Teaching Election Results

The 2018 midterm elections are over in the US, and it was a night of mixed results.  The Democratic Party took control of the House of Representatives, winning at least 27 seats previously held by the Republican Party, while the GOP increased their majority in the Senate, toppling North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and my own state of Missouri’s Claire McCaskill.  

While clearly not as momentous an election as 2016, or the Brexit referendum, or many other elections, the midterms were still an important point to take stock of the impact of Trumpism on American politics, and whether Democrats who were somewhat over-confident in the fall of 2016 could manage to overcome pro-Trump sentiment, a strong economy, congressional district gerrymandering, voter suppression efforts, and the other structural reasons why succeeding at the polls can be difficult. 

Teaching the results of American elections is a frustrating enterprise.

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Unexpected Teachable Moments

I had two unexpected moments in the last week completely outside of the classroom that led to (or will, in the future lead to) great teaching moments.

Last week I was recording a script I’d written in a studio, for a project I’ve been working on for two years.  In the lecture I was reviewing cross tabulation tables, and the example I had looked at 2016 presidential vote choice and gender.  Unbeknownst to me, someone in the control room changed the text on the teleprompter so that every time I used the words ‘man’ or ‘women’ they used ‘male’ and ‘female’.  Rather than stop the recording, I just started changing the words back as I spoke, which led to some awkwardness (man-Clinton voter does not roll off the tongue the same as ‘male Clinton voter’).  Finally the folks in the control group stopped me, and I explained that the original text used man and woman deliberately, and that changing it without speaking to me was an issue. I was talking about gender, not sex, and I wanted it to stay consistent.  This paused the recording for a few minutes, and during the lull I explained to the camera operators why this was important enough to stop for. We had a really nice conversation on the difference between sex and gender, and this turned into what we sometimes call ‘teachable moments’.  Script corrected, I continued recording.

The second moment was completely different.  Today I had jury duty. For those of you outside the US, this is when we get called to the courthouse to sit and wait until you are called into jury selection for a trial.  Sometimes you just sit in the waiting area for a day or two and are dismissed; other times you get put on a case right away, and spend the next day or two answering questions from the attorneys while they pick and choose who to put on the jury itself.  Sometimes they case will settle or be dismissed while jury selection is going on

I don’t mind jury duty.  Its one of the only things asked of me as a citizen, and I do see it as a civic duty. Since I teach American politics, I’d like to have the experience of actually serving on a jury, but that has yet to happen, and many of my legal friends indicate it’s unlikely to ever happen. Since I already had guest lecturers lined up this week for my daytime class, I didn’t request a postponement, and headed downtown this morning to serve.

Walking into the building, right after I passed through security, a police officer noted that I was carrying a heavy bag, and I stopped and chatted with him for awhile.  It turned out this was the sheriff himself, and he used to be a public school teacher in his early career.  Soon we were exchanging business cards, and he agreed to come talk to my students during our lesson on the judiciary next semester.  Did I teach him anything in our short conversation this morning? No.  But I’ll be able to create a great teachable moment for my students in a few months, all because I stopped to chat with someone rather than doing what I normally do, which is plug in my headphones and hurry on my way.  I’m not going to suddenly change my ways or anything, but sometimes an unexpected but nice conversation can serve as a reminder of the good things in this world.

Badges and recognizing success

Badges are not exactly a new concept, but like many ideas that come from games, they are still not widely known in the world of higher education and learning.  As many of us know from playing sports or participating in Scouts-style programs as children, badges are physical marks of achievement given to those that show competency at a particular skill or for doing well in a competition. In video games like World of Warcraft, meeting a particular goal is called an ‘achievement’.  Each achievement you earn flashes across the public chat, allowing for recognition, and some of them come with special items or titles in the game.  Defeat the Lich King, and you not only get to bask in the glory of victory, but you earn the title ‘Kingslayer’. While typically meant as a form of visible recognition for an achievement, earning achievements or badges can motivate behavior and can be seen as credentials in their own right.

Motivation, recognition, and credentialing skills–sounds like what we want to do in the classroom, right?

Electoral College Exercise

While I realize many of our readers are not based in the US nor teaching American government, the Electoral College is such an interesting oddity in electoral decision making that its a subject that may come up in Comparative Politics courses as well.  Certainly when I teach US politics I use quite a few comparative examples, as one of my themes of the course is how government arises from a series of decisions made by individuals and groups, none of which are or were set in stone.  Showing alternative models is a very useful way of doing this.

So here is a data analysis exercise that I use to teach the American Electoral College. It can be done either as homework or as an-in class as an activity after a basic introduction to the Electoral College and how it works (the basic premise of state-by-state popular vote, proportional votes based on number of seats in Congress, winner take all systems, and if no one wins a majority, the decision is made by the House with state-by-state voting).  

This exercise can be easily reformed for a final exam. Simply change the data and situations.  In the version below I use 9 states in a fictional world; in the exam version, I use about 20 states in a different world.  I never use the entire US or actual vote totals–this is largely to keep the math simple enough that it is not a test of arithmetic but of analysis.  Feel free to change the names of candidates and states to suit your own interests. 


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An Exercise for Teaching Campaigns and Elections

Today’s post comes courtesy of Dr. Julia Azari, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Marquette University.  Her exercise can be used in American politics classes that include a unit on campaigns and elections.  It can be done in a single class or as a multi-day exercise. These are the instructions she gave to the students, reprinted here in full. Where page numbers are given, they refer to the text used in the class:Matt Grossmann, John Sides, Daron Shaw and Keena Lipsitz, Campaigns and Elections, WW Norton, 3rd Edition.


The scenario: In April 2019 (just a few months from now!), President Donald Trump has once again shaken the political world by announcing that he will not seek reelection to a second term. Citing the decisions of Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, James K. Polk, and Rutherford B. Hayes, the 72-year-old entertainer-turned-politician said that he wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren, missed his old life, and was satisfied with his incredibly successful first term.[1]

As a result, we have a 2020 election with no incumbent! After tough primary battles on both sides, in July 2020, Republicans and Democrats are settling in for the general election. And it just so happens that candidates from both major parties are eager to hire consultants who have studied political science at Marquette.

Political conditions: Economic growth is steady and no new wars have begun. Trump’s favorability ratings have improved a bit with his decision not to seek reelection, but have remained around 45%.

Now you have to form a consulting firm (a group with 4-5 classmates) and decide which party’s candidate you are advising.[2] Unfortunately, instead of collecting a handsome fee, your end goal is to turn this sheet into me and get a participation grade for the day.

Here are the decisions you’ll need to advise the candidate about:

  1. Fundraising.

How will you do this? Who will you ask to contribute? Do you want to make promises about your commitment to “clean elections” or resisting a certain kind of contribution?

You can’t coordinate with expenditure-only organizations, but how much are you comfortable with letting them pick up the bulk of the campaign spending? Does their existence give you some breathing room to back off of fundraising in favor of other activities? Can you count on their help? What are some benefits and risks of counting on it?

What kinds of campaign fundraising do you expect from your opponent? How will you respond to attacks from independent expenditure groups?

  • Television ad buys (see page 268). What states/media markets will you focus on? Which states do you consider safe and which will be competitive, but attainable? Will you take a risk on running ads in states where your opponent still has the best chance to win?
  • Travel. Where will you go? How many appearances will you make between Sept. 1 and the election? (See page 269) What are the costs and benefits of this strategy?
  • Messages and priorities. What issues will you emphasize? What will you say about the status quo – knowing what you know about forecasting models? How will you balance your appeals to swing voters and your political base?

[1] Note: I don’t think this is an especially plausible scenario, but I don’t this exercise to be focused on the current president because we have other things we need to discuss.

[2] You can speculate about who your candidate is, but again that’s not really the point of the exercise.

From Frying Pan To Fire?

A brief meditation on teaching in the era of Trump. From a comparative perspective. In more ways than one.

As someone whose income is in the world’s top one percent, I have the luxury of partaking in long-distance travel on a purely voluntary basis. Soon I’ll be vacationing outside the USA, a country where corrupt, narcissistic xenophobes are doing their best to undermine the rule of law, with the full approval of their supporters. My destination? A country where corrupt, narcissistic xenophobes are doing their best to undermine the rule of law, with the full approval of their supporters.

So yes, I see parallels, despite the geographic and cultural differences. The tribalistic nationalism. The sexism. The religious justifications. The cronyism. Most of all, the constant attempts to de-legitimize the very institutions that originally put these people into positions of power.

I know that I’m a bit more sensitive to the symbiotic relationship between popular prejudices and abusive government than many people, in part because my wife, as a Muslim and an immigrant, is classified as both a terrorist and a rapist in Trumpspeak. But history demonstrates that those who engage in idol worship and willful ignorance as a means to an end rarely see their expectations met.

And here is the connection to my teaching: the basic principle that I try to convey to students is that one benefits by comparing, as open-mindedly as possible, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Curiosity-driven analysis leads to unexpected insights, sounder judgments, and more satisfying outcomes in life. And it is quite acceptable to make mistakes along the way as long as one takes the time to try to figure out why things went wrong.

Unfortunately I am seeing an increasing resistance to this message among U.S. undergraduates. Far too many expect to be intellectually and morally validated solely on the basis of personal opinion. Far too few exhibit a willingness to consider the possibility that perspectives which differ from their own might have merit. If some students perceive my teaching as a threat to the comfortable psychological environment that they have constructed for themselves, I get labeled authoritarian, racist, sexist, or otherwise unprofessional — revenge for being told that their academic performance is not of the quality that they believe it to be. Who am I to tell them that they are not perfect?

This probably makes me sound like a disgruntled, insufferable elitist. But I wonder if we folks in the USA are in the midst of a disaster of our own making. Unstructured and unsupervised play during childhood has become the exception rather than the rule. Reality TV, online personae, and the War on Terror have been background noise for as long as today’s teenagers have been alive. Anxiety and depression are epidemic on college campuses. And now government by distortion, outrage, and caprice has been normalized. It’s probably only natural that many undergraduates think everyone has the right to their own immutable set of alternative facts.

Model Diplomacy: Smart, easy to use foreign policy simulations

Model Diplomacy is a series of free National Security Council simulations put out by the Council on Foreign Relations. Michelle used it in her class last year, and I decided based on her positive experience to try it in my intro to IR class this year.  In this post I’m going to explain the basics of Model Diplomacy, discuss my experience using it, and give my recommendation.  Spoiler Alert: I loved it.

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Open Source Public Policy Research Reports

Courtesy of the Human Security Studies Group at the Naval War College, I recently learned about EveryCRSReport.com, a non-profit project that has the goal of making every report written by the U.S. Congressional Research Service freely available online. This is unclassified, taxpayer-funded research on a huge variety of topics, produced for the legislative branch of the U.S. government. The Congressional Research Service itself refuses to supply these reports directly to the public, so a third party has taken up the task.

If you’re teaching an undergraduate course on U.S. domestic or foreign policy, or on the U.S. Congress, the website could be a useful resource for students.

This article on Medium explains more about the mission and history of EveryCRSReport.com.

Call For Proposals — APSA Centennial Center Teaching Workshop

The American Political Science Association’s (APSA) Centennial Center for Political Science and Public Affairs is pleased to announce a Call for Proposals for faculty interested in participating in a two-day teaching workshop from May 18-19 at APSA’s headquarters in Washington, DC. APSA’s Teaching Workshops provide a unique opportunity for faculty with similar teaching interests to refresh existing syllabi, develop new teaching approaches, and share best practices. Led by co- facilitators Andrew Rudalevige (Bowdoin College) and Caroline Tolbert (University of Iowa & University of Delaware), this workshop will focus on sharing and developing teaching resources for introductory courses related to American government.

Approximately 15 faculty will be invited to take part in the workshop. In addition to assessing fundamental texts and themes of American government-related courses, the program will include a series of roundtables in which each participant will share a specific teaching resource, class project, or course component with the group.

Through sharing and discussing a wide range of teaching materials, we expect participants to learn about high-impact practices for the classroom and extend scholarly networks. Examples of teaching resources or topics of presentation may include:

  • Innovative teaching approaches
  • Civic engagement education
  • Simulations
  • Community engagement projects
  • Use of technology (including social media, discussion boards, virtual reality, etc)
  • In-class exercises and assignments
  • Evaluation and assessment

Following the workshop, attendees will be invited to contribute a revised version of their teaching materials to an APSA teaching resources collection.

Applicants should have at least 3 years’ experience teaching their own American government-related course (Intro to American Government, Political Behavior, Congressional Politics, American Presidency, Political Parties and Groups, Media and Politics, etc). We encourage applications from faculty at a range of institutions, including universities and two- and four-year colleges. The deadline for proposals is Thursday, March 1, 2018.

Proposals should be submitted online and include:

  • Recent CV, including detailed information on teaching experience.
  • 250-word abstract summarizing the teaching resource you plan to share at the workshop.
  • 250-word description of your motivation and goals for participating in the workshop.
  • Brief description of your institution and how the American government courses you teach fit into your department’s curriculum or a general education requirement.

Successful applicants will be notified by the end of March. Course registration fees ($79) may be paid online in advance of the workshop. For more information, contact centennial@apsanet.org.

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.