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.

Ethnography of Consumption – A Twist

Buying is believing

The spring semester is ending here, and as usual everyone is dragging themselves across the finish line. There is not much left for students to do in my globalization course, but — given the structure of the U.S. higher education system — we still have to meet in the classroom. So, in search of something to fill time, I created an activity based on the last paragraph in my response to Leanne’s scavenger hunt exercise.

I collected some random products from home, all branded: running shoes (Saucony), cell phone charger cord (Samsung), bag of lentils (Jack Rabbit), hand towel (Cannon), and a tote bag to transport everything (London Review of Books). In class I laid all these items on a table and lied about getting them from a friend. I then told students to examine everything and write an answer to “What story is the owner of these things trying to tell others about the kind of person he or she is?” Students had already completed ethnographies of consumption, so they had some understanding of the connection between identity construction and consumption choices.

After five minutes, I grouped students into teams to create presentations, which they delivered during the second half of class. I got to listen to them unknowingly analyze my self-image as practical, value-oriented, and health conscious. (I would have been just as happy with other adjectives.) Once the last team had presented, I revealed that the items were my own by plugging my cell phone into the wall socket with the charger cord.

As a last minute invention, this activity worked fairly well. Students got to practice collaborating, communicating to an audience, and applying concepts. And all I had to do was bring a tote bag to class.

A Place For My Stuff

Here is a quick report on using Leanne’s international trade scavenger hunt and a related exercise:

I awarded five points to any student who found an item from all five regions and five points for each unique item; all other rules were the same. In a class of thirteen students, nine posted photos to the online discussion. Points earned ranged from zero to twenty-five, for a course with a grading scale of 1,500 points. One student said he was unable to upload his photos; my response was “not my problem.”

As Leanne experienced, my class found very few items from sub-Saharan Africa. Two students took photos of clothing made in Mauritius, which really isn’t part of Africa, but I counted it as such anyway. When I asked what the scavenger hunt revealed about trade flows, they were for the most part clueless, and it took a lot of prodding on my part to get them to see the possible implications of the scavenger hunt’s results.

I found this a bit disappointing because the class had engaged in a similar exercise the week before, in which teams of students tried to identify the country of origin for every item they had with them in the classroom. After about ten minutes of students searching for labels, I compiled a digest of what they had discovered by writing on the board categories of items — such as “clothing” — and the countries from which the items originated. The purpose of the exercise, which I communicated to students after some discussion, was to demonstrate that everyone in the room was a participant in globalization, whether they were conscious of it or not.

Where Did Your Stuff Come From?

Most American students are challenged to understand the extent to which international trade affects their lives, and the way that the US trades with the world. I can (and have) shown statistics about trade and economics in very graphic and immediate form, but numbers in the scale of trillions are hard to conceptualize.

To combat that, I asked students in an introductory international politics class to go on a scavenger hunt. They were tasked to find one item from each of 5 world regions – Europe, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East & North Africa, and Asia & the Pacific. They had to take a picture of the ‘made in’ indicator (and part of their student ID, to ensure that they didn’t just go grabbing stock photography or Instagram stuff) and post it to the class learning management system’s discussion board. To sweeten the pot, I offered 2 bonus points for unique entries, where no one else posted something from that country. Specialty foods and beverages were excluded (no taking a picture of a bottle of Stella for Belgium).

Students went crazy hunting for stuff. The two bonus points were apparently a huge incentive, with students finding and posting additional items when someone else duplicated “their” country.

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Conceptual Understanding Through Experiments

Today we have a guest post from Jonathan Rauh, a doctoral student in political science at East Carolina University. 

atomic-experimentActive engagement of the student is a key facet of experiential learning. In-class debate is one classic means of generating engagement, but it can favor students who are more extroverted. In-class debate also tends to be relatively light on the application of concepts but heavy on critical reflection. As an alternative, I have used in-class experiments derived from economics to teach how policy preferences are realized (or not) as a result of different voting systems.

In these experiments, I begin with a discussion in which I ask students about their own policy positions on issues like gun control, abortion, tax policy, school vouchers, universal healthcare, and the death penalty. This allows for discussion of political representation in different forms of government, which then leads into experiments where students are assigned a set of preferences ranging from, for example, far right to far left, and are subjected to a set of voting rules. This type of environment makes it easy to illustrate differences between voting systems, such as first-past-the-post and rank order preference.

If one has taken a course in experimental economics then one knows it is fairly common to have small monetary payoffs—for example, $10. These real monetary consequences lead students to quickly identify which voting strategies will best increase their chances of winning in the experiment.

I have found that the applied nature of the experiments provides a way for students to engage with theories that would otherwise just be abstract discussion points. Students whose personalities make them less inclined to debate are more engaged because their votes do not require explicit public statements. They are able to understand that one strategy is preferable to another and make adjustments in each round of voting without being singled out. Students who participate in my voting games show better test scores at the end of the year and, according to colleagues, have a good understanding of policy preferences and the complex interactions between competing political parties.

For a full discussion of implementing an in-class voting experiment see:

Rauh, Jonathan. 2014. “In-Class Experiments as an Accompaniment to In-Class Discussion.” Journal of Political Science Education 10(4): 453-470.

For a full discussion of experimental economics games that can be applied in your class to teach about topics ranging from preference recognition to lobbying to voting, see Charles Holt’s VeconLab at the University of Virginia: http://veconlab.econ.virginia.edu/admin.htm.

An Excel-lent Simulation

Steven JacksonToday we have a guest post from Steven Jackson, professor of political science at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He can be contacted at sjackson[at]iup[dot]edu.

It’s there on your computer: Microsoft Excel.  Maybe you use it to calculate grades.  Maybe you use it for charts in your PowerPoints.  Maybe you just ignore it.  But have you ever thought of teaching with it?

Excel can be used in instruction in a number of ways, from a simple interactive graphing tool, to a random number generator that is much more flexible than dice, to a sophisticated engine for designing interactive simulations.

For my introductory World Politics course, I designed an Excel-based role-play simulation in which students act as a U.S. trade representative in the late 1980s. Players must satisfy different parties involved in a trade negotiation: the U.S. President who wants a minimal number of trade agreements; the protectionist “Senator Maddux” who opposes too many concessions, and the Japanese, who want their own issues favorably resolved, all within a fairly short time period.  Failure to meet all four criteria results in the user getting “fired.” Each of the twenty possible issues in the simulation is based upon an actual dispute between the U.S. and Japan. Continue reading