Teaching innovation at Master level: the ReSHAPE programme on security and emergency policies at the University of Catania

Innovation can play a role in improving Political Science opportunities to meet the challenge of the uninterrupted movement the Italian universities and European higher education space are going through. Generally speaking, innovation is making changes to something established by introducing something new. In the university, it is the process of radically or incrementally changing products like education, processes like learning, and services like teaching. The following is the short report of the innovation experience of the first year of the three-year ReSHAPE programme1 at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Catania.

ReSHAPE has been created thanks to the Jean Monnet Chair ad Personam fund offered by the EU Lifelong Learning Programme and addressed to update the curriculum subject, teaching methods and learning practice of the Master (Laurea Magistrale) of Global Politics and Euro-Mediterranean Relations, known as GLOPEM.2 As far as the subject matters are concerned, ReSHAPE wants to familiarize students to the European policies towards security and emergencies focusing on the unremitting blurring of the domestic and international setting of such policies. As far as teaching methods are concerned, front lectures are banned in GLOPEM courses. The instructor-student interaction is at the core of the class hours. External experts play a role in chief teaching events like the crash course on the action and role of NGOs in emergencies, and the simulation exercise on negotiations at the EU institutions. Last and consequently, learning practice is shaped by blending book and article reading (frequently in electronic format), classroom debates, paper and report writings and discussion, and simulation exercises. Stages and intensive programmes like summer schools, including those abroad, are also within the learning and training practice of the Master students. In the following sections, the Programme’s features relating to innovation in subject, teaching and learning are shortly illustrated.

Emergencies as new policy object and topic of
Political Science

Innovation in teaching is response to change in society and its salient problems. As such, teaching innovation faces the challenge of working with few data and uncertain schemes about the nature of the objects to teach about. Information about social and political objects which are new, in-progress and mutable is small and not easily at hand. Explanatory knowledge is to build from scratch. Understanding is mostly tentative and hypothetical. Today, security is one of these objects. Usually, security is defined as the condition of the social actor (person, group, organization) whose values (material and immaterial objects of vital importance) are safe against any aggression and threat of aggression by other actors. But, nowadays, security is also the condition of the actor safe against the harms and risk of harms triggered off by events like system crises, big disasters, and accidents to vital infrastructures. Scientists distinguish the latter security condition (they commonly call it risk security) from the former (threat security) and warn about risks as overtaking on threats as the most serious menace to the values of the individuals and the stability and wealth of the contemporary society.

For sure, there is great need to add knowledge about risks to the existing knowledge about threats. Especially, applied knowledge is tremendously needed by the policy-makers to respond to security problems in contemporary states and the global system. The disruption of transportation networks caused by a volcano eruption like the Iceland’s volcano in 2010, the costs of severe weather conditions brought by climate change, and the harms to social and individual lives caused by technological accidents are true examples of risk insecurity. Irregular migration caused by wars, genocides and mass atrocities and the effect of terrorist attacks are further cases of problems in which insecurity is caused by both risk and threat factors which join one another and spread effect from the area of the event to nearby and distant areas as well. Further on, scientists believe that knowledge-building about risk and threat security is a brand new, multidisciplinary field of research cutting across existing hard and soft science boundaries, including the edge between the domestic and international domain of political science. Additionally, as far as such new fields of study bring better knowledge about the new phenomena and problems, it has to provide also new applied knowledge and respond to the need of the policy-makers and practitioners to prepare for and respond to natural and man-made disasters by setting out appropriate programmes and emergency policies.

Last, teaching Political Science today requests conveying to education such information and knowledge about emergency policies. A few words about the term ‘emergency policies’ is in order here because there is no consensus in the community of experts. The phenomenon is new. No surprise, then, each expert prefers to use the label that refers the most to the features and aspects he/she is most interested in. Studying policy-making and the policies made to respond to such risk and threat security phenomena, the label ‘disaster policies’ and ‘crisis management policies’ are frequently used by the scientists who want to stress the existing difference between the policies towards natural disasters and the policies aimed at responding to risks and threats triggered by human groups. Uncertainty about change is not to be dismissed but it is clear as well that the two areas of problems have much in common as far as the making of policies to respond to current risks and threats comes into play. With few exceptions, emergency policies towards natural disasters and towards human-made disasters share the same features and goals like providing rescue and relief to the victims, inflating resilience to the locals, rebuilding order in the state, reactivating political institutions, and bringing reconstruction and development to the affected communities.

Teaching and learning about emergencies: new resources and practice

University Master courses are not training courses and do not have to give to the students job-specific abilities. Hence, learning at the master level is not learning by doing. Yet, master courses must care about the employability of the graduates. They are for providing students with knowledge and abilities useful to make them the successful applicants to a distinct set of jobs. On such assumption, at GLOPEM, knowledge and abilities are provided for jobs involving two tasks: (a) the analysis of community/organization problems, and (b) the design and running of corporate strategies towards those problems. ReSHAPE provides curricular activities to GLOPEM students leading to mastering the abilities for these job tasks. The activities completed in the first year of the programme are briefly described in what follows.
In the “Training course for NGO members”, the students learn about the NGOs’ methodologies for planning and carrying out cooperation programmes in developing countries. Teaching is given by the staff of CO.P.E. (Cooperazione Paesi Emergenti), a NGO active in development cooperation in Africa. Course hour learning is supplemented by groundwork materials and webgraphies.

In the four-day seminar and simulation on “EU Negotiation”, a research and training staff from the Institute for Research and Education on Negotiation (IRENÉ), a section of the Paris business school ESSEC, instructs students to methods and practice of international negotiations. Upon completion of this activity, students get abilities (a) to understand the negotiators’ behaviour and the central concepts of negotiation as they apply to the European Union institutional context, and (b) to analyze negotiation situation and develop negotiation skills, strategies, and approaches to work in the European institutional context.

The “European and Global Politics Twin Seminars” are organized within the existing Double Degree Program of GLOPEM and the partner Master Course of the University of Liège. In Seminar One, the students of both courses receive information about the EU action in global politics. Student teams are formed and tasked to write issue reports to discuss at Seminar Two. Such joint ReSHAPE-Double Degree Program activity gives to the students a space for developing instant analysis, reporting and discussion abilities.

Lastly, students are involved in the ReSHAPE annual workshop, a meeting of experts of emergency policies. This activity gives to students the opportunity to learn about the building of scientific knowledge on emergencies and about the issues at stake in the making of policies at the national and European Union level. The June 2013 Workshop gathered over 25 junior and senior scholars of 13 universities from 9 European countries. The Workshop papers are now on the table of contents of two scientific, peer-reviewed journals.

Lessons learned

All activities have been evaluated by the students. Some activities were open to Non-GLOPEM students. Users’ response and satisfaction prove that the programme is a good instrument to promote the active learning of the students and raise the level of their performance. Time is needed to check how much such innovation increases the student’s chance of getting better job positions in a time shorter than the current one for political science master graduates.

What are the lessons learned that are of interest to political scientists as organizers and developers of master courses? As far as teaching innovation is a venture made possible by additional financial resources, it is conditional to hunt for them. As researcher and as teacher, we have to apply to calls for research funds, which are greatly rewarding when awarded, as well as to calls for financing the organisation and re-organisation of courses, which are less attractive. Usually, filling with the appropriate statements the application forms of the calls for funding course organisation and teaching innovation is the task of the university administration staff. But the contribution of the teaching staff is important to make the application really innovative and successful. The administrative staff is less informed about teaching innovation than the professors that care about innovation.

Partnership with academic and non-academic institutions is essential. Synergy with a plurality of agents is key to properly enrich a degree course and make it innovative and marketable as well. The involvement of external experts takes place in the routine activities of the GLOPEM courses about various aspects of the programme. But in the ReSHAPE programme, the choice has been made of using different partnerships on the same topic, i.e. the current emergency problems and EU emergency policies. As it has been explained earlier, the reason for such a choice is to apply teaching innovation to a new set of critical issues of the contemporary world, the issues of what is changing in security and how risks and threats melt in the policy-maker response to security needs. This choice was made upon believing that synergy and partnership are really of help to teaching innovation at master level the more they enhance student education to the goal of mastering new problems for which new abilities are needed.


1 See the ReSHAPE website.

2 See the GLOPEM website.

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