What’s the point?

Hirschman is for life, not just organisational theory day

It’s been open day season here: putting on talks and activities to entice students to join our fine institution (helped by the excellent weather).

One of the more intriguing aspects of this is the extent to which we sell the study of Politics as intrinsically valuable, as against as a pathway to other things.

It’s long been a tension that has interested me, as my teaching on negotiation clearly sits across the divide. As I tell our potential applicants, I get lots of feedback from alumni telling me how useful it was to develop their negotiation skills for when they bought a house, set up a business or – in one memorable exchange – had to sack someone.

All important life events, but not Politics in the narrow sense. Continue reading

Changing a Course on Development, Part 4

Despite varying degrees of success in my first-year seminar — which I decided to stop teaching — I’m going to again have students design board games based on course content. But I’m going to organize this process differently than before. 

There will be two rounds of game design and each will use SCAMPER, an acronym for a design thinking technique that I will demonstrate with an in-class exercise. In the first round, each student will complete a writing assignment that applies SCAMPER to the California Water Crisis (CWC) game used by Andrew Biro. Here is what SCAMPER looks like in this context:

  • Substitute: what part of the game can be substituted for some other part?
  • Combine: can two separate processes in the game be integrated into one?
  • Adapt: can an aspect of some other game be adapted for use in this game?
  • Modify: can a process that is part of the game be modified, enhanced, or simplified?
  • Put to other use: can a part of the game serve some other function within the game?
  • Eliminate: can any part of the game can be removed/omitted?
  • Reverse: what happens if some process in the game is reversed?

Here are the directions for the first round’s writing assignment: Continue reading

Chickens and eggs in online resource development

What’s that HAL? You can’t lip-read because I’ve covered up my webcam?

As the token European in the ALPSblog team, I guess I should make some passing reference to the football [sic] World Cup, but given my abject disregard for the game, this isn’t going to happen. I’ll leave it at pointing you to others who do want to link it in.

Instead, I want to consider a new challenge I’m grappling with this summer: building properly online interactive resources.

This is for a project I’ve mentioned before, a resource for Oxford University Press to frame their online materials in and around EU politics, produced by a team of colleagues here at Surrey (when they’re not watching the football). With a mix of text, audio and activities, we want to try and make the most of the online-ness of it all.

The issue has been to know quite what that might actually mean.

Very helpful was a recent conference call with their tech people, who basically told us that we can propose whatever we like. That might sound banal, but their view was very much that they’d rather rein us back in than have us stick to a list of prescribed formats. In essence, they’d tell us if we’ve gone too wild in our thinking. Continue reading

From Frying Pan To Fire?

A brief meditation on teaching in the era of Trump. From a comparative perspective. In more ways than one.

As someone whose income is in the world’s top one percent, I have the luxury of partaking in long-distance travel on a purely voluntary basis. Soon I’ll be vacationing outside the USA, a country where corrupt, narcissistic xenophobes are doing their best to undermine the rule of law, with the full approval of their supporters. My destination? A country where corrupt, narcissistic xenophobes are doing their best to undermine the rule of law, with the full approval of their supporters.

So yes, I see parallels, despite the geographic and cultural differences. The tribalistic nationalism. The sexism. The religious justifications. The cronyism. Most of all, the constant attempts to de-legitimize the very institutions that originally put these people into positions of power.

I know that I’m a bit more sensitive to the symbiotic relationship between popular prejudices and abusive government than many people, in part because my wife, as a Muslim and an immigrant, is classified as both a terrorist and a rapist in Trumpspeak. But history demonstrates that those who engage in idol worship and willful ignorance as a means to an end rarely see their expectations met.

And here is the connection to my teaching: the basic principle that I try to convey to students is that one benefits by comparing, as open-mindedly as possible, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Curiosity-driven analysis leads to unexpected insights, sounder judgments, and more satisfying outcomes in life. And it is quite acceptable to make mistakes along the way as long as one takes the time to try to figure out why things went wrong.

Unfortunately I am seeing an increasing resistance to this message among U.S. undergraduates. Far too many expect to be intellectually and morally validated solely on the basis of personal opinion. Far too few exhibit a willingness to consider the possibility that perspectives which differ from their own might have merit. If some students perceive my teaching as a threat to the comfortable psychological environment that they have constructed for themselves, I get labeled authoritarian, racist, sexist, or otherwise unprofessional — revenge for being told that their academic performance is not of the quality that they believe it to be. Who am I to tell them that they are not perfect?

This probably makes me sound like a disgruntled, insufferable elitist. But I wonder if we folks in the USA are in the midst of a disaster of our own making. Unstructured and unsupervised play during childhood has become the exception rather than the rule. Reality TV, online personae, and the War on Terror have been background noise for as long as today’s teenagers have been alive. Anxiety and depression are epidemic on college campuses. And now government by distortion, outrage, and caprice has been normalized. It’s probably only natural that many undergraduates think everyone has the right to their own immutable set of alternative facts.

Changing a Course on Development, Part 3

As a follow-up to Part 2 in this series, here are specific examples of how culling learning objectives and readings led to better alignment with assignments.

My old version of the course included the topics of poverty, aid, economic growth,  economic geography, corruption, and ethnic conflict. For the new version, I abandoned the last three of these as learning objectives. This allowed me to discard corresponding chapters from William Easterly’s The Elusive Quest For Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics (MIT Press, 2001), plus other, shorter readings.

The old course had content organized under headings like “economic institutions” and “economic behavior.” While I am intricately familiar with these terms, students are not. As learning objectives, they are too broad. “Barriers to entrepreneurship” is more useful. As I mentioned in Part 2, students will see each of these objectives as a meta-prompts for reading responses, which are also now more specific. For example, in the portion of the syllabus where I am still using Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (Public Affairs, 2011):

Old assignment A

Why don’t the poor create their own microfinance institutions, instead of “waiting” for outsiders to do it for them?

New assignment A

Purpose of this response: learn about the role of insurance in mitigating economic risk.

  • Bannerjee and Duflo, Ch. 6, p. 133-156.
  • Gardiner Harris, “Borrowed Time on Disappearing Land,” New York Times, 28 March 2014.
  • Brooke Jarvis, “When Rising Seas Transform Risk Into Certainty,” The New York Times, 18 April 2017.

Can insurance help Bangladeshis minimize economic risk? Why? What about people living in Norfolk and Houston? Why?

Old assignment B

  • Bannerjee and Duflo, Ch. 10 and Conclusion, p. 235-274.

Is the pessimism of the Acemoglu and Robinson development model correct? Why?

New assignment B

Purpose of this response: learn about the effectiveness of public policy in a changing natural environment.

  • Bannerjee and Duflo, Ch. 10 and Conclusion.
  • Richard Conniff, “The Vanishing Nile: A Great River Faces a Multitude of Threats,” Yale Environment 360, 6 April 2017.
  • Community Water Solutions, “Empowering Women Entrepreneurs to End the World Water Crisis,” 5 April 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zUBOLzfrQo.

Will small, decentralized, community-based changes lead to large-scale sustainable economic development? Why?

The simplicity-complexity dilemma

Having been all chuffed with how my EU simulation was received in Prague at EuroTLC, I read Patricia’s post about using doughnuts to model a two-level game with a mixture of admiration and jealousy.

The admiration comes from the elegance of its design and jealousy from the feeling that I’d not come up with something nearly as good.

So, props to Patricia (and hello to my local doughnut vendor), but it also raises an interesting question that was niggling me in Prague and which has been a long-running debate here on ALPSblog, namely the tension between making something ‘realistic’ and drawing out the essence of a situation.

It’s a generic problem for all teaching and learning: we can’t (or shouldn’t) hope to describe and explain every last thing in the world around us, so we use heuristics of theory and extrapolation to provide ‘good enough’ models. Continue reading

The Doughnut Negotiation: Win-Sets with Sprinkles

Today we have a guest post from Dr. Patricia Blocksome, Assistant Professor of Social Science, US Army School of Advanced Military Studies. She can be reached via her LinkedIn profile at https://www.linkedin.com/in/pblocksome/.


Putnam argues that international negotiations between states occur simultaneously with domestic negotiations between intrastate coalitions – the two-level game. At the domestic level, politicians have to form coalitions large enough to ratify an international agreement. These domestic coalitions establish the win-set, the spectrum of acceptable outcomes for the state. At the international level, each state attempts to achieve an agreement that falls within its domestic win-set. When states have overlapping domestic win-sets, an international agreement is possible. Negotiations can occur concurrently over two or more different issues, leading to potential trade-offs, where a gain in one area can offset a loss in another.

So how does this apply to doughnuts? Continue reading

In theory I can drive a small lorry…

Almost exactly like this

Of the many things I imagined I would get from EuroTLC, I never imagined that would include the discovery that I’ve been legally able to drive a small lorry for the past quarter of a century.

That conversation sprang out of a sharing of national identity papers in the beer hall – yes, we do know how to have fun – which ultimately resulted in me turning over my driving licence to find all the many categories of vehicle I am allowed to drive.

And that’s a good metaphor for one of the bigger themes of the conference for me: getting from theory to practice.

Despite having a bit of plastic that permits me to do these things, I’ve never actually tried to do them. Quite aside from the questions this raises about how driving tests worked in Buckinghamshire in the early 1990s, it also points to the difficulty of turning abstraction into practicality.

As a couple of colleagues noted during the event, we have two bodies of literature that don’t really speak to each other. Continue reading

Changing a Course on Development, Part 2

Back in February, I wrote about using the question “What don’t students need?” to help me redesign my course on economic development — a guiding principle that is very different from “What do I like to teach?”

This last question got me thinking about my history with the subject and how that has affected my preferences when teaching it. I can thank Dr. William Joseph for first introducing me to the political economy of Third World development in an undergraduate course that I took decades ago at Wellesley College. His course sparked an interest that would eventually become the foundation of my academic career. At the time, the field was transitioning away from the binary lenses of modernization theory and post-colonial thought and toward new institutional economics. A standard syllabus would begin with Western imperialism, progress through post-independence struggles in a global capitalist order, and end with the success stories of newly-industrialized states in East Asia. There would be some discussion of international financial institutions — the IMF and World Bank — along the way.

For today’s War on Terror generation, decolonization, the Green Revolution, and Japan’s post-World War II industrialization are ancient history. These topics are both relevant and fascinating for a historically-minded person like me, but I only have fourteen weeks in the semester and my students will probably never take another course on economic development.

I culled the reading list a second time while trying to keep the above in mind, and more readings went into the rubbish bin. In the process I created some parsimonious alignment between learning objectives and writing assignments, which in turn led to an easy set of meta-prompts to preface those assignments. Each meta-prompt begins with “Purpose of this response: learn about . . . ” and ends with the specific learning objective that the assignment targets. Here is the list of those objectives:

  • The nature of poverty and perceptions of the poor.
  • Foreign aid.
  • Demographics and carrying capacity.
  • Causes of economic growth.
  • The role of agriculture in development.
  • Human capital.
  • The management of market externalities.
  • Effects of and barriers to savings, credit, insurance, and entrepreneurship for the poor.
  • The relationship between property regimes and natural resource management.
  • The socioeconomic consequences of urban development policies.
  • The effectiveness of public policy in a changing natural environment.

I’ll be posting more about redesigning this course in the coming weeks.

Contingencies and contingency

Maybe not the best choice, given how that one pans out, but you get the idea

Reading Chad’s post reminds me – as if it were needed – that we operate in increasingly contingent times: there’s very little that is secure and dependably reliable.

That’s true of student enrolments, central financing and even the structure of the subject matter we study. Everything’s in flux, all the time.

This was driven home for me by a meeting I attended this week in Northern Ireland of the British and the Irish political studies associations, where we were talking about how Brexit is challenging us on a number of different levels.

Of these, the question of how to teach Brexit looked quite prosaic and manageable (as we’ve discussed previously here), certainly compared to big challenges like institutionalising the new interactions with practitioners that Brexit has created, or changing the way the academy sees impact.

Those discussions are on-going and I’ll come back to them at another point when they have moved on some more. In the meantime I want to think about resilience.

As you doubtless know, one of the worst things about contingent situations is the draining nature of the uncertainty: to spend you whole time wondering/worrying about what is happening (or might be about to happen) is just plain tiring. It’s hard to lift your head to a brighter future when you’re knee-deep in whatever unpleasantness you find yourself in.

A central part of coping with that is to recognise that you’re not alone. Continue reading