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.

Blindfolds, philosophers, and negotiations

This guest post comes from Alex Leveringhaus, from the Department of Politics, University of Surrey. He played Simon’s blindfold ice-breaker last week and it prompted some thoughts about philosophy. Obviously 

Imagine you are a member of a team that has been assigned a particular task. Nothing unusual about that. Imagine further that your team is competing with a second team that has been instructed to carry out the same task. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that, either. But now imagine that all participating team members (your team and your opponents) have to carry out their respective task while blindfolded. That’s probably a bit more unusual.

Naturally, the blindfold generates all sorts of practical challenges. How do you know who your team members are? How do you coordinate the successful completion of the task? The answer to these questions seems quite straightforward. You need to engage in team work! That is, you need to devise a strategy for carrying out your assigned task while blindfolded, and you need to trust your team mates that they pull their weight. The two ingredients of success: strategy and trust.

But not so fast. Strategy and trust have an inward and an outward component. The former relates to your teammates, the latter relates to the competing team. With regard to the latter component, the question is whether you can trust the competing team to play by the rules of the game and wear their blindfolds (and vice versa). More precisely, can you trust them not to peep underneath their blindfolds in order to gain an unfair advantage in the completion of the task? And how would you be able to ascertain this without breaking the rules of the competition yourself?

After all, in order to assess whether members of the other team are peeping underneath their blindfolds, you must peep underneath your blindfold, too. Naturally, whether you trust the other team or not will affect your team’s strategy. Arguably, a strategy that assumes universal compliance with the rules will differ from a strategy that assumes non-compliance.

The conundrum generated by the blindfold game is not new, of course. Nor has it primarily preoccupied the minds of political scientists. For instance, in his seminal work A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls, arguably the most important (political) philosopher in the English-speaking world post-World War II, offers a helpful distinction.

Rawls and Plato

According to Rawls, ideal theory, which he is primarily concerned with, assumes that there is universal compliance with principles of justice. Non-ideal theory, by contrast, assumes that not everybody complies with principles of justice.

Non-ideal theory generates two primary moral challenges. First, non-compliant individuals are free-riding. Second, moral obligations can quickly become over-demanding. Put simply, not only do non-compliant individuals benefit unfairly; to add insult to injury, compliant individuals also have to pick up the slack.

However, the problem is older than Rawls’ distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory. In fact, it goes right back to the inception of western political theorising in Ancient Greece. In his work The Republic (circa 380/1 BCE), Plato considers the story of a young shepherd who finds a ring that makes him invisible. (Sounds familiar anyone?) What should the shepherd do? He could kill the king, marry the queen, and become the new ruler. Untold riches beckon.

But Plato counsels against this. It is better, according to Plato, to play by the rules and not become a usurper, even if this means that the shepherd foregoes worldly riches. Why? Being a just person, Plato contends, is important for the well-being of one’s soul. It is, in other words, better to be a poor but happy shepherd than a powerful but miserable (Lady) Macbeth.

Hobbes and Machiavelli

Several centuries later, Thomas Hobbes devised a different solution to the problem. You can’t rely on justice or a sense of fair play, Hobbes claims. For, as Hobbes argues in Leviathan (1651), justice does simply not exist in the absence of a suitable authority to enforce the necessary rules.

The solution, then, for Hobbes, consists in establishing an authority, the Leviathan, to enforce the rules and punish those who transgress them. That sounds sensible, I hear you say. But is trust in the Leviathan enough? And how does the Leviathan maintain its own grip on power to lay down the law?

In Renaissance Florence, a disgraced former civil servant by the name of Niccolo Machiavelli had his own thoughts on this issue. In his work The Prince (1532), a guidebook on how to be a successful ruler (primarily by not getting killed by one’s subjects), Machiavelli advises that you should not trust anyone, at least if you want to remain in power. Nor should you try to act ethically. That won’t do you any good because everyone around you won’t act ethically, either. It is necessary, therefore, to be ruthless and act unethically. Nice guys, as the saying goes, always come last (or get their head chopped off).

However, the trick, according to Machiavelli, is not to brag that you are the toughest Pitbull in the yard. People will eventually hate you for doing so. And if they hate you, they will get rid of you sooner or later. Rather, what you should do is to appear to be an ethical person while acting unethically. Be a smiling assassin but ensure you sink the dagger in. Go to church and pretend to be a good Christian king but be prepared to mercilessly crush your enemies (or any other saboteurs, for that matter).

What does all this mean for the blindfold scenario? To peep or not to peep, that is here the question. Well. If you are a Platonist, you won’t peep underneath your blindfold. You and your teammates will do the right thing. You will play by the rules, even though you cannot be a hundred percent sure that the other team is doing the same. If you lose, you can console yourself that you played by the rules. But will that make you happy? Or will you be a sore loser?

By contrast, if you are a Hobbesian, you won’t peep underneath your blindfold because you trust that the person who supervises the game will enforce the rules. More importantly, you fear that the umpire/Leviathan/Simon will disqualify you if he catches you. (And let’s not even talk about getting a reference for that job application from Simon. ‘I blindfold my students on a regular basis. Student X, however, consistently peeped underneath his/her blindfold. X is untrustworthy and finds it hard to play by the rules. Hence X is completely unsuited to your organisation. Don’t give X a job. Sincerely, Dr U’.)

Finally, if you are a Machiavellian, you will mostly definitely peep underneath the blindfold. Heck, everyone else will be doing it, too. However, what you won’t do is rip the blindfold off at the earliest opportunity to check what the other team is up to. Rather, you will pretend that you are complying with the rules. So, all Machiavelli will allow for are a couple of discrete glances underneath your blindfold. Discrete glances! And of course, if you win, don’t tell anyone you cheated. Remember you stuck to the rules. It was your group’s ingenuity that pulled it off. But what if you get caught? Don’t be a chicken, Machiavelli would say. You were unlucky – fortune abandoned you. But at least you tried to win.

Blindfolds and philosopher asides, are there any repercussions for actual negotiations between governments? Sure, you need to have a strategy and you need to have trust in your teammates and vice versa (which kind of explains Theresa May’s current Brexit predicament: she seems to have neither). But what about the other side? Are they really negotiating in good faith? Do they have a Plan B? Do they have ulterior motives? Do they possess insider information that gives them an advantage? Perhaps it is time to give the intelligence services a call … after all, the other side might do, too.

New books in teaching and learning

And now its time for a little self-promotion.  

I want to draw our readers attention to two new edited volumes they might find useful in their own teaching.  Full disclosure: I have chapters in both of them, so my recommendation is not without bias. Both are interdisciplinary in approach, which can be very helpful in furthering our own innovation as teachers.

The first book is Human Rights in Higher Education: Institutional, Classroom, and Community Approaches to Teaching Social Justice, edited by Lindsey N. Kingston and published by Palgrave in its Studies in Global Citizenship, Education and Democracy series.  Many of our classes touch on human rights, and this book offers different perspectives on how to bring a human rights and social justice approach to undergraduate education.  All of the authors are connected to Webster University, but are from different disciplines including philosophy, sociology, criminology, law, photography, and psychology.  The approaches look at fostering human rights education at the institutional level (considering campus culture, student affairs, and research programs), classroom level (through specific courses, study abroad, and projects), and the community level (conferences, teaching non traditional students, and legal outreach).  My own chapter evaluates an interdisciplinary course I co-created with professors in philosophy and education on the Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals that included a three day educational simulation of hunger and poverty at Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas.

The other book is Learning from Each Other: Refining the Practice of Teaching in Higher Education., edited by Michele Lee Kozimor-King and Jeffrey Chin and published by University of California Press.  The social scientists in this book offer innovative ways to approach curriculum design, classroom instruction, out-of-classroom experiences, and assessment.  One of the chapters, Jay R. Howard’s ‘Student Reading Compliance and Learning in the Social Sciences’ touches directly on previous ALPS conversations about encouraging students to do the reading, and is well worth a look. My chapter dives into the literature on simulations and games in the social science, evaluating data from published simulations in political science to determine whether concerns about simulations taking too much classroom time are valid (spoiler alert: I say no).  

There are lots of great books out there on pedagogy, but if you want some very recent work directly speaking to social scientists, you might want to check these two books out!

Comparing American Foreign Policy Simulations

Today we have a guest post by Charity Butcher, Associate Professor of Political Science at Kennesaw State University. She can be reached at cbutche2[at]kennesaw[dot]edu.

I am always looking for new simulations – particularly ones that are easy to use and require less preparation. For my American foreign policy course, I usually use my own simulation on Iran-US relations. However, the Council of Foreign Relations’ Model Diplomacy simulations, discussed by others here and here, was an opportunity to try something new.

My simulation presents a crisis in Iran-US relations involving nuclear weapons, state support for terrorism, and/or the rivalry between Iran and Israel. In the simulation, students engage deeply with a topic, engage with a large number of state actors, and must deal with the consequences of their decisions. My ability to introduce problems in real-time creates flexibility and makes the simulation more dynamic for the students. However, my simulation requires a lot of preparation, both for me and my students.

Model Diplomacy, on the other hand, offers professors a menu of topics to choose from, and many of the simulations can be completed in a single class period. The simulations come with outstanding background material, so there is little need for students or the instructor to do additional research. However, Model Diplomacy simulations do not move past a predetermined decision point and there are no consequences to participants’ actions. Students sometimes reach a decision very quickly, which might reduce what they learn from the simulation.

I decided to use both my simulation and Model Diplomacy in the last iteration of the foreign policy course, in an attempt to capitalize on the advantages of both. Two one-day Model Diplomacy simulations served as a starting point for a longer three-day simulation. For this longer simulation, students began with the Model Diplomacy Iran Deal Breach scenario, but were provided with additional stimuli during the simulation and were able to interact with other countries. The results were quite positive, and I will continue to use both the short Model Diplomacy simulations along with a longer more interactive simulation in the course.

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

“…were being given silly things to do…”

Plan B

So that was the summer pause, apparently, and now it’s back to the grindstone.

Luckily, one of my very first tasks is to get ready for the annual UACES Teaching & Learning workshop, which we run ahead of the main conference, this year in the fine city of Bath, England.

The event has developed over recent years into a very useful mix of activities and reflection, each time taking a different approach, to keep it fresh for participants and to attract the curious.

However, one element that seems to be a recurrent one is an opening ice-breaker activity. Last year, I found myself scurrying around Krakow to find post-it notes (and then writing a very similar opening to the current post, it seems).

As you’ll note, this year, I’m writing ahead of the activity, mainly because I wanted to reflect a bit on what the function of an ice-breaker is/might be, rather than an actual example.*

Thinking about it abstractly, we’re definitely trying to do one thing, and usually trying to do another too.

Loosening-up

The definite element of an ice-breaker is to reduce inhibitions among participants. Like the eponymous ship, the activity is intended to get us out of ourselves, feel less self-conscious and start to develop a sense of a group, within which exchange is easier.

We do that by distraction, broadly speaking. Give people a task, especially if it’s light-hearted, and they’ll be likely to get into it. I think here it’s partly about diverting attention from “here’s a bunch of people I don’t know” to “here’s a fun thing to do”, which in turn opens up a reason to talk/interact with those people we don’t know.

To flip that around, you can’t just stand at the front of a group and tell them to become less inhibited and more willing to participate. Or rather, you can, but your chances of success are slim.

And we do this dishibiting because we think it aids subsequent debate and work. Individuals are more likely to speak up, connections are more likely to be made and generally more will be got from the session, because there’s more focus. At a mundane level, that might just be because the enjoyment of it all means people are less likely to be distracted by their mobile phones.

Learning stuff

But there’s also a second element in a ice-breaker that is usually found, namely increasing knowledge.

That might be something simple, like learning the names of other people, or something about their work (as in the Krakow exercise).

But it can also be a more abstract point, such as the nature of human interactions (as in the Hobbes game), or scholastic skills (as here). Clearly, that insight can be both mixed with the more prosaic stuff, and also connected to the wider objectives of the session.

In this, we’re doing something very close to a simulation game: getting participants to have a visceral experience that feeds into their emergent understanding of a situation.

Together

Thinking about ice-breakers in such a fashion can be helpful, not least in identifying what you what to achieve from it.

In practical terms, you’re always going for the dishibition, so you need to be asking what else you want/need to achieve while you’re doing it.

In my case, given the rest of the programme for the workshop (a variety of active sessions), and the 15 minute slot I’ve got, I need to keep things simple and focused on ‘getting to know you’-type things.

Which means my big pile of blindfolds probably has to wait for another occasion.

* No, I still to sort out what’s happening in Bath. Obviously.

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

Changing a Course on Development, Part 6

My general approach to teaching is to emphasize the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Creation and evaluation are important. Memorization, not so much. While game design gives students the opportunity to create something connected to course content, they should also evaluate whether what they’ve created is on target. So, as promised in my last post, here is the relevant assignment, be due after students play the games that they have designed:

1. Read the rubric below.

2. In the form of a 3-4 page, double-spaced essay, evaluate the game you played that was designed by another team. How well did the game:

Work independently, do not discuss your essay with other students.

 

Changing a Course on Development, Part 5

In my last post in this series, I discussed integrating the SCAMPER technique with student game design via a writing assignment and in-class presentations. I’m a firm believer in the benefits of iteration when it comes to learning, so I’m including a second round of game design. For the second round, students will again use SCAMPER, but this time they will actually build new games. Here is the preparatory writing assignment:

Problem

People frequently do not understand the relationships between economics, politics, and the environment. Games are powerful learning tools, but there are few high-quality games about these relationships.

Solution

Design a game that illustrates a relationship between economics, politics, and the environment.

Apply SCAMPER to an existing game other than the California Water Crisis game  — for example, Risk, Mahjong, Settlers of Catan, or Monopoly — to design a framework for a new game. Choose a topic of interest. Put the game in a specific context, such as “the effects of sea level rise in Boston” rather than “climate change.”

Audience

Write a proposal to Hasbro’s Product Development Division in which you discuss the new game you have designed by using SCAMPER on an existing game. Identify the topic of the new game, what features of the existing game will change, how they will change, and why these changes are beneficial.

After students have submitted their individual proposals, I will again cluster the class into teams. The members of each team will discuss their ideas, decide on a single design to pursue, and create and deliver in-class presentations. I’ve devoted a subsequent class session for teams to physically construct the games and another one for students to actually play the games. Debriefing will occur via another writing assignment, which will be the subject of my next post.

Keeping it fresh V: summertime madness

It’s that period in the year where we’re all doing all those things we said we’d do now, because we didn’t have time then.

Supposedly.

Personally, thanks to the continued pyschodrama of British politics, I’m still knee-deep in commitments to lots of people, with only scant sight of any end. Indeed, I’m increasingly of the opinion that ‘summers’ (in the sense of a break) don’t really exist.

Fortunately, my habit and commitment to write a weekly post here reminds me that this project has fallen off the wagon somewhat. By the end of February I had a good sense of what I was going to do with my revised module on negotiation, so I parked it.

And now it’s July and I need to get the handbrake off once more.

Those with better memories will recall that I plan to create a series of interlocking activities that shape subsequent work and allow for a mix of exploring different issues, while also deepening their understanding of the interlinkages.

The main issue has been to find a topic that can link these all together.

While the shores of IR promise the potential of conflict and peril, I am concerned that it doesn’t let me drop down to more mundane and domestic issues.

Likewise, modelling an environment in politics risks having to make use of structural divisions on ideological lines that might be difficult to sustain over a semester.

If the framework is to work, then it needs to give enough space to allow for a range of activities, while also generating meaningful consequences to handle down the line.

With this in mind, I’m inclining to make the group into some fictional advisory committee to a government, which can then pronounce on assorted issues, sometimes representing different interests, sometimes acting on personal conscience.

An interesting opener to this – and the idea that came to mind this morning – is that this structure lends itself to a nice ice-breaker, where students can get to know each other and begin to assess their capacities.

Historically, I’ve used Victor’s Hobbes card game for this, mainly to highlight that people are shits (not Victor, obvs) and that since negotiation requires you to deal with people, you need to work on how you handle them.

However, what I have in my mind’s eye is something that speaks more to building some trust and confidence in each other, given that they will be having to have a functional relationship over 11 weeks.

Of course, knowing what you’re aiming for isn’t the same as actually having it mapped out, but it’s an important start: as and when I find myself trying to escape the turmoil of Brexit, I can at least have a clear point to work from.

Unless the football thing intervenes.