What is truly distinctive about the undergraduate educational experience at different U.S. universities? Not much. Typically the undergraduate curriculum is built around two bundles of courses. First, there is the set of general education requirements, derived from either a “canon” or “distribution” approach: take either the same American History 101 course that all other students on campus take, or, at other schools, choose from a short list of designated history courses.
Either system is usually a teleological fail because of a lack of evidence that general education requirements lead to the outcomes that only they can supposedly generate. A simpler explanation for their existence is that they force students to attend college for a longer period of time than they otherwise would, allowing institutions to capture greater amounts of tuition revenue. So although what happens in American History 101 at one institution is the same as what happens at another, every university teaches it in order to fill classrooms. And woe to the student who wants to transfer credits for that course from one school to another.
Much the same can be said for the other portion of the curriculum, the major. In fact, many disciplines have achieved some amount of consensus on what should be included in a standard undergraduate program of study. So we see thousands of political science majors on hundreds of campuses across the country enrolled in American Government 101 courses that are quite similar in content and instruction — a very costly means of delivery in the age of the internet.
What about the outside-the-classroom environment? Aren’t universities trying to sell themselves as the place to go for a unique campus experience? Not really. Homogeneity is preferred. MIT, for example, has $20 billion in assets and an internationally-recognized brand. It would seem to be in a secure enough position to offer a “student life” experience that is substantially different from what can be found at other schools. Yet, as this article points out, MIT and other elite universities are sanitizing themselves into generic spaces that the lowest common denominator of student, and parent, finds acceptable.
At the other end of the institutional spectrum — colleges and universities that are far less prestigious and much more financially vulnerable — the same process is at work. These schools have decided that they need to present themselves as psychologically non-threatening and intellectually unchallenging, because of the belief that they otherwise won’t get the tuition revenue they need to survive.
In my search for a new book to use in my comparative politics course, I sort of stumbled across Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America by Jeffery M. Paige (Harvard University Press, 1997). I say “sort of” because Paige, a sociologist by training, was a prominent scholar of agrarian revolution and development in the 1980s and 1990s — a name I had encountered as a doctoral student.
Search results for his publications turned up Coffee and Power, so I pulled it from the library. The book meets many of my criteria for being worthy of inclusion in my course. It is a multi-country study set in Central America that goes beyond the traditional white male Britain-France-Germany presentation of comparative democratization. The writing is academic but not too heavy with pointless jargon. And it serves as a good example of how to do research in the field.
The problem, as with the book I’m trying to replace, is that Coffee and Power, being than two decades old, is now very much a historical analysis. I don’t think a 400-page work that discusses events from the 1930s through the 1980s will succeed in getting undergraduates here interested in additional study in comparative politics. But I did figure out a way to use the book for what I think would be a good assignment, shown below.
Read Jeffery M. Paige, Coffee and Power, p. 53-84. Do a qualitative comparative analysis of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Classify each country as “high” or “low” for the following independent variables related to the coffee industry:
concentration of land ownership (average area of farm per number of farms)
farm productivity (amount grown per land area)
farm productivity (average yield)
technological sophistication (use of high-yield varieties or fertilizer)
Based on your findings, what can you conclude about the economic class structure and the likelihood of democracy in each country?
Last semester I was finally somewhat satisfied with the way I had organized my comparative politics course, after much failed experimentation (described, for example, here, here, and here). However, I would like to replace one of the books, Around the Bloc by Stephanie Elizondo Griest. Around the Bloc is a good fit for my course for a number of reasons. First, the author is Tejana, and I like students to read authors with different cultural backgrounds. Second, the book recounts Ms. Griest’s experiences in Russia, China, and Cuba, which automatically serve as fodder for comparison. Third, students learn about someone who at their age ventured forth into unfamiliar environments and came back better for it. Fourth, the book is stylistically well-written. The problem? Griest’s adventures took place twenty years ago, and they are described across 400+ pages. While I think students need to have some grasp of history to understand contemporary politics, I prefer that a book of that size include more recent events.
I would love to hear suggestions about possible replacements for Around the Bloc.
As promised, here is information about the final exam I have created for my first-year seminar. As I mentioned in my previous two posts in this series, my goal is to make students more aware of what is now often referred to as “design thinking”: in this course, they are not just learning how to build games, but to solve problems.
Instructions for the exam:
Write an essay that compares one of the games that you helped design and one of the games that you played in this course. Identify which game was better by analyzing how well the games:
Incorporated the principles of the “golden rule” and “magic circle” in relation to events in the real world.
Utilized elements of conflict and cooperation.
Had clear written and unwritten rules.
Facilitated meaningful decision making.
Use information from assigned course readings to support your argument. Be sure to include references to your sources in your essay to avoid plagiarism – this applies whether you are using direct quotations or just the ideas of another author. Use parenthetical in-text citations as with reading responses to save space. An essay with few or no relevant references to the course readings will suffer a reduction in grade.
The essay should be double-spaced, in 11 or 12 point font, and the equivalent of 3-4 pages long.
There is no need for a separate bibliography or title page; please do not include them.
Work independently; do not discuss your essay with other students.
A screenshot of the rubric I’ll be using to grade the exams is below. As I mentioned about the game design beta test rubric, I am not really concerned with the exam scores generated by the rubric — my primary goal is getting students to become more aware of how their experiences translate into learning.
This is the second post on my process for game design by students. The first post, where I mention changing the beta test rubrics with which teams of students evaluate each other’s games, is here. The rubric originally looked like this:
What is most important here is not the rubric’s criteria or point values, but the fact that it will be used by students rather than the instructor. The purpose of the rubric is to get students to benchmark the quality of their effort against that of their peers, and possibly make them into more autonomous learners in the process.
Last month The New York Times published an updated version of its confirmation bias game that might be useful for teaching research methods or political psychology. The newer version includes an explanation of how confirmation bias affects government policy.
Also of note is another game on President Trump’s plan for changing U.S. immigration criteria. I failed to qualify under these new proposed rules. Probably all of my students will fail also.
In my 2016 first-year seminar, I had teams of students build games, something that originated with a vaguely-defined classroom exercise that I had created on the spur of the moment in class the year before. I’m going to include game design in the course again this fall, but with a few tweaks. Here is an overview of what’s going to happen:
Teams of students will go through three iterations of game design. An individually-written policy memo serves as a preparatory assignment for each round. The respective contexts of the games are the flight of a refugee from a location in South Sudan, the construction and operation of an NGO-managed camp for Rohingya refugees who have fled to Thailand, and the resettlement of a group of Afghan refugees in a relatively small community in the USA. Complete instructions for all of these game design exercises are at TeachersPayTeachers. Teams design their games in class over a few days and then they beta test each other’s games, evaluating them against a rubric. Points from the rubric get added to each student’s grade. Continue reading →