Coming to America

Today marks a return to an occasional series on higher education in the U.S., with a post co-authored with an esteemed colleague, Sally Gomaa. She attended graduate school in the U.S., works as a university professor, and is now a naturalized citizen.

Are you from outside the U.S. and considering academic employment here? Does a graduate program in the humanities or social sciences seem attractive because of an expectation that it will get you hired by a U.S. university? If you are wondering if job prospects in academia are better here than at home, they probably are not. The economic foundations of tertiary education in the U.S. are undergoing a long-term transformation that has greatly diminished everyone’s chances of a stable and rewarding career as a professor.

Education in the U.S. reflects the country’s penchant for local autonomy in the provision of public goods. Although the national government imposes certain legal burdens on all  of the country’s colleges and universities, there are no league table rankings or formal budgetary outlays toward the costs of instruction. Instead, the national government helps students defray the cost of their undergraduate educations by guaranteeing loans at subsidized rates. Only universities that are deemed in good standing by private, regionally-based accreditation organizations can enroll students who receive this federal aid.

Public universities do receive a portion of their operating funds from state governments via tax revenue. But there has been a decades-long disinvestment in higher education at the state level, and legislative allocations now comprise less than ten percent of the budget at many public university systems. The decisions of elected officials in states such as Illinois, Louisiana, and Wisconsin have significantly degraded the quality of public universities in those states. If you are thinking about applying for a faculty position at a public university campus, it is wise to investigate the financial treatment of that campus by its state government overlords. Continue reading

Making assessment relevant

Insert metaphor here

Reading Martin’s post yesterday, just as I’m finishing my duties as an external examiner, makes me think about assessment formats.

Too often, we fall into the essay-and-exam approach: it’s simple, and easy and hardly anyone questions it. Of course, as the institution I external at is about to find out, I’m one of the people who does question it.

Assessment has a terrible reputation to deal with: in essence, it’s a hassle to do as a student, a hassle to set and mark as an instructor and the source of more academic complaints than anything else. No-one has a good word to say about it, it seems.

In our hearts, we know that it matters and that there has to be some kind of means of evaluating student performance, for their sakes and ours. But surely there’s a better way of doing it. Continue reading

Teaching with Trump: A Challenge and an Invitation to Problem-Based Learning

Our series on “teaching Trump” continues today with a guest post by Martin S. Edwards, Associate Professor and  Director of Graduate Studies at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University. He can be reached at Martin [dot] Edwards [at] shu [dot] edu.

Talk to the hand.

Teaching in a professional international affairs program offers some unique challenges. The focus at the graduate level is on professional skill development rather than preparing students for comprehensive examinations, and our students come from a wide variety of disciplines rather than as political science undergraduates. The election brought a unique challenge for those of us that teach International Organizations. It made clear that we need to better train students to speak up in defense of multilateralism, especially at a time in which the White House is suspicious of it. So, given the current climate, in which the White House is openly dismissive of the value of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Financial Institutions, and NATO, how can one rethink an established course so as to demonstrate its relevance? My approach to “Teaching with Trump” during the Spring semester was to refocus my graduate course on problem-based learning. Continue reading

Emotion & simulations

Since Chad was kind enough to pick up on the theme of my post last week – emotion’s role in what we do – it’s only polite to return the favour.

Chad’s issue is one that all of us who use simulations encounter. We’re trying to build a more manageable version of the real world, which means selecting particular aspects to focus on, and then our participants go and mess it all up by focusing on some other aspect. Chad’s finding that with the South China Sea, I’m finding it with my parliamentary dynamics game and you’re finding it with something else.

How to deal with this? Basically, in one of three ways. Continue reading

South China Sea Simulation: Part 2

As promised in my last post, I’m going to talk about the mechanics of my South China Sea simulation, but I’m also going to go in a different direction because of the bombing in Manchester and Simon’s subsequent post.

As I’ve done in the past with some of my other classroom simulations, I created a set of objectives for each actor — in this case Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, the United States, and Vietnam. Each objective was associated with a number of points that contributed to a player’s final grade, but players’ objectives often conflicted with one another — a feature deliberately intended to reflect competing interests and force negotiation. All of the objectives involved which Asian nation-state would be granted sovereignty over which territories. Although I gave actors the option to engage in military action, I specified probabilities that such actions would be successful. For example, an attack by the Philippines against a specific target had a 1:6 chance of succeeding, while acting in concert with U.S. forces had increase the chances of success to 2:3. However, an attack risked involving the Philippines in a regional war, the probability and costs of which I left completely vague. This uncertainty seemed to have beneficially made students reluctant to use military force, unlike my experience with some other simulations.

Given the number of contested islands and overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, the entire set of objectives and payoffs was rather complicated to create, but the complexity forced students to become much more familiar with the area’s geography, which I think was also plus.

I will discuss what went wrong with the simulation in the near future, but I will mention here — and this is what relates to Simon’s post — what I see as a failure that I often witness in my geographically-situated simulations: because of the point rewards, students very quickly become rationally-acting deal-makers. Nationalist and ethnic identities that the simulations are supposed to model quickly get tossed out the window. In the language of simulations, players find it easy to abandon their roles. In the real world, Vietnamese and Chinese policies reflect a strong sense of nationalism, and the two states would never agree so easily on who owns the Paracels. If they did, there would not be a conflict to simulate. Continue reading

Introducing Computer Programming in Political Science Classes

Today’s post is a guest posting from Jane Lawrence Sumner of the University of Minnesota. Jane’s research and teaching interests are in international political economy and research methods.

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Undergraduate methods classes frequently use statistical software programs, despite students typically have little background knowledge in programming. While we seldom ask students to do anything that would require that background knowledge, the idea of having to program can be a roadblock for many students. In an attempt to alleviate this, I designed an activity to introduce my students to the fundamentals of programming in a non-technical way. The objectives of the course were for students to understand that programming primarily involves providing the computer with very good, very specific instructions to carry out the task at hand.

Students were split into small groups, and each group was given a piece of paper with a hand-drawn cartoon on it. They were told to write instructions about how to reproduce the drawing that they could then give to another student. After twenty minutes, they stopped. Each group stood with their backs to the whiteboard while they read their instructions to a student from another group, positioned at the whiteboard with a marker. Students were not allowed to modify their instructions and were deliberately unable to see the student with the marker so that they could not course-correct. The student with the marker was allowed to ask only one question: “can you please repeat that?”

Only one of the drawings actually resembled the original. Although the students enjoyed drawing and seeing the monstrosities emerging on the board, and loved the great reveal at the end of what the drawing should have looked like, the key pedagogical point came in the discussion at the end, when I asked students, “What made this difficult? What would have made it easier?” The points that emerged organically were the same objectives I’d set out to convey. Specifically: many, short, precise steps were easier to follow well than longer, more detailed steps. Students also determined that having a clear and constant reference point (like a coordinate system) would have made the direction and scale easier, that naming parts of the drawing for later reference was easier than repeating “the curvy line that ended up at the first straight line” over and over, and that if each step relied upon the subsequent step, things could quickly go awry.

Emotion and politics

The morning after the night before.

But not the night it was going to be.

I was going to write this morning about the black-tie do held by our Politics Society last night, and the importance of building a soft, social ties as part of a communal identity. I was going to write about how me looning about the dance-floor to classic disco tunes was something for you all to try with your students.

Instead, I’m sat in (a very quiet) Department, turning over the other events of last night, the attack in Manchester.

Maybe it was the relative lack of sleep, or maybe it was because my daughter was asking me what had happened, but this attack moved me more than most: the sense of distress and loss of so many parents, siblings, friends is one that I feel all too palpably right now.

In the worst possible way, it underlines the point I was going to be making: emotions matter.

They tie us together and tie us to what we do. When something moves us – for good or bad – then it engages us.

What we need to do is find ways to do more of the good engaging, and less of the bad. Something to write about next week, I think.