Herman T. Salton, Ph.D.

Teaching

To me, teaching is a vocation rather than a profession.

My teaching philosophy rests on three pillars: a) that academic knowledge is best conveyed through a combination of theory and practice; b) that long-term methodological skills should be given priority over short-term data; and c) that Educational Technology (ET) has a role to play in the classroom.

a) Academic Knowledge as a Combination of Theory and Practice

The idea that academic knowledge is best conveyed through the harmonious blending of theoretical inquiry and empirical work is often preached but seldom practised. As somebody with both teaching and professional experience who strives to combine academic, policy and media work, I am regularly surprised at the gulf that separates the suppliers and the consumers of academic knowledge. Indeed, I have sometimes left lecture theatres with the impression that the teacher came from Venus and the student from Mars, two aliens who meet on neutral territory (the Earth) and share a physical location (the classroom) but nothing else. Since academia is the planet of ideas and students should be taught to take ideas seriously, this is not entirely surprising.

Yet problems emerge when teachers confuse information and knowledge, the former being a commodity in ever-greater supply while the latter is a method and, as such, is far more difficult to transmit. Conveying knowledge rather than information is the challenge of the conscientious teacher and is, in my experience, best achieved through a combination of theoretical inquiry and practical exercises. Academia tends to excel in the former while the ‘outside world’ focuses on the latter, so students are stuck in the middle. The teacher must bring these two worlds together—but how?

Here is where I draw most from my professional expertise. For me, the best way to make learning interesting and motivational for students is to combine the concepts and theories of international relations with the everyday practice of it. This is why my classes are often divided into two parts: in the first one I ensure that my students gain a good grasp of the specific theories we are discussing; while in the second one I teach them to apply those theories to a specific international issue. The two parts of the class complement each other but are structured differently: the first, theoretically informed half comes in the form of a Socratic dialogue between me and my students. Since it is my experience that the arid explanation of theoretical concepts is as tedious as it is easily forgotten, in class I prefer to adopt a question-and-answer approach whereby I start with the discussion of a basic document (usually a political statement, an excerpt from a peace treaty, or a newspaper article) and I then guide my students—through sustained questioning—to see how different theorists of international relations are likely to perceive that document.

From there, we consider a case-study, which I usually draw from my experience in international affairs (including from my time at the UN) and which often takes the form of role-playing on the Security-Council (we have recently simulated a Council session on Syria). Here, again, I try to show my students the possible theoretical implications of the practical decisions taken in the case-study, so that theory and practice become almost unrecognizably blended. This is not always straightforward: my classes and seminars tend to be challenging affairs where students are trained to acquire the theoretical skills through the discussion of specific case-studies. As I suggest below, however, student feedback on this method has been encouraging.

b) Long-Term Methods over Short-Term Facts

The second pillar of my teaching philosophy rests upon the idea that long-term methodological knowledge should take priority over short-term factual information. This is especially so for first-year students: like immigrants knocking at the door of academia, they are applying for citizenship to the ‘Republic of Letters’ and the teacher must train them and help them to obtain it (full admittance will only come on Graduation Day). This is a serious process and one where students should first and foremost be assessed on the basis of their methodological skills. First-year applicants to the ‘Republic of Letters’ tend to be unsophisticated in their approach, but they are quick learners and offer a fertile soil upon which to build. Hence my unrelenting emphasis, from day one, on the three key methodological skills of critical thinking, academic writing and class discussion.

Critical thinking is the most important but also the trickiest skill to convey, for first-year students often come with a black-and-white approach that the teacher must undo while instilling in them the merits of polite disagreement. In my classes, I try to do so by picking a polarizing issue (recent cases included whether Sharia law should have equal standing with English law, and whether abortion is a public or private matter) and by randomly dividing the class into groups, each of which is asked to defend a certain position regardless of the personal views of its members. Once the groups have defended their pre-assigned views, I ask each group to subject the other to sustained criticism (to which I add my own questioning), something that aims to show students how reality is rarely black or white. Most students seem to appreciate this adversarial, courtroom-style method.

As for the second critical skill I stress, academic writing, it is best acquired through the correction of bad practice. This is why, when possible, I like to give students take-home exercises: I ask them, for instance, to write a short paragraph on a certain issue (no more than five lines) which they must email me and which I return to them with my corrections. This way, structural mistakes are corrected ahead of any assessed work and recurring methodological problems–such as adopting a descriptive rather than an analytical approach, bad practice and poor referencing–are rectified.

Third and last, class discussion is not a standalone skill, but one that I try to develop it on a continuous basis through a Socratic method of questioning which is inspired by the Oxford tutorial system and that aims at directing students towards rigorous reasoning. It is my experience that, with this system, even the quietest of students becomes a bit more confident. To be sure, there is a delicate balance to be struck here, for impose the questioning on a shy student and s/he will be put off by the seminar experience, yet address the question to the class at large and only a talkative few will participate. This is especially so when the student population comes from different backgrounds, as has been the case in all the universities I have been teaching at. On this I have learned my lessons: in my first years of teaching I tended to be too dominant and class discussion suffered. The situation is now different and student feedback tend to reflect such improvement. Like all skills, teaching is a progressive business and practice makes it perfect (though mine is far from it).

c) Educational Technology (ET) over Information Technology (IT)

The last component of my teaching philosophy acknowledges that technologically-enhanced teaching can be an important tool to gain students’ attention. This goes against the rejectionist view that technological advancement is more harmful than useful for undergraduate learning. I see this approach as flawed for two reasons: first, the bigger the exposure of new generations to electronic technologies, the greater the expectation from their teachers. Second, this conservative view confuses information technology (IT) and education technology (ET), the first of which is passive and offers students data in the form of facts, whereas the second is interactive and allows them to build their own knowledge through independent activities, rather than having data imposed on them.

As I discovered in my first years of teaching, transmitting information is far easier than conveying knowledge, but student feedback allowed me to see the problem and rectify it. I tried to transform technologically-savvy students into independent learners by turning the gadgets they master so well (smartphones, iPads, etc) into interactive learning tools that—like modern-day ‘Trojan Horses’—allowed students to interact with each other and to share their thoughts on international politics outside the classroom. In this, Twitter, Facebook and MySpace proved especially useful.

Twitter is an exceptionally effective teaching tool that allows instant communication. Especially during my time in the UK, through dedicated Twitter accounts I used to post a wealth of materials (such as videos of WWII, interviews with prominent IR theorists, datasheets on developing countries and mini-assignments requiring students to interact with each other). As for Facebook, dedicated discussion pages were also created to which students were asked to participate by preparing entries ahead of each class and by ‘adopting’ a specific country as their case study. This way, students were expected to construct their knowledge collectively through an in-depth engagement with their case studies and by collecting data as they progressed. This data was then offered for discussion online and the results were opened up for debate in the following class or seminar.

d) Analysis of Student Feedback

Student feedback is the most reliable indicator to judge the effectiveness of what I do—and there is tentative evidence that ET has allowed me to improve my teaching skills. In 2010-11, for instance, 27 questionnaires were received (all for ‘Politics in Europe’), 23 of which gave me a score of 5 out of 5, with top marks for clarity (24 out of 27), availability (25 out of 27), enthusiasm (25 out of 25), essay preparation (26 out of 27) and satisfaction (24 out of 27). Top scores for exam preparation (21 out of 27), essay feedback (20 out of 27) and class discussion (19 out of 27) were lower, although still comfortably positive. The ‘open comment’ section were also encouraging, with students pointing out “the really high quality of the seminars”, “very high standards of teaching”, “the top-notch quality and very engaging teaching style that makes Friday mornings worth getting up for”. On the down side and as indicated above, some students commented that class discussion was at times limited.

As a result of this feedback, the following years saw me change my teaching method by introducing ET—with encouraging results. As many as 112 feedback forms were received in 2012, thus providing a more statistically reliable baseline for assessment. Of these 112 forms, 95 expressed an overall satisfaction score of 5 out of 5, 14 rated me 4 out of 5 and 2 students rated me 3 out of 5. All the marks for those areas that were comparatively weaker in Year One (such as exam preparation, essay feedback and class discussion) improved markedly: my exam prep score, for instance, was rated top (5 out of 5) in 93 questionnaires, while essay feedback satisfied an even higher number of students (94), as did the class discussion parameter (96 top marks).

Open comments were overwhelmingly positive: 86 students wrote that my teaching compared “extremely favourably to the other tutors”, with 93 students praising “a great mix of theory and practice” and “the amazing professional experience of this tutor, which makes everything so much more interesting”. Overall, 105 out of 112 students preferred my teaching method to that of other tutors, with the other 7 writing that it was of comparable quality. My weakest indicator—allowing for more class discussion—improved in Year 2, with only 4 out of 112 students wishing for more interaction.  The introduction of ET and the availability of more structured formal as well as informal student feedback clearly paid off. The following year I was given an Teaching Excellence Award.

e) Conclusion

A good teacher transmits information but only a great teacher instills knowledge (a bad teacher, of course, does neither). My aim is to become a great teacher. I do believe that teaching is the best possible form of learning and that the teacher is the very first student in any classroom, so I am delighted with my experience and with the results of my experiments.

I have found all the universities I taught at (Auckland, Oxford, Wales and AUW) congenial places to perform innovative teaching—institutions where I have been able to learn from my students and colleagues while sharing some of the expertise and knowledge I have acquired through the years. As a passionate and dedicated teacher, I am also always committed to improving my skills and I always look forward to receiving and taking on board more student feedback.

Teaching truly is one of the most gratifying activities I have ever performed—it even compares favourably with diplomacy!


Courses Taught

Note: Third-party teaching evaluations for all courses will be made available on this site soon.
2016/2017
  • PPE 3032 – International Relations: Theory and Practice
  • PPE 3034 – A History of Diplomacy
  • PPE 3251 – The Role of the United Nations in World Politics (Section I)
  • PPE 3251 – The Role of the United Nations in World Politics (Section II)
2015/2016
  • ETHR 1015 – International Ethics
  • PPE 4105 – Global Ethics and Human Rights
  • PPE 3016 – Foundations of Philosophy
  • LCSA 1116 – A History of International Relations in Fifty Objects
  • ETHR 1016 – The Morality of Massacres and Genocides
2014/2015
  • PPE 4103 – Diplomacy and Statecraft
  • PPE 3017 – Global Ethics and Human Rights
  • LCSA 1116 – A History of International Relations in Fifty Objects
  • ETHR 1016 – The Morality of Massacres and Genocides
  • PPE 3008 – The UN Security Council and War
2013/2014
  • PPE 3251 – The United Nations in World Politics
  • ETHR 2100 – The Role of Law in International Politics
  • PPE 4310 – Multilateral Diplomacy
  • PPE 4300 – International Leadership
  • ETHR 1015 – International Ethics
2012/2013
  • IP4000 – Introduction to International Politics
  • LA2000 – Public and Constitutional Law
  • IP3000 – The ‘Third World’ in International Politics
  • IP4001 – Women in the ‘Third World’
2011/2012
  • IP12820 – International Politics in the Age of the Two World Wars (Sec 1)
  • IP12820 – International Politics in the Age of the Two World Wars (Sec 2)
  • IP39221 – Introduction to Global Politics
  • IP42000 – International Organization
  • IP3000 – The ‘Third World’ in International Politics
2010/2011
  • IP12820 – International Politics in the Age of the Two World Wars
  • IP12542 – Comparative Politics in Europe
2006/2007
  • LAW1000 – Public and Constitutional Law
  • POL1001 – Freedom, Propaganda, and the Media
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