Faculty Spotlight on Innovation: Susan Hirsch & Agnieszka Paczynska

Originally published in “Notes of Excellence” newsletter, issue 012 – February 2014.


Susan Hirsch Headshot Agnieszka Paczynska Headshot








Susan Hirsch and Agnieszka Paczynska are faculty in the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. They are Co-Principal Investigators for the Undergraduate Experiential Learning Project, which was funded by the US Department of Education and aims to link theory to practice through various pedagogical initiatives. Dr. Hirsch’s background is in cultural anthropology. Dr. Paczynska’s background is in political science.


What is the most innovative thing you do with your students and/or your classes? Why do you think it is effective?

For the last three years, we’ve been the principal investigators on a grant to enhance experiential learning in the conflict field. We’ve designed ten experiential learning activities – including role plays, simulations, and a focus group project – that are being used in S-CAR classrooms and at other schools. Under the grant, we’ve conducted a lot of research on these activities, and it is starting to reveal how and why this kind of teaching is effective. For one, most students express a higher level of engagement with these activities than with the standard lecture/discussion classroom format. They appreciate the opportunity to participate in a more “hands-on” experience, whether in class or outside, and admit that we are more likely to keep their attention when we are challenging them to think, talk, move, and use scholarship in a wider range of ways during class.

What do you do that creates a strong learning environment for your students?

Push the students just beyond their comfort zone. We do this in a variety of ways: through assigning a reading that they think is just above their level, asking them – in a role play – to portray a character that expresses views diametrically opposed to their own, or insisting that they consider the ethical commitments that underlie the options that they or a conflict processional would have in any given situation. Students are not always pleased to be challenged in these and other ways, and it is important to help them understand why we might be doing it. Eventually many experience — and some acknowledge – the “growth” that is our intended outcome.

What’s one tip that you would offer to faculty new to teaching at Mason?

Seek out conversations about teaching with experienced and new teachers. Conversations about teaching are all too rare in many units across Mason, which leaves many of us re-inventing the wheel. There’s so much pressure to be focused on our own research or on the immediate demands of the classroom that we don’t spend enough time sharing ideas and resources about teaching. It’s been a terrific luxury to have a grant that has allowed us to foster a vibrant conversation about pedagogy and experiential learning with S-CAR colleagues and students. By the way, talking with graduate students who are just starting to teach is especially enlightening, as they bring critique based on quite recent experiences of being a student.

What’s the most challenging thing for you in your teaching, and how do you address this challenge?

In fields that have a practice dimension, such as Conflict Analysis and Resolution or Nursing or Social Work, a key challenge is acquainting students with experiences that replicate what they might encounter when they begin work as practitioners in the field. That very concern motivated us to take on the experiential learning grant and research. As part of that effort, we fostered the development of Service Learning Intensive courses, which we’ve mounted off campus in Liberia; Colombia; and Charleston, West Virginia. During these courses, students use skills they have learned in their conflict classes to work with community partners. It’s a “real world” experience; however, we still face the challenge of making sure that the learning of these budding practitioners also meets the needs of the community and maintains the ethical standards of our School and field. The only way to address this is to continue reflecting on how to develop the best practices we can.