Parliament Game with the Gray-Tufted Banderwot

Gray-Tufted Banderwot

A few years ago, Simon invented a game to model coalitions in the European Parliament (also described here and here). I decided to try it in my comparative politics as a lesson in how legislatures function. After some confusion as students figured out what to do, they clustered into two coalitions; the outcome loosely resembled a two-party/median voter system. But I had forgotten to remove the high-value cards from the deck before starting the game. The class has only fourteen students, and the distribution of card values was so great that it was difficult for students to accumulate influence points.

I decided to run the game again in the next class, after removing face cards from the deck. Influence points were calculated the same as before. But I added a twist. Each student received additional instructions that varied according to the value of his or her card: Continue reading

What You Say Is Not What They Hear

I was recently reminded that although we like to think we clearly communicate our intent to students, this is not always the case. My globalization class is reading One White Face by Hilary Corna, an autobiographical account of a young college graduate who travels to Singapore on a whim and stumbles into a job with Toyota. I assigned a written response to this question:

The author writes that in her quest for normalcy, she “had become more and more abnormal.” What was the most significant abnormal decision she made after arriving in Singapore? Why? Define what you mean by “significant.”

I asked the question to get students to think about the ways in which an unfamiliar environment forced the author to evaluate her thinking from a new, and therefore abnormal, perspective. However, students understood the question differently. Their responses focused on the word “decision” and for the most part ignored “abnormal.” Most of them wrote about decisions that would be typical of any recent U.S. college graduates instead of pressures to adapt to new cultural norms.

To make the purpose of the question more transparent — in case I use the same book next year — I revised it to: Continue reading

Advising as Active Learning

This way to commencement.

It’s now advising hell, er, season, at my university. If you are outside of the USA, you might be unfamiliar with this phenomenon — it’s when undergraduates come to faculty for advice about which courses they should register for in the upcoming semester.

Students often approach the process passively  — if I let them, they will simply ask me “What should I take?” Many are also under the misapprehension that a path they believe is “pre-med” or “pre-law” is necessary for gaining entrance into a graduate program (it isn’t). Or they are convinced that a “minor” — a small cluster of courses on some topic — is in and of itself a career credential (it isn’t). Notice that the actual learning that might or might not occur in these pre-packaged bundles of courses is not what the students are worrying about.

To be fair, the underlying purpose of the curriculum — to function as a vehicle for learning — is fairly opaque. For example, at my university sixteen distinct student learning outcomes are assigned to courses that fulfill general education requirements, courses required by academic programs might have an equal number of additional outcomes, and there is now talk about creating a third layer of outcomes at the institutional level. Yet there is no comprehensive, well-tuned effort to capture and evaluate the data necessary for determining whether these outcomes are being met. If faculty are unable to point a student to course X as a reliable means of learning Y, it’s doubtful that students can do it.

In an attempt to work around these problems, I require students to bring to a meeting a draft of a four-year plan in which they’ve listed what courses they think they’ll be taking and when. The document, which gets revised over time, serves as a tool for a much deeper conversation, for two main reasons.

First,  the process of drafting an academic schedule for which the endpoint is graduation illustrates that choices have consequences. For example, playing a sport is the highest priority for some students, and they like to avoid enrolling in courses that conflict with practice sessions or matches. But some courses are often taught only in particular semesters at particular times. With the four-year plan, students see the longer-term effects of their decisions, and that they bear ultimate responsibility for how they choose to invest their time, money, and effort.

Second, the four-year plan is an entry point for a discussion about how the title of a course, the curricular requirements that can be fulfilled by successfully completing it, and the degree to which the student will find the course interesting and challenging are frequently completely independent of each other. Given that people usually learn more when they are both interested in and challenged by what they are studying, I tell students to take people, not courses, whenever possible. While I can make suggestions about this, it is up to the student to actively perform the necessary due diligence.

The Change All Around, Part 3

Here is my third post about environmental factors that are affecting my teaching this semester. My previous posts on the subject are here and here. This time I thought I would explore my situation from the standpoint of student behavior.

First item is this screenshot of the Canvas LMS gradebook. I use a grading system in which each assignment is worth a certain number of points, and a student’s final course grade is a function of the total points he or she has earned by the end of the semester. Individual assignments do not receive letter grades and are not graded on a percentage basis with a 0-100 scale.

I inform students — both verbally in the classroom and via text in the syllabus — that the percentage columns in the gradebook are absolutely meaningless in terms of their course grade. Yet they still fixate on these figures, and get dejected whenever they see a number that they perceive as conflicting with their self-image. (I attribute the innumeracy and the construction of a fragile self-identity to parenting and the K-12 education system.) Continue reading

The ABCs of Mentoring

As an increasingly senior (i.e., “older”) faculty member, professional development efforts–whether my own or those intended for others — occupy more of my time and attention than they used to. People here began a more formalized mentoring program for junior faculty about a year ago, and recently I was one of the people called upon to dispense wisdom about teaching to some of our recent hires.

Instead of just talking at them, I decided to demonstrate some teaching via active learning by using Simon’s ABC exercise: I asked the mentees to write down on Post-It notes what they wanted to abandon, begin, and continue about their own teaching and then stick their notes on the wall. Here is a compilation of the results: Continue reading

ISA Creative Teaching Workshops

At the ISA’s annual convention last month, ALPS members led two of the Creative Teaching Workshops organized by Carolyn Shaw of Wichita State University. My colleague Sally Gomaa and I led the Teaching the World Through Authentic Writing Assignments workshop. Here are a few of our thoughts on the experience:

First, we were pleasantly surprised by the diverse crowd. Sally and I met Carolyn, Simon Rofe, and Mary Jane Parmentier in person for the first time and reconnected with some of the ALPS crew. But participants in our workshop took diversity to an entirely different level — graduate students to senior faculty from a variety of academic disciplines, at least eleven different nationalities, and employment or study at a wide range in institutional environments.

This diversity demonstrated the truth that there is no universally-applicable solution to making students learn, whether through writing or any other means. Case in point: in the U.S. system of higher education, I am free to formally assess my students as frequently and in whatever manner I want, which allows me to use writing assignments as a stick to force students to read information that I provide. People who work in other systems don’t have this freedom, and writing exercises might have to be organized as ungraded classroom activities — which assumes students 1) attend class regularly, 2) see value in the activities. Another example: the instructor might not be  teaching in his or her primary language, which complicates the process of evaluating and providing feedback on students’ writing.

A second observation: the standard conference panel is a terrible way to learn about new pedagogical strategies. Its “I talk, you listen” format contradicts nearly every principle of active learning. Our panel, about teaching, was the usual affair with little time for give-and-take with the handful of people in the audience. The contrast with our workshop, where a much larger group of people applied themselves individually and collaboratively, frequently lobbing “What if we tried this?” and “Have you thought about this?” questions at each other, was stark. Nearly all of us teach, and for many if not most of us, teaching occupies the majority of our work time. So why are conferences structured to be mostly irrelevant to the careers of most academics? (Nina, Amanda, and Simon have discussed this subject previously).

Last item, related to the previous one: as is my habit, I did some participant observation while walking the hotel hallways and attending events. I noticed the young, bright-eyed, sharp-dressed graduate students, performing the rituals that they have been led to believe will gain them entry to the professoriate. It made me feel a bit queasy, because for many there will not be a pot of career gold at the end of the graduate school rainbow. The labor market for academics in many fields has collapsed. From my position of privilege as a tenured faculty member, I write about this subject periodically, like Cassandra of Troy. For someone else’s perspective on how the academy in the USA exploits the (sometimes willfully) naive, read Kevin Birmingham’s essay in The Chronicle.

Summer Peace-Building Symposiums

This summer, the International Peace & Security Institute, the Johns Hopkins SAIS Bologna Center, and the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology are cooperating on two symposiums that will teach practical skills in peacebuilding. The Bologna symposium focuses on conflict prevention, resolution, and reconciliation, while the Sarajevo symposium is on post-conflict transitions. Additional details are here.