Teaching Trump 3

Today we have a third installment in a spontaneous series on teaching political science in the time of Trump, written by William R. Wilkerson, Professor of American Government and Politics at SUNY-Oneonta. Previous posts in this series are here and here.

I too have struggled. My focus so far has been to spend more class time on two things: 1) the founding and how it informs what is happening in American politics today, and 2) on what political science, and social science generally, can tell my students about the rise of President Trump. I agree that neutrality is important. I need to be able to potentially reach all my students, regardless of their position on issues or their party affiliation. Three syllabi that helped guide my teaching this semester:

I also found the following blog posts, mostly by political scientists, particularly useful in putting together readings for students on various topics: Continue reading

Teaching Trump #2

A follow-up to Amanda’s post about teaching in the time of Trump. Trump’s campaign and administration represent an opportunity to teach about racism in the construction of national identity. I stumbled into this subject accidentally in my globalization course last week, with an assignment that asked students to write a response to “Is France or the USA a more global society?” Students were supposed to reference the following items:

Yesterday I heard this radio report about residents of Newton, Massachusetts, one of the wealthiest and therefore whitest communities in the USA: Continue reading

Conceptual Understanding Through Experiments

Today we have a guest post from Jonathan Rauh, a doctoral student in political science at East Carolina University. 

atomic-experimentActive engagement of the student is a key facet of experiential learning. In-class debate is one classic means of generating engagement, but it can favor students who are more extroverted. In-class debate also tends to be relatively light on the application of concepts but heavy on critical reflection. As an alternative, I have used in-class experiments derived from economics to teach how policy preferences are realized (or not) as a result of different voting systems.

In these experiments, I begin with a discussion in which I ask students about their own policy positions on issues like gun control, abortion, tax policy, school vouchers, universal healthcare, and the death penalty. This allows for discussion of political representation in different forms of government, which then leads into experiments where students are assigned a set of preferences ranging from, for example, far right to far left, and are subjected to a set of voting rules. This type of environment makes it easy to illustrate differences between voting systems, such as first-past-the-post and rank order preference.

If one has taken a course in experimental economics then one knows it is fairly common to have small monetary payoffs—for example, $10. These real monetary consequences lead students to quickly identify which voting strategies will best increase their chances of winning in the experiment.

I have found that the applied nature of the experiments provides a way for students to engage with theories that would otherwise just be abstract discussion points. Students whose personalities make them less inclined to debate are more engaged because their votes do not require explicit public statements. They are able to understand that one strategy is preferable to another and make adjustments in each round of voting without being singled out. Students who participate in my voting games show better test scores at the end of the year and, according to colleagues, have a good understanding of policy preferences and the complex interactions between competing political parties.

For a full discussion of implementing an in-class voting experiment see:

Rauh, Jonathan. 2014. “In-Class Experiments as an Accompaniment to In-Class Discussion.” Journal of Political Science Education 10(4): 453-470.

For a full discussion of experimental economics games that can be applied in your class to teach about topics ranging from preference recognition to lobbying to voting, see Charles Holt’s VeconLab at the University of Virginia: http://veconlab.econ.virginia.edu/admin.htm.

The US Election in a Comparative Context

Teaching in DC, at the #mostpolicallyactivecampus (GWU’s unofficial Twitter hashtag), I decided to embrace all the craziness of the election season and design my Introduction to election2016Comparative Politics syllabus around it. I bring the US in as a point of comparison a lot already – both in formal assignments like debates and informally during class discussion – but this year, I will be more deliberate about it. Knowing my student population, they will be watching debates and following the election like hawks. If I can tap into that enthusiasm, I think it will be a good hook for student engagement. Bonus points if it means they become move critical consumers of news about the election. Continue reading

The Wicked Games We Play: A Review of Agenda

Today’s post is from Casey Delehanty, doctoral candidate in political science at Florida State University.

Agenda BoardMany attendees at this year’s APSA annual meeting were given a free copy of Agenda, a board game that claims to be “the culmination of the journey to discover a way for politics and the political games people play to not only be better understood but be fun at the same time.” Initially, I planned to give it a play test with some colleagues and submit a review that touched on the best ways instructors could utilize the game for pedagogical purposes. As it turns out, Agenda is a terrible game. As one play-tester commented, “This board game offends me not only as someone who studies politics but as someone who likes board games.”

In Agenda, players pick one of seven possible “political personas,” each with its own political viewpoints—such as Socialist, Corporatist, Moralist, or Libertarian. Players take turns moving around the board via die rolls, and each square they land on affects their personal resources in the form of votes, money, and poll standing. If they possess the requisite resources when passing an Agenda button, they can enact a “policy plank,” a major policy which their character holds dear. The first player to enact an agreed upon number of “policy planks” wins. While this may seem like a fairly simple setup, the actual rules of Agenda resemble corporate tax codes in their complexity. This brings us to my first point:

Make your instructions simple

I’m no stranger to big, complicated manuals and I’m not expecting literary prose from a game manual, but the manual for Agenda is Byzantine to the point of absurdity. For example, there are seven different categories of cards, all of which receive their own section within the game manual, despite the fact that they all generally do the same things. It took four political science graduate students around 30-45 minutes to get around halfway through the manual, at which point we became frustrated and decided to “learn while playing.”

This kind of needless complexity can mean a quick death for classroom simulations. Any simulation’s complexity should be spread out among students so that the amount of knowledge required of any individual student is relatively low. Agenda places needlessly intricate rules on top of what is essentially a very simple game, necessitating a long and arduous learning curve before implementation.

Make game decisions meaningful

There’s an old web comic of philosophers playing board games that came to mind when playing Agenda. In it, “Camus” declares that Candyland is the “most brilliant game ever made!” Since players in Candyland move along by drawing cards, players lack agency and must supply themselves with narratives about their progress that, given the nature of the game, are patently absurd.

Likewise, players of Agenda have no real agency or need for strategy. A player’s choice of “political persona” has no discernable impact on his or her available options or the course of the game. “Policy planks” also have no significant effect. Once we successfully enacted a “plank,” nothing really happened beyond checking off a box on the back of our character cards. In all, there was no real strategy to the game at all; players just clump around the board hoping to land in the right sequence of squares to end the game.

The entire point of using classroom simulations is to force students to wrestle with dilemmas that resemble real-life political phenomena. In Agenda, players are reduced to dice-rolling automatons who only manage the accumulation of money, votes, and poll standing.

Try to approximate real life

One of the most frustrating aspects of Agenda is the degree to which the game mechanics are based less on politics than the jokes people tell about politics. There isn’t really anything here that approximates reality, and there is little to no explanation of how policies are actually made.

Agenda MoralistAs an example, the Moralist in our game managed to enshrine Christianity as the official state religion as an “agenda plank,” despite the earth-shaking changes to U.S. institutional structure that would have to occur to make that a real-life possibility. Moreover, there is never any explanation as to the actual identity or function of any of the personas. President? Member of Congress? Dictator for life? Agenda won’t tell you. And how does this persona enact a policy? By obtaining more than $1 million in money, 500,000 votes, and more than 50 percent in poll standing. Money for what? Votes in what election? More than 50 percent in what poll? Don’t worry about it, says Agenda.

This is perhaps the most frustrating part of Agenda. Rather than put any effort into mimicking real-life processes, the game seems to be nothing more than a platform for unfunny and potentially offensive jokes about politics. For example, one board square reads “make insensitive remark about rape: lose one million votes.” One card states “You are a member of a minority ethnic group. Lose ten poll points.” These features inhibit understanding by caricaturing different segments of the political spectrum while at the same time obscuring the actual policy process. There is no coalition-building, no log-rolling, no calculation of any kind.

Ideally, classroom simulations and games impart at least some understanding of real-life political phenomena. Game mechanics need not mirror real-life processes exactly, but they should at least give some insight into how these processes work, or what it’s like to operate under the various institutional constraints that actual politics present. By contrast, I think that playing Agenda could actually cause students to know less about politics than they did before going into the game.

A fourth way of teaching elections

Simon just posted about 3 ways of teaching the 2015 British elections, and I thought I would chime in with a fourth way to teach elections: the student-led discussion.

Essentially you have students work in small groups to lead a discussion about the candidates for a particular office or the debate on a ballot issue.  They get 10 minutes to present the candidates/issue (usually incorporating videos or news articles or prezi/powerpoint), and then have to lead a 20 minute discussion amongst their peers.  The instructor sits in the audience and does not participate, but takes notes throughout, particularly on any factual mistakes, and debriefs the group at the end.   In the US this works really well because the elections usually have a multitude of local and state offices that the students might not otherwise know about, such as judges, auditors, and assemblypersons.  It is also a highly portable exercise, in that its easy to swap out whatever offices are contested in a given term. When there isn’t an election going on–or if you are teaching about a country that does not have fixed elections– you have them do it on ‘current issues’ in politics instead. You can make the leadership itself a small portion of the grade–say 5%–and student participation affects their overall participation grade.

I’ve used an activity like this in my intro to American Politics class regularly since 2010.  It usually works really, really well.  I have the advantage of usually teaching this class in a 4 hour block for only 8 weeks–so the August-October class ends just before the November elections.  That means usually in the fall section we do Campaigns, and in the spring, Current Issues.  For campaigns, i usually select the specific offices we cover–if a race is completely uncontested, its not going to lead to a lot of debate–but with Current Issues, I let the students choose, although I retain a veto that I’ve almost never had to actually use.