How not to get involved in politics? Nothing would be interesting and far-reaching since everything depends on it. Political science is the study of political processes involving power relations between individuals, groups, and within the state, but not only. It is important to not only grasp the meaning of what politics and international relations mean, but also how to study this fundamental field of knowledge. But this module is also crucial for an undergraduate degree in general, because it teaches us how to reference, how to write a good essay, how to think critically and how to improve presentation skills. In the present reflective essay, I will write about what I learnt while doing the 5 portfolio tasks and how I will use the lessons learnt in my modules next term. To do so, I will first explore the content, in terms of the learning outcomes for each session. Then I will analyze what I learnt concerning the methodology in general, and more particularly about references and essays.
We cannot study successfully without perceiving and analysing new information. After the first lecture, which was an introduction, we were supposed to demonstrate an understanding of the subject matter covered in the module. We were given an overview of the general organisation of the module, including learning, teaching and assessment strategies. In other words I realized that I would have to think critically and make judgements. Then, the second lecture was about the definition and characteristics of politics and international relations. It focused on how to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the subjects that matter in politics, and more particularly on the different definitions we can find. I leant that scholars have provided very different definitions which I then had to analyse. This course also requires us to review and take a perspective on the key issues in international relations, such as war and peace, conflict resolution, foreign policy, or state sovereignty. To help us achieve these outcomes, the first task consisted in doing some research in the library database, in thinking about what politics means to us. Then we had to present our work properly and submit it. In the politics degree, students constantly receive large amounts of data. Every politician, concept or school of thought had to be scrutinized. This process would be impossible without a critical evaluation of the material. We agreed or disagreed with famous thinkers, argued for or against them and developed our own interpretations. We were in a condition of permanent choice, sorting out the material, and choosing those ideas that matched us. Therefore, I decided to show my balanced view of a range of definitions. First, I explained that, according to Adrian Leftwich, “politics is at the heart of all collective social activity, formal and informal, public and private, in all human groups, institutions and societies”. I tried to think critically to identify where the gaps are and how they can be complemented by other definitions. To do so, I showed that Leftwich’s definition presents only the different characteristics of the notion of politics, and can be completed by the Oxford Dictionary’s definition. It says that politics is the governance’s activities of a country or a region – and more particularly the debates between the most powerful parties – and the activities concerning the political relations between states. Moreover this definition also mentions a set of political beliefs and principles, especially the ones relating to power and status. Finally, thanks to the first and second lectures and the first task, I think I am now able to demonstrate an understanding of the operation of national and international political regimes and modes of governance.
How to think critically? Firstly, we have to know how to read critically, and to do so it is necessary to improve attention to detail and observation, but also the ability to question (we shouldn’t believe everything we read or hear, and nobody has to believe what we say), and to identify the key points in a text or the message lecture. We can also mention the identification of trends and patterns, looking at the same information from several points of view, objectivity, and considering implications and consequences. This shows us all the benefits of thinking critically. The third lecture was about how to demonstrate an understanding of the key approaches to the study of politics and IR. It also outlined the key methodological approaches to studying politics. Thus for the second task of the portfolio, we had to locate and read the article by Samuel Huntington, summarise the key arguments, reference it correctly, submit it to Turnitin and finally encompass the Turnitin report. I found it difficult to summarise such a long and detailed article in only 500 words, because I would have liked to say much more about it. The critical feedback I received made me realize that I had not included references to critiques of Huntington’s thesis even though they were listed in the reference list. Therefore this allowed me to manage information sources better since these ideas should be acknowledged in the text. In fact, Huntington’s article has generated a lot of criticism, for example from Amartya Sen (1999) who disagrees with the fact that democracy is a Western political tradition, not applicable and not effective in “underdeveloped countries”. Moreover, Edward Said (2001) has argued that Huntington’s way to characterize “civilizations” ignores the interdependence and interaction of cultures. I feel I have learnt to edit papers according to academic criteria. For example, I must also provide page numbers when I discuss specific arguments or examples. Otherwise the overall feedback was positive about my English language, saying that “This is very well written – your English is excellent”. This last commentary has been very valuable as this was a challenge for me. It made me so much more confident for the next assignments. Finally, thanks to lecture three and task two, I think I am now able to demonstrate the ability to evaluate in detail different contested interpretations of the political issues and events arising from the study of states and institutions.
In the fourth lecture, we had a look at what it means to plagiarise, which constitutes a real problem nowadays with so much information being so easily available on the Internet. We were shown how to respect the referencing conventions used by the Politics and IR programme, and how to use Turnitin. For task four, we had to locate several sources in the library and write a bibliography following the Harvard referencing system. Before doing this assessment, I did not know that referencing was such a rigorous process. I was not expecting that students would be penalised if they were not respecting the order of the information required, but I know now how important it is to be precise. This strictness is a crucial skill to get a degree, because it shows the reliability and the accuracy of the bibliography, on which our work is based. In a seminar we looked at each other’s reference list and gave feedback, which helped us to identify the strengths and weaknesses of our work. I learnt also the different ways to integrate sources in an essay. Thus, I can briefly refer to it, summarise the main ideas, paraphrase it or quote directly the source. This is a difficult exercise because as students we are not used to assessing. Finally I now grasp the meaning of how to use primary and secondary sources for research. Moreover, thanks to the two library sessions, I can demonstrate an ability to use the university library and online web resources, to do some research with an academic level, and to evaluate the validity of the information gained.
In lecture five, the Academic English Service taught us how to differentiate the stages of the process of essay writing; which entails understanding how to construct a coherent argument. Writing good essays implies to develop and use critical and reflective thinking which is a challenge for first year students. The learning process requires that we can reflect on our essay writing skills and on how to develop them further. By doing my first university essay for the Coming of Globalisation module, I have learnt how to write and express myself. I have always found it difficult to put my thoughts on paper in a coherent way and thanks to this essay, I know that I can write and express my ideas, thoughts and knowledge in a better way. These are the things that I have worked on and tried to improve during the term and I feel that my work shows this. For task three we had to look at 2 sample essays and come up with some feedback for one. I came to the seminar with a positive opinion on the sample essays, I could identify some weaknesses, but generally I thought it was not that bad. Nevertheless, the opinion of the other people of the group were really negative and I started to panic because I was sure I could not have done better. After this seminar I was really anxious and worried about my level in English, thus I asked a friend of mine to read my next assignment, and it reassured me. This task involved reflecting on the characteristics of essays and defining what a good feedback is. It also helped us encompass what teachers are looking for when they are marking an essay. For the final task we had to attend a public lecture. I went to the Roundtable discussion on the German elections, and to the one about the European Union, where I found it interesting to have the “against-EU” point of view. In fact, in the French education and general discourse, we always and only learn and assimilate “pro-EU” arguments so for me it is not easy to balance the view. In the seminar we also talked over good and bad aspects of presenting. We have also by now seen the different styles of our lecturers, and I felt difficult to stay concentrate during Pr John Groom’s lecture for the Coming of Globalisation module because it was not structured enough and he did not seem engaged in the topic. We have also learnt from seeing good and bad presentations and how we will avoid the traps of bad presentations, for example how to use positive body language, speak loudly enough and not too fast. Finally, I can now communicate ideas in the arena of political science, both in speech and in writing, and in a clear and coherent way.
To conclude, by coming in England to study, I was expecting learning for my undergraduate degree, but this experience has also taught me how to be myself. Writing had always been one of my strengths, and my thoughts can now be more complex because I have learnt how to support a logical argument in an organized manner. My writing has become increasingly more concise. Another improvement is my ability to see several complexities in a text, instead of sticking to one-sided arguments. I feel that my writing is so much more interesting than it used to be. The first term course is definitely a course to take, more or less difficult for everyone. Personally I discovered my own limits which could be summed up as such: being aware that one learns to assess the difficulty or the ease with which we can address the various obstacles that are presented to us. This will be very helpful in my future implication and endeavors.