Additional Snippets from Comparative Politics

A few more quick thoughts about my comparative politics course, which just ended . . .

On the last day of class, I distributed pieces of paper and asked students to write down what they thought were the two best and two worst assigned readings, and to include brief explanations of their choices. Nine students were in the room — out a class of ten. Despite such a small sample, I will go out on a limb and draw some conclusions, all of which relate to transparency:

  • I should preface each writing assignment with a very brief overview of how assigned readings relate to the topic at hand, because students don’t automatically know this. For the question “Does Chinese culture promote authoritarianism?” the class read an interview with Singapore’s former leader Lee Kuan Yew. Two of the students didn’t understand that Yew, being of Chinese ancestry like many other Singaporeans, was discussing his views on Chinese cultural norms.
  • I should also explicitly inform students that readings are written in different styles for different audiences, which means that some of the readings will be more difficult and less enjoyable to read than others. For example, in the section of the course on revolution, I assign Theda Skocpol’s 1976 article “France, Russia, China: A Structural Analysis of Social Revolutions.” Two students said this article was a least favorite reading, because of its style. Oddly, in my opinion, a few other students complained that the long-form journalism found in some of The New York Times articles was hard to understand.
  • Students have difficulty placing unfamiliar historical events in chronological order and parsing out how what happened before might have affected what happened after (the “history just happens” mentality). For an assignment about Iran, students felt confused about the relationship between the 1979 revolution, popular support for the post-revolutionary Islamic Republic, and more recent anti-government protests. While I find it easy to connect the dots, students don’t — for them, context can be confusing. So for some assignments I need to narrow down the reading list.

After students finished identifying readings they liked or disliked, I asked them if they would have preferred formal mid-term and final exams, or regular quizzes, as an alternative to some of the writing assignments. I was surprised that they said no, since I had been under the impression that they used test scores to reassure themselves of their performance. One senior said that he didn’t remember a thing from test-based courses he had taken, while he remembered a lot from writing-based courses, and therefore he regarded the latter as much more beneficial. Two others said that, as studies have shown, they and their friends promptly forgot whatever facts they dumped into short-term memory the night before an exam, so they regarded exams as anxiety-producing events irrelevant to their learning. If next year I use quizzes as a stick to improve attendance in class, they will probably need to be the “write a paragraph that answers the question” type.


Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 6

Another update, this time in relation to the Place Making Essay discussed in Part 2  of this series —

To backtrack a bit, and provide some context I probably should have supplied in Part 1, the objectives of this course are to:

  1. Introduce students to concepts and methods used by social scientists and others to explain globalization.
  2. Develop the skills needed to understand complex problems related to global interconnectedness.

Students’ essays did, with varying degrees of success, thoughtfully respond to the assignment’s two prompts:

  • How does the process by which an object is made affect its ability to create a sense of place for people who use that object?
  • Has globalization altered the meaning of places or of the objects within them? Why? If so, how have meanings changed?

I did not see much discussion about the ways in which globalization affects communities, in the sense of “place making.” In retrospect, this is another example of me assuming, incorrectly, that students will follow ideas down the rabbit hole like I do — examining the more nebulous systemic implications of narrowly-defined events. If I use this assignment in the future, I might change the prompt to something like:

  • People assign meanings to the physical spaces they use. How do these meanings change when built environments and the objects within them are globalized? How are people’s spatial interactions affected? Do communities benefit? Why?

Despite horizons in students’ writing that were narrower than I would have liked, I think the essay unexpectedly hit my second course objective, through the interaction with students in the ART 202 course and the IYRS Digital Materials and Fabrication program. These interactions required students in my course to communicate effectively with complete strangers who had, in many cases, unfamiliar perspectives and different goals. A prerequisite for learning how to solve problems that arise from global interconnectedness is actually connecting with people who are different, and that happened in this assignment.

Links to all posts in this series:

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 1

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 2

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 3

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 4

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 5

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 6

Changing Course on Globalization, Part 7



Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 2

On at least two occasions over the semester, my class will be meeting with students who are enrolled in an art course. The art students will be creating objects with 3-D printers and CNC cutters at the nearby IYRS School of Technology & Trades. The interviews will form the basis for a writing assignment in my class that I hope illustrates globalization’s effects on design, production, and trade — something that I am calling the Placemaking Essay. Here are my directions for the assignment:

1. Review course readings on terroir, Irish pubs, McDonald’s, and trade.

2. Read the rubric.

3. Write an 2-3 page essay, based on your interviews with ART 202 students and observations of their work, on the following:

  • How does the process by which an object is made affect its ability to create a sense of place for people who use that object?
  • Has globalization altered the meaning of places or of the objects within them? Why? If so, how have meanings changed?

Make sure to clearly define your use of terms like “place” and “community.” Cite course readings as you would for a reading response.

This essay also connects to a reflective writing assignments my students will be completing at the end of the semester. I’ll save the details on that for later.

Storm in a teacup?

Storm damages scaffolding, in metaphorical whirlwind

Reading Chad’s post yesterday – talking about the structural pressures on student demographics in the classroom – was an excellent touchstone for me, as I received my feedback for my course on negotiation.

In common with other UK institutions, we have a system of centralised evaluations of courses, which we encourage students to complete: I’ve written before about these, but suffice to say that while it’s good to get a more standardised measure across provision, it’s not without issues.

In the case of negotiation, I’m often aware that I benefit from the unusual delivery – hardly any lecturing, but instead practical sessions, together with some flipped learning: students like the freedom it give. However, this year I’ve noticed some new comments creeping in, somewhat akin to Chad’s situation. Continue reading

More ABCs for Comparative Politics

Happy New Year everyone. Today I’ve got some additional exploration of ABCs for my spring semester comparative politics course, as an update to posts on the subject from September.

I did in fact abandon the book Around the Bloc because of its age and length, and this freed up space in the syllabus for more more articles from the Journal of Democracy. The contents of Journal of Democracy are more concise, contain less jargon, and are overall much better written than what’s found in other journals, making it an excellent source of material on comparative democratization. I’ve inserted a few more questions into the syllabus quiz that require students to find these assigned articles at the beginning of the semester. If students don’t have this skill, they have plenty of time to acquire it by talking to a librarian.

I’m going to begin using Egypt as a small case study. Egypt complements my use of Russia as an example of failed democratization and authoritarian resilience, and it also makes a good contrast with Iran on the subject of revolutions.

I will continue to use the assignment that I created last spring in which students compare two nation-states using either a most similar systems or most different systems design. A year ago, I created a template for students to use for completion of these assignments; however, some students seemed confused about the relationships between variables because of the way I formatted the template. Also some of the completed assignments were awkward for me to read because students had stuffed multiple paragraphs or lots of bullet points into each table cell. So I have revised the templates and changed the assignment directions:

Continue reading

Continue: Fall 2017 Edition

I will continue using the somewhat tried-and-true knowledge plan and quality of failure essays, but I am going to modify them yet again. I want these assignments to push students toward the realization that they need to take responsibility for their learning by evaluating how and why it happens, instead of assuming that they can displace this task entirely onto me. However, I still see a large portion of students responding to these meta-cognitive prompts  without much thought, as if they are following a recipe in a cookbook.

So I have condensed the questions that I ask in these assignments even further, making them more open-ended, in the hope that it will force students to exert more effort in examining their own attitudes and behaviors.

The knowledge plan prompt now reads as:

Plan for this course by writing a 2-3 page essay (double-spaced, equivalent to 11 or 12 point font) that answers these questions: 

  • What do I want to get out of this course?
  • What strategies will help me achieve these goals?

The quality of failure prompt now says:


Write a 2-3 page essay that analyzes the following:

  • What helped or hindered your learning during the semester?
  • Are your experiences similar to those of Robert J. Moore and Soledad O’Brien? Why or why not?

Abandon: Fall 2017 edition

As promised in my last post about teaching risk-averse students, I am going to again apply Simon’s ABC technique to last semester’s teaching. And since I taught two sections of my first-year seminar, I’ll focus on that.

First item on the “abandon” list: in-class peer review of student-designed games. Although I think the rubric that students use to evaluate classmate-designed games is good, they simply refuse to use it to provide honest feedback. I know that the majority of the students understand at least some of the principles reflected by the rubric because of the way they have analyzed the games in the final exam. In the classroom, though, they rate the games as perfect. A potential replacement for the peer review process — and this is really more of a “begin” item — is a short writing assignment after each round of game design in which they compare the game their team designed with another team’s game that they played in class.

Second thing to abandon: my organization of memo-writing assignments. I have assumed, incorrectly, that first-semester college students can grasp the purpose and format of a memo with minimal instruction on my part. After three separate iterations of the assignment, complete with an opportunity to rewrite each memo, I didn’t see significant improvement in the quality of students’ work, which was the same thing that happened in the course last year. A possible solution is to walk students step by step through the mechanics of writing a memo in class, so that by the end of the process they have in their hands a  document that they can submit for a “perfect” grade. But this would remove pretty much any opportunity for students to independently engage in creative thinking, which is another term for problem solving. More holding of students’ hands to protect them from anything they might find unpleasant. I’ll have to think more about how to better organize an assignment like this.

Third item on the list, which is speculative at this point: abandon the whole course. I’ve been teaching this first-year seminar since its inception four years ago, when it came into being through a revision to my university’s general education requirements. The developmental rationale for the course is not well-defined, and the learning outcomes associated with it are mostly not measurable. Valid data on how the course may be of benefit to students simply isn’t being collected, which means that it is really nothing but an empty three-credit curricular requirement. While I think the topic on which I have built the course is a good one, I am finding it less enjoyable to teach over time. And interaction with university administrators about aspects of teaching it have been less than satisfactory. So, if I have the opportunity in future fall semesters not to teach the course, I might take it.