The object(s) of humanitarianism

“The object(s) of humanitarianism: object based learning in taught post-graduate courses,” paper presented at the International Studies Association Conference; Montreal, Canada, March 2011


International Relations (IR) tends to focus its  research on representational forms of knowledge: historical accounts of events as told through archives, news media, interviews.   While these approaches are well established within UK higher education, emerging pedagogy stresses the significant contribution that objects can make to students’ intellectual development. Based on a graduate course at Sussex University the paper suggests that object based learning has unique contributions to make to teaching complex humanitarian emergencies and the related disciplines of conflict, security and development and international relations.

How does one teach ‘complex humanitarian emergencies’ to graduate students, who have little to no experience with the phenomena beyond what they see on television? How does one do this in a way which is both ethically sensitive to the concepts and events under examination and conveys the realities involved (death, injury, destruction, corruption).  Is it possible to both offer a philosophical critique of the concept and processes while imparting students with the ‘skills base’ that is increasingly in demand at the post-graduate taught (PGT) level in England?  It is these questions that I began to wrestle with when asked to develop a course on ‘complex humanitarian emergencies’ in the context of our new taught Masters programme on Conflict, Security and Development.  With a research background in the spatial and material aspects of humanitarianism, I decided to mobilize new techniques in student engagement such as “inquiry-based learning” to introduce the students to an “object oriented approach” to the subject.  The rationale for this was based on the following two hypotheses:

  1. The current composition of UK PGT classes requires modification of typical text based seminar approach

An increasing proportion of university level education in the United Kingdom is delivered through taught post-graduate courses (PGT). In International Relations these courses are typically one year long and are taught through a two or three hour seminar format which typically includes a combination of lecture/discussion/small group work.  The size of the classes varies between 10 to 25 students however increased student demand in the past few years and attempts to reduce costs has seen a trend towards the higher end of this spectrum.  [need stats]  In addition to larger class size, other pedagogic challenges include a wide variety of class composition:  students come from all over the world (representing all continents); wide variety of ages (from students who have just graduated from under-graduate courses to mature students); an fairly even split between genders; and an increased recognition of the pervasiveness of learning challenged students such as those with dyspraxia, dyslexia and autism.

2.       The study of complex emergencies (narrowly) and international relations (broadly) would benefit from an introduction of this pedagogic approach by challenging existing narratives of causality and agency.  The introduction of objects also allows highlights the affective and ethical issues which are often obscured in traditional text based teaching methods.

International Relations, like many humanities and social science subjects has typically been taught through representational methods include the use of abstract models and historical narratives.  The established PGT format, described above, relies heavily on texts which tend to be circulated in advance to students in order that they form the basis of discussion during the seminar.  While the discipline’s traditional perspectives  – i.e. realism, liberalism and even marxism –  are concerned with the material aspects of statecraft – for example economic resources; populations; borders; weapons arsenals; government institutions the pedagogic approaches have focused on the representational and epi-phenomenal aspects such as power; ideas and norms.  This tendency towards representation was amplified from the 1990s onwards when interest in discursive and constructivist approaches gained new prominence.  Recently, interest in materiality has seen a small but influence group of scholars foregrounding issues around objects and things (Debrix and Weber 2003; Higate and Henry 2009; Salter 2008; Venturi et al. 2007).  Another group of scholars has been interested in matters of ‘practice’ in International Relations (Pouliot 2008; Richmond 2009).  But these theoretical approaches have not translated into changed pedagogic approaches, and in the main they are still defined and discussed largely through representational means. This is not to say that all approaches to International Relations Pedagogy are the same – the papers on this panel attest to this. In various sectors of the discipline there have been attempts to incorporate more experiential and active learning techniques.  But approaches such as simulations, field trips and problem or case based learning approaches are still generally seen as supplements to the established text based techniques rather than the centerpiece.[1]

This paper is an analysis of recent experiment in using object based approaches to teaching and learning in a PGT environment.  It argues that while an incorporation of object-based learning seems to have pedagogic benefits based on student feedback, further research is needed.  It is also unclear whether a partial incorporation of an OBL approach may be confusing for some students who are used to a textually based approach.

1 – Best Practice in Learning

Contemporary pedagogy stresses the need to ensure that students reflect upon the material in a way that ensures absorption and comprehension of the material (Cowan 2006).  Approaches to reflective learning, also stress the importance of presenting materials in ways which allow students to reconsider and challenge their pre-existing assumptions and frameworks regarding the material (Moon 2004). While it is more than possible for reflexive methods to be deployed using texts (Cowan 2006) educators will still encounter the challenges which derive from a reliance on texts in a PGT environment namely:

  • Students will different cultural backgrounds will struggle more or less with texts which tend to reflect the Eurocentric nature of the discipline.
  • Students with different learning needs (autistic, dyslexic) may find themselves relatively disadvantaged in a learning environment which privileges textual pedagogies.
  • Students who do not have English as their first language and often find the traditionally dense academic articles which are assigned as PGT reading difficult to comprehend. As ESL students are an increasing proportion of our PGT student cohorts this consideration needs to be taken seriously. Personal experience suggests that ESL students will often ignore or skim read those articles they find inaccessible, resulting in in-class discussion being dominated by those students who are most comfortable with the texts.

Current best practice in pedagogic approaches stresses the role that multi-dimensional learning approaches can have in improving comprehension and retention (Moon 2004).  In particular, the need to distinguish between verbal and tacit knowledge highlights the different ways in which students learn.  Say Phillips and Tinning quoting Hooper-Greenhill, “verbal knowledge is primarily textual and is characterized as ‘knowledge through the written, spoken or heard text’” (Phillips and Tinning 2011: 57). In other words, the type of knowledge that forms the nucleus of PGT teaching in the social sciences and humanities in the UK.  Tacit knowledge on the other hand, “is experiential and involves encounters through the senses and the body producing ‘powerful “gut reactions”, mobilizing feelings and emotions” (Phillips and Tinning 2011: 57). The mobilization of emotion can itself be an important aspect of comprehension and retention (Moon 2004) in two different ways. First, a students personal emotional state during the teaching experience will influence whether they are comfortable and able to absorb information. Students who are frightened are less able to learn and less likely to retain information.   Secondly, it will have an effect on the level of comprehension itself by involving a range of senses – vision, touch, hearing, kinesthetic – not only eyes (Phillips and Tinning 2011; Rodaway 1994).

Particularly in the area of international relations, the core disciplinary concepts contain a strong affective element. Consider the study of conflict. While some branches of conflict studies approach the subject from a largely empirical perspective – measuring number of casualties, frequency of events (Collier and Sambanis 2005; Gleditsch et al. 2002) an equally influential perspective stresses the need to engage with our basic conceptualizations of violence, civil war, conflict in order to not only measure and observe but comprehend the motivations, experience and dynamics of ‘conflict’ (Kalyvas 2004; Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois 2004). For example, Thomas (Thomas 2010) says that within IR our conceptions of violence lack in nuance and specificity – instead using the term to stand in for any act of bodily aggression that is considered to be non-legitimate.

It is strange, too, that so many of the concepts that occupy the discipline are essentially affective in nature. While, concepts such as security and power occupy the pages of our journals, the embodied and affective aspects of these terms remains under-examined. Even in the theoretical spheres of bio-politics – the concern with the body qua its visceral embodiment – our teaching methods and engagement with the terms remains squarely verbal, determinedly textual.  I argue that not only would a change in teaching methods to a more tacit approach improve student learning with regards to these abstract and multivalent concepts; but that this approach may force a reconsideration of the anemic manner in which these terms are traditionally deployed within the discipline.  By considering the tacit, visceral, embodied meaning and aspects of conflict, security, power, development one may find their interpretations of given events being challenged; possibilities for action opening up or shutting down; and even the focus of study shifting.  For example, the famous study of trench warfare during WW1 found that the majority of soldiers were physically unable to shoot their targets (Collins 2008). The horror of the situation overwhelmed their rational brain and their automatic bodily functions took over. Many urinated or defecated in their trousers; others fired over-head; still more ran.  Recognizing the visceral, embodied experience of conflict raises questions over the accuracy to capture the central issues through an abstract or quantitative approach.

A sustained engagement with the human element of conflict also raises ethical issues with regard to the way in which the subject is studied.  In my own experience of PGT courses on Conflict, Security and Development and Complex Humanitarian Emergencies it is far to easy to slip into a discourse which obviates the recognition that the events under consideration involve human casualties – death, trauma, suffering.  A purely textually or verbally based engagement arguably facilitates an approach which see ‘conflict’, ‘insecurity’, ‘emergency’, ‘under-development’ as abstract concepts to be critiqued, hypothesized, proven or rejected without a tacit recognition of the constituent human elements.

In order to address these concerns, in Spring 2010, I designed and taught a class which adopted an ‘object based approach’ to the topic of complex humanitarian emergencies. The course, was designed around four ‘object oriented’ aspects:  overall theoretical orientation, the object lesson, in class presentation and end of term paper.  The next section will review each of these approaches in turn.  Following the course, two forms of student feedback were elicited. First, the official university anonymized feedback through the online system (Annex x); second, using Study Direct, Sussex University’s virtual learning environment I established an online anonymous short answer survey that allowed me to solicit more targeted answers than the generic university feedback forms (Annex x).  The final part of the article will describe how I modified the course for my Spring 2011 session and present my initial thoughts on the these modifications.

2. The Course

The course ran for nine weeks between January and March 2011.  The class was comprised of 24 students:  10 male and 14 female students of ranging between early twenties and mid forties in age, and from a range of disciplinary backgrounds. As this was an elective, the students can be identified with reference to their programme of origin – which included the MA in Conflict, Security and Development, the MA in Anthropology of Violence; MA Human Rights; MA International Relations; and MA anthropology of Development and Social Transformation.   As described in the syllabus:

This course interrogates the concept of “complex humanitarian emergencies” (CHEs) as a modern form of humanitarian response.  As such, it is interested in what CHEs reveal about the underlying tensions in the stated objectives of humanitarian intervention.  To examine these questions, it applies an often neglected theoretical lens to the study of CHEs – that of spatial and material theory. The two main questions are:

1.  What does attention to the material and spatial practices of humanitarian response reveal about the underlying tensions in the stated aims of humanitarian intervention?

2.  How do the material and spatial practices influence the way in which subjectivities and power relations are constructed both locally and in global terms?

It will use a wide range of historical examples and media to problematize the idea that CHE is a purely modern concept.

It did this both by investigating material and spatial approaches, i.e. those approaches attentive to objects, and by adopting ‘object oriented’ learning approached. Each will be examined in turn.

i) Overall Theoretical Approach

The overall theoretical approach was one which introduced the students to a variety of theorists who adopt a variety of spatial and material approaches including:

  • Lefebvre (1991) and Harvey (2006) as applied to ideas of ‘humanitarian space’
  • Bourdieu (1990), de Certeau (1988) and Butler (1993) on ‘performance, practice & the everyday ‘ in international response
  • Low (2003), Brown (Venturi et al. 2007), Weizman (2007) and Hyndman (2000) on ‘spaces of enclosure, spaces of separation: the camp, the border’
  • Latour (2005), Dant (2004) & Auge (1995) on ‘moving in the field: assemblage and networks’
  • Coward (2005), Pandolfi (2003) on ‘state of emergency?’ how the material culture and built environment of humanitarian response may be considered as a quasi state.

Each of the weeks brought together the theory with material aspect of complex emergencies:  camps, tarpaulins, food drops, SUVs, categories of people, organization logos, ration cards.  The students read the readings, so visual knowledge was still a key learning modality, but with this knowledge as background, the seminars – 1h50 minutes per session – foregrounded the objects of aid in the following three ways.

 ii) The Object Lesson in Historical Perspective

‘Objects lessons’ were a well established pedagogic approach within the nineteenth century practice of using objects in teaching. Usually attributed to the pedagogic philosophy of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi,[2] the approach involved using objects to engage students’ full range of senses in the process of learning. According to Carter, “[i]n his teaching and writing he [Pestalozzi] emphasized the concept of Anschauung, which may be understood as ‘sense training.’ In Pestalozzi’s model, children were first to develop sensation, then perception, notion and finally volition, learning and how to act morally based on an individual view of the world” (Carter 2010: 8).  Associated with Anschauung was the implication that knowledge was not absorbed in a linear or ‘brick wall’ fashion (Moon 2004) but rather holistically and through a variety of sensory channels including affect and emotion.

Pestalozzi’s approach proved to be very attractive to certain educators particularly in the U.S. and England who after visiting Pestalozzi’s school in Yverdon, Switzerland, “adopted his basic notion that children should learn from experience and observation as opposed to memorization and recitation. They employed these notions to develop entire curricula or to solve specific pedagogical problems in the teaching of subjects like music, mathematics, or drawing” (Carter 2010: 8).  Pestalozzi’s approach focused on educating the whole person; treating his students as people not subjects (Pestalozzi 1801).  This was very much part of what has become known as ‘progressive education’ – a trend that began in Europe, Great Britain and America during the late  nineteenth century and persists in various guises to the present day. Progressive education stresses the value of experiential knowledge over rote memorization and became associated in the late nineteenth century with such names as Francis Parker and John Dewey (Reese 2001).  It also stressed the need to foster a loving and kind relationship with the student.

Pestalozzi and his acolytes such as Elizabeth Mayo in England promoted the ‘object lesson’ as a key part of progressive education (Reese 2001: 13; Schultz 1995).[3] By focusing on ‘things’ rather than words, students were thought to be able to approach learning in a more organic and intuitive fashion.  The object lesson was “typically organized around specific everyday objects and substances, listed and detailed at length in the many object lesson manuals published throughout the century.”[4] For example, Mayo’s Promethean Lessons on Objects: Graduated Series designed for Children between the ages of Six and Fourteen Years offers a series of graduated series – one to five; each cumulative series intended for more advanced pupils  (Mayo 1863) Series one contains such objects as glass, Indian rubber, milk, rice and chalk.  Series Two contained Ïan uncut Lead PencilÓ, ÏA Wax CandleÓ, and ÏA KeyÓ; Series Three ÏA QuillÓ, ÏA Piece of Honey CombÓ and ÏA Laurel LeafÓ. By the Fourth Series students the ‘objects’ included the senses such as ÏSmellÓ and ÏTasteÓ as well as Spices such as ÏClovesÓ and ÏNutmegÓ and Liquids such as ÏInkÓ and ÏForeign White WineÓ.  By the Fifth Series a wide range of household items were represented – including some that had been used in previous lessons such as ÏHornÓ and ÏGlassÓ.  The Fifth Series also included groups of objects entitled ÏOn The MetalsÓ and ÏOn EarthsÓ.  In this way, more abstract concepts such as location, chemical composition, distinctions such as ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ and political and economic inter-relationships (such as empire) could be explored through accessible concepts.

Nor was Mayo alone in her documentation of the process of Object Teaching.   Dozens of similar manuals sprang up throughout the nineteenth century in both Europe and America.  The approaches were broadly similar, and differed in the degree of direction with regard to the employment of the technique.  For example, Calkins’ (Calkins 1882) provides minute instructions to teaching on how to use the technique with student’s including questions that they should ask for different ‘objects’.  Consider this suggested approach for examining a cat.

What does the cat do when she is happy?

Children. She  purrs.

Teacher. How does the cat show that she is angry?

C. She wags her tail, and makes a noise.

T. How does the cat tell you that she is hungry ?

C. She mews.

T. How does she tell you that she wants you to open the door for her to come in or to go out ? […] (Calkins 1882: 184).

Pestalozzi’s approach borrowed from two major and overlapping philosophical trends of the nineteenth century: naturalism (or romanticism) and empiricism. On one hand, Pestalozzi’s approach emphasized careful empirical observation of the objects in question. Through the application of one senses, a variety of information and data could be identified and comprehended that was not possible in the context of textual approaches. While it focused on ‘everyday objects’ – salt peter, India rubber, sage – these objects did not themselves appear to have been imbued with any type of enchanted or extra-material quality (Bennett, 2001).  Says Professor S. S. Greene in his ‘Report on Object Teaching’ for the meeting of the National Teachers Association of 1865, knowledge is not “in the object, but in the mind. The object neither embodies nor in any way expresses them. It merely serves as the occasion to call them into consciousness” (Greene 1865: 5). Unlike the early to mid-twentieth century focus on everyday objects for their phenomenological impact (Adorno and Jephcott 1974; de Certeau 1988; Kracauer 1995; Lee 2002; Simmel et al. 1997), the use of objects in the Pestalozzian sense was primarily as pedagogical instruments or tools which could engage and direct a students senses to have a more complete understanding of the thing and through the thing, to a more complete understanding of nature. While it is possible that those adherents with more naturalists or transcendentalist tendencies may have spoken of particularly natural objects with an almost agential reverence, in the main, the object was seen as a tool to clarify thoughts which originate only in the mind and therefore feel squarely within Cartesian mind-body thinking.

An understanding of nature was in turn thought to organically foster moral recognition within the students of what constitutes right and wrong, and ultimately would bring them closer to God. There was also a clear association both in Pestalozzi’s own work and in his adherents in the explicit connection between object teaching and religious and moral training (Greene 1865). Interwoven with romantic, humanitarian notions of the child and childhood, there was also an implication that children through their privileged epistemological position were somehow closer to God and that an object based approach to learning was a better fit with their pedagogical level.  Reese argues that “American advocates of the new [progressive] education drew as they pleased from a large corpus of romantic writings, domestic and foreign” including Emerson, Rousseau, Thoreau, as well as Pestalozzi and his German student Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) (Reese 2001: 10).

As evidenced from the Object Lesson manuals, it was rarely the objects themselves that were used in teaching although educators were encouraged, where possible to bring the actual ‘object’ into class.  One common tool were Object-Lesson Cards, first published in the early 1860s by Oliver and Boyd of Edinburgh (Carter 2010: 9). Describing a set from the 1880s, Carter says

“[e]ach of the lesson cards measures roughly twenty by thirteen inches and includes actual specimens of ‘raw and manufactured materials’ along with a short essay detailing the chosen plant and is connections to the commodities displayed. A boll [sic.] of cotton resides next to brightly colored calico; oak park connects to a square of tanned leather; a cypress leaf is displayed beside a pencil…by redefining cookies, straw, or macaroni as the subject of a classroom exercise, as part of a network of meaning, these pedagogical tools attempted to transform children’s daily experiences into learning opportunities” (2010: 8)

But according to some this was not object teaching: “But what is object teaching? Not that so-called object teaching which is confined to a few blocks and cards to be taken from the teacher’s desk” (Greene 1865: 10).  Such an approach only “exchange[d] an unknown term for another equally unknown” (Greene 1865: 10). Instead, it is an approach that “works from the well known to the obscurely known, and so onward and upward till the learner can enter the fields of science or abstract thought” (Greene 1865: 11). Pestalozzi and Froebel’s methods and pedagogic influence had long lasting effects on contemporary Anglo-American education, most notably in the spread of Froebellian kindergartens (Tarr 1989: 117).

While the ‘object lesson’ tended to be primarily geared towards younger learners, in 1889 Emerson E. White told a local graduating class that “The theories and methods of methods of Pestalozzi and Froebel have permeated elementary schools and science and other modern knowledges, have entered the universities and are working their way downward through secondary education” (White as quoted in Reese 2001: 10). Although the influence of object learning is generally no longer an explicit aspect of secondary or university education, its pedagogic inspiration can be found in a variety of approaches that fall under the object based approach.  For example, inquiry based learning “is an approach to learning that involves a process of exploring the natural or material world, and that leads to asking questions, making discoveries, and rigorously testing those discoveries in the search for new understanding” (Foundations 2000).  A variety of scholars are also interested in the value of the museum and the objects it houses in teaching and learning (Hooper-Greenhill 1999; Leinhardt 2002; Paris 2002; Phillips and Tinning 2011; Schwartz 2008).

iii) The Object Lesson in 2010

The object lesson for this class took place from 11:00-12:50 on February 4th, 2010 in the Mass Observation Archive of the University of Sussex Library.  The MOA “specializes in material about everyday life in Britain. It contains papers generated by the original Mass Observation social research organization (1937 to early 1950s), and newer material collected continuously since 1981. The Archive is in the care of the University of Sussex and is housed in the Library in Special Collections.”[5] It is particularly concerned with the opinions of everyday people – their experiences and observations.  The Mass Observation project was concerned with collecting ephemera: “paper items (as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles.”[6] In conjunction with Fiona Courage, the Curator of the Mass Observation Archive, students were introduced to the idea of using objects to do research, particularly in the context of an archive, as many of them were unfamiliar with the concept.  As Fiona expressed it in her introduction, “the aim, the objective of today is that you will leave with some idea of how you can go about researching an object.”[7]  Myself and Fiona had previously gone through the archive for objects which we felt had relevance to the topics under consideration in Complex Humanitarian Emergencies.  As the archive is only concerned with Britain, we were reliant upon objects from and relating to the Second World War and the year following it.  While the majority of them were paper based, Fiona succinctly explained to the students that “what I want you to get the feeling for is that the document is an object, its not just the information that’s contained within it that’s important, it’s the object itself: it’s what it’s written on, it’s how it’s written, it’s what it smells of, it’s what the marks are…coffee stains…what does that tell you about that item?”

She illustrated what this means, by showing them, first, a transcribed copy of a poem by Rudyard Kipling[8] called “Ballad of the King’s Jest”.  You contrasted a verbal approach to knowledge with a tacit approach by first, demonstrating how, on strictly verbal grounds, the first version of the poem would be interpreted based on the language, the prose, the linguistic meaning of the poem. She then took out the original manuscript and put it on the overhead projector (Figure 1).  Based on the manuscript she asked the students what he was feeling when he wrote the poem.  Based on the fluidity and erratic placement of the text on the page students suggested that Kipling was ‘inspired’ when he wrote the poem, that the text came easily and quickly to him. Fiona also pointed out that the prose started out quite calmly on the page, but towards the end is crammed tightly in order to fit on the page. She also remarked that while people consider him to be a genius, the crossed out words and moved others around indicate that “he made mistakes too…he changed his mind too.” It offers insight into the writer and the writing process that the printed page can’t.  Similarly, a coffee stain on the page may give insight into how the manuscript was treated over the years and indicates that the manuscript was possibly not considered to be a terribly important document at certain points in its history.

Students had been assigned randomly to groups through seating arrangements – tables with pairs of chairs had been distributed around the room, and students had sat down at them as they came in. We then distributed one or two pieces of ephemera and/or objects to the tables. Students were then asked to begin by asking themselves two questions:  1) what is it? 2) where is it from? Students were encouraged to look beyond the text and to consider the thing as an object.

One group had been given a gas mask.  They asked themselves questions about how it was made; what materials had been used; the design. They tried it on, smelled it, looked at the wear marks.  Doing this led them to question the age of the mask.  A second group had been given a poster from a charity ball in 1885 for ‘needy and necessitous upholsterers and upholsteresses’ in London. This discussion around the poster raised issues of class, social literacy, spatial location of upholsterers in London, and most importantly for the course, issues relating to nineteenth century notions of charity.  A third group had been given a charity appeal for Belgium refugees in London, from a religious organization in 1916. This highlighted a variety of issues from the significance of charity appeals as early as 1916. Something that may have been seen by students on the course as a relatively recent way of conducting humanitarian affairs was given history depth. The brochure also gave insight into the geopolitical relations between Belgium and London during this time, and the plight of refugees. That European refugees were a significant problem in England during the first World War problematized the students framing of refugees as primarily a contemporary and North-South issue. Another group had a hand-written letter dated 1940 which describes the everyday lives of ambulance drivers for a religious charity, located in Buckhurst Hill, Essex.  The letter describes how they were accommodating refugees from East London. The discussion revolved around the issue that unlike the previous piece of ephemera – the charity appeal – the hand written artifact provided an intimate sense of the everydayness of accommodation and treating refugees.  Returning to the gas-mask, Fiona revealed that it had actually been purchased at a museum, emphasizing the point that in the context of object based research it is essential to carefully consider the object, and not jump to conclusions regarding its origins or intended use.

After all groups had a chance to present and discuss their objects, we then asked them to consider how they would go about finding more information about them. This was intended to prepare them for their final research paper. “How would you build your research project up from the information that you have.”  Several of the groups suggested looking at national and local archives; unions or guilds such as the upholsterers. Another suggested going through the Charity Commission to find records of historical charities. Others suggested interviews.

iv) In Class Presentation

All students were also asks to give in-class, not contributory presentations on respective weeks.  The way in which the seminars were structured, was that I would introduce the theoretical frameworks under consideration for that week.  This ensured that all students were comfortable with the main theoretical points under discuss. Groups would then present on that week’s theme in a way that applied that week’s theory to aspect of complex humanitarian emergencies under discussion.

For weeks five, eight, nine and ten you have been assigned to a group through Study Direct.  As a group you will be assigned an object or theme, which will be sent to the respective groups via Study Direct.  As a group have the choice to develop a short presentation on how that’s week readings do (or do not) apply to the object in question.  If, as a group, you decide that would prefer to use a different object that is more appropriate for that week’s readings, you are encouraged to do so.  However, there needs to be a clear link between the object and that week’s reading, and you will need to clear your choice with the tutor in advance.

You will need to meet in advance of the seminar to develop a presentation of between 15 and 20 minutes on the object in question. You may use Study Direct to have virtual discussions if it is difficult to meet, and I am happy to add other electronic tools such as a group wiki.  Please let me know if this is desirable.

The presentation should include a power point presentation, ideally with visuals, and all members of the group should be involved in some way.  Roles should be detailed on a slide at the end of the presentation (e.g. Power Point:  Jane Doe; Archival Research:  Dogs Body; Presenter #1 Austin Karl; etc.).  At the end of the presentation, the group should reserve 2-3 minutes to present their reflections on the exercise itself:  how they found the material, what difficulties they encountered, what surprised them. The presentation will be posted on Study Direct after the seminar.

This exercise is intended to not only develop critical analytic skills, by actively bringing together theoretical frameworks with empirical objects, but serves as a preparatory exercise for the final essay.

So, for example, the group in Week Eight presented on the issue of Women’s Safety in Camps, choosing the object of ‘camp’ and relating it to the theoretical perspectives on borders, bordering and enclosure as discussed by Garry Marx, Jennifer Hyndman and Charlie Hailey. Week Five’s group looked at how performativity and considerations of ‘audience’ help us to understand violent or ‘inappropriate’ behaviour of peacekeepers (with reference to Somalia).

v) End of Term Paper

Both the ‘object lesson’ and the presentation were intended to prepare students for their final contributory assignment: a 5000 word essay. Students were asked to:

identify an object or artefact that you would like to investigate as central to complex humanitarian emergencies. This might include the object of the Kalashnikov gun, the UN laissez-passez (passport), the food drop, the field hospital.  Other possibilities are listed at the back end of the syllabus.  You may investigate this object with reference to a variety of media and methods.  The essay should investigate how the object is involved in humanitarian emergencies (broadly speaking) and what it tells us about some aspect of complex emergencies. This could include historical, symbolism, or political economy approaches.  The paper may use the object to reveal some hitherto under-investigated aspect of humanitarianism and/or to develop theories presented in the course. You may want to include diagrams or other visual aids such as pictures, photographs.  These do not add to the word count.[9]

In order to ensure they were adequately prepared for the assignment and they understood what was being asked of them, an entire week (Week 7) was set aside to have an essay writing workshop. In addition to a presentation that I gave on common mistakes and how to avoid them (Annex x), students were asked to prepare and bring to class a one page outline of your essay comprised of a research question, basic outline and short bibliography by Thursday, February 25th.  Students were assigned to pairs and asked to assess each others’ outlines according the following criteria.

  • Is the research question well formulated?
  • Is there a clear argument?
  • Is the structure logical and does it work to support the argument?
  • Is the bibliography appropriate?
  • Is the project viable in a 5000 word essay format?
  • What elements/issues need to be included for a well supported argument?
  • What pitfalls do you anticipate?

Based on these criteria they were asked to assign a mark to the outline.  Marking sheets were distributed in class (Annex x).  Students were asked to include a short paragraph, prior to the essay’s main body which describes how the feedback you received influenced your work (see sample attachments). The essays as completed ranged in quality along a normal spectrum. Several outstanding essays were identifiable including an examination of tunnels as spaces of resistance; and the social life of blue tarpaulins.

3. The student response and observations

Student feedback was solicited through two different methods. The first method was via the online feedback system as carried out through the university.  The course received very positive feedback on average with the overall experience receiving a mean rating of 4.1 out of 5.0.[10] On the overall approach of the course students commented positively:

“Good discussions, engaged and conscientious teaching, introduced me to intellectual field to which I was previously unknown [sic.].”

[on things s/he liked about the course] “Combine theory and practice.”

“…providing useful, career-applicable skills to disaster and conflict.”

“the course was both relevant and interesting to current affairs.”

“Fascinating subject.”

“Very new and exciting material to which I had not been exposed. It caused me to rethink and research areas that are now becoming more and more important to me…”

“The professor conducted the class seminar well, enabling students to express themselves, yet also making them see other aspects to the discussion. The class group works actually are meaningful.”

But they also had some complaints…

“We can understand more the meaning of space and non-spaces by more practical approach than philosophical.”

“Perhaps not all students followed the material and spatial approach as much as was required to obtain full learning experience, hence the stress on these approaches should perhaps be lessened.”

“…relevance of readings unclear and felt like being taught a rigid obscure methodology on CHE…”

“I thought the course would be much more ‘hands on’ but it turned out to be way to [sic.] abstract and way too theoretical.”

“At times, I got lost in the theory…and how it related to what we were talking about.”

A not insignificant contributing factor to the negative responses, may have resulted from the unavoidable truncation of the course.  Due to snow, the university was shut and the course started later than intended.   As a result, the first week – where the basic conceptual and historical apparati of ‘complex humanitarian emergencies’ was explained – but rushed through and meant that students might have been lacking in the basic concepts before exploring more abstract concepts.

In order to gain a more focused understanding of students’ responses to ‘object based learning’, I also conducted my own online survey after the course was done, but while students still had access to the VLE. The full survey is available as an Annex however it is worth considering these responses in some depth with regards to how students related to the approach.  Eight out of 24 students responded: 5 men, 3 women; all under the age of 35 and from a range of nationalities and disciplinary backgrounds.

When asked how they would define an ‘object based approach to learning’ all eight chose “foregrounding the material aspects of a particular issue (for example, focusing on camps when studying refugees.” The majority (5/8) felt that focusing on objects and materiality was “a little bit different” than the approach to learning adopted in their other courses.  Said one anthropology student,

“anthropology has a strong thread on materiality, and so there were definitely theoretical similarities between my other classes and this one, for example Auge was not new. However, CHE certainly had a greater focus on objects – be them, as noted above, refugee camps, spatial zones, automobiles etc, and it used video/multimedia such as powerpoint than my other classes which, very often, were dominated by discussion of anthropological theory and ethnographic accounts.”

Another said, “it greatly brought out an emphasis on structure over agency. To some extent, conventional IR seems to place greater emphasis on agency.” And a third, “Studying objects placed the perspective of the interpreter/student on a more or less equal footing with that of the object’s constructors or original users – laying the ground for a critical examination of both perspectives from a third or more position(s).”

One student eloquently explained the benefit offered by an object centred approach by contrasting it with more orthodox approaches to social science and humanities pedagogy:

“Although it is important to note that many courses eventually focuses on objects (i.e. History -> Discovery of America -> Gold as the most important material which resulted in the indiscriminate actions against native Americans), the main innovation brought by is related to the process of learning: instead of going from the concept to the object, the course focused on the object before explaining the particular concept.  According to me, this approach gives you more time to form your own idea so that as soon as the final concept emerges in class you have already unconsciously built your opinion about the matter.”

Students were of mixed opinions as to whether focusing on objects changed the way that they thought about the issues addressed in the course such as disasters, complex emergencies, and humanitarian response. One student felt that the approach was very similar to anthropology where “objects and the relations that actors have to and around objects are a core area of analysis which provides a tangible way to untangle otherwise complex power relations.” However another said it “opened my eyes for how strong a material focus emergency interventions take.”

They found the best (or most useful) part of focusing on objects to be rendering “the theory more tangible” – an aspect that was highlighted by two students.  Said one respondent, “as someone rather averse to high-level, abstract theory, focusing on objects seemed to me to provide a way of understanding in more ‘real’ terms issues, such as considering places/spaces as central to understanding experiences – so, thinking about the camp and then, from that, thinking about what it means to be inside/outside the space.” Another commented that “it brought to light some unconscious taken-for-granted manifestations of power relations” and another felt that the course “offered a most informative and practically a new way of looking at developmental issues. The abstract nature of the course also made it quite challenging and interesting.”

My observations

Overall, I thought the course went well and this was reflected in the high scores that the students gave it in the official assessment.  However, the course as it was formulated was perceived to have been deficient in two main ways.

1. The weighting of the course did not sufficiently engage with ‘first principles’ of humanitarianism – at least in a way which was graspable by non-specialists in such a short period of time. Says one respondent, “There is plenty of  “orthodox” critique of CHEs that students weren’t exposed to at all; things like mandate conflicts, organizational structure, the nature of  “crisis”, funding imperatives, professionalism, government-NGO-public relationships, agency coordination – these would have been good practical areas for them to think about that would significantly contribute to the humanitarian field for those who would eventually go in this direction.”

2. Perhaps there was a need to manage expectations. Although the course description clearly laid out the parameters that would be adopted in the course (and according to feedback the majority of students agreed that it had delivered what it promised), one or two students felt that what they were taught would be “cast aside if they did go into humanitarian fields.” Part of this, I believe, is the result of a changing PGT landscape in Britain where students want to leave with clearly identifiable and transferable skills.  The ability to engage critically with a variety of theoretical and methodological perspectives is not seen as one such skill.

It is clear from the feedback and from observing individual participation in class that students with an anthropological background were familiar with related concepts such as material culture, ethnomethodology and were therefore much more comfortable exploring humanitarianism using spatial and material culture. I think that their expectations are also quite different. Unlike International Relations or Development Studies students, there is less of expectation that course content be ‘policy relevant’.

With regards to my starting assumption that such an approach might help students from a range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds, I am not sure this was the case. As part of my VLE survey, I asked my respondents whether English was their first language.  2 out of 8 of them were non-native speakers.  Of these two, one of them felt that the use of objects to complement textually based approaches did make them think about the concepts of the course in a different way while the other was not sure. On engaging students from a variety of backgrounds, one student said, “From a sociological point of view you could see how different our backgrounds were: ranging from the person already used to the field to the scholar sitting in the library, everyone brought something in class, either academic or practical. As a result, our discussions were always interesting.”

I do think that perhaps a stronger focus on the object qua object would have helped solidify the methodology. As it stood, the objects under consideration where still considered from a primarily visual and text based perspective. Ideally, the various theories would have been tacitly matched to environments or objects which they could directly engage with. Interestingly, even the object lessons as described in the nineteenth century still relied on textually based, visual knowledge.   Overall, it seems to have been a love-it-or-hate-it course (a ‘marmite’ course in object terms!). At least one student was very vocal about his dislike of the approach and feeling that overall the course was “a fairly useless experience.” Whereas others said that there was no part that they considered to be deficient. Asked what was wrong with the course one student responded: “un, dunno – I really liked the approach.”

4. Resultant modifications

The course was an interesting experience. On one hand it was a truly rewarding experience. The students who did ‘get’ the approach really ran with it and produced outstanding work.  The discussions were dynamic and animated. However, the comments from students regarding the need to make the course more attentive to mainstream approaches to and concerns in humanitarianism, as well as the absence of any similar course in the department led me to significantly modify the course for the Spring 2011 session.  In the new course, issues of space and materiality are now only brought up as selective complimentary readings (for example, in the study of Humanitarian Space).[11] This issue of the ethics of researching CHE is dealt with in the week on ‘Representing Disasters’. I have retained the essay workshop as the uniform feedback from students is that it is worthwhile and useful. However, I have modified it slightly so that students now have two rounds of peer review in order to ensure that they are not putting too much weight on one other student’s opinion.

The course is still in progress, however it will be completed and feedback available for comparison by Summer 2011.  My sense based on comments from students is that I may have gone too far the other direction and that the course may now be much too mainstream and atheoretical.

5. Conclusion and Reflection on the place of object based learning in IR

Based on my experience designing and teaching the CHE course both in Spring 2010 and again in spring 2011, I feel that the integration of an object based approach has tremendous potential value both for CHE specifically and IR more generally.  Through this evaluative paper I have found support for some of my initial hypotheses and a lack for others.  My hypothesis that an object centered approach would help me reach those students who are less comfortable with the traditional PGT format is inconclusive.  It is clear however, there is the feeling amongst students that there is a need for more engaged and directed teaching of PGT classes: “in contrast to other course in this so called ‘taught’ MA, I felt properly engaged.” Because students are so un-used to an object centered approach, it seems unlikely that they will grasp such an approach immediately unless they have been previously exposed to it.  This can be seen in the way in which those students with anthropology backgrounds quickly grasped the conceptual approach.  This is not to say that the approach is not useful, only that teaching it as a single week module at the post-graduate level may have difficult reaching all students.

Another consideration in that, as discussed, although the attention was placed on ‘the object’ and the built environment, the techniques used were still quite visually oriented.  The inclusion of even more radical approaches of object teaching including field trips and role-playing might have made the approach more easily accessible to those students unfamiliar with it.

It is, however, worth recognizing, that in the current higher education context of fee increases and the widespread perception of rampant job insecurity, students are increasingly demanding courses that deliver what they perceive to be transferable skills.  While critical enquiry does obviously fall into this category, students taking my complex humanitarian emergencies course are preoccupied by the concern that the knowledge that they receive and develop in their PGT courses will be clearly recognized as valuable by potential employers. As instructors, we shouldn’t shy away from engaging with radical methodologies or theories based on student demand, but do need to find a way to manage student expectations of an increasingly skills based curriculum, with the value of challenging them and encouraging them to question their basic assumptions regarding ‘complex humanitarian emergencies’ and international relations more generally.

For those students who are open to exploring a broader approach to knowledge, an object-based approach is undoubtedly a useful and positive complement to more orthodox curriculum.  Not only does it problematize established narratives of humanitarianism and international politics but it also calls into question more fundamental assumptions regarding epistemology, ontological and causation. Instead of seeing complex humanitarian emergencies as a problem to be solved, is allows for an intimate and enchanted engagement with people, places and issues under examination.[12]


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[1] For a discussion of the use of museums as learning objects see Bennett, Tony. (1995). The birth of the museum : history, theory, politics. London: Routledge..

[2] For more information on Pestalozzi see Barnard, Henry. (1874). Pestalozzi and His Educational System. Syracuse C.W. Bardeen, Biber, Edward. (1831). Henry Pestalozzi and His Plan of Education. London: John Sauter , Down, Robert. (1975). Heinrich Pestalozzi. Boston: G.K Hall, Holman, Henry. (1908). Pestalozzi. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. , Krusi, Hermann. (1875). Pestalozzi: His Life, Work, and Influence. Cincinnati: Wilson, Hinkle & Co, Monroe, Will. (1907). History of the Pestalozzian Movement in the United States. Syracuse: C.W. Bardeen , Silber, Kate. (1965). Pestalozzi: The Man and His Work. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.

[3] It is possible, of course to go further back than Pestalozzi for the use of natural objects in teaching. Schultz points to John Amos Comenius as “one of the first educational theorists to argue that…a child’s education was most profitably begun not with general principles but with concrete objects and/or illustrations, that is, with the senses” Schultz, Lucille M. . (1995). Pestalozzi’s Mark on the Nineteenth-Century Composition Instruction:  Ideas Not in Words, But in Things. Rhetoric Review 14(1)..

[4] For a sample of these object manuals see Calkins, N.A. (1882). Manual of Object-Teaching. New York: Harper & Brothers, Macleod. (1891). Talks about Common Things. New York: Teachers Publishing Company, Ricks, George. (1893). Object Lessons and How to Give Them. Boston: D.C.Heath & Co. Publishers , Salmon, D. (1891). Longmans’ Object Lessons. London: Longmans, Green, and Co, Sheldon, E.A. (1862). A Manual of Elementary Instruction for the Use of Public and Private Schools and Normal Classes; Contains a Graduated Course of Object Lessons for Training the Senses and Developing the Faculties of Children. New York: Charles Scribner, Willson, Marcius. (1864). A Manual of Information and Suggestions for Object Lessons in a course of Elementary Instruction. New York: Harper & Brothers

[5] (accessed March 3, 2011).

[6] (accessed March 4, 2011).

[7] The session was recorded and posted on the VLE environment.

[8] I had not been aware that she was going to use Kipling as an example, and the use of Kipling in a course which stressed the interdependencies and historical legacies of North-South relations was not lost on one of the students who, when asks if they’d ever read any Kipling responded, “Yes, White Man’s Burden”

[9] Those students who were uncomfortable by an object focussed essay, or who felt this might disadvantage them in some way were given a second option of taking a more traditional approach and identify a research question that they would like to investigate.  For example:  Is the history of humanitarianism inextricable from the military?  What are the origins of the refugee camp?  Is humanitarian space a useful concept?  The questions that will be raised in the seminars should help you formulate your questions.

[10] The response rate was 83.3% (20 / 24 students).

[11] I have included a week on the “the Ethics of Researching Conflict” in my MA course on Conflict, Security and Development.

[12] In the future, it is possible that I will run two different courses – one on materiality and spatiality in the context of international relations broadly, and one on complex emergencies from a more orthodox perspective.