One of the more awkward things that political scientists have to deal with is the way in which the things that are more likely to stimulate student interest are often the things that are most sensitive/tricky to discuss. And since 9/11 and 7/7, terrorism has occupied the top spot in that list. My department was certainly not alone in finding that enrollments on our IR programmes and terrorism modules has been particularly strong.
The issues around discussing such subjects are (hopefully) pretty obvious: most glaringly, the almost boundless capacity to offend someone, given the subjective nature of the phenomenon (indeed, I’ve had at least one discussion about whether it is subjective and why would I say that…).
At the same time, as well as being of interest to students, terrorism also produces materials. Lots of material, in short time frames. And for a classroom discussion, that is a great opportunity, both for the subject itself and for the development of precising and analytical skills. And potentially it offers a way to handle the sensitivity issue.
To take the topical example, we might look at the Brussels lock-down that is currently running after the Paris attacks. Possibly because so many people haven’t got work to go to, there has been a wave of social media activity, which in turn led police to request that reports of their (the police’s) movements not be mentioned, so as to reduce the warning to potential targeted individuals (although the APC rumbling down your road might also be a clue).
In any case, Bruxellois responded with a meme of cats and kittens. As well as intrinsic interest (I’m going to guess you managed to get the end of that last link), this response provides an excellent stepping stone for a class discussion about popular responses to terrorism, both narrowly in the use of humour and more generally. The meme prompts a number of interesting questions, including what is the typical emotional response to terrorism, how can people frame and re-frame terrorism, and whether Belgians are alone in doing this (they’re not BTW – spend a minute or two reading Charlie Hebdo).
By asking students to map what happens around a terrorist event, we enable them to gain an understanding of the reach and depth of its effects and reconnect it to broader questions of political science. In so doing, we might find that we can channel the interest with fewer of the issues.
Here is a review of the ICONS Crisis in North Korea simulation:
Subjects: IR in East Asia, IR theory, international security, diplomacy and negotiation
Learning outcomes for students
I used this simulation in my course on the comparative political history of Asia. The simulation represented an opportunity for students to:
Gain a better understanding of international relations in Asia.
Analyze multiple approaches to solving contemporary global problems.
Crisis in North Korea is relevant to a number of texts on East Asian politics. Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States, by Alexis Dudden, a book I’ve used previously, would situate the simulation within a wider historical and diplomatic context. IR survey texts, such as the chapters on theory and conflict in Essentials of International Relations by Mingst and Arreguín-Toft,.also apply.
As I mentioned in a previous post about low-enrollment classes, I ran this simulation with only eleven students. The six teams — USA, China, Russia, Japan, North Korea, and South Korea — should have at least three members each, so the ideal class size for the simulation is probably eighteen to twenty-four students. The simulation can probably be successfully run in larger classes, especially if the instructor prepares specific roles within teams for each student to play; for example, defense minister, foreign minister, etc. However, each state functions as a unitary actor in the simulation, so the larger the teams get, the greater the potential for some students to become disengaged, passive observers.
ICONS recommends scheduling at least 150 minutes for the simulation, divided into two 75-minute sessions, which is the time frame I used. My students said they felt rushed in the second session; I suspect that trying to compress the simulation into an even smaller block of time risks disaster. Extending the simulation across three 75-minute sessions probably works better; at minimum this allows plenty of time for debriefing.
ICONS costs money. Either the instructor can pay a lump sum to enroll his or her class or students can pay individually. I chose the latter option because I don’t receive institutional support for these in-class experiences and I did not want to bother with collecting money from students. The per-student price was an extremely reasonable $13.
ICONS is housed entirely online, so each team of students needs at least one device with an internet connection. A laptop or computer per student is possibly more effective. The instructor also needs access to the internet on a separate machine during the simulation.
The concise facilitator guide provided to instructors clearly explains how to manage the simulation. The ICONS website is intuitive and easy to navigate. I spent a small amount of time on setting up teams and other administrative tasks. In general, this simulation requires minimal instructor preparation.
Students need to create accounts and pay for the simulation to gain access the ICONS website. They also need to read background information and the role sheet for the country to which they’ve been assigned. All of these documents are only a few pages long, clearly written, and available on the website. Students found the website easy to navigate.
I created an auto-graded quiz on my course website, worth one percent of the final grade, to encourage students to familiarize themselves with the simulation before it began. I also used the ICONS Pre-Negotiation Planning Report, a one-page questionnaire, as an ungraded pre-simulation in-class exercise so students could individually identify goals to achieve and then develop a shared strategy with their teammates. This exercise appeared to be very useful; students wrote detailed answers to the questions on the form.
The simulation begins with an explosion at a nuclear facility in North Korea. The instructor periodically unveils new developments to intensify the crisis. Teams respond to what is happening either through diplomatic overtures — requests to send humanitarian aid missions, the imposition of economic sanctions, and the like — or military attacks. Peaceful actions typically require the cooperation of other states. Most military attacks require the prior approval of the instructor. If a state executes an action, the simulation generates a message describing the outcome, such as “North Korea has accepted the offer of inspectors from Japan.” The instructor determines how the simulation ends: either the effects of the nuclear accident are successfully contained or radioactive contamination spreads across international borders.
Managing the simulation — reading and responding to messages, approving or disapproving teams’ actions, injecting the pre-loaded events into the crisis — requires all of the instructor’s time and attention. I was glued to my computer screen, constantly flipping between the separate feeds for messages and actions.
My standard post-simulation assignment is an essay that asks students to write about which IR theory they think best explains what they experienced in the simulation, but this wasn’t an IR course, so I created this instead:
You are employed as a policy analyst at the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Your task is to write an analysis of the recent crisis in North Korea. The analysis should:
1. Assess the response of the U.S. government to the recent crisis in North Korea in terms of its likely long-term effects on U.S. relations with other states in the region.
2. Recommend whether and how the U.S. should try to improve its relations with other states in the region given the outcome of the crisis.
Your superiors are extremely busy and want information that is concise, detailed, and easy to read. The memo must be in single-spaced paragraphs with a blank line between each paragraph, 11 or 12 point font, and no longer than three pages. Make sure to support your analysis with examples from the simulation and information from ICONS resources. Documents should be cited within the text rather than with footnotes or endnotes—for example, “(Country Information, China)”. You are also welcome to use information from readings in the syllabus if they are relevant. There is no need to do additional research.
Extensions and portability options
While actors’ capabilities are fixed throughout the simulation, it is possible to supply information to teams that will likely alter their perceptions of other actors, which adds more of a constructivist element to game play.
At the fifteen minute mark, Japan launched an airstrike against China, an action that did not require my approval. From that point forward, teams repeatedly tried to attack each other, often with nuclear weapons. I disallowed the attacks until the U.S. team ordered a nuclear strike against South Korea — I wanted to demonstrate the effects of not proofreading. The simulation then degenerated into a nuclear holocaust for East Asia. In sum, the game play exhibited by students was unrealistic, and I don’t think they learned much from the experience about international relations in the region.
In the debriefing students noted that outcomes did not enhance or degrade the capabilities of actors, which created the impression of a static environment where actions could be taken without consequences. They thought that the simulation would better reflect the real world if actors obtained tangible benefits each time they achieved intermediate goals. They also expressed a desire for a more extensive menu of options in responding to the actions of other teams.
I noticed the logical disconnect of using a web-based simulation in a physical classroom. ICONS enables people in different geographic locations to participate in the same simulation, but in my opinion the need for and benefits of a computer-mediated environment decrease significantly when face-to-face interaction is an option.
I’m going to guess that Simon’s reference to Serbian pig-farming in his last post means that one of the books he read in 2014 was From Voting to Violence by Jack Snyder (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000). For several years I used this book for an assignment in comparative politics that I called Refuting an Expert.
The student’s job in this assignment was to select one of the forty-two different claims Snyder makes in the book and analyze why the claim was incorrect. I’ve put the complete list of claims here. A few highlights:
Serbia gained its independence in the early 1800s because of the interests of Serbian pig merchants.
Russian president Boris Yeltsin launched the war in Chechnya to save his administration.
Israeli Arabs tolerate discrimination because of the economic opportunities that Israel affords them.
To help students do a credible job of challenging Snyder, a supposed expert on the subject of the book, I gave students these instructions:
All quality scholarship is based upon the creation and analysis of arguments. A person asks a question, gathers information, and proposes an answer to the question that is based on that information. The quality of the answer depends on both the accuracy of the information gathered and how well that information has been organized into an argument. In more technical terms, the validity of any truth claim rests upon empirical evidence and logical consistency.
When analyzing the quality of your and others’ research:
The first step is to identify what question is being investigated. What is the puzzle that the author is trying to explain?
The second step is to identify what the author claims is the cause and effect of this puzzle.
The third step is to identify how the author links cause to effect. What does the author claim is the relationship between the two?
The fourth step is to identify how the author measures changes in whatever is being used to indicate cause and effect. Are numerical data being used? Do the data actually signify what the author says they signify? Should the author be using some other kind of data?
Authors often use certain words that provide clues that will help you find all of this information. These words are:
Main, primary, only
Not, cannot, no, never, seldom, rarely
None, neither, nor
All, any, entire, most, each
Must, always, generally, often, will
But (especially if combined with “only” or “must”)
However, although, in contrast, contrary, instead, unless, despite
False, incorrect, contradict, fail
Should, ought, shall
Cause, effect, reason, depends, because, imply
Claim, argument, argue, contend
Proof, prove, evidence, empirical
In fact, thus, therefore, of course, thereby, similarly
I had one of my usual posts about teaching ready for publication today, but I felt the need to write briefly about yesterday’s attack on the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, in which twelve people were murdered and eleven were wounded. My work, if not my existence as a person, is premised on the exchange of ideas. This blog is but one minor example. Many of the ideas I give and receive are inconsequential, impolite, or downright disturbing. Once in a while, though, I am surprised by information that makes me think differently than I did before — I learn something new. The people who killed many of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and those who encouraged the killers, have no interest in learning about ideas that are different from those they already hold. They do not want to learn, and they don’t want anyone else to learn either, because they fear the knowledge of just how stupid they really are.
The surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo say that its next edition will be published on Wednesday.
For any Politics student, critical thinking is a central skill that they need to acquire and develop. Without it, it is impossible to engage in a meaningful way with the world around them or to have a sense of how their own ideas work and cohere.
I’m always a bit hesitant about taking relativistic views to an extreme, but certainly contemporary politics requires us to have an appreciation of the way in which we are manipulated – consciously or unconsciously – by political actors and by the media.
With this in mind, recent weeks have been very instructive for me, as I follow events in two conflicts – Ukraine and Gaza.
I’m not a specialist in either region, and their impacts on my own field of research is relatively small, but I am interested in what’s happening.
In both cases, we have multiple actors, each of whom uses a wide range of strategies to communicate their position and interests to a wider public, including me. As such, I find particular interest in the way that news is framed and the way in we encounter Lukes’ three faces of power.
This week has seen a couple of pieces that have made me think some more about these issues and which might be of interest to students when discussing either media effects or the cases themselves.
On Gaza, a friend pointed me towards a piece by Ottomansandzionists that made me consider several aspects of what’s happening.
In both cases, it has been the process of reflection that I’ve appreciated, getting me to question what I hear, read or watch. And without questions, we don’t get to answers.
PS – as I finish writing this, I also notice a piece by Simon Jenkins (a man with whom I usually disagree vehemently), which also makes me reflect some more about how we commemorate the First World War. As with the other articles, it’s somewhat provocative and might stimulate some discussion and debate.
Due to some late summer travel and other obligations, I’m working this week to put together my fall syllabus for Intro to Comparative Politics. One of my favorite class activities comes about mid-way through the semester when we talk about identity politics. One of the main ideas I hope the students take away is that identities can be manipulated for political reasons. More specifically, the following activity has these learning objectives:
Explain the difference between symmetric and asymmetric cleavages.
Identify the conditions under which particular identity categories will be politically salient.
Predict the consequences of a permanently excluded minority.
Compare and contrast the political implications of fluid and fixed identities; symmetric and asymmetric cleavages.
Students are given colored index cards to represent one identity category (Green or Pink) with a language written on it (I use Esperanto or Ido). The “Round 1” table is projected with the number of students in each group (see Table at end of post) and students are asked to form a governing coalition that represents at least 51% of the population.
Once a coalition is formed, we discuss (1) what coalition was formed, (2) why, and (3) what happens to those that are excluded? I then project the map of the hypothetical country, showing a significant natural resource in the area controlled by the permanent majority. The students predict the likely consequences of the permanent majority’s control over a natural resource (I use a bag of leftover Halloween candy to illustrate the “natural resource” that the permanent majority can choose to distribute as it wishes). Next, they discuss the likely responses of the permanently excluded minority (e.g. civil war, terrorism).
I collect and redistribute cards and project the “Round 2” table. Students again form coalitions and we continue the discussion. In “Round 2” there are different possible coalitions and identity categories are fluid. The students then compare the political implications (likely democratic stability, probability of conflict between ethnic groups) in the different rounds.
The tables below give a rough approximation of how I allocate the identities, but the table I project in class has the number of students rather than percentages. What’s important is that the “green” coalition is “obvious” in round 1, while the second round has multiple possible coalitions.
Let me know if you have any questions or how it works if you give it a try.
I used the Fearon bargaining activity outlined in my last post for the first time very recently. Here are my anecdotal observations on its effectiveness.
First, only one of the four dyads in class fought a war in the initial complete information round. The other dyads immediately understood why war shouldn’t occur and after some discussion, the warring group got it. I would have been happy with the success of the game just after that round; in my experience, getting students to accept Fearon’s main premise that a bargaining range always exists is challenging.
Second, students quickly realized that giving me two of their candies (as the cost of war) was undesirable and they’d prefer to reach a deal than lose candy. I used this to demonstrate that war is rare—most of the time, the sides will reach a deal to avoid paying the high costs of war. Students have also struggled with this idea in the past and having physical objects taken away as a cost of war really conveyed the message.
During debriefing, I found it useful to walk through at least one “war” and demonstrate how a bargaining range existed. A lopsided victory is helpful in showing how both sides still would have preferred a deal to avoid war. Finally, I allowed the students to “negotiate” before the defender had to accept or reject the deal. This opened up discussion of signaling and the absence of costly signals in the activity.
Although I did not do a formal assessment, student performance on the related questions on the subsequent midterm exam was quite good. The applications in the essay by and large demonstrated a deep understanding of the existence of a bargaining range, issue indivisibility, and how costly signals affect the probability of war. I’m considering a formal assessment of the activity in the future, but my gut is that it gave the students a better understanding of an abstract theory by helping them internalize its main ideas.
Today we have the first of two posts by Dr. Michelle Allendoerfer, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Women’s Leadership Program (wlp.gwu.edu), George Washington University:
Of the concepts typically taught in an Introduction to International Relations class, Fearon’s rationalist theories of war is one of the most challenging for students. Getting students to actively engage with these concepts makes them more concrete and less abstract. There are bargaining activities out there to illustrate the bargaining theory of war, but many treat wars as “all or nothing” — the winner gets the spoils while the loser gets nothing (minus the costs of war to both parties). I wanted an activity that reflected a wider range of war outcomes in which the loser may end up with some division of the spoils.
I divided my class into dyads made up of two groups. I made eight groups of 3-4 students (four dyads). Each dyad gets a modified deck of cards (I used only 2-9 with more cards in the middle of the range), tokens (10 per round), a coin, and a handout.
To play, each group takes a card from the deck. In all rounds but the first, this information is kept private. The challenger, selected by a coin toss, makes an offer to divide 10 tokens. I used Hershey kisses because my class is small and motivated by chocolate; anything that incentivizes the students will work, such as poker chips tied to extra credit. If the defender accepts, the tokens are divided according to the offer and the round ends.
If the defender rejects, the groups go to war by showing their cards. I linked the division of tokens to the margin of victory. For example, if side A plays a 6 and side B plays a 3, the margin of victory is 3 in favor of side A and this corresponds to a 8/2 split of the tokens – this information is on the handout provided to the students. If a war occurs both sides pay the cost of 2 tokens.
A practice round helps get the students going. An initial practice round where cards are not hidden also illustrates to students the crucial point of Fearon that war is ex post inefficient and should not happen in conditions of complete information.
In my next post, I’ll share some of my reflections on the activity and some notes on debriefing. Feel free to email me (mallendo-at-gwu-dot-edu) with questions or for a copy of the handout I use to facilitate the game. I’m happy to share those materials.
Here’s a quick role play exercise that takes about 5 minutes and zero preparation. Announce to the class that Dr. X down the hall (pick any faculty member, preferably someone they might know or who seems completely non-threatening) has just run into the classroom and randomly tried to tackle a member of the class. Then ask them what they plan to do about it. If they hesitate, you can start giving a play by play of what’s going on, and then prompt them again to see if someone is going to intervene. Usually at this point if not sooner, a student or two announce that they will tackle Dr. X; others might offer to hold him/her down or kick them. You can continue storytelling–maybe the first tackler gets roughed up a bit. Once five or six students have announced their actions, however, offers dry up as the threat seems to be handled. Then start quizzing the students who were not quick to act on why–you will get a range of reasons, but at least one student will note that their efforts weren’t necessary.
That is, of course, your in to start a discussion about collective security and the problem of free-riding. Their willingness to allow other students to handle the threat is exactly the kind of behavior we predict amongst sovereign states in a collective security arrangement, where as long as the threat is handled it is in no single state’s interest to expend the resources for that purpose.
I use this exercise whenever I discuss collective security; usually this is in the context of discussing the League of Nations and why it failed. Its useful because it is very quick, requires no preparation for faculty or students, and is very effective in making the point. As an ‘organic’ simulation (see Kollars and Rosen 2013), it allows students to show the truth and practice of the theory through their own actions before studying it formally–thus making them more likely to understand and accept the theory. Plus, Dr. X can become a villain for the rest of the course, and you can constantly reference him/her whenever you need to discuss ‘threats’ to state systems.
I just saw an amazing documentary about a simulation used in a fourth grade classroom: World Peace Game. The creator, John Hunter, has been continuously using and improving this simulation for thirty-five years, and his account of his experiences has recently been published —World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements.