Some more pop culture ethics

I’m pleased to report that even after a gap of several years, I still recently managed to destroy a colleague’s enjoyment of The Lego Movie by pointing out its representation of fascism, including the Newspeak of “everything is awesome.”

Such found objects are valuable, not simply as a way of robbing the joy from quality time with the kids, but also a way into discussing complex political issues.

This resurfaced for me once again, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, there was a very interesting piece on the morality of superheroes, which built on the emerging questioning within the Hollywood system of whether masked individuals meting out extra-judicial ‘justice’ might not be quite the unmitigated good it once was portrayed as.

(And yes, I know that graphic novels got to this a long time ago, but we’re talking here about a form that a lot more people consume.)

The second was the consequence of being left home alone and watching The Hitman’s Bodyguard (THB), which I shall not review beyond noting a key piece of action occurs in Coventry.

It’s a classic odd-couple buddy movie, with many wisecracks and location scenery, and for that it’s very run-of-the-mill.

However, the story turns on genocide and responsibilities to act (in various ways). There’s a bunch of ethics thrown in, although not enough that anyone seems to notice the jarring effort of key characters laughing about ‘ass’ as they walk through the scene of a bombing.

All of which suggests that there might be two levels of discussion one could have with students about the issues involved.

At the obvious level, there’s the ethics as promoted by the film(s) you discuss. In the case of THB, there’s a tension between natural and judicial justice, as well as between means and ends. There’s even an element of the balance between structure and agency, in the discussion about life-partners, that might open up some useful lines of debate.

As the article notes, such overt discussion of the great responsibilities of great power is becoming more common in superhero movies, which might be a reflection of producers’ increased confidence in what audiences can handle, or might simply be because just fighting people eventually runs out of steam at some point. But the consequence is that ethics, even if it is ethics-by-numbers, is there on the screen to be considered. And if you have a class that’s still getting to grips with the basics, then this is as good a way in as any.

But there’s also the less-obvious layer of discussion: the kind of stuff that’s either not mentioned or not even obviously considered by the movie’s makers.

To take an obvious example, THB isn’t about gender, but it’s also about gender. That’s clear from the gendering of roles, the rescuing of women and the occasional knob joke. I’m guessing it’s not what the director wanted me to think about, as I watched, and I’m also guessing it’s not what the director thought very much about either, but that’s precisely the point. Such dimensions get woven into the fabric of a cultural product, and it is for us to notice and unpick those.

Culture invites multiple readings, and so let’s try doing just that. Wikipedia tells me THB got ‘mixed reviews’, and I can believe that: any film that portrays such a lax depiction of border controls deserves to be challenged.

Happy viewing…

Teammate Evaluations, Revisited

Students in my courses do a lot of team-based projects. In an attempt to prevent free riders, I have teammates evaluate each other. This semester I have again modified the evaluation system a bit, with an unexpected result.fusball-table

For the past three semesters I’ve been using Google Forms to distribute and tabulate anonymous surveys in which students rank themselves and their teammates. The instructions on this survey:

Evaluate the performance of everyone on your team, including yourself, by ranking all members of your team with a different number. Each number can be used only once, otherwise your responses will be discarded. Assign the number 1 to the person who made the most valuable contribution to the project, the number 2 to the person who made the second most valuable contribution, etc. Only enter information for your team. Leave questions for other teams blank.

My explanation to students of how rankings translated into points — in this case, up to 40: Continue reading

Teaching the Value of Replicability

Guest contributor Markus Gastinger is at the Technical University of Dresden. He can be contacted through http://markus-gastinger.eu/ and is willing to share his material upon request.

Markus Gastinger

In the winter term of 2015/2016, I was teaching a course on international organizations (IOs). The course was attended by 25 Master students and supported by a lecture. Since not all students had a prior degree in Political Science, we began by reviewing three major IR theories – realism, neoliberal institutionalism, and social constructivism. We had a fair mix of readings for all three but realism was underrepresented because of its state-centered ontology. We discussed constructivist texts with true zeal but they did not – and I write this with great deference and sincere admiration – lend themselves to (quick) lessons in replicability. This cannot be said of rational-choice contributions. After we had discussed the Principal–Agent (PA) model, we read an important contribution by Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks (2015) published in The Review of International Organizations. This article struck a chord with students since its large-N approach to studying delegation (the transfer of authority to an international secretariat) and pooling (the transfer of authority to a collective member-state body) gave them an overview of 72 IOs.
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Ethical Exercise

Philosophers Football 2Here is an example of Michelle’s last post about activating prior knowledge — an exercise that also relates to my caution against relying solely on dense canonical texts to engage students.

In class, give students the following scenario:

You have a brother who has been living with you since losing his job a few months ago. Recently he has seemed unusually distracted. One day while rummaging through a hallway closet, you accidentally knock your brother’s coat onto the floor. A cigarette lighter with the letters “LS” engraved on it falls from one of the coat’s pockets. The next day, while listening to local news on the radio, you hear a story about a woman named Linda Smith who was found murdered a few days before. Police have asked the community for help with the investigation. Do you inform the police that your brother might be the murderer?

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Bridge Repair

Forth BridgeIn my last post about teaching comparative politics, I discussed replacing expository writing assignments with a set of templates for students to use when designing presentations. I thought the templates might be a more effective method of getting students to apply theory to past events. For the spring semester, I have decided to ditch the theoretical content altogether, for these reasons:

Continue reading

When an activity goes completely, yet wonderfully wrong

Last week I used Phil Arena’s collective action problem activity for the third time. The first two times, I ran it pretty close to his suggestion. I asked the students to make a contribution to a public good by writing a long sentence a number of times by hand. If enough (2/3rds of the class) did, I provided a public good of donuts and coffee for the entire class. As I ran it in the past, no one contributed. My students – small classes of 20 or fewer – live together and it was easy for them to see that on one else was doing it and it made no sense for them to incur the costs. As such, the activity itself was effective in illustrating a collective action problem (and I usually still provided the treats).

This year, this lesson fell during midterm week and it was even more evident that no one would “contribute,” so I thought I would try something different. The night before class, I sent an email telling them that if 75% of them wore school colors to class and wrote out the lyrics to the school fight song, I would provide treats. I figured that this was extremely low cost and that they would certainly earn their public goods. In fact, I was worried I was setting the cost so low the activity wouldn’t carry the same impact as in years past.

I was wrong. And, in the case of one class, spectacularly wrong.

My first section had ten students contribute, short of the thirteen needed. The discussion proceeded as it has in the past and the activity was effective in illustrating the collective action problem.

What my second section did left me speechless. They interpreted the email as me, in my role as dictator of the class, issuing an edict (we had just finished discussing non-democratic regime types). At the urging of a few students, the entire class decided to rebel and all wear USA-themed outfits (in some cases, pretty elaborate outfits complete with face paint). And they entered the room singing the national anthem.

Rebellion in the classroom
Rebellion in the classroom

Since I was teaching the collective action problem to explain why democratic revolutions are rare, this unexpected turn made the activity even more effective for the day’s learning objectives (that they created and overcame a different collective action problem was impressive). In fact, it provided a nice segue into my revolutionary threshold activity.

Goes to show that activities don’t have to go according to plan to be effective.

Tinkering with Comparative Politics (Again)

Tinker ToysI’ve begun tinkering again with my comparative politics course, mainly because I’m still not satisfied with what students are getting from it. Previous discussions on this topic include:

So, yes, this course has been a source of frustration for a long time.

As I have noted previously, the essay templates that I created for last semester’s class didn’t work well. The templates were intended to be preparatory exercises for essays and presentations, but the application of theory required by the former was not evident in the latter. So maybe my template was badly designed.

For the next time around, I’ve created separate templates for each of the three theoretical perspective I want students to use as analytical lenses:

These new templates are more specific in what they ask for than the single older version. Perhaps this replaces a demand for creative thinking with an excessive level of step-by-step guidance, but I’m willing to live with that if the end product is better.

Instead of trying to get students to improve their essays by tacking on yet another writing assignment, I could simply drop the essays altogether and rely on the templates as scaffolding exercises for in-class team presentations. Each student would be at minimum accountable for choosing a theoretical perspective and completing the appropriate template at five separate points during the semester. There is a good chance that members of a team will select different perspectives and will need to decide on which one will make the strongest presentation. Teams will then compete against each as usual.

Abandoning the essays will reduce the amount of expository writing, but given their content in past iterations of the course, students weren’t learning much from them anyway. On my end, grading will be easier, especially if I convert the templates into an LMS-based fill-in-the-text-box format.

Politics in Real Time

No ControlStudents often perceive history as a series of unique and disconnected events that are irrelevant to the experience of the present. Subsequently abstract principles seem impossibly vague. A recent column in The New York Times is a brilliant demonstration of how to solve this problem:

What Would Thucydides Say About the Crisis in Greece?

A nice complement is:

Europe’s Attack on Greek Democracy

That these two essays were written by a historian and an economist, and published online to a global audience, is perhaps illustrative of how political scientists fail to communicate effectively with students and with the wider world about current events.

IR Special Issue – Call For Submissions

RBPIRevista Brasileira de Política Internacional – RBPI (http://www.scielo.br/rbpi)  will publish in April 2016 a special issue organized by Cristina Yumie Aoki Inoue (Professor of International Relations of the Institute of International Relations, University of Brasilia, Brazil), Arlene Beth Tickner (Professor of International Relations in the Political Science Department at the Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia) and Antônio Carlos Lessa (Professor of International Relations of the Institute of International Relations, University of Brasilia, and editor-in-chief of RBPI). This special issue aims at contributing to construct a more global or plural IR, and to bring to light IR views from South America and beyond.

We welcome submissions that discuss the following questions and themes: What do theories mean in South America and other regions? Are there Latin American theories of IR? Is metatheory dead? Are there different ways of thinking theoretically foreign policy? Is it possible to think beyond state centrism? Teaching IR: does context matter? Theory and the BRICS, global south and post-colonial theorizing, governance, governmentality and theory, ethics and relativism, feminist theories go South, universalism and pluriversalism.

All submissions should be original and unpublished, must be written in English, including an abstract of less then 70 words (and three keywords in English), and follow the Chicago System. They must be in the range of 8.000 words. The deadline for submissions is September 30th 2015. Submissions must be done at http://www.scielo.br/rbpi.

Gaming the Professor

 

A final note about the series of Chasing Chaos simulations from last semester:

Candyfornia GameFor part of the final exam, I put students back into the teams from the Rwanda simulation and had each team select an article from this list:

  • Strobe Talbot, “The Making of Vladimir Putin,” Politico Magazine, 19 August 2014.
  • Dexter Filkins, “The Fight of Their Lives,” The New Yorker, 29 September 2014.
  • Youssef Cherif, “Tunisia’s Elections Amid a Middle East Cold War,” Atlantic Council, 24 October 2014.
  • Howard W. Frenchot, “China’s Dangerous Game,” The Atlantic, 13 October 2014.
  • George Soros, “Wake Up, Europe,” The New York Review of Books, 20 November 2014.
  • Ali Khedery, “Iraq’s Last Chance,” The New York Times, 15 August 2014.
  • Josh Kurlantzick, “Why Obama’s Courtship of Myanmar Backfired,” Bloomberg Businessweek, 6 November 2014.

Each team was tasked with designing a 10-12 minute presentation on the following question:

What international relations theory (constructivist, liberal, realist) and corresponding level of analysis (individual, domestic state, international system) best explain the subject of the article? Why?

I set up the delivery of the presentations as a competition. My usual practice for these competitions is to give each student an amount of Monopoly money for voting, and students are prohibited from voting for their own teams. In this case teams had unequal numbers of members, which would have created an advantage for the smallest teams, so instead I distributed the same amount of money to each team. A team could not vote for itself, but it was free to allocate its money to other teams in whatever way its members wanted.

When teams voted on the best presentation, each team put down all of its money on a different team to produce a tie among all of the teams. Clearly something was afoot — the class expected that a tie would force me to equally distribute the points for winning the competition across the whole class. Shared interest + communication = cooperation, a real-life demonstration of liberal theory!

I exercised the God option to frustrate their gambit. I announced another round of voting, with the provision that a tie would result in no points being awarded. And a clear winner quickly emerged.

This led to an interesting discussion about how the structure of a game affects the behavior of its players and how actors are affected by their environment. I was pleased to see that after a semester of simulations and theories, students were able to make this connection.