From Frying Pan To Fire?

A brief meditation on teaching in the era of Trump. From a comparative perspective. In more ways than one.

As someone whose income is in the world’s top one percent, I have the luxury of partaking in long-distance travel on a purely voluntary basis. Soon I’ll be vacationing outside the USA, a country where corrupt, narcissistic xenophobes are doing their best to undermine the rule of law, with the full approval of their supporters. My destination? A country where corrupt, narcissistic xenophobes are doing their best to undermine the rule of law, with the full approval of their supporters.

So yes, I see parallels, despite the geographic and cultural differences. The tribalistic nationalism. The sexism. The religious justifications. The cronyism. Most of all, the constant attempts to de-legitimize the very institutions that originally put these people into positions of power.

I know that I’m a bit more sensitive to the symbiotic relationship between popular prejudices and abusive government than many people, in part because my wife, as a Muslim and an immigrant, is classified as both a terrorist and a rapist in Trumpspeak. But history demonstrates that those who engage in idol worship and willful ignorance as a means to an end rarely see their expectations met.

And here is the connection to my teaching: the basic principle that I try to convey to students is that one benefits by comparing, as open-mindedly as possible, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Curiosity-driven analysis leads to unexpected insights, sounder judgments, and more satisfying outcomes in life. And it is quite acceptable to make mistakes along the way as long as one takes the time to try to figure out why things went wrong.

Unfortunately I am seeing an increasing resistance to this message among U.S. undergraduates. Far too many expect to be intellectually and morally validated solely on the basis of personal opinion. Far too few exhibit a willingness to consider the possibility that perspectives which differ from their own might have merit. If some students perceive my teaching as a threat to the comfortable psychological environment that they have constructed for themselves, I get labeled authoritarian, racist, sexist, or otherwise unprofessional — revenge for being told that their academic performance is not of the quality that they believe it to be. Who am I to tell them that they are not perfect?

This probably makes me sound like a disgruntled, insufferable elitist. But I wonder if we folks in the USA are in the midst of a disaster of our own making. Unstructured and unsupervised play during childhood has become the exception rather than the rule. Reality TV, online personae, and the War on Terror have been background noise for as long as today’s teenagers have been alive. Anxiety and depression are epidemic on college campuses. And now government by distortion, outrage, and caprice has been normalized. It’s probably only natural that many undergraduates think everyone has the right to their own immutable set of alternative facts.

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.

 

Snippets from Comparative Politics

Some end-of-the-semester thoughts on my comparative politics course, in relation to a post from the beginning of the semester and to Simon’s post last week about a framework for active learning.

First, the simple stuff:

Running this course with only ten students at 8:00 a.m. is problematic, for reasons I have mentioned before. Lack of students definitely decreases the level of activity in my Gerkhania simulation. Attendance has picked up but is still only eighty or ninety percent, so in the future I really need to give pop quizzes — in paper, rather than electronic, form — on a semi-frequent basis.

I have noticed a problem with the reading responses. For these assignments, I usually pair an article from an academic journal — often the Journal of Democracy — with shorter and more current items from news outlets like The Atlantic, Politico, and The New York Times. Some students developed the habit of reading only the latter and ignoring the former. I need to force students to read the journal articles, but haven’t quite figured out the best way of doing this.

Now for the complex stuff: Continue reading

#MeToo in the Ivoriest of Towers

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published an extensive account of the sexual harassment of Terry Lynn Karl by Jorge Dominguez at Harvard in the 1980s. Dominguez was sanctioned by the university after Karl filed an EEOC complaint, but Karl decided that Harvard’s response was inadequate and she left. The Chronicle article quotes her as saying, “I knew he was going to keep doing it,” and sure enough, the article contains allegations from several other women about incidents that occurred over a span of decades.

I have shared this story with students who are in my comparative politics course this semester. Why? First, they have already read some of Karl’s work. I hope that learning more about her career will help them better appreciate the quality of her scholarship and her contributions to the field of comparative politics. Second, and more importantly, I hope that the information will demonstrate that, even within the most hallowed institutions, the personal is political. Karl spoke truth to power and suffered the consequences, but in the end she has probably helped make higher education in the USA a better place for women.

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

Updating Comparative Politics, Part 2

In my search for a new book to use in my comparative politics course, I sort of stumbled across Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America by Jeffery M. Paige (Harvard University Press, 1997). I say “sort of” because Paige, a sociologist by training, was a prominent scholar of agrarian revolution and development in the 1980s and 1990s — a name I had encountered as a doctoral student.

Search results for his publications turned up Coffee and Power, so I pulled it from the library. The book meets many of my criteria for being worthy of inclusion in my course. It is a multi-country study set in Central America that goes beyond the traditional white male Britain-France-Germany presentation of comparative democratization. The writing is academic but not too heavy with pointless jargon. And it serves as a good example of how to do research in the field.

The problem, as with the book I’m trying to replace, is that Coffee and Power, being than two decades old, is now very much a historical analysis. I don’t think a 400-page work that discusses events from the 1930s through the 1980s will succeed in getting undergraduates here interested in additional study in comparative politics. But I did figure out a way to use the book for what I think would be a good assignment, shown below.

Read Jeffery M. Paige, Coffee and Power, p. 53-84. Do a qualitative comparative analysis of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Classify each country as “high” or “low” for the following independent variables related to the coffee industry:

  • concentration of land ownership (average area of farm per number of farms)
  • farm productivity (amount grown per land area)
  • farm productivity (average yield)
  • technological sophistication (use of high-yield varieties or fertilizer)

Based on your findings, what can you conclude about the economic class structure and the likelihood of democracy in each country?

Updating Comparative Politics, Part 1

The good old days.

Last semester I was finally somewhat satisfied with the way I had organized my comparative politics course, after much failed experimentation (described, for example, here, here, and here). However, I would like to replace one of the books, Around the Bloc by Stephanie Elizondo Griest. Around the Bloc is a good fit for my course for a number of reasons. First, the author is Tejana, and I like students to read authors with different cultural backgrounds. Second, the book recounts Ms. Griest’s experiences in Russia, China, and Cuba, which automatically serve as fodder for comparison. Third, students learn about someone who at their age ventured forth into unfamiliar environments and came back better for it. Fourth, the book is stylistically well-written. The problem? Griest’s adventures took place twenty years ago, and they are described across 400+ pages. While I think students need to have some grasp of history to understand contemporary politics, I prefer that a book of that size include more recent events.

I would love to hear suggestions about possible replacements for Around the Bloc.

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: