Beyond the Essay: Briefing Memos

Today we have a guest post from Vincent Druliolle, an assistant professor at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. He can be reached at Vincent[dot]Druliolle[at]gmail[dot]com.

Undergraduates are repeatedly told that what they study is somehow relevant for practice, yet most assignments are structured as academic essays—even though only a handful of them will end up opting for an academic career. A few years ago, I decided that my students should have the opportunity to develop non-academic writing skills, and started assigning a briefing memo about an ongoing conflict.

The briefing memo is indeed a format widely used in government, international organisations, consultancies, and NGOs. However, because of the large range of topics and theoretical perspectives covered by my module and the limited number of teaching weeks, I had to find a way of integrating such an activity into my small-group seminars. I came up with the idea of making the memo a preparatory activity for my in-class simulation on peacebuilding and transitional justice.

The briefing memo differs from the traditional essay in both content and format. It is policy-oriented, because it is aimed at practitioners and decision-makers, and it presents information in a concise and attractive manner. It requires critically analysing source material beyond the standard academic literature, selecting what’s most relevant, and presenting it in a way that can convey the complexities of the conflict analysed.

Most students have never written a memo, but I don’t give them any guidelines. Instead, I ask them to look up examples that they can use as models. I prefer to ask the students to present their memos in class and discuss the difficulties of writing it. The first seminar of the simulation is thus about comparing and learning from the work of one’s fellow classmates. For class discussion, I recommend selecting at least a very good memo, a (very) bad one, and a few with significantly different formats and/or content. The greater the variety of memos, the better. I want the students to learn from each other, so I adopt the role of a facilitator, asking them to explain why they’ve chosen a given format and/or content, and fostering a class discussion about these aspects.

Many students admit that, as I warn them beforehand, it’s difficult at the beginning to figure out how they have to write the memo. Instead of assessing it at this stage, I ask the students to submit a revised version after the simulation that reflects what they’ve learnt from their classmates’ memos. Guidelines about how to write a memo can be provided at this stage or even afterward as part of a debriefing.

While writing the memo is an activity in its own right, in this case it is also a way for the students to acquire the knowledge necessary to participate in the simulation. They learn what information the memo should include because they have to put themselves in the shoes of the actors for whom the memo is written in the first place. In this way, the memo prepares students for the simulation, while the simulation provides an opportunity for them to reflect on the writing of the memo. And for the instructor, memos are quicker (and less boring) to mark than essays.

Game Theory Resource

A brief note on a free resource:

While crawling through the Intertubes, I stumbled across a twenty year old webpage on game theory by Eric Roberts, emeritus professor of computer science at Stanford. The sub-directory pages contain short, simple discussions of different theoretical models, with helpful examples — such as Rousseau’s stag hunt and versions of Prisoner’s Dilemma. Of particular interest, at least to me, is the explanation of strategies of play — given that I almost always try to minimize the maximum possible loss.

Extensions to a Classroom Game on War and Peace in IR Theory

Today we have the second of two guest posts by Nathan Alexander Sears, a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto and previously a professor of international relations at the Universidad de Las Américas, Quito. He can be reached at n[dot]sears[at]mail[dot]utoronto[dot]ca.

The game that I described in my previous post can be modified to demonstrate additional theoretical concepts.

Relative Power: Changing the amount of resources each state possesses at the beginning of each round creates differences in their relative capabilities. For example, State A could begin with $10, State B with $7, and State C with $5. This change may lead to balancing and bandwagoning behavior, which is important in neorealism.

National Identities: The game can be played with actual country names, such as the United States (State A), the Soviet Union (State B), the People’s Republic of China (State C), Great Britain (State D), and France (State E). This opens up the possibility that students’ ideas about national identities or knowledge of history may influence behavior and outcomes, which is central to constructivism.

Democratic/Authoritarian States: The game can include democratic and authoritarian structures for internal decision-making. For example, one team might be required to make decisions by majority vote, while another group may have a single individual who makes such decisions with the other students acting as advisors. Regime and institution type is important in liberalism, especially in democratic peace theory. Continue reading

Simulating War and Peace in IR Theory with a Classroom Game

Today we have the first of two guest posts by Nathan Alexander Sears, a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto and previously a professor of international relations at the Universidad de Las Américas, Quito. He can be reached at n[dot]sears[at]mail[dot]utoronto[dot]ca.

This game introduces students to theoretical concepts in IR, such as neorealism, neoliberalism, constructivism, and bargaining theory.

The class is initially divided into two states. The object of the game is to meet two, and only two, goals: (1) to survive and (2) to maximize the amount of money spent on enjoyment. Survival means that a state is not defeated in war by another state.

The game entails multiple rounds, usually three or four depending on class time. Each round should take approximately 10 minutes. In each round, states begin with a budget of $10 and must make two decisions. First, each state must decide how to allocate its budget between two mutually exclusive items: armaments or enjoyment. States may choose any combination of the two items, but must allocate all of their resources each round. For instance, a state may choose $8 for enjoyment and $2 for armaments or $0 for enjoyment and $10 for armaments. These resources are nontransferable between states.

Second, each state must choose a foreign policy of peace or war. If all states choose peace, then the outcome is international peace, and each state ends the round with the money they allocated towards enjoyment. If a state chooses war, then it must declare war against a specific state(s). If war is declared by any state, then the result of that war is determined by the side that has spent more money on armaments. A state that prevails in war not only keeps its own money for enjoyment, but also steals the remaining money that the defeated state(s) allocated for enjoyment. A state that is defeated in war is eliminated. For example: Continue reading

Model Diplomacy: Smart, easy to use foreign policy simulations

Model Diplomacy is a series of free National Security Council simulations put out by the Council on Foreign Relations. Michelle used it in her class last year, and I decided based on her positive experience to try it in my intro to IR class this year.  In this post I’m going to explain the basics of Model Diplomacy, discuss my experience using it, and give my recommendation.  Spoiler Alert: I loved it.

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New Gerkhania Simulation

A slightly delayed report on the latest version of my Gerkhania simulation, which I abandoned back in 2015 because it wasn’t living up to expectations. Last January I wrote a brief preview about changes I had made to it before the start of my spring semester comparative politics course.

Gerkhania now has three rounds of role play: a commission to establish a representative legislature, one legislative session in which students can earn points if certain bills are passed, and a third session with no point rewards. For each session, students randomly receive a short biographical profile with an ethno-religious identity. Because of the laws of probability most students will receive a different role each time. The roles also include objectives that students should try to pursue; the objective of one student conflicts with the objectives of most of the other students.

In the first session, the class almost agreed to three separate electoral districts before settling on a single, national district to elect members of a parliament. In the debate, students quickly affiliated with each other on the basis of their newly-assigned identities. The same behavior occurred in the other two sessions, even though students had different identities . Students spontaneously changed seats to sit next to those who had the same ethnicity. They tried to maximize their own group’s influence and marginalize the influence of others. Some students tried to simultaneously engage in logrolling across ethnic boundaries to achieve their individual objectives.

In the post-simulation debriefing, I highlighted two topics. First, the results of both legislative sessions, in terms of passage or failure of the bills I supplied, were nearly identical — despite the existence of a zero-sum environment for earning individual rewards in the first session but not the second. I asked students whether this outcome could be explained by rational actor theory.

Second, I tried to get students to think about the immediacy and fervor with which they adopted rapidly changing and completely arbitrary identities. I say “tried” because I don’t think I was able to get students to adequately connect their behavior during the simulation to concepts like identity salience, deindividuation, and culture. But obviously identity had a much larger effect than it did in my South China Sea simulation, which is what I had intended. So I rate this activity as a success.

All materials needed to run New Gerkhania are available through my TeachersPayTeachers storefront.

How Much Does the Layperson Know?

Today we have another guest post by Gigi Gokcek of the Dominican University of California.

Students are often surprised to learn how little the average person knows about politics, or even current events. In response, I encourage my students to ask their friends and neighbors how much they know about government in the United States or elsewhere. Occasionally a student reports back to me about his or her conversation in the dining hall with a few friends. I decided to create an assignment to demonstrate to students how much they knew about world events relative to their peers. Continue reading

South China Sea Simulation: Part 2

As promised in my last post, I’m going to talk about the mechanics of my South China Sea simulation, but I’m also going to go in a different direction because of the bombing in Manchester and Simon’s subsequent post.

As I’ve done in the past with some of my other classroom simulations, I created a set of objectives for each actor — in this case Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, the United States, and Vietnam. Each objective was associated with a number of points that contributed to a player’s final grade, but players’ objectives often conflicted with one another — a feature deliberately intended to reflect competing interests and force negotiation. All of the objectives involved which Asian nation-state would be granted sovereignty over which territories. Although I gave actors the option to engage in military action, I specified probabilities that such actions would be successful. For example, an attack by the Philippines against a specific target had a 1:6 chance of succeeding, while acting in concert with U.S. forces had increase the chances of success to 2:3. However, an attack risked involving the Philippines in a regional war, the probability and costs of which I left completely vague. This uncertainty seemed to have beneficially made students reluctant to use military force, unlike my experience with some other simulations.

Given the number of contested islands and overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, the entire set of objectives and payoffs was rather complicated to create, but the complexity forced students to become much more familiar with the area’s geography, which I think was also plus.

I will discuss what went wrong with the simulation in the near future, but I will mention here — and this is what relates to Simon’s post — what I see as a failure that I often witness in my geographically-situated simulations: because of the point rewards, students very quickly become rationally-acting deal-makers. Nationalist and ethnic identities that the simulations are supposed to model quickly get tossed out the window. In the language of simulations, players find it easy to abandon their roles. In the real world, Vietnamese and Chinese policies reflect a strong sense of nationalism, and the two states would never agree so easily on who owns the Paracels. If they did, there would not be a conflict to simulate. Continue reading

Summer Peace-Building Symposiums

This summer, the International Peace & Security Institute, the Johns Hopkins SAIS Bologna Center, and the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology are cooperating on two symposiums that will teach practical skills in peacebuilding. The Bologna symposium focuses on conflict prevention, resolution, and reconciliation, while the Sarajevo symposium is on post-conflict transitions. Additional details are here.

Simulating the Bargaining Model of War

Dr. Kyle Hanes is our guest contributor this week.  An assistant professor of political science at Purdue University, he describes a game he created to simulate the bargaining model of war.  Full instructions on his simulation can be found in his October 2015 PS: Political Science & Politics article.

The bargaining model of war has become so central to scholarly work on interstate conflict that, I would argue, it should be incorporated into even introductory IR courses. The bargaining model’s logic is intuitive and compelling, but even treatments of it in introductory textbooks rely on formal notation that can confuse or alienate many students. I can still hear the crickets echoing through my classroom as I excitedly asked students to explain why “State B will accept any offer greater than 1 – p – c.”

In trying to cut through this notation to explain the bargaining logic and “incentives to misrepresent,” I would often fall back on the logic of gambling. Misrepresentation is, in effect, bluffing. And even if most students don’t host a weekly card game, the majority are at least vaguely familiar with the logic of bluffing in poker. Why does a poker player make a large bet with a weak hand? Doing so might allow them to win the pot without even having to show their cards. Ultimately, it’s the same reason why states exaggerate their military power or willingness to fight over a disputed piece of territory. Over time, I developed this metaphor into a simple, in-class card game that illustrates the core logic of the bargaining model of war. The game is fun, simple, and engages students directly in the bargaining logic. The game’s rules and parameters are extremely flexible, and can be adapted to highlight different components of the bargaining model’s logic.

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