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:

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