Observers or actors? Academics as participants

Last week’s office

I got to spend a couple of days in Florence last week, celebrating the 50th anniversary of UACES, the UK’s European Studies association, of which I’m Treasurer.

We spent some time looking back, but also a lot talking about where we are and where we might be heading, both as an association and as academics in general. Being joined by the heads of our American and Irish sister bodies also raised some really interesting ideas about collaboration across borders.

Underpinning that discussion was a debate that has been coming ever more to the fore in recent years: how much should we, as academics, be trying to offer ideas and solutions to public debate, rather than just analysis?

Clearly, this has always been a question that has been there for the academy, since our fundamental objective of trying to understand the world is necessarily linked to participating in it. But the various events of late – from government crack-downs to elections and referendums to societal challenges – have all pointed towards a role also being forced upon us.

Put differently, if everyone thinks we’re getting involved any way, shouldn’t we get involved properly: if we’re taking the costs, then shouldn’t we try to generate some benefits too? If you like, this is the equivalent of my post on social media a few weeks back: if you don’t project an image, then someone will project it for you.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that we didn’t crack that particular nut last week, not least because the fineness of the line between contribution and campaigning leaves many feeling very uncomfortable. Having seen how some of those who have been seen to cross that line have been treated, that discomfort is understandable, if not necessarily the only factor to consider.

At a time when politicians seem to be facing ever more issues to which they have no good response, the role of the academic in providing insights and options surely becomes more important. It’s literally our job to try and make sense of assorted phenomena and it would be remiss of us not to share that sense-making with others.

That might be easily said, but how that translates into practice is unclear. Do we wait to be asked? Do we have to agree among ourselves? Do we just call out bullshit, or try to advance evidence-based solutions?

All big questions, with assorted viable answers.

At the very least, we need to be talking about this, before we find ourselves pushed into roles that others have chosen for us.

Where Do Flash Games Go to Die?

Related to my recent post on replacing traditional textbooks with digital content:

For the last two years, I have used the Stop Disasters! game in my course on humanitarian emergencies, which is online. A significant number of the students are outside the USA when they take it. Stop Disasters! runs on Flash. Flash is an application that has been incompatible with Apple devices for years and its owner, Adobe, will cease supporting it entirely in 2020. Web browsers now require installation of special plugins and whatnot to run it. This means that my students may not be able to play this game without jumping through a bunch of technological hoops, a burden that I can’t justify imposing on them.

Unfortunately a lot of online pedagogical games and simulations are Flash-based; a few that have been discussed on this blog include Ayiti: The Game of Life3rd World Farmer, and Inside Disaster. Clicking on the link for the simulation at the Inside Disaster website produces a black screen, so it is no longer accessible whether one has Flash running or not.

These online tools have an irritating tendency to have short lifespans, which to me greatly lessons their convenience. Board games don’t end up in the technological dustbin of history at anywhere near the same speed. Maybe it’s time to switch back to exercises based on tangible objects rather than software applications. But how does one do that in the online environment?


Collateral damage in the rise of active learning


I finally started teaching again last week, and as usual, I got students on my negotiation course to play the Hobbes game, to get them to reconsider their view of the world.

I do this because it’s a really neat way of highlighting fundamentally different logics of interpersonal relations – competitive versus collaborative – and getting them to start thinking about to handle each other (in a negotiating sense).

Except this time, it didn’t really work.

The usual run of things – in fact, the only run of things in my experience – is that everyone fights each other and there’s only one winner at the end.

But in this instance, about half the group refused to challenge others, only fighting when challenged, and once the challengers had been knocked out there was still about one-third of the class standing.

Now, I’d like to say that this was because somehow our students have developed such a mature sense of their political being that they all divined the cooperative solution to the game. But they didn’t.

They’d just played it before.

In my enthusiasm to share the Hobbes game with colleagues, one of my more IR-inclined colleagues took it back to the roots it had when Victor first made it, back in the nineteenth century.* My colleague played it in her theories course a couple of years ago, to great effect.

And lasting effect too, it seems.

When we discussed it, everyone who’d played before had adopted the cooperative solution, even though it’s no more ‘correct’ than the competitive one.

As a consequence, I was left explained a lot more of the game than I ever previously had. Even though my basic message – other people are a pain in the neck – still held, it was rather differently framed as a result of the game-play.

Now this has little to do with you, except insofar as it raises the broader issue of how we use such activities and games. My experience with this tells me that it’s largely a one-shot exercise: if you play it with a group more than once during their education, you’ll likely skew the result. And if you’ve been sharing your games – as I hope you would – then the chances of a student encountering your work rises.

At the very least it’s something that requires some reflection on your part: how essential is it that students come to this without any prior understanding of your aims? can you adapt your reflection/feedback to such a situation?

I’ll happily admit I was caught totally unawares this time, but now I’m working through all the other stuff I’m planning to see if it’s likely to happen again, and what I can/must do about it.


    • rough guess

Fixing Health Care? A Simulation in American Government

Today we have a guest post from Josiah Marineau, an assistant professor of political science at Campbellsville University. He can be contacted at josiah [dot] marineau [at] gmail [dot] com.

For my Introduction to American Government course, I designed a simulation of the legislative process in which students are tasked with debating different policy options for the U.S. healthcare system. The simulation is intended to  familiarize students to a key policy debate in contemporary U.S. politics.

The simulation will last two weeks. The first week will be preparation:  explaining the politics of the U.S. health care system, the main options for policymakers, and how the simulation  will work. Students will be introduced to the rules used in Model United Nations to govern debate and voting on bills. Students will use materials I provide to write policy position papers that advocate for a given policy solution to the challenges facing the U.S. health care system.

The simulation itself will run in the second week, over two class periods. Students will use their policy papers as the basis for debate and will give speeches in class in favor of or in opposition to proposed legislation. I expect them to form coalitions with other, like-minded students, and draft a bill that is amenable to a majority of the class.

As part of the debriefing, students will write a two-page memo reflecting on what they learned, what surprised them, what worked and what did not, and why. This memo will be due in the week after the simulation concludes.

I will grade the simulation as follows:

  • Quality of the policy position papers — 40%
  • Level of engagement in the simulation — 30%
  • Two-page reflection memo — 30%.

I will share the results of the simulation in a future post.

First Impressions

Having wrapped up the first month of another fall semester, here are some reflections on this year’s incoming undergraduates as compared to those from previous years — based on a completely unscientific sample composed of the forty-four 17-18 year olds whom I’m teaching in two sections of a first-year seminar.

  1. Ignorance of basic technical processes continues to increase. This ranges from not understanding that electronic files have different formats to being unable to upload to a server any file, regardless of type. Or, in some cases, students recognizing the need to click on a “submit” button, but then not verifying that what they submitted was what they actually wanted to submit. (Resulting in a grade of zero each and every time.)
  2. When confronted by these technical challenges, students are more likely to react with learned helplessness, making my standard response of “figure it out”  even less endearing than it was previously. (Student evaluations for these seminars average a full point lower on a five-point scale than for other courses.)
  3. The immediate post-high school attitude that learning is a pro forma exercise in “tell me what I need to know” is just as common, if not more so, than it has been in the past. Few of the students start college exhibiting genuine curiosity about a world that is external to themselves.
  4. Male students demonstrate learned helplessness and lack of curiosity much more frequently than female students. It seems we are raising a generation of men who are at risk of living life as unskilled, low-paid, socially-maladjusted drones.
  5. Undergraduates are getting poorer,  more ethnically diverse, and less well-prepared. Although they perceive a college education as the ticket to a middle class existence, they have less understanding of what they have to do to obtain this ticket, and they are more frequently entering college with characteristics that make this objective much harder to achieve. For example, the more hours they expend on financially-necessary part-time employment, the less time and energy they have available for developing the habits and skills that would allow them to overcome pre-existing academic deficits. From the supply side of the equation, these students require greater amounts of financial aid and support services, making them more expensive to educate.
  6. Compensating for all of the negatives listed above is the fact that I am rarely faced with the sense of entitlement that can develop among the wealthiest and best-prepared students. They go to places like Harvard instead.

A game to start your interactions with students

I realise this is probably a bit late for most of you, but here’s a game to play with students to teach them a valuable lesson about how education works.

I was taught it about a decade ago by David Jaques, but never had a) the equipment, or b) the opportunity, until last week, at our Departmental awayday.

the only photo I’m allowed to post

You’ll need a piece of string long enough to go comfortably around the room you’re using (which will be a bit longer than you think), plus blindfolds for everyone. On the latter, I had hand-made some out of old t-shirts, but then I checked on Amazon and found that as a side-effect of Fifty Shades, you can get multi-packs for a few pounds. Avoid the fluffy ones, and also be prepared to see your suggested purchase algorithm take a hit.

Before the game, arrange furniture with tables and chairs, so that the string can be threaded into a big loop. I had cut my string into several sections and tied them back together, so that when I tied it all into a big loop, that last join wouldn’t be exceptional. Leave some way to allow access to the central of the space.

Then you bring in the participants, with their blindfold on and join them to the string.

The instructions you’ll have given beforehand are as follows:

“You’re in a burning building, and thick smoke means you can’t see at all. However, there is an escape route: follow the string to the end. If you need help, just stick up your hand.”

Once everyone’s attached to the string, off you go. Or off they go.

Now, as I’ve explained it to you, you know there’s no end to the string, but what do you think they’ll do?

That’s right: spend 20 minutes blindly chasing around the string, trying to find the end and getting annoyed with you/me.

Keep reminding them of the rules, as set out above. I certainly found myself putting more and more emphasis on the last sentence (because that’s the key one).

When someone puts up their hand, then go over to them, whisper to them to take off their blindfold, then gestue that they have escaped and should let go of the string and step silently to one side and watch. In my game, that took 15 minutes before anyone did that, and it took 30 minutes before the final group decided to ‘concede’ and ask for help.

The point of the game is, obviously, that if someone offers you help, then you should take it.

I have always liked the idea of the game, because it’s very clear in its purpose (seen from the end), and I’m really keen to try it out on students, especially since I now have a pile of blindfolds. It opens up a conversation about learning styles and interpersonal dynamics: do the people you think will ask for help do so? Is help cheating? And so on.

It might be a bit late for the start of semester, but if my colleagues are anything to do by, then it’s never too late to try out.