Path dependency in class

A few years ago, I had a student who kept walking out of class.

He did this because he’d decided that, in several of the various negotiation scenarios into which I had placed him, his optimal strategy was to literally walk away from the table.

During the semester, he did this about four times, usually to snippy comments from his classmates.

We talked about it a fair bit, as a group, because I felt it was really useful to unpack the merits and demerits of this approach, which I’d not seen before (or since, for that matter).

I was remembering this case the other day, as my current group of negotiation students once again decided to hold a closed door meeting of principals, kicking out most of the class to the corridor outside.

As one student noted in the debrief: “why does this keep happening? Every time it does, it just really alienates people and makes it harder to reach an agreement”.

And that’s my question here: how and why do cohorts get stuck in patterns of behaviour?

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Ethically Simulating

This post was inspired by a story in The New York Times: a U.S. Marine discovered his daughters reading a “choose your own adventure” book with a chapter about a battle in Afghanistan in which he actually fought. He thought the book presented a superficial view of war and wrote an editorial on the subject. The book’s publisher decided to stop selling it and halt production of four other similar titles.

The story got me thinking about my own teaching. I often place students in simulated environments that in real life are horrendous — such as genocide, civil war, and natural disasters.* I do this because I believe it does a better job than just reading a text at getting students invested in the subject and developing a less-biased understanding of others. In the past these simulations have even included the digital version of choose your own adventure books.  

Yet I probably don’t pay enough attention to the risk that these exercises can come across as trite games completely divorced from reality. On the one hand, I teach undergraduates who in many cases have lived a materially comfortable life within a psychologically-comfortable bubble. Their world is diametrically opposed to the one that I am hoping they are learning about, and that probably gives them far less of an ability to empathize than I would like. On the other hand, my graduate courses are filled with active and former military personnel. Many of them have direct experience thinking through situations that my simulations attempt to artificially replicate.  

Perhaps I should be asking students “Did this simulation respect reality in a way that contributed to your learning?”

*Inside Disaster: Haiti, the death of which I reported in 2015, has apparently been resurrected via subscription-only access. While its history demonstrates the inherent problems of online simulations, I strongly recommend this product.

A Brexit simulation (for when you don’t know what’s going to happen)

Moi non plus… (as I imagine Dubya would have said)

I’m doing some training on negotiation in Belgium this week, building on what the organisers imagine is my expertise in this subject and Brexit.

Of course, when I said ‘yes’ to the offer six months ago, I had to hedge against making too many promises that reality might break all too obviously.

What I’d not banked on was finding myself just a day or two beforehand still not being sure what might happen by the time I found myself in front of the group.

With that in mind, I made a little negotiation exercise that tackles Brexit, but at a distance, to protect against the vagueries of it all. The text of the scenario is below and you’re welcome to comment on, and use, it as you see fit.

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The price of failure

via GIPHY

After last week’s class discussion about participation, I decided to run an exercise that made it really easy to show the marginal benefit of preparation.

I told students to prepare for a meeting about putting together an agenda for another negotiation, and gave them all specific roles, plus some rules of procedure.

(For those who are looking for Brexit sims, this was a Council working group, putting together an agenda for the Commission to take to the UK to discuss the Political Declaration).

Because it was about formulating an agenda, I hoped that students would see they didn’t need to get too deeply into substantive positions, as long as they could frame the general areas to be covered.

Plus, but giving clear roles and rules, I incentivised everyone to push out their own draft agendas prior to the meeting. In so doing, I hoped they’d see that even a small amount of preparation could have big effects.

Um

Obviously, it didn’t turn out that way.

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Ooh, ah, just a little bit

(for those benighted souls unfamiliar with Eurovision, the title’s from a song, so it’s fine. Really)

See?

I ran into a bit of roadblock yesterday in class.

The students had been undertaking a negotiation on drawing up a joint statement by a number of groups and we were talking through some of the debriefing points.

I suggested that they’d taken things much as they came, whereas if they’d come with an agenda, or some text, had pushed to become chair or rapporteur, or generally had been more forceful, then they’d have been much more successful in securing what they wanted to achieve.

Ooh

This produced, well if not quite uproar then at least debate.

Various individuals argued that given the dynamic of the group, anyone who came in with A Plan would risk marginalising themselves for the rest of the module, as others would be resentful to them.

It was pointed out that they’d managed to produce a text, so why do things differently?

And they also highlighted that they had other modules to study for, so there was a limit to how much time they would or could put into preparing, not least because of the way I assess.

That assessment is based on self-reflective writing, so I’m not judging their ‘success’ in negotiating per se,

Ah

The discussion was a useful one, at least for me.

The root of it all largely appeared to come down to students taking my comments as a striving for perfection, rather than as a relativistic statement.

As we continued to talk, I tried to underline that I wasn’t asking that everyone did everything, but rather that doing a bit more than others would produce much of the same effect.

To take the example from the session, one student became the effective chair because they’d happened to say something at the outset of the session. It required no additional preparation, and because that individual also offered to write up the statement, they gained huge influence over the outcome.

Just a little bit

And this is perhaps the point for the rest of us.

There’s a tension in what we teach our students between the notional perfection of How Things Should Be and How To Do Better Than We Are Now.

That’s probably most pronounced in questions of methodology: how systematically and perfectly should one pursue a methodological approach and where can one cut corners (and to what cost)?

But it’s true of all our work. I’ve seen enough theory to know that there are almost endless levels of refinement of theoretical positions to know that perfection is never truly possible in a practical setting.

With that in mind, perhaps we have to ask ourselves how we tackle this tension in our classes. To counsel perfection is one thing, but do we not then set up students for some level of failure? But if we don’t strive to do the best we can, do we risk not helping students to maximise their potential and their practice?

The answers to these questions will vary from place to place, but a starting point has to be an understanding of what we aim to achieve with our students.

In my case, I’m going into the coming sessions with some new ideas to help draw students more into the kind of logic that I discussed with them, to see if that addresses the dilemma. 

And if it does, then we’ll move onto the next line of the song: “A little bit more”.

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