Friday, April 24, 2015

A New Teaching Adventure: Montana State, British Politics, and the 2015 General Election.

On May 18th, I'm leading 17 Montana State University students on a journey abroad to study the political system in the United Kingdom. I have always been fascinated with Great Britain and its politics, and have always read with interest various features about the UK that come up in my daily scan of the news. Back in 2010, I spent in afternoon in my office getting sucked into the BBC's live stream covering the results of the general election, which led surprisingly to a hung parliament and an unusual coalition government consisting of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. As the coalition government proceeded to implement a program of austerity and attempted some constitutional changes (notably the Fixed Term Parliament Act), I found myself paying more and more attention to the happenings in London and Westminster.

But, truth be told, it was the Scottish campaign for independence that completely grabbed my attention and scholarly interest. As I read newspaper accounts and followed the debates between Alexander Salmond and Alistair Darling, I couldn't help but think about similar debates concerning power sharing in our own federal system here in the United States. And, with the successful introduction of devolution in the late 1990s in Scotland and Wales--combined with the erosion of voter support for the two dominant parties--I began to wonder whether the British political system was no longer so different from the American system I studied. At the very least, the changes within the United Kingdom provided an excellent way for me--and my students--to learn about our American system of government by comparing and contrasting it to another system sharing similar features (geographic based constituencies, plurality-winner-take-all elections, and the growth of the power of the executives). And, like many academics, I got into this business because I have an intrinsic curiosity and desire to learn--so the ongoing transformation in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast alone simply spurred my desire to know and to expand my horizons.

Teaching is close to its best, I think, when the teacher can share a passion for learning with his or her students. It is at its best when the students and the teacher can learn together. I decided to try something new to the political science department here at Montana State: I would put together a study abroad class. Students would learn about the British political system through online lectures and films. We would meet every few weeks throughout the semester to discuss what we've learned, and then we would travel to the UK where we would, by engaging with English, Scottish, and Irish parliamentarians (and the British people), learn about the British political system. And, along the way, we'd learn a ton about Scottish, Irish, English, and British culture as we experienced its history, food, and people.

What I'm most excited about is the fact that we arrive in the UK two and a half weeks after the General Election, which concludes on May 7th (and yes, I'll be streaming the Beeb). Again, it looks as if the voters will return a hung parliament and it is very likely that either a coalition will have to be formed or the conservatives will be forced to form an (inherently) unstable minority government. Perhaps most interesting is the near-collapse of the Labour Party in Scotland and the fact that the Scottish Nationalist Party--a party committed to Scottish independence--will be key to determining what governing arrangements will be made in the days after the votes are counted. We arrive in the thick of interesting political times, and we expect the atmosphere to be electric.

I was raised in a family that learned by traveling (thanks Mom and Dad!). It is because of our travel that I fell in love with the American West. There is no better way to learn than by getting out of your comfort zone and diving into a place and its surroundings. Some of my students have never been out of the United States, a few haven't been on an airplane. I'm exciting to be their tour guide to another country and culture--to navigate a different currency, a different language (sort of!), and a different way of living (in an urban environment using public transportation and our feet).

On this blog, I'm going to document the experiences we have leading up to our trip, share what we learn while we are in the United Kingdom, and (I hope) to continue a conversation about British politics and how its lessons can help us not only understand the United Kingdom, but engender a greater understanding of ourselves. I'm excited to take this first step into the world of learning through travel, and I feel privileged to share it with some wonderful students from Montana and the West.

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