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.

 

When Hobbes Turned Liberal Institutionalist….

This week I returned to my roots to replay another version of Victor Asal’s Hobbes game. One of my favorite things about the Hobbes game is that it can always be slightly altered to introduce new kinds of interaction in the game.

In order to do this you really do need to play Victor’s original game first.

Then, a week or two later…. hand out the cards again. I wanted Wednesday’s interaction to be more akin to the picture of the international system represented by liberal institutional models of interaction. Specifically, I wanted to introduce variation, not simply in terms of individual power levels, but types of potential cooperation.

Tell them, today, the kind of card you get matters. (watch them peer at the front of their card anxiously….see how the people holding aces and kings begin to smile)

Project an image of the hierarchy of poker hands on the board and explain which kinds of hands are better than others. (you will get confused looks from people who have never played cards…don’t linger on this …. just smile and say…. everything will be alright)

The text and images below are from the website pokerstars.com but you can find the image anywhere really.

Straight Flush & Royal Flush

Straight

Four of a Kind:

Four of a Kind

Full House:

Full House

Flush:

Flush

Straight:

Straight

Three of a kind:

Three of a Kind

Two pair

Two Pair

One pair

One Pair

High card

High Card

Now… tell them that individual cards can challenge each other. In that case, the higher value card wins, takes the other card, and then the loser sits down.

BUT… they are also free to create pairs, triples, and even complete 5 card poker hands. (I limited them to five…. continue to ignore the people who don’t know cards)

Then…. say…. go!

Observations by Students in Debrief:

  1. MASSIVE VARIATION in behavior from the original game….. some team up and produce collective security others go it alone.

  2. Students who had initially powerful cards (Aces) felt more assured than those who had low number cards. But everyone had an opportunity to collaborate to build a good poker hand in order to feel safer.

  3. Students reported feeling less concerned about relative gains and more interested in absolute gains as they searched for other potential allies.

  4. All the students agreed that the structure of the game more closely aligned with what they imagined the international system to be like: more opportunities for cooperation in many different ways, but still anarchic and fraught with distrust and fear for survival.

  5. Students who had no idea about poker hands were sometimes preyed upon, but most often, were assisted by colleagues with similar cards.

Prior to this exercise the students were unconvinced by the Kupchans‘ work on collective security and the institutionalist perspective. They preferred the ‘pragmatism’ of Mearsheimer and Waltz. After the exercise, the students reported understanding, more clearly, what the Kupchans’ were getting at. I’ll definitely do this again in tandem with the original form of the Hobbes game.

Michelle Allendoerfer: Rational Theory of War II

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.

NapoleonFirst, 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.

Michelle Allendoerfer: Fearon’s Rational Theory of War

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:

Rationality of WarOf 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.

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

cdc

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

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.

images

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….

 

 

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!