I remember it vividly-ish

See? It’s not just me…

A bit of an odd one for you this time: it’s the end of semester here and so the mind wanders somewhat.

Not so long ago, I was re-reading Eric Schlosser’s Command and control, an excellent account of nuclear weapons incidents in the US. This had been off the back of a lunchtime discussion with colleagues about how there’s a nuclear device buried in the Thames, not so far from where I write, which had been jettisoned back in the 1950s by an ailing RAF bomber.

Yes, we do know have to have fun.

Any way, the book’s brilliant and I totally recommend it to you and students for opening up classroom debate about nuclear ethics beyond MAD. However, if you weren’t sure about nukes and their safety, then I’d maybe give it a pass, otherwise you’ll not sleep very much.

But this is a – slight – aside. The book in turn reminded me of a film I’d watched back when I was much younger, which I recalled was a thoughtful dramatisation of a B-52 crew’s ethic anguish over their mission: shades of Dr Strangelove but without the LOLs. Continue reading

Simulating EU foreign policy

Goddess of Fortune, before you ask

Despite what we here at ALPS like to make you think, other groups do work on simulations and active learning in political science and international relations. And because everyone’s a lovely person around here, we all get on famously with each other.

One of those groups is the Europe-wide group that used to run under the ANTERO label, and which has now become NORTIA. Funded by the EU, it’s a network of academics working on EU foreign policy, covering both research and teaching. As ANTERO, they managed to build up a really good rep as the people to go to for such things.

One of their more recent outputs is a handbook on simulations.

As well as useful info on designing such things, with links to video, they also provide full documentation for a simulation of handling a crisis in Ukraine.

I’ll recommend it to you despite my (small) involvement, not least because it draws out some more of the issues surrounding application to a specific subject area, which will be use to you, whether or not you’re working in it or not.

In so doing, it invites us to think once again about the difficulties of translating from generic to specific, which is often a barrier to implementing active learning techniques. However, the effort is well worth it, as these materials show really well.

I’ll also remind you that it’s very nearly the deadline for the ECPR Joint Sessions: sun, sand and simulations. But without the sand.

Elephants in the classroom

So today I got to wake up really early, to head into London to do a slot on the BBC, going through the newspapers.

Of course, as you might have noticed – even if you’re not in the UK – a couple of young people got engaged yesterday: she acts, and he’s unemployed.

As the photo suggests, there was a certain lack of diversity in newspaper coverage.

And being the contrarian that I am, I pointed refused to pick any story to do with this (although I did mention the advert for a commemorative plate, not least for the speed of turn-around).

All of which is a long way around to a question that we often face in our teaching: how much should we confront the big, obvious questions or issues in our field?

Much has been said in recent years about teaching contentious politics and many of us now face this issue. Some things beg to be discussed and debated, but with the risk that no one can get enough distance from it all to say anything of real value.

Put differently, precisely because we feel something is really important, we might struggle to disengage our passions from our reasoning. And even if we can, then others might not; and might not accept that we have.

As you might imagine, this happens quite a lot to me on the subject of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU: my personal preferences are mine, and I don’t inflict them on others, trying instead to be led by the evidence on the many and varied aspects of the subject.

Often that works, but not always. This past weekend saw a demonstration of when it doesn’t, when quite a few people took except to an article that I’d tweeted, assuming that I had either written it, or condoned it. Choice epithets ensued.

(For the record, I don’t write editorials for national newspapers. And if I did, I wouldn’t have written that).

Anyhow, the point is the same: if someone’s stuck at the ad hominem stage, then it’s very difficult to do the kind of stuff we want to do: reasoned and considered debate.

So what to do?

Basically, the trick I like to use is to tackle things from the side, obliquely casting light.

This relies on you thinking about what it is that you want to discuss about the big issue, and then finding another way to discuss that.

Thus for Brexit, I find it useful to talk about principles of British and of EU politics, to explore what they are in more abstract terms, before then inviting people to make their own application to the matter in hand.

In its strongest form, you might not even talk about the elephant at all: it’s why historians have it easy, because they can always find another example with which to paint a picture without enflaming the same passions.

It’s why I chose the commemorative plate: it’s not the couple themselves, but it does cast light on the nature of popular buy-in (literally as well as metaphorically) and myth-making, as well as the unreasonableness of our expectations (exhibit 2 was going to be a full-page photo in another paper entitled “happy ever after”, which is a hostage to fortune if ever there was one).

Sometimes, you don’t have to talk about the thing, to talk about the thing.

Active Learning from Day 1: Comparing Textbooks

I like to start my semesters the way I intend to continue them, with an active learning activity on the first day of class. But what do you do when you don’t have any content yet? You let the students develop the content themselves. My last several (regular) posts for this group will focus on activities for the first day of class that don’t require any student background knowledge yet get them used to the idea that they’ll be out of their seats and interacting regularly in this course.

In Introduction to World Politics/International Relations, students are frequently unsure what exactly they’ve signed up to study. A significant minority think they’re studying the politics of other countries, others think they’re doing global current events, and others think it’s foreign policies of great powers. Over the years I’ve built a collection of textbook samples that vary widely in their approaches to the field. I give pairs of students a worksheet that asks them to compare two textbooks to the textbook we’re using in the class. What topics are included in all of the books? Can you find a topic that is in one book but not the other two? For fun, I throw a couple ambiguously titled comparative politics textbooks into the box. The point of the exercise is for them to define the central core of topics in the field of IR, and then we identify some of the contested or less-central issues that appear in a minority of books.

When I have a 75-minute class, I then ask them to compare two different editions of the same book, at least two editions apart. (This part of the activity is only possible because I’ve been collecting textbooks for 15 years and raided some retiring faculty members’ stashes as well; your campus library may have old titles that were previously in use at your school.) We compare topics that were prominent in immediate-post-Cold War titles to those that appear in post-9/11 titles, and in a few cases, we can even compare Cold War books too (I’ve got two Morgenthaus that I’ll sometimes entrust to students and a couple early Russett and Starrs). Students are usually quick to notice that the central core topics haven’t changed that much but that a lot more has been added to the scope of the field since the end of the Cold War. We talk about the implications of that for what we teach and study, and how.

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

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.

Beyond the mountains

As part of the various discussions on learning & teaching at UACES last week, we held a roundtable on the INOTLES project that I’ve been involved with for the past few years.

We were talking about the difficulties of designing pedagogic materials for use by others, and I gave the example of the photo above.

It’s from my summer holiday in Croatia (yes, we had a lovely time, thank you for asking).

Most days, we would sit on the beach, swim a bit, read a bit, generally laze about. But I would also find myself asking what was on the other side of the mountains that I could see.

At one level, I know exactly what’s there. I have a map, guidebooks; I’ve even possibly spent some time on Google Earth, flying over the terrain.

But at another level, I have no real idea what it’s like. I’ve never visited (having found that the beach was a perfectly lovely spot); I’ve never even talked to someone who has been over the mountains.

And that’s rather the situation I find with designing materials for others to use.

I feel I had a good grasp of what’s important in any given pedagogic method, the core elements that must be present for it to work, and I feel confident that I can communicate that to others.

But I also know that without actually experiencing the situation of the end-user, it’s very hard to make something that is very useful (rather than just functioning), because there are a wide variety of factors that come into play.

To come back to the INOTLES project, one of the big challenges was re-adjusting my understanding of the situation of our partners in Eastern Europe. While I was worrying initially about aligning assessment with game-play in simulations, they were worrying about a lack of furniture in their classrooms.

Problematically, this is not an easy situation to resolve. When we create materials for sharing, we always do with a number of assumptions that are more or less implicit. Even if we could list all those assumptions, it’s not immediately obvious how they might impact on pedagogy (the presence/absence of furniture might be a good example).

Perhaps the best we can do is be alive to this issue and to be open to discussion with end-users about how they see things and what adjustments might be suitable. In short, talking with each other might be the way forward, to take us to the edge of the mountains.