What a year! What sort of year?

Insert joke about being two-faced here

I’m dragging myself over the line of 2016. I’m sure we all feel that each new year is more draining than any before, but in this case I have have nothing even vaguely comparable in terms of professional activity. A couple of weeks ago I totted up flights I’d taken, only to spend the days since adding in more and more.

That’s lovely – if you love airport lounges (which I don’t) – but how does it relate to L&T?

Last week, I found myself suggesting Victor’s identity salience exercise (here, but he still needs to write it up for us) to a colleague. It’s a great way of getting to the core of how we see ourselves, and understanding how our identity is made up of various elements that we might not normally see as connected.

I’m now fining myself wondering whether this couldn’t be re-purposed for reflecting on what’s happened this year. So let’s try it. Continue reading

Too soon…?

There is literally one photo that could be used to illustrate this story. But I used this one instead

You’ll have noticed that we’ve not posted about the result of the US Presidential election, despite four-fifths of us being American and all of us being political scientists. Let’s put that down to this being a blog about Learning & Teaching, rather than anything else.

However, as with Brexit (here and here), this elections opens up a huge opportunity to explore and investigate much political science. With that in mind, here are a couple of things to toy with.

Most obviously, the impending arrival of the Trump administration means that policy is going to change. Eight years ago, I ran a simulation with my UK students, formulating a new foreign policy doctrine for the incoming Obama administration, with groups representing the major arms of federal government and Congressional committees. This culminated in a three day final session, which produced a document just before Christmas 2008.

This works because of the necessary gap betweeen election and inauguration, so if you were to do this, then you’d have to get moving, as the premise collapses somewhat as you move into February. There’s lots of materials available, not least media coverage, so its not hard for students to pull together a brief. Indeed, my main challenge was that my students thought all Americans agree with each other (ha!) and struggled to get fully into the tensions between State and Defense (for example). I’ll take a bit of a leap here and assume that would be less of an issue this time around.

Obviously, such a simulation also works for domestic policy, either collectively or more singularly. One might imagine a game working on Obamacare reform/dismantling, to produce a proposal for the new President, which would require careful consideration of legal instruments and executive authority.

If all that is too much to bear, then the other big area of work concerns the discipline of political science as a whole. Whether for a freshman class trying to get to grips with it all, or a more advanced group, there have been some great pieces in the past week that invite class discussion about the nature and future of PoliSci. To take just four examples, Duck of Minerva  has a very thoughtful discussion, the Atlantic has an overview piece, as does Politico and Will Jennings and Martin Lodge here in the UK consider how this relates to Brexit. Lots in these to get balls rolling.

So there you go; lots of learning moments. Not to mention a very graphic demonstration of the importance of fall-back positions, both in the classroom and outside.

“Braindead” as a US politics primer

BrainDead_Logo_500x281Because I get proper holidays and because this year I doing nothing more intellectually demanding than deciding on what flavour of ice cream to get, I’ve got very little to share in the way of pedagogic experiences.

One exception has been Braindead (CBS and Amazon), from the creators of The Good Wife. To any other audience than this, saying that it’s about brain-eating alien ants that are taking over Washington would be a stretch, but you guys are all over the Zombie/IR thing: consider this the comparative politics equivalent.

The essential trope is that it’s hard to distinguish between those with bugs in their heads and the kind of rabid politics founds on both sides of the aisle (which gives a clue to the show’s own centrist, moderate position).

As someone who knows little of the detail of the US federal system, it’s been a great little exploration of both the macro-picture and dynamic, as well as the more detailed navigation of procedure and favour in handling the issue-of-the-week elements. Sure, a lot seems to just need the Senator to phone someone and threaten to cut their funding for things to happen (that doesn’t happen really, right?), but the consideration of trade-offs and package deals that characterise the system, it’s a fun and engaging way in.

This isn’t The West Wing, but it does strike me as a nice way to get students talking about procedure and about that bigger question of partisanship. It’s also totally great for a debate about the paranoid turn, albeit with more exploding heads than usual.

The First Day of Class: Remix

As classes start up again for the fall semester, this might be a good time to revisit some great ALPS posts on how to approach the first days and weeks of the term.  We recommend:

Start the way you finish–A reminder that active learning–regardless of when you may have scheduled a simulation or other activity–begins on day one.

Picture it! A game for the first year students that teaches students to create and read maps while learning how to get around campus.

Close reading a syllabus–why not quiz your students on the syllabus to incentivize them to read it thoroughly?

Government in our lives--an idea for starting that first class session of American politics.

Today’s lucky winner is… and The other side of presenting–two posts that look at how to approach student presentations, from requiring all students to show up ready to present on the day’s topic to teaching students how to be the audience for a presentation.

And finally, because every class benefits from a bit of lego, take a page from Susherwood’s playbook and think about using lego in your classes.


Happy Fall Semester!

The Wicked Games We Play: A Review of Agenda

Today’s post is from Casey Delehanty, doctoral candidate in political science at Florida State University.

Agenda BoardMany attendees at this year’s APSA annual meeting were given a free copy of Agenda, a board game that claims to be “the culmination of the journey to discover a way for politics and the political games people play to not only be better understood but be fun at the same time.” Initially, I planned to give it a play test with some colleagues and submit a review that touched on the best ways instructors could utilize the game for pedagogical purposes. As it turns out, Agenda is a terrible game. As one play-tester commented, “This board game offends me not only as someone who studies politics but as someone who likes board games.”

In Agenda, players pick one of seven possible “political personas,” each with its own political viewpoints—such as Socialist, Corporatist, Moralist, or Libertarian. Players take turns moving around the board via die rolls, and each square they land on affects their personal resources in the form of votes, money, and poll standing. If they possess the requisite resources when passing an Agenda button, they can enact a “policy plank,” a major policy which their character holds dear. The first player to enact an agreed upon number of “policy planks” wins. While this may seem like a fairly simple setup, the actual rules of Agenda resemble corporate tax codes in their complexity. This brings us to my first point:

Make your instructions simple

I’m no stranger to big, complicated manuals and I’m not expecting literary prose from a game manual, but the manual for Agenda is Byzantine to the point of absurdity. For example, there are seven different categories of cards, all of which receive their own section within the game manual, despite the fact that they all generally do the same things. It took four political science graduate students around 30-45 minutes to get around halfway through the manual, at which point we became frustrated and decided to “learn while playing.”

This kind of needless complexity can mean a quick death for classroom simulations. Any simulation’s complexity should be spread out among students so that the amount of knowledge required of any individual student is relatively low. Agenda places needlessly intricate rules on top of what is essentially a very simple game, necessitating a long and arduous learning curve before implementation.

Make game decisions meaningful

There’s an old web comic of philosophers playing board games that came to mind when playing Agenda. In it, “Camus” declares that Candyland is the “most brilliant game ever made!” Since players in Candyland move along by drawing cards, players lack agency and must supply themselves with narratives about their progress that, given the nature of the game, are patently absurd.

Likewise, players of Agenda have no real agency or need for strategy. A player’s choice of “political persona” has no discernable impact on his or her available options or the course of the game. “Policy planks” also have no significant effect. Once we successfully enacted a “plank,” nothing really happened beyond checking off a box on the back of our character cards. In all, there was no real strategy to the game at all; players just clump around the board hoping to land in the right sequence of squares to end the game.

The entire point of using classroom simulations is to force students to wrestle with dilemmas that resemble real-life political phenomena. In Agenda, players are reduced to dice-rolling automatons who only manage the accumulation of money, votes, and poll standing.

Try to approximate real life

One of the most frustrating aspects of Agenda is the degree to which the game mechanics are based less on politics than the jokes people tell about politics. There isn’t really anything here that approximates reality, and there is little to no explanation of how policies are actually made.

Agenda MoralistAs an example, the Moralist in our game managed to enshrine Christianity as the official state religion as an “agenda plank,” despite the earth-shaking changes to U.S. institutional structure that would have to occur to make that a real-life possibility. Moreover, there is never any explanation as to the actual identity or function of any of the personas. President? Member of Congress? Dictator for life? Agenda won’t tell you. And how does this persona enact a policy? By obtaining more than $1 million in money, 500,000 votes, and more than 50 percent in poll standing. Money for what? Votes in what election? More than 50 percent in what poll? Don’t worry about it, says Agenda.

This is perhaps the most frustrating part of Agenda. Rather than put any effort into mimicking real-life processes, the game seems to be nothing more than a platform for unfunny and potentially offensive jokes about politics. For example, one board square reads “make insensitive remark about rape: lose one million votes.” One card states “You are a member of a minority ethnic group. Lose ten poll points.” These features inhibit understanding by caricaturing different segments of the political spectrum while at the same time obscuring the actual policy process. There is no coalition-building, no log-rolling, no calculation of any kind.

Ideally, classroom simulations and games impart at least some understanding of real-life political phenomena. Game mechanics need not mirror real-life processes exactly, but they should at least give some insight into how these processes work, or what it’s like to operate under the various institutional constraints that actual politics present. By contrast, I think that playing Agenda could actually cause students to know less about politics than they did before going into the game.

A fourth way of teaching elections

Simon just posted about 3 ways of teaching the 2015 British elections, and I thought I would chime in with a fourth way to teach elections: the student-led discussion.

Essentially you have students work in small groups to lead a discussion about the candidates for a particular office or the debate on a ballot issue.  They get 10 minutes to present the candidates/issue (usually incorporating videos or news articles or prezi/powerpoint), and then have to lead a 20 minute discussion amongst their peers.  The instructor sits in the audience and does not participate, but takes notes throughout, particularly on any factual mistakes, and debriefs the group at the end.   In the US this works really well because the elections usually have a multitude of local and state offices that the students might not otherwise know about, such as judges, auditors, and assemblypersons.  It is also a highly portable exercise, in that its easy to swap out whatever offices are contested in a given term. When there isn’t an election going on–or if you are teaching about a country that does not have fixed elections– you have them do it on ‘current issues’ in politics instead. You can make the leadership itself a small portion of the grade–say 5%–and student participation affects their overall participation grade.

I’ve used an activity like this in my intro to American Politics class regularly since 2010.  It usually works really, really well.  I have the advantage of usually teaching this class in a 4 hour block for only 8 weeks–so the August-October class ends just before the November elections.  That means usually in the fall section we do Campaigns, and in the spring, Current Issues.  For campaigns, i usually select the specific offices we cover–if a race is completely uncontested, its not going to lead to a lot of debate–but with Current Issues, I let the students choose, although I retain a veto that I’ve almost never had to actually use.