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.

First Impressions

Having wrapped up the first month of another fall semester, here are some reflections on this year’s incoming undergraduates as compared to those from previous years — based on a completely unscientific sample composed of the forty-four 17-18 year olds whom I’m teaching in two sections of a first-year seminar.

  1. Ignorance of basic technical processes continues to increase. This ranges from not understanding that electronic files have different formats to being unable to upload to a server any file, regardless of type. Or, in some cases, students recognizing the need to click on a “submit” button, but then not verifying that what they submitted was what they actually wanted to submit. (Resulting in a grade of zero each and every time.)
  2. When confronted by these technical challenges, students are more likely to react with learned helplessness, making my standard response of “figure it out”  even less endearing than it was previously. (Student evaluations for these seminars average a full point lower on a five-point scale than for other courses.)
  3. The immediate post-high school attitude that learning is a pro forma exercise in “tell me what I need to know” is just as common, if not more so, than it has been in the past. Few of the students start college exhibiting genuine curiosity about a world that is external to themselves.
  4. Male students demonstrate learned helplessness and lack of curiosity much more frequently than female students. It seems we are raising a generation of men who are at risk of living life as unskilled, low-paid, socially-maladjusted drones.
  5. Undergraduates are getting poorer,  more ethnically diverse, and less well-prepared. Although they perceive a college education as the ticket to a middle class existence, they have less understanding of what they have to do to obtain this ticket, and they are more frequently entering college with characteristics that make this objective much harder to achieve. For example, the more hours they expend on financially-necessary part-time employment, the less time and energy they have available for developing the habits and skills that would allow them to overcome pre-existing academic deficits. From the supply side of the equation, these students require greater amounts of financial aid and support services, making them more expensive to educate.
  6. Compensating for all of the negatives listed above is the fact that I am rarely faced with the sense of entitlement that can develop among the wealthiest and best-prepared students. They go to places like Harvard instead.

Content Conundrums

Earlier this semester, our excellent library staff released results from a survey on students’ perceptions of textbook costs. Some of the findings:
  • 79 percent said they had not purchased a required textbook because of cost.
  • 19 percent said textbook costs had caused them to take fewer courses.
  • 84 percent thought that free, open-access textbooks benefit them academically, with 66 percent saying that they are “very helpful.”

I’ve mentioned this before: as a first-generation college student from a lower-middle class background, I am sensitive to the costs of college for today’s students. And I avoid assigning reading material that is terribly written because I emphasize the importance of good writing to my students. The vast majority of commercially-available textbooks — at least for the subjects that I teach — fail on both cost and writing quality. And though Open Educational Resources (OERs) are free, they can still be junk stylistically.

Sometimes I assign trade or mass market paperbacks. They are much less expensive than textbooks, and they do better at embedding concepts in a narrative context, which makes information easier for students to understand and remember. But their perspective can be very narrow, leading to rapid obsolescence, especially journalists’ book-length treatments of their field reportage.

Chopping paperbacks into assignment-sized sections can also be difficult. Contrast Evicted by Matthew Desmond with Poor Economics by Abhijit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo. The former is a brilliant 400+ page ethnography with a complex cast of characters, while the latter gives a concise chapter-by-chapter illustration of different principles in development economics. While I regard both books as extremely worthy, Evicted is just harder for me to use.

Often digital content allows me to bypass these problems, but I typically curate it myself. To avoid Error 404 Not Found and paywalls, I began clipping webpages with Evernote. Each course got its own Evernote folder. I would put the link to the appropriate folder in my syllabus. Recently though I’ve been noticing increased use of formatting and multimedia that Evernote — or at least the free version of it — doesn’t capture.

So I’m returning to my past practice of just embedding URLs in my syllabi. The majority of my digital content comes from publications like The New York Times, which has been around since 1851. It isn’t going to suddenly disappear. Plus the web archive is searchable, articles can be located without a specific URL. In effect the Times and publications like it have become digital repositories without third-party gatekeepers. And for students, a unlimited access subscription is far less expensive than a textbook.

The last option that deserves mention is a digitally-native web text, like the what’s offered by our friends at Soomo. Here the idea is a core text enhanced by additional readings, video, and interactive features. Curation duties are handled mainly by the publisher instead of the instructor, but content aggregation remains highly customizable. Production costs are lower, so students save money over traditional textbooks. Many instructors don’t have the inclination to create or collect all the content they need, and in this instance a web text is now often a better option than a traditional textbook.

Environment & Society – Call for Abstracts

Credit: Chad Raymond

Environment & Society has issued a call for abstracts on mega-projects:

Small is no longer beautiful. Small is out-dated, old-fashioned, inefficient and ugly. The future now consists of an ambitious series of massive plans and schemes for new infrastructure projects, beltways, roadways, railways, investment corridors, disaster-proofed cities and countries, carbon capture and storage, reforestation, wall building, migration fostering, terra-formation, space exploration, global sports events and so much more. The proponents of mega-projects resurrect modernist dreams of yesteryear, yet they offer utopian visions of an uncharted future. Although many of these mega-projects are still being planned or are in nascent stages, it is clear they have the potential to transform everyday life for many people and as a result they are likely to provoke resistance.

In this issue of Environment & Society we invite any papers which explore different aspects of mega-projects. This could include their environmental or social consequences, politics surrounding their planning and/or realization, and the visions and/or assumptions that animate them. It could entail exploring the organized collective opposition to these schemes, such as protest events, campaigns and social movements, or subtle acts of refusal. It could also examine the futures that mega-projects promise, their consequences and the alternative futures they foreclose. It could focus on highly visible lumpy schemes that are territorialized and driven by governments. Alternatively it could examine massive and far-reaching systemic changes in technology or social trends that reshape how large groups of people think or behave but which arise from consumer choice, political action and private entrepreneurship as well as state guidance. Continue reading

Making Games As Teaching Tools

Today we have a guest post by Dr. Andrew Biro, Head of the Department of Politics, Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at andrew [dot] biro [at] acadiau [dot] ca.

Chad Raymond recently wrote a couple of posts (herehere, and here) about having students create board games based on course content. I did something similar in my Politics of Water class last fall, as a capstone exercise in the last couple of weeks of the course. It was a fun way to end the course, and by inviting high school students to play the games, it gave my students the sense that they really could use games to engage in a teaching exercise.

Students worked in groups of 4-6 to design a board game that incorporated some “lesson” from the course. The course is rather eclectic. Topics include geopolitical conflicts over water, municipal water privatization, engineering mega-projects (big dams), and gendered access to water in the household. This gave students lots of choices, and they produced eight fairly diverse games. Continue reading

The Uniformity Imperative

What is truly distinctive about the undergraduate educational experience at different U.S. universities? Not much. Typically the undergraduate curriculum is built around two bundles of courses. First, there is the set of general education requirements, derived from either a “canon” or “distribution” approach: take either the same American History 101 course that all other students on campus take, or, at other schools, choose from a short list of designated history courses.

Either system is usually a teleological fail because of a lack of evidence that general education requirements lead to the outcomes that only they can supposedly generate.  A simpler explanation for their existence is that they force students to attend college for a longer period of time than they otherwise would, allowing institutions to capture greater amounts of tuition revenue. So although what happens in American History 101 at one institution is the same as what happens at another, every university teaches it in order to fill classrooms. And woe to the student who wants to transfer credits for that course from one school to another.

Much the same can be said for the other portion of the curriculum, the major. In fact, many disciplines have achieved some amount of consensus on what should be included in a standard undergraduate program of study. So we see thousands of political science majors on hundreds of campuses across the country enrolled in American Government 101 courses that are quite similar in content and instruction — a very costly means of delivery in the age of the internet.

What about the outside-the-classroom environment? Aren’t universities trying to sell themselves as the place to go for a unique campus experience? Not really. Homogeneity is preferred. MIT, for example, has $20 billion in assets and an internationally-recognized brand. It would seem to be in a secure enough position to offer a “student life” experience that is substantially different from what can be found at other schools. Yet, as this article points out, MIT and other elite universities are sanitizing themselves into generic spaces that the lowest common denominator of student, and parent, finds acceptable.

At the other end of the institutional spectrum — colleges and universities that are far less prestigious and much more financially vulnerable — the same process is at work. These schools have decided that they need to present themselves as psychologically non-threatening and intellectually unchallenging, because of the belief that they otherwise won’t get the tuition revenue they need to survive.