Trailblazing Teacher Brings World into the Classroom

Justin Robertson is a firm believer in using field trips to fire his students’ imagination; and get them involved in learning through the use of small-group teaching.

Dr Justin Robertson
Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations
Department of Asian and International Studies

In most of his classes, Dr Justin ROBERTSON has 80 to 150 students. With such a number, some professors would simply deliver their lecture and not make much attempt to connect with individuals.

That, though, is not Robertson’s style. Instead, he makes a special effort to split classes into smaller groups and arrange field trips for them to learn directly from some of the real players in the local economy. He also encourages students to debate issues and write letters on aspects of the global economy with a view to publication. Other popular exercises include writing a script and acting it out in a seven-minute play and drafting a memo for the US president, as a way of analysing international relations and offering recommendations.

In recognition of his outstanding teaching methods and results, Robertson, an associate professor who joined City University of Hong Kong (CityU) 10 years ago, has received the first-ever Teaching Innovation Award 2015/16 from the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (CLASS).

Specialising in political economy, his research focuses on how global financial themes emerge in Asia, how they are “localised”, and how emerging markets use the system of offshore financing. His work has looked at western-style private equity funds getting a foothold in Asia and, particularly in Korea, the impact of “returnees” with overseas experience importing the Anglo-American private equity model. In addition, he has studied the rise of a French-trained global elite trading in financial derivatives.

In teaching international political economy, Robertson deals with major issues affecting Asia and the rest of the world, including the main players and key motivations in the China-Africa relationship. Students engage in lively debates representing the respective sides, giving them the chance to examine the link between governments and economies, growth and the environment, whether NGOs matter, and much else.

Inspired by CityU’s “Discovery-enriched Curriculum”, which requires teachers to motivate students to create, innovate and discover, Robertson goes beyond traditional teaching methods. He comes up with inventive assignments and alternative approaches to local, regional and global issues.

Robertson explains that new methods and ways of connecting with students are often the result of simply having the courage to experiment. ” I like to vary the style of assignments and ways of communication. I am a believer in trial and error; you have to experiment.”

Students, in turn, are enthusiastic about giving feedback. Course evaluations can run to two pages and are an important factor in determining what works best and what offers most value.

For example, attempts to connect on Twitter and Facebook before classes were not entirely successful. However, field trips to local offices and enterprises were very well received.

Robertson arranges these visits either through contacts or by making cold calls. It is a chance to learn from experts in different areas and each field trip is linked to a follow-up assignment.

In the master’s course, for instance, students were asked to consider how Hong Kong’s container port helps to position the city within the global economy and how competition from mainland ports has led to a decline in throughput.

On one recent field trip, students were accompanied by three experts on a water-borne visit to the port to visualise its scale and raise questions.

The following week, six students were chosen to debate what they had seen, heard and read, with the rest forming a well briefed audience. Undergraduates also have a choice of field trips and the opportunity to explain or defend their positions on key issues, with classmates offering critical feedback.

Robertson’s students have also prepared original proposals about new economic tools able to address environmental problems. As part of this process, they pitched their arguments to experts in the field and revised their analysis before the final submission.

“Students should engage with the world, think more and, ideally, get involved,” he says. “My advice is to go out, take more risks, do surveys, conduct interviews, and practise participant observation, where possible.”

He is also keen on sharing any relevant findings with the community, NGOs and the media. For example, regarding the plan for Hong Kong’s third runway, students were briefed by experts on both sides of the case. Then, supported by alumni acting as mentors, they researched the issues and held a symposium where stakeholders and other interested parties were invited to hear their findings.

Such exercises enhance their ability to conduct research, devise questions, collect information and analyse results. They are also taught the need to recognise alternative viewpoints and show creativity in answering questions or presenting research.

Recently, Robertson has also been doing trial runs with specialised inclass software. Students’ comments, made during the class, are shown at the side of the screen, allowing the teacher to check if concepts have been clearly understood. It videotapes lectures, providing a record for later reference or revision.

“You need to stop during every lecture to give students time to think and reflect on what they have heard,” he says. “And you have to acknowledge their comments.”

Besides his teaching duties, Robertson is also the residence master of Hall 10 at CityU, which houses 400 local, mainland, international, and exchange students. Here too he hopes to see every student participating in a range of activities by meeting like-minded individuals as well as discovering new interests.

“I didn’t want our hall to be famous for just one thing,” he says. “So, I encouraged a bottom-up style to fund good ideas. New clubs and societies have been formed, such as music, photography and hiking.”

However, volunteer work and concern for the environment are also as an important part of student life. This academic year, one group has already been to Beijing, while others will go to Osaka to pitch in and learn how Japanese volunteer organisations approach environmental problems.

In other respects, students have a 180 square metre organically certified vegetable farm, which they are cultivating as an experiment in growing food crops in a high-density urban environment. As part of that, one local farmer and one elderly person have teamed up with each of the six groups involved, so they can advise and learn from each other. In early December 2016, the project made its first donation of vegetables to a Sham Shui Po restaurant that prepares meals for the less fortunate.

In general, Robertson’s advice for other teachers is to discuss different perspectives, link big questions to real issues, and give actionable feedback.

“Students can tell if you are not passionate about your subject,” he says.