Beyond the Essay: Briefing Memos

Today we have a guest post from Vincent Druliolle, an assistant professor at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. He can be reached at Vincent[dot]Druliolle[at]gmail[dot]com.

Undergraduates are repeatedly told that what they study is somehow relevant for practice, yet most assignments are structured as academic essays—even though only a handful of them will end up opting for an academic career. A few years ago, I decided that my students should have the opportunity to develop non-academic writing skills, and started assigning a briefing memo about an ongoing conflict.

The briefing memo is indeed a format widely used in government, international organisations, consultancies, and NGOs. However, because of the large range of topics and theoretical perspectives covered by my module and the limited number of teaching weeks, I had to find a way of integrating such an activity into my small-group seminars. I came up with the idea of making the memo a preparatory activity for my in-class simulation on peacebuilding and transitional justice.

The briefing memo differs from the traditional essay in both content and format. It is policy-oriented, because it is aimed at practitioners and decision-makers, and it presents information in a concise and attractive manner. It requires critically analysing source material beyond the standard academic literature, selecting what’s most relevant, and presenting it in a way that can convey the complexities of the conflict analysed.

Most students have never written a memo, but I don’t give them any guidelines. Instead, I ask them to look up examples that they can use as models. I prefer to ask the students to present their memos in class and discuss the difficulties of writing it. The first seminar of the simulation is thus about comparing and learning from the work of one’s fellow classmates. For class discussion, I recommend selecting at least a very good memo, a (very) bad one, and a few with significantly different formats and/or content. The greater the variety of memos, the better. I want the students to learn from each other, so I adopt the role of a facilitator, asking them to explain why they’ve chosen a given format and/or content, and fostering a class discussion about these aspects.

Many students admit that, as I warn them beforehand, it’s difficult at the beginning to figure out how they have to write the memo. Instead of assessing it at this stage, I ask the students to submit a revised version after the simulation that reflects what they’ve learnt from their classmates’ memos. Guidelines about how to write a memo can be provided at this stage or even afterward as part of a debriefing.

While writing the memo is an activity in its own right, in this case it is also a way for the students to acquire the knowledge necessary to participate in the simulation. They learn what information the memo should include because they have to put themselves in the shoes of the actors for whom the memo is written in the first place. In this way, the memo prepares students for the simulation, while the simulation provides an opportunity for them to reflect on the writing of the memo. And for the instructor, memos are quicker (and less boring) to mark than essays.

Using Hidden Brain to Teach Research Design

Today we have a guest post by Sarah Fisher, assistant professor at Emory & Henry College. She can be reached at sfisher[at]ehc[dot]edu.

For undergraduates, the research methods course is often the most dreaded component of the political science curriculum. Students’ fear of mathematics, gaps in content knowledge, and lack of software experience (I’ve had students who have never opened Microsoft Excel, much less heard of a statistical software package) present pedagogical challenges for an instructor. 

Florian Justwan and I recently published an article about teaching social science research methods, “Scaffolding Assignments and Activities for Undergraduate Research Methods,” in the Journal of Political Science Education. The article, available here, includes instructions on how to use an episode of 30 Rock to teach content analysis, how to teach similar systems design with presidential speeches, and other activities. Teaching materials described in the article are available on my website.

One resource the article references is NPR’s show Hidden Brain hosted by Shankar Vedantam, which illustrates social science research for a popular audience with topics like the behavior of baseball umpires in extra innings and ways that colleges try to prevent summer melt. I ask students to identify the theory, hypotheses, causal mechanisms, and findings contained in different episodes and then tie this activity to longer articles assigned as homework readings. The program allows me to expand my range of examples beyond political science, important given that many of the students in my course are in majors ranging from sociology to athletic training to mass communication. This kind of content shows students that the scientific method isn’t reserved for academia; it can be used in their daily lives to interpret the world around them.

The Benefits of Recycling

Today’s post is more about career development than teaching . . .

Academia is a bureaucratic work environment. Information is constantly documented and distributed. Often this happens to the same piece of information multiple times. Consequently I began recycling my writing as much as possible several years ago, in the belief that it is better to make minor changes, or none at all, to writing upon which I have already expended mental energy. An underlying principle here is writing with an ultimate rather than a proximal use in mind. What is the most valuable end to which this writing can be eventually directed? A simple example: the proposal for your conference presentation becomes the abstract for the conference paper, which in turn becomes the abstract for the manuscript submitted to a journal.

A second and, for some, more important example: the stream of email, editorial comments, draft committee proposals, and other written minutiae that one produces — it’s all work. Don’t let it disappear into the ether. Instead, use it for future contract renewal, tenure, or promotion.

I admit that I didn’t fully recognize the potential value of this writing until my wife — also an academic — compiled her application dossier for promotion to full professor. Watching her, I realized that, in the course of my day-to-day business as an associate professor and department chair, I had generated chains of emails and memos that constituted evidence of service and scholarship à la the Boyer model. I saw that this material, if organized coherently, could form much of my own application for promotion, in many cases verbatim. Continue reading

ISA Innovative Pedagogy Conference

Registration is now open for the first annual International Studies Association Innovative Pedagogy Conference (ISA-IPC), which will be held on Thursday, November 15, 2018, in St. Louis, MO, in conjunction with the ISA Midwest meeting. This new ISA initiative marks the beginning of a series of programs to be held in conjunction with regional conferences around the United States, and beyond. The one-day event will foster a highly interactive environment to explore new ideas in pedagogy and assessment—and offers rich opportunities for professional development, networking, and classroom skills. There will be three types of sessions at the ISA-IPC: workshops, graduate teaching assistant training, and plenary meetings.

  • Workshops will be directed by leading voices on pedagogy, assessment, and professional development. Participants will attend four workshops during the day, chosen from a rich menu, to share innovations and ideas about different themes in international studies pedagogy. Among the workshop themes for 2018 are: Simulations & Games for Teaching Violence and Peace; Publishing Your Innovative Teaching Work; Research Literacy; International Studies Curriculum Design; Faculty-Led Study Abroad Programs; and Global Service Learning. These interactive short sessions will provide hands-on experience and materials for ready application, along with opportunities for professional networking and sharing of ideas.
  • Graduate Teaching Assistant Training session offer a hands-on learning opportunities for advanced graduate students who are instructing their own classes at their universities. Training will focus on running effective active teaching exercises, dealing with challenging situations in the classroom, assessment, and turning teaching opportunities into professional success. A certificate of participation will be provided for all attendees.
  • Plenary sessions will focus on best practices in innovative teaching and promote opportunities for collaboration and exchange. From the opening session to an evening networking reception, participants will share ideas with like-minded colleagues. A keynote presentation by ISA President Patrick James will foster further dialogue on best practices in active teaching and learning.

Game Theory Resource

A brief note on a free resource:

While crawling through the Intertubes, I stumbled across a twenty year old webpage on game theory by Eric Roberts, emeritus professor of computer science at Stanford. The sub-directory pages contain short, simple discussions of different theoretical models, with helpful examples — such as Rousseau’s stag hunt and versions of Prisoner’s Dilemma. Of particular interest, at least to me, is the explanation of strategies of play — given that I almost always try to minimize the maximum possible loss.

Assessing Student Preparation

This is follow-up to a previous guest post by Joel Moore on the benefits of assessing students’ preparation for class discussion rather than their participation in it. Students are asked to rate themselves on the amount of assigned reading they have completed prior to class, and this forms the basis of their preparation grade.

He has created a web app that simplifies the process. The app is available at https://joeldmoore.com/apps/preparation/.

A video that discusses how to use the app is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQdK1FwycKw.

1st Mini-TLC at APSA and the Future of Conferences

In line with Simon’s last post, something of a continued meditation on conferences and academic disciplinary associations in the USA, relative to last weekend’s one-day TLC, which was embedded within the APSA annual meeting:

Bridge to nowhere

Conferences reflect perverse incentives that do not reflect the realities of the academic labor market. Only a small minority of people who obtain PhDs, regardless of field, end up working as tenured professors at elite research universities teaching one or two, or zero, courses per semester. Yet to have even a chance of being hired or tenured by any institution, regardless of its position in the reputational pecking order, one is supposed to present (at conferences) and publish (in journals) research. The research is almost always irrelevant to anyone outside the discipline and much of the time also irrelevant to those within it.

These norms allow academic conferences to prey financially on graduate students, who are led to believe that they must attend, to both present research and to interview. In an age of digital communication tools and decreasing numbers of tenure-track positions, neither search committees nor disciplinary associations should be encouraging graduate students to pay out of pocket to attend conferences, the costs of which can exceed $1,000 per event.

But therein lies the rub: the more people who register for and attend a conference, the more profitable the conference is to the disciplinary association that has organized it. Whether a conference enables graduate students, their advisers, or other faculty to become more effective at what most academics spend most of their time doing — teaching — is not a concern. To claim otherwise is to ignore the economics of the system.

Conference attendance by full-time faculty is subsidized by their employers in the form of professional development support. Yet the way in which most conferences are structured means that opportunities are lacking for enhancing the teaching skills used on a daily basis in the workplace. Given the declining fortunes of many colleges and universities in the USA, this subsidization is likely to decrease, and decrease substantially, at some point in the near future — or maybe it’s occurring already.

Comparing American Foreign Policy Simulations

Today we have a guest post by Charity Butcher, Associate Professor of Political Science at Kennesaw State University. She can be reached at cbutche2[at]kennesaw[dot]edu.

I am always looking for new simulations – particularly ones that are easy to use and require less preparation. For my American foreign policy course, I usually use my own simulation on Iran-US relations. However, the Council of Foreign Relations’ Model Diplomacy simulations, discussed by others here and here, was an opportunity to try something new.

My simulation presents a crisis in Iran-US relations involving nuclear weapons, state support for terrorism, and/or the rivalry between Iran and Israel. In the simulation, students engage deeply with a topic, engage with a large number of state actors, and must deal with the consequences of their decisions. My ability to introduce problems in real-time creates flexibility and makes the simulation more dynamic for the students. However, my simulation requires a lot of preparation, both for me and my students.

Model Diplomacy, on the other hand, offers professors a menu of topics to choose from, and many of the simulations can be completed in a single class period. The simulations come with outstanding background material, so there is little need for students or the instructor to do additional research. However, Model Diplomacy simulations do not move past a predetermined decision point and there are no consequences to participants’ actions. Students sometimes reach a decision very quickly, which might reduce what they learn from the simulation.

I decided to use both my simulation and Model Diplomacy in the last iteration of the foreign policy course, in an attempt to capitalize on the advantages of both. Two one-day Model Diplomacy simulations served as a starting point for a longer three-day simulation. For this longer simulation, students began with the Model Diplomacy Iran Deal Breach scenario, but were provided with additional stimuli during the simulation and were able to interact with other countries. The results were quite positive, and I will continue to use both the short Model Diplomacy simulations along with a longer more interactive simulation in the course.

Extensions to a Classroom Game on War and Peace in IR Theory

Today we have the second of two guest posts by Nathan Alexander Sears, a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto and previously a professor of international relations at the Universidad de Las Américas, Quito. He can be reached at n[dot]sears[at]mail[dot]utoronto[dot]ca.

The game that I described in my previous post can be modified to demonstrate additional theoretical concepts.

Relative Power: Changing the amount of resources each state possesses at the beginning of each round creates differences in their relative capabilities. For example, State A could begin with $10, State B with $7, and State C with $5. This change may lead to balancing and bandwagoning behavior, which is important in neorealism.

National Identities: The game can be played with actual country names, such as the United States (State A), the Soviet Union (State B), the People’s Republic of China (State C), Great Britain (State D), and France (State E). This opens up the possibility that students’ ideas about national identities or knowledge of history may influence behavior and outcomes, which is central to constructivism.

Democratic/Authoritarian States: The game can include democratic and authoritarian structures for internal decision-making. For example, one team might be required to make decisions by majority vote, while another group may have a single individual who makes such decisions with the other students acting as advisors. Regime and institution type is important in liberalism, especially in democratic peace theory. Continue reading

Cultural and Historic Preservation Conference

Another announcement about an upcoming conference — in case anyone wants to enjoy southern New England autumn weather:

Registration is open for the annual conference of the Noreen Stonor Drexel Cultural and Historic Preservation program at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, October 12-13, 2018. The theme of this year’s conference is “Community Preservation through Adaptive Reuse.”

Full details on the conference and how to register are at this link.