Devil’s Workshop

Bosch 2If idle hands are the Devil’s workshop, then idle minds are even worse. I expected my comparative politics students to be mentally absent on the day before Easter vacation, so I surprised them with a rocket pitch competition based on a discussion that occurred the previous week. Students had twenty-five minutes to design a presentation with their teammates. The presentations had to identify the causes of a political process through a comparison of three cases — each team’s choice of two nation-states plus the fictional state of Gerkhania, which I will write about in a future post. Teams were free to select the two or three variables — which I referred to as factors — they thought were most relevant to their team’s analysis. Visually the presentations looked something like:

Comparative Table 2At the beginning of the semester, students read articles by comparativists like Charles Tilly, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Theda Skocpol. I was pleased to see them using arguments from these articles to frame their presentations. For example, one team chose the causes of democratization in Latin America as its process; Guatemala and Mexico as cases; and level of economic development, dominant religion, and colonial influence as factors.

Overall I was pleased with the outcome. Students were clearly thinking hard about what and how to compare during the twenty-five minute design phase, and they had to respond to their classmates’ questions when they delivered their presentations. One presentation led to a brief discussion about the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. Variables varied across cases; however, teams ignored whether the variables could be measured  — probably because I forgot to stress the importance of this beforehand. The problem might be easily remedied by adding another column to the table for teams to pinpoint how their variables should be operationalized.

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