When There’s No There There

Earlier in the semester, a student became hostile in class. I told the student to stop and that I wasn’t going to engage in an argument. The student became increasingly belligerent, so I responded by ordering him to leave the room. By this point the student was out of his chair and indicated that he would not leave willingly, so I pulled out my cell phone to call university police. The student said a few more things, using profanity in the process, and left the room. After getting the class back to business, I emailed the appropriate academic dean, the dean of student affairs, and the director of campus security.

What then transpired was enlightening, but not in a good way. I thought I had acted responsibly: de-escalating the situation by convincing the student to leave the room before he became violent. But according to university administrators, the student’s behavior did not constitute a reasonable — in legal terms — threat to anyone’s safety. Per university policy, as long as a student approaches that standard of reasonableness but doesn’t cross it, the student can say or do anything in class. Even if the student is removed from the classroom, the student can come back the very next day and engage in the same behavior all over again.

If, on the other hand, I had acted irresponsibly and deliberately provoked the student to commit a violent act or threaten harm to someone in the room, then the student could have been suspended or expelled.

In essence, I discovered that there is no middle ground where I work. Maintaining an environment that is conducive to learning for all students is not as much of a priority as I thought it was.

Collaborative Reading – Follow-Up Thoughts

Today we have an update from Colin M. Brown, College Fellow in Government at Harvard University. He can be reached at brown4 [at] fas [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

In a post last year, I talked about the potential of using annotation software like CritiqueIt to make the reading process more collaborative. In short, by creating a single copy of the reading that students can mark up together online, there’s the potential for creating discussion prior to and during class, and also for getting students to see course readings as statements in a dialogue.

My first use of CritiqueIt was promising, but I’m less satisfied after having further used it in two undergraduate seminars plus a graduate-level, continuing education course.

Two things have continued to work, probably still making the tool a net positive. First, as a diagnostic tool CritiqueIt makes class prep easier, because it gives me a window into what students find interesting or are struggling with. Students indicate their interest implicitly or explicitly, and they also seem relatively fine with using their comments to signal that something doesn’t make sense—especially useful when they’re having difficulty with something I didn’t expect. Second, they seem to like it. Students seem to perceive it as a cool new gimmick, and I seem to get credit for trying it.

However, while CritiqueIt lets me know what students want the conversation in class to be about, it hasn’t generated a conversation among students on its own. Students have posted a few responses to other students’ annotations, but the kind of exchange I mentioned in the original post hasn’t happened consistently. Students seem to be completing the assignment because it sends me a signal that they have, in fact, engaged with the reading. This provides me with feedback for me, as mentioned above, but was not my ultimate reason for using the tool.

Since I want students to see political science writings as part of an ongoing exchange of ideas, there are three changes that I’ll be implementing next semester, thanks to insights from my colleague Daniel Smail, who has been experimenting with the same tool in his history courses:

  1. Build CritiqueIt into the entire semester. Students need time to get used to the tool, and the expectation that it’s an integral part of their work.
  2. Assign early readers. If everyone reads the night or morning before class, there’s less incentive to start a dialogue that none of their peers will respond to. By dividing up the collaborative readings and having one or two students make their annotations three or four days before class, there will be more time for students to jump into the conversation.
  3. Work CritiqueIt into summative assessment. This also normalizes the use of the tool, and gives students the incentive to develop better commenting skills. Students will need several days to virtually hand the document back and forth so this has to be accounted for in scheduling other assignments. But giving them a longer piece of journalism on the broad course theme and having them react to it, and then to each other, knowing that their comments will be graded on some explicit rubric, might be a better way to tease out their ability to respond critically to arguments—and actually use something they learned from class.


Amoeba Game

I’ve been telling students in my first-year seminar that the design of a good game often simultaneously combines chance, strategy, competition, and cooperation. About a month ago I invented a simple game to demonstrate how this could be accomplished.

I took the class outside, defined starting and finishing lines — about twenty-five meters apart — and divided the class into teams. The game had only one rule: every person on a team had to keep his or her left hand on the right foot of another teammate. First team to reach the finish line “won” the game.  Continue reading

Extending Simulations without Becoming Overextended

Today we have another guest post by Joel D. Moore of Monash University Malaysia. He can be reached at joel [dot] moore [at] monash.edu.

Simulations are hard work. Extended simulations that occur over multiple class periods are doubly so. Instructors must invest substantial effort to set them up and even more to monitor them once they are running. The decentralized learning that makes them so effective also makes it hard to fairly and transparently assess participants. Thus, instructors may be dissuaded from employing them despite their pedagogical benefits.

Social networking software (SNS) can reduce these burdens. With some slight customization, an SNS can be used to efficiently capture most forms of student interaction in a way that is easily accessed by the instructor. SNSs are equipped with user-centered messaging, chat, blog, group, event notification, and file sharing capabilities. SNSs also feature optional plug-ins that can be used to further enrich the experience. They can easily serve as a mechanism for simulation participants to communicate with each other, while allowing instructors to monitor events in real time with no additional work on the part of the students. Another benefit of using an SNS is that once one creates the architecture of a simulation, it can be redeployed instantly for a future class, or quickly modified for another simulation that has a similar array of roles. Continue reading

APSA Centennial Center Teaching Workshop

Last week I attended the first APSA Centennial Center Teaching Workshop in Washington, DC, an event organized by APSA staff (thanks Julia!), Joyce Kaufman of Whittier College, and Victor Asal of the University of Albany-SUNY. The subject of the workshop? Teaching international relations.

A few thoughts about the event:

  • The participants came from institutions with wildly different enrollments and missions, but teaching was primary to their professional life. They approached the praxis of teaching with intentionality and an interest in continuous improvement, despite changing student demographics, declining resources, and organizational inertia. Several of us felt that a stark difference exists between the notion of political science as a community of scholars and the realities of the workplace. For more on this topic, see Jennifer Hochschild’s recent letter to the editors of PS — the “Mismatch between (Some of ) APSA and (Some) Political Scientists.”
  • Many undergraduate students could benefit from basic training in epistemology. They often ignorant of the difference between cause and effect, the explanatory and predictive functions of theory, and the role of the scientific method in evaluating truth claims. Students typically don’t know what questions are the right questions to ask or how to understand the answers they get.
  • People use a variety of course frameworks to expose students to international relations theories and methods. Some employ a critical issues focus, in which topics like climate change and human rights function as springboards for analysis. Others build their courses around case studies or simulations. This diversity in approach points to the dis-utility of a one-size-fits-all canonically-oriented textbook.
  • International relations can help students better understand human behavior and become more adept at social interactions. Traditionally-aged undergraduates want to perceive themselves as unbiased adults capable of thinking strategically, yet games can easily elicit quite a different response. Placing students in situations where the system is rigged against them can make them more fully grasp the individual effects of discrimination and structural inequality as well as the importance of civil discourse in a democratic society.

The workshop gave me some insight into what other people consider to be best practices in the teaching of international relations. The conversations were productive and enjoyable. I hope APSA continues to organize this type of workshop.

Follow-Up on Slack and Specification Grading

Today we have another post by guest contributor William R. Wilkerson, Professor of American Government and Politics at SUNY-Oneonta. He can be reached at bill [dot] wilkerson [at] oneonta [dot] edu.

Earlier this summer I wrote about two changes that I made to my five-week online summer course, Law, Courts and Politics: using Slack for class communication and specifications grading. Both experiments were a success.


Slack was a great addition. I found it easy to set up and to use. Students liked it. Thanks to the resources I noted in my earlier post, I created a simple structure: channel for each week was the home of announcements, files, links, and discussion — the center of the course. The introduction channel gave students the ability to practice and the questions forum got some use, especially early in the term.

Because Slack has excellent apps for all mobile and computer platforms, I hoped that it would encourage regular communication, which it did. Total posts in the weekly channels ranged from 62 in week 2 to 90 in week 4. I posted reminders and introduced topics, but most posts were from the students. Nine or ten students active each week; one student never posted in the weekly discussion forums. I was pleased that a group of students began posting mid-week and continued through the end of the week. Students picked up quickly on hashtags for topics and connecting to their fellow students via the @ symbol, which facilitated interaction. Posts were fairly long too, especially when you consider they were writing on their phones. I had expected phone use to result in short responses to comments, but that didn’t happen. Continue reading

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?