Teaching Political Development with Imaginary Travel

Today we have the first of two more guest contributions by Gigi Gokcek of the Dominican University of California.

credit: Chad Raymond

Political development courses are inherently interdisciplinary, drawing upon economics, history, anthropology, sociology, geography, and political science. For students, however, this is a course about the politics of less-developed countries. I first taught this subject in a traditional way: readings on theory, methods, and cases about the Global South, with exams and a final research paper. This approach left me unsatisfied, despite positive teaching evaluations from students. I wanted to deliver a more animated, meaningful experience, the kind that comes from actually traveling to the places being studied. I also felt it was important that students understand the usefulness of creativity, discovery, and expression across a variety of disciplines. How could I do this without turning the course into a study abroad program that would exclude students who couldn’t afford the extra cost?

Albert Einstein once said that, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” I wondered if a thorough re-imagining of this course might allow it to better engage students in the analysis of development problems in the Global South. I redesigned the course as if I were the CEO of an international consulting firm, with students as employees who were regional and disciplinary experts on development issues. Working in pairs, their task for the semester was to investigate a specific development challenge in a country of their choice and offer a viable solution to the challenge to the country’s government. As the CEO, I required that each group present an oral and written report on their project. A pair of students even came up with a name for this imaginary firm: Gokcek Global Consulting.

Student projects included access to clean water, providing high quality public education in rural areas, safe travel through roads for children in gang-infested areas, and local policing of terrorism. Coincidentally all regions of the Global South (Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Asia) were represented, even though this was not something I set out to achieve. Students selected countries or topics based on their own familiarity or curiosity. In most cases students already had traveled to or studied the selected country. Students learned about the multiplicity of factors that need to be considered when addressing a development problem, and the need to take a holistic approach to the study of any country. In short, without getting on a plane, students gained an appreciation and empathy for people living in the Global South.

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

Teaching Trump 4: the view from outside

After all the great suggestions from colleagues (here, here and here), I thought I’d chip in with some ideas from outside, given that this Trump thing seems to be global in impact.

In particular, I’d point you towards the endless memes and gifs out there, the new President being a gift for such vehicles. Just trawl your Facebook or Twitter feed, or simply google it, for more material than you could ever want for. I’d then point you to Jack Holland’s post here for ideas on how to then use these in the classroom.

Personally, I’m interested in how Trump plays into European politics. One ‘resource’ that I’ve found really interesting is the Every Second Counts site.

This started with a Dutch late-night chatshow picking up on Trump’s inauguration statement of ‘America first’, by putting together a package about why that should also mean ‘the Netherlands second‘. Having duly gone viral, equivalent packages have been made by other European countries and are collecting on the main site: personally, I like the Swiss one.

As well as being entertaining, they also contain pointed critiques of both American and domestic politics: watch one as a non-resident of either the US or the other state and you’ll find that you’ve been left behind at several points.

However, as stepping-off points for class discussion about political identities, self-images and othering (and gender, for that matter), these are great. Indeed, if you felt bold then you’d ask students to make their own version.

The Lithuanians don’t even aim for second…

Links to the full Teaching Trump series:

A final Brexit sim reflection

In our last post on this, Matthew LeRiche (Memorial) talks about his takeaways from our Brexit game held before Christmas.


With the semester now over and course commentary and review in progress it is clear that the Brexit simulation lead by Simon Usherwood in conjunction with Chris Huggins was one of the highlights for my undergraduate students. This past semester the Political Science Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN for short) was able to run its Public Policy Certificate program based at our UK based Harlow Campus – a gift from Lord Taylor many moons ago and a great platform to link our North American students to Europe and the world.

Although tardy in my contribution to the de-brief from the exercise, the following is a reflection on the exercise from my perspective and that of my students. The multi-layered nature of this simulation afforded great opportunity for learning. In particular, it afforded different learning to take place for the different groups involved, since the various groups of students involved from different institutions were undertaking quite different courses. For the MUN group, the key challenge and thus most important learning opportunity was the need to reconcile internally and manage the process of balancing several internal interests to then engage in a single front in a negotiation. For a group of public policy students this afforded an opportunity to think more deeply about the public policy process. Continue reading

The Change All Around, Part 1

The spring semester is about to begin, and as usual I have changed what I will be doing and how I will be doing it. I thought it might be interesting for the dear readers of this blog to learn about some of the factors that will affect my teaching over the next few months. But just to be contrarian, I’ll start in reverse chronological order:

I’ve decided to use Michelle’s technique of placing simulations at the end of the semester when both students and I will be approaching burnout mode. I have done a complete redesign of my comparative politics course, dropping the themes in favor of more traditionally-presented content like the diverse institutional arrangements of democracies. In an attempt to get at this topic, I have resurrected my Gerkhania simulation, but have tweaked it to give it more structure. First, I will assign students roles that have different ethnically-oriented, two-sentence backstories. The class will then convene as the Gerkhanian Commission for National Reconciliation, which has the following tasks: Continue reading

Another Brexit sim roundup

This is as guest post from Christopher Huggins (Keele):

Over the course of this semester my students at Keele have been taking part in a Brexit negation simulation alongside students from the University of Surrey and Memorial University in Canada. Simon has been posting regular updates about it, but, given the three groups of students came at this from different perspectives, I wanted to offer my own take.

Why do it?

My students all study a third year module titled ‘Debating the Future of the European Union’. This module gets the students to examine some of the main issues which feature in the wider debate about what the future holds for the European Union. This includes the Eurozone crisis, the EU’s international role, and, of course, Brexit.

As Simon has already noted, the challenge with teaching Brexit is that it is hideously complex. It’s also a ‘live’ contemporary political event – it’s happening while the students study it. This makes using traditional teaching tools difficult. There’s no textbook for the students to use a reference and academic literature is only stating to emerge. While there is a constant stream of information from the media, think tanks and the, it can be difficult to make sense of the barrage of information. Given the students are based in a British university and are largely digesting British media, the information they’re being exposed to is heavily UK-centric.

All of this made Simon’s open invitation to participate in the simulation an offer too good to refuse. It was directly relevant to my students’ studies. It was a way for them to actively engage with the complexities of a political event unfolding around them. It would help them to focus their attention on a specific aspect of Brexit (the process of negotiation), while also encouraging them to look beyond a narrow UK perspective.

The successes

There were two main motivations for getting involved. Firstly to expose students to the inherent complexity involved in negotiating Brexit. Secondly to get them to recognize that the UK is not the only party in this negotiation.

In this respect the simulation was a success. Talking to my students afterwards, many commented how it encouraged them to find out to the positions of other EU member states, and they all seemed to come away with an appreciation that the internal politics of the other EU member states would play a significant role in shaping their positions and, therefore, the outcome of the negotiations. Some were even brave enough to admit they probably wouldn’t have bothered to consider this had the simulation not prompted them to.

There were other learning points too. For example we decided on sending a delegation of six of my students (rather than all 22) to the live negotiation. This was mainly for financial reasons, but it also had the advantage of reinforcing the multi-level nature of EU negotiations. Groups would first have to develop their own position based on internal political preferences, before bringing that to the wider negotiation. Sending delegates to act as ‘ambassadors’ also mirrored how some EU negotiations work in real life. During the simulation the Netherlands group agreed one of their ‘red lines’ would be any restrictions on freedom of movement. And yet in the excitement of the final vote the lone Netherlands delegate voted to give the UK single market access/membership and emergency brake on freedom of movement without sanction, going against their national position. This promoted some nice discussions with the students about the desire for consensus in EU decision making, the presence of an ‘esprit de corps’ between EU negotiators and the potential role of socialization dynamics.

It was also great to get the students interacting outside their normal cohort. Universities not only foster students’ learning, but also develop their wider cultural awareness and communication and interpersonal skills. So it was great to see students across all three groups build a good rapport, talk to each other over the length of the semester, and socialize.

The challenges

Simon has already spoken of the ‘on the fly’ approach we adopted for this. It all worked out in the end, but there were moments of miscommunication and misunderstanding. There was also the added complication of distance for us. To make the most of it we needed students to travel down to Surrey and take part in the live negotiation. As mentioned we sent down a delegation of six, with the school covering travel and accommodation costs. The amount of money required was relatively modest and I had the full support of my head of school, but we still had to go through an internal process of gaining approval, checking there was enough money in the school budget and then, as this was an officially university sanctioned trip, making all the arrangements through the university’s approved travel agents. All of this really highlights the importance of thinking through the practicalities of organizing these sorts of simulations.

The other main challenge was trying to maintain student involvement over a semester long simulation. Simon noted we basically left the students to it and this inevitably meant some disengaged. As Simon suggested in his post more structure might have helped here. Because we joined the simulation relatively late on (in part due to the lengthy approval process described above), it was effectively an informal add-on to the module. With extra planning it could have been more rigorously incorporated into the teaching programme.

Another issue was that not all the students felt fully invested in the simulation. To begin with all were involved in the initial discussions in their country-specific groups. However only six were going to Surrey for the live negotiation, and maintaining the involvement of those who weren’t coming, especially in the latter stages (when assessment deadlines also started to hit), proved difficult.

These issues aside, engaging the students in the simulation was worth it.  They came away with a greater appreciation with the complexities of Brexit and the position of the other EU member states. On a more personal level it’s taught me more about simulations, both the benefits of collaborating with colleagues and students from other institutions, but also the need to better prepare and address the practicalities.

Would you wiki?

Did you know…? Oh, you did?

It seems that Brexit has not sorted itself out over the Christmas break, so I’m still deep in people asking me to give my views (despite last week’s hopes). But I’m going to try to build some synergies with my L&T by using some new approaches to it all.

This week, I’m trying to get back into wikis. As you doubtless know – not least from your TurnItIn reports – wikis are webpages that can be edited and refreshed by multiple people. They are a good way of getting near-simultaneous input into building a collective output, coupled to clear tracking of who’s done what and when. As wikipedia regularly demonstrates, the results can be very impressive. We’ve used them before for our students, but never with a public audience. Continue reading