinionated nature of lecturers – including myself. I am not above this criticism.

3) I feel that the social justice and environmental positions of social science academics are not respected by right wing students who do not feel they have a say in discussions, in classroom setting and who are sometimes ousted by lecturers and other students.

4) I have also found that right wing students are even further entrenched by their sense that they do not have a space to discuss their feelings and ideas.

5) Often staff complain to me about how right wing the students have become and how sad this is etc.

6) my house of commons approach is inclusive. Whilst I am also a left-liberal leaning social science academic, like 90% of my colleagues, I feel that I will have more effect in persuading students of the validity of social justice/environmentally conscious perspectives, by including all students in the debate.

7) Many academics in the social sciences do not want to deal with right wing students or ignore them. I want to include them, and bring their opinions out into the class rooms because I feel that I will have more effect on them; and my own academic position (which is ultimately more liberal) will seem more persuasive.

Does it work?

I think it works. I have had the following feedback regarding the House of Commons workshops. Students have told me they feel included that their own view is respected and they have a chance to participate. The right wing students in particular feel respected, and understand that even if I do not agree with their views they are nevertheless included in the sessions and that as a University lecturer I am in the first instance a democrat. Students from non-democratic countries have also found these workshops enlightening. It gives them a sense of the highs and lows of democracy, and they can quickly see why we have democracy in the west: that is quite simply, because we don’t agree with each other.

Contact Details

Dr Andrew Law, Senior Lecturer



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