TLC 2014

The 2014 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference starts tomorrow in Philadelphia.  The ALPS team (all of us except Susherwood) willTLC Logo

be on the Simulation and Role Play II: Assessment and Methodology Track.  Stop by and say hello–we love to hear from our readers, and we are always looking for new contributors if you would like to join the ALPS team.


Zombie Apocalypse…. survival guide or excuse for defection behavior?


Tonight I get to ask Max Brooks about the implications of seeing the world through a zombie apocalypse. Tune in! 

A standard of IR theorizing is the notion of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. A zero-sum game in which you can either rat out your partner to avoid heavy costs in exchange for lighter costs, or you can both cooperate and stay silent for a payout to both parties.

This is often referred to as the PD, the Hobbesian world of all against all. It is a survivalist ethic where the suboptimal outcome is better than being caught with the sucker payoff. The scholars on this post frequently create games that reveal this outcome. See Simon Usherwood’s Post

The potential costs of this thinking are often hidden when thinking about a zombie apocalypse. Apocalypse preparedness is about ensuring that you are ready when global infrastructures fail. The Centers for Disease Control actually have a site dedicated to zombie disaster preparedness. However, zombie preparedness it is also strongly linked to survivalist behavior which can then be linked back to the PD and defecting rather than cooperating.

When we use this metaphor of zombies to think about 21st century security issues and global threats is this helpful or harmful? Does the fear engendered in imagining a Hobbesian state of nature accidentally give us excuses to behave poorly…. and if so, is a zombie apocalypse the wrong analogy for thinking about disaster? I previously considered this as a potential critical teaching assignment

BUT….If you would like, tune in tonight at 7:30 on Al Jazeera America’s The Stream….as I ask World War Z author Max Brooks himself what he thinks the limitations might be?

Max Brooks: From disaster fiction to real life preparedness

Gender’s Purpose: Marketing as Political Texts

If you’re struggling for something fun on a day that you’ve set aside to do critiques of power, try these two bits of jaw-dropping oogle-fests.

Eastern Airlines

Artifacts like these thrown into a pool of students are as brilliantly accessible as they are fascinating. The first is a poster from Eastern Airlines. This is an advertisement that was accompanied by a whole series of commercials in which young beauties paraded across the screen declaring their flight routes and finishing with the words “Fly me.”

Have your students read the text on the poster. The artifact in play clearly posits a role for women as object and tacitly suggests who the passengers on the flight should be. The language is open and reasonably clear that students should be able to unpack the assumptions and roles that are in the piece. Now that we have them sufficiently irked…


The second artifact is clearly a war propaganda piece. This is Howard Chandler Christy’s work from WWI. For students in their first years of thinking critically, this appears as a poster that puts women in the weak position. But the text here is more complex. Just as in the first artifact, the roles and audience can be unpacked reasonably easily…. but there is now a new layer of manipulation. Gender isn’t simply encouraging male behavior…. it is, in fact, harmful to both genders by emasculation.

Artifacts like this force the students to recognize gender, and social construction as powerful and real components to theories of politics. And they’re just plain fun.


Jedi Mind Tricks & Revealing the Wizard

There are two very good reasons for instructors to explain their pedagogical choices to students starting at day 1 and repeating consistently throughout the course: Evaluations and Intellectual Development.


“These are NOT the droids you are looking for”

Control for the outcomes you want to see reflected. For your purpose you can try: “These writing assignments are meant to expand your ability to do research.” “I am working to develop your intellectual depth by reading closely” “This course is ORGANIZED and CHALLENGING, but rewarding.” or “The important part is your voice not mine, in shaping your development this semester.”

The point is, consistently priming and reminding students of the methods behind your madness makes them less likely to beat you with it later when they evaluate you. You might even find them saying things like…. “the course is challenging but rewarding.”

Manipulation of expectation and perception, however, is NOT, of course, the most important component.


“Looking behind the curtain to see the wizard.”

Whether the students understand it or not, there is a reason behind the structure and chronology of your course. For the vast majority of syllabi it reflects the development of the discipline and its families of thought. As scholars we know that knowledge development of scholarly literature is not linear, nor is it comprehensive. Furthermore, the labels we create for things are not REAL. Realism, Institutionalism, Constructivism, Feminism are families of perspective. (the link being an example of the unfortunate reification of these labels) They are not, in themselves REAL things. Allowing our students to believe that is deeply problematic.

Talking about the development of the field reduces reification of labels and helps students understand that inquiry is a conversation, among people, on paper….it does not represent permanent and inherently true knowledge….

I know of two ways to pull back the curtain:

1. Through their own intuition. Put them through scenarios that reveal the logics that we attribute to particular writers. Prisoner’s dilemma behaviors are recognizable even if you don’t know the PD. Victor Asal does a wonderful job of this in his Hobbes game.

2. Explain it to them in narrative form.  Scholarship to undergraduates always has a capital “S” on it. Break it down and explain it in a plain-mouthed manner. “We can’t seem to figure out why it is we can’t stop fighting. Why do we fight?” (wait for an answer) “distrust of others….that is one answer, you know who thought that was Hobbes.”

TELLING THEM exactly WHY I’m doing something often means explaining how IR theory developed over time. Show that to them…and it will deepen their understanding of scholarship and demystify the nature of “knowledge creation.” It also makes scholarship inclusive rather than infantalizing by assuming they are smart enough to take part in the dialogue.

At a minimum, revealing the pedagogical purpose behind a reading, activity, or article makes the swallowing of a bitter pill more pleasant and helps students understand more about the nature of their own intellectual development.

Methamphetamine in my Pedagogy: Breaking Bad and International Relations

There’s nothing quite like a quick-start to helping our students wrap their minds around perspectives in IR. This tip comes to me by way of Soomo Publishing (educational dynamos who have their heads on a swivel looking for new ways to connect with our students…and music video rock stars). So… Thanks Z!

This link will take you to a series of slides assembled by Dr. Peter LaVenia.


Mental exercises like this are great fun for instructors and students alike. You take the multiple perspectives of the literature and hunt for them in contemporary culture. The classroom applications are multiple. I like to provide students with a common pop text and then ask them to look for the similarities and differences between the thought patterns of IR theorists and the pop reference.

BUT!!!!!   My favorite application of these kinds of exercises is to make students write exam essays in this format.

  • Explain the security dilemma in terms of the Hunger Games (short essay)
  • Of the key characters in the Dark Knight, who would Machiavelli see as the best leader? Explain and defend your choices using quotes from the original text.
  • What might each of the major schools of thought have to contribute to understanding Neo in the Matrix?

Personally, nothing makes grading take-home essays more rewarding than really pushing your students to reach for creative readings of the pop text. It also significantly thins out the grounds for plagiarism.

Throw one of these questions into your next exam and find yourself smiling at observations like: “The hunger games arena is really nothing more than a mirror of the panopticism of the Capital’s relationship to the districts. But in the game realm the notion of survival is reduced to zero sum calculations. Cooperation is futile.”

Also… you can always try Zombies as a generic notion….



Michelle Catalano, NSA, & Googling: Hidden Assumptions

I love using contemporary examples to teach my students the art of good research and argumentation.

A few days ago Michelle Catalano (freelance writer) detailed an experience she had with a group of policemen she thought were part of a joint terrorism task force. She suggests that they arrived at her house because her family had been on their computer searching for the words “pressure cooker, and backpack.”

She goes on to write the story which she has since updated and clarified.

For the purposes of my teaching activity I will cut and past only those sections revealed on the first day. Her story is titled “Pressure cookers, Backpacks and Quinoa Oh My!”

In the story she provides a series of details that read like a really good conspiracy novel.

excerpt: “What happened was this: At about 9:00 am, my husband, who happened to be home yesterday, was sitting in the living room with our two dogs when he heard a couple of cars pull up outside. He looked out the window and saw three black SUVs in front of our house; two at the curb in front and one pulled up behind my husband’s Jeep in the driveway, as if to block him from leaving.”

She ends the story with.

“Mostly I felt a great sense of anxiety. This is where we are at. Where you have no expectation of privacy. Where trying to learn how to cook some lentils could possibly land you on a watch list. Where you have to watch every little thing you do because someone else is watching every little thing you do.

All I know is if I’m going to buy a pressure cooker in the near future, I’m not doing it online. I’m scared. And not of the right things.”

It is well-written and fun to read….and gorgeously but accidentally misleading. Perfect for teaching. 

Step 1:Take the text from the start all the way to the last line quoted above and provide it in a handout.

Step 2:Give your students about 10 minutes to read and discuss in small groups, asking anyone who has read this story before to hold their tongue.

And then…..

Step 3:Ask them to map her argument and the facts supporting it, leaving the website URL prominent. Ask them to raise questions regarding the story if they have any.

Step 4:Then, provide them with a follow-up story done with all the information.

Step 5:Now open the room to discussion about what the connections are between this exercise and writing for college.

Benefits of the Exercise:These real world examples can provide additional motivation for students to think deeply about: 1. the need to provide arguments and counter arguments; 2. to reveal all the information for and against a thesis; 3. to be perfectly clear about what the stated thesis/argument is.

The Power of the Real Versus Fiction:
In keeping the example linked to real events in the world it can also teach students that the art of skeptical and detailed inquiry isn’t just for scholars. It is the key to being a discerning reader.


Four Lions & Boston Marathon: Breaking the Frame

Orson Welles called it “breaking the frame.” Also known as the fourth wall.…the breaking of a narrative….like when an actor in a movie pauses to speak directly to the audience. Teaching is a performance space too. It is removed from reality. When we are in this space we are allowed to “bracket” many things in order to make our pedagogical performances work…..i.e. narrow the real world down to just us, our space, our thinking. And once in a while the frame breaks….. without your permission. These are the events and their notes.

March, 20-ish 2013
Mid-morning: IR class topic: Terrorism

Readings: Kydd & Walter, Kilcullen, …etc etc.
Discussion point: critical analysis of the film Four Lions. A film about a group of British males who plot to attack their home country.

Notes:Compelling, awkward, funny….Were we supposed to laugh? When the seemingly mentally impaired activist accidentally blows himself up….were we supposed to laugh?

A new perspective on terrorists. They are disaffected, second and first generation young males. They manage to bomb a marathon. No real coordination, just a bunch of dudes acting like asses who also managed to make explosives.

April 15th, 2013–no class day–

Boston bombing suspects
… a couple of young males, disaffected by their lives in the United States… bomb a marathon. The Boston Marathon. Their logic, unclear, seemingly accidental….. no real coordination…. just a couple of dudes ….

April 17th, 2013
Mid-Morning: IR Class Topic: ??????

What? What?    No Seriously…..what?

There are awful coincidences that come along when you teach. A marriage of random events, and fiction.

The real world, it crashes into your classroom, makes a mockery of your safe space. …and you know very well that what happens next just might teach them something…..teach me something.

….or we can collectively run away.

Step 1: Establish a distance between the very shocking thing that had happened and the thing we had just been exploring from an intellectual perspective.

Step 2: No wait…back up…. have a good long look at the event. Maybe we spent the hour talking over the finer points of analysis, guessing from the color of the smoke, the location, the time of day….all the suppositions.

Step 3: Predict and analyze. How would Kydd and Walter understand this? What does this mean for Kilcullen’s hypothesis?

Step 4: Gracefully declare the class productive.

Notes: BULL$!!@% Spackle that damned hole shut again! 
A class assignment accidentally became inextricably fused to a real world event. I hated it….hated it….

I used those articles like a crow bar:…. to pry myself clear, to pry us all clear from the feel of that event. We intellectualized it….. we walked through it, stared at it, shook our heads…..and we giggled. Not at the pain, but the incredulity…. the gross coincidence. And we laughed at the uneasy way we desperately and willingly returned to seeing world through the end of a straw. At least we could memorize that and understand it, mock it sometimes. 

Narcissism. There’s no way to speak to this without inviting that claim. But there’s also no way to talk about struggle in a classroom in the shadow of big events when they break the frame. I felt sick and fortunate at the same time. I didn’t have any answers.

Nothing clever….just a really wicked reminder that no matter how you teach, it is a performance space….

also… apologies for any misuse of the 4th wall concept. I entirely recognize that I’m playing fast and loose with the concept.

Climate Challenge Politics–Quick Online Game

BBC Climate Challenge is an online interactive game that deals with the politics of solving a transnational problem. It took me about 25 minutes to complete the game and admittedly I charged right in for a few rounds before I really gathered what I was doing.

Click Here to Access the BBC Online Game

the link to the game is somewhat hard to understand. Click on the graphic that says OPEN. The interface for the actual game is not large. You may want to investigate ways to enlarge the screen in order to accommodate those with vision limitations 

The premise is this… You are the leader of your country and you need to make choices about the policies you will enact over several years. Each policy has a cost or a benefit. The cost or benefit categories are : money, food, power, and water. They operate on a sliding scale that goes up and down based on your choices.


You select policy cards in each round and once every three rounds you go to an international negotiation to try and establish global CO2 level reduction pledges.

For the record, I barely managed to keep my office and I completely THRASHED the British economy… BUT I did hold up my international agreements.  Success? It isn’t clear…And that’s the nice part about this game. This is clearly a two-level game with competing objectives. You develop a very strong sense (if you play more than once) of the problem with public approval and managing an economy while trying to keep the world from descending into global climate hell.

The game teaches you almost nothing about the global effects of climate change and to be honest I’m thankful. I find many resources about politics and environmental issues have a tendency to highlight the problem of the environment over the problem of the political calculations in dealing with the environment.

Students who are reflective about the game will pick up on the sheer difficulty of making policy decisions and calculating the costs and benefits. Additionally, even if I wasn’t interested in getting reelected by my people, I found myself enacting competing policies year over year. I was an absolute hypocrite dealing out water privatization one round and then enacting massive public works projects the next.

I think for maximum effect students should be made to play this game at least twice recording their choices and outcomes after each round. The game isn’t flashy, or even exciting… but its points are clear and for this I give it a stamp of awesome.

The Promise and Limitations of the Zombie Metaphor


Fresh on the tail of the blockbuster debut and the success of the book World War Z, it is likely time to revisit my thoughts regarding the use of popular fiction as a teaching tool.

These thoughts come to me via a conversation at Kafe Kerouac in Columbus Ohio and I am thankful for the thoughts of all who contributed.

I am an undying fan of the use of popular fiction in teaching. One of the most remarkable parts of World War Z (the book) is its endless potential as a source of illustration for many of the major theoretical notions present in IR theory. Specifically, it is an anarchic world in which we observe cooperation to resolve security, as well as a number of different kinds of states and actors calculating and trying to survive. WWZ is decidedly a self-help system in which the international system is revealed to be much weaker and unprepared to handle the widespread infection of dead reanimation. So… how do we use it and how far can we take it? Two potential paths follow (these are not exhaustive…. just a mental exercise)

Preparation #1
Easy and low-hanging fruit illustrations, in no particular order and with almost no attention paid to the thoroughness of this list include:

Two-level Games
Hobbesian Anarchy and What States Make of It
Cooperation Theory
Lifeboat Ethics
Transnational Threats to Security
Transborder Crises
Misperception and Signaling in Nuclear Deterrence

Application Strategy: The brief nature of each chapter means that the text is easily sliced for whichever concept you hope to illustrate. I could easily implant this text into any introductory course on IR or political theory. Read the chapter, read the original text, and let the students show you how they are connected.

Preparation #2
But let’s look a little deeper. One of the issues raised regarding the use of fictional texts for teaching IR is that these texts are also  productive of their own culture and world view. That is, as the critique goes, using fictional text as illustration ignores the way in which these cultural icons are productive of and mutually constitute politics and the culture of political interaction. (See Pop Goes IR?) If you put the social theory lingo aside (which I am absolutely certain I have already hacked up), it means that we aren’t really cashing in on the goods that these texts provide. In order to really gather the deeper more scholarly practice of what is going on here we must move beyond the illustrative into deeper critical theory of the production of politics as it is connected to popular culture and their intersection. –Well this is the critique anyhow.

MAJOR CAVEAT….While I accept that this is a potential line of teaching, the imperative is only half sold on me….particularly for an introductory course in IR. I have serious doubts about whether I want to incorporate critical theory lenses in an intro course in which learning the concept and its implications are the central task at hand. These are choices left to the instructor’s learning objectives.

BUT…. IF I wanted to examine the text as more than illustrative…. here is one direction I would travel…

Step 1. Use the text as illustrative over the course of several weeks. Allow it to highlight and provide a reasonably simple example that can help students explore the concept.

Step 2. After several chapters have been used…. return to it on the whole.  Use the text as the thing to be understood and dissected. The book, at least (we shall not speak of the movie), offers its own claims and arguments regarding ethics, morality, and social imperatives that make up the theme of survival.

Step 3. Ask the students to generate discussion on the following questions:

What are the rules of survival that this text teaches?
Are those lessons useful?
Why do we find this theme interesting? Are we zombie obsessed and why?
In what ways might the lessons here affect politics in the real world?
Who are the agents in this book, and what are the implications of that?

Essentially, I want the students to explore any number of deeper ideas: 1. dig into the sense in which the actions of states and fighters in the text are justified, 2. ask how this might affect their own personal politics, 3. does acceptance of the lessons of this text square with their view of the world? does it influence it?

The point I want the students to reach at the end of the conversation is a recognition of the limits of the zombie metaphor as guidance for global problems. AND to have them investigate the influence of these kinds of films on their thinking of global issues.

The Zombie metaphor awakens the fear of death and energizes the survivalist in all of us. But, survivalist tactics are immensely varied and tend to be justified solely on the basis of the right to live.

Therein lies the limits of the Zombie metaphor….

It is too easy to agree with the tactics used to survive, because the opposing side is not conscious. The calculus of intent, empathy, violence, cost of destruction…it is all reduced to one thing…. Us versus other. And that other is not human. And so… what were initially lessons that illustrate IR concepts…. simultaneously reveal themselves to be autistic… unable to access the other minds in the war, because there are no minds to calculate against. Then we must ask ourselves…. what are the limitations of these concepts? Are they also autistic? How does this affect our ability to understand the conduct of international relations?

Finally, and in keeping with critical theory, I wonder for myself….. how much our popular politics have truly infected us….

If zombie war logic is single minded, without a conscious enemy, then have I been handed my own infection? Is the seemingly correct logic presented in the war on zombies an offshoot of the war on terror, or drugs, or crime….rather than a representation of wars as we used to know them?

Wouldn’t that be a fun conversation? Like I said…. I don’t know whether I would walk my class down this path, especially not a freshman class….. but, this would be my first attempt.



Critical reading and thinking Lincoln and Thucydides

This week’s assignment tip is about complementary assignments… I don’t recall when someone gave me this tip but I’m always happy to pass this along.

Not only do we want our students to read for content and argument, but we also want them to synthesize and expand their analysis across texts. Analysis of two separate texts is usually done with CONTRASTING views. That is to say that we select texts that are opposed in position–the “taking sides” approach, but this tends to eliminate the opportunity to synthesize and see connections.

So….Let’s talk COMPLEMENTARY……. This is an assignment of two texts that are seemingly different at the outset, but are ultimately closely aligned.

I’m a huge fan of going ‘meta’ on my students…. helping them to develop their skills rather than focusing too closely on the authority and historical weight of political science writings. This activity is done early in the semester (political theory, freshman writing, political science courses)

Step 1: Have the students read Pericles’ Funeral Oration–this is Thucydides’ telling of the motivational speech regarding war, war death, and how to pay homage to those who fall.You could easily squeeze it in on a segment on political violence or causes of war (rally round the flag effect).

Step 2: Have the students mark up the text with the usual notes and outline of the argument. My favorite questions are always in play: What is the speaker trying to do? How is he trying to do it–what evidence? What is compelling?

Step 3: When they return to the next class period have them spend about 3 minutes reviewing their notes and their thoughts. Sometimes you can have them start their discussion in “pair and share.”  Now… here comes he magic…

Step 4: Hand out a copy of the Gettysburg Address and provide a brief explanation of the where and when of this address.

ricks3_142 2

Step 6: Have students do step 2 for the address but in class. You can have them work in pairs or on their own.

Step 7: Open the class to discussion. Have them compare and contrast the two speeches…. and discuss. ***cheat *****… if you want a head start… someone was kind enough to write this Foreign Policy Article.

Then…. watch…. as they start to synthesize…. see across texts…. If you want to expand this activity into a research activity–(a la Chad Raymond’s PBL in the prior posts) do the comparison near the end of class and generate questions for research. Usually you will find a few students asking: ‘Did Lincoln read Thucydides?’ Once you have your questions set, designate groups to return to the next class with answers…. it is a highly portable exercise that can be stretched to fit most courses.

**Analysis…. there’s something important in analyzing complementary arguments in addition to contrasting ones.

1. Specifically, it asks students to look with an even more refined eye at the texts to get under the deep assumptions to see if the two pieces really do agree. It is a much finer discussion with a higher degree of fidelity.

2. The assignment not only bootstraps two wonderful pieces of history into the student’s hands,  but in being complementary it adds a degree of historical timelessness. History does rhyme.

3. Contrasting assignments are less available to students for synthesis which is a skill we want our students to develop. In this sense, while politics tends to be cast as the great debates of history, this notion is somewhat overplayed.

4. Complementary assignments allows the students a basis for building theory and seeing how things are connected rather than isolating them as discreet instances in the human experience.

I’ll be offering a paper on game simulation and complementary and contrasting work  for teaching and learning conference next year (Philly 2014). Let’s hope I get in!