Ethnography of Consumption – A Twist

Buying is believing

The spring semester is ending here, and as usual everyone is dragging themselves across the finish line. There is not much left for students to do in my globalization course, but — given the structure of the U.S. higher education system — we still have to meet in the classroom. So, in search of something to fill time, I created an activity based on the last paragraph in my response to Leanne’s scavenger hunt exercise.

I collected some random products from home, all branded: running shoes (Saucony), cell phone charger cord (Samsung), bag of lentils (Jack Rabbit), hand towel (Cannon), and a tote bag to transport everything (London Review of Books). In class I laid all these items on a table and lied about getting them from a friend. I then told students to examine everything and write an answer to “What story is the owner of these things trying to tell others about the kind of person he or she is?” Students had already completed ethnographies of consumption, so they had some understanding of the connection between identity construction and consumption choices.

After five minutes, I grouped students into teams to create presentations, which they delivered during the second half of class. I got to listen to them unknowingly analyze my self-image as practical, value-oriented, and health conscious. (I would have been just as happy with other adjectives.) Once the last team had presented, I revealed that the items were my own by plugging my cell phone into the wall socket with the charger cord.

As a last minute invention, this activity worked fairly well. Students got to practice collaborating, communicating to an audience, and applying concepts. And all I had to do was bring a tote bag to class.

Active Learning and the … Lit Review??!?

A research methods class is pretty much by definition a classlong experience in active learning. Whether the grade is based primarily on problem sets or a finished research project, students are expected to learn by doing and to demonstrate their learning through completed analyses.

One of the challenges in teaching such a course, however, is ensuring that students get sufficient practice attempts at all major skills to succeed. This is particularly true for courses that rely heavily on a final paper of a type that students have never done before. Most faculty require a draft literature review prior to the submission of the final paper, often after a class meeting with a reference librarian to learn to locate and cite appropriate academic literature.

What we don’t give them a chance to practice, however, is the write-up portion of the literature review, the actual composition stage. The result is literature review drafts that read like annotated bibliographies simply strung together; each paragraph is about a separate article, with little connection between them.

The problem with getting students to practice this skill is the part where they presumably have to read the literature to be able to summarize it. My solution: write draft literature reviews that were entirely fictitious yet contain enough information for students to practice looking for common themes and connections between the pieces. Chapter 3 of my book, Empirical Research and Writing: A Political Science Student’s Practical Guide, contains three drafts of a mock literature review on which came first, the chicken or the egg. (This keeps the focus on the form, not the content.) These guide students through the process of going from a beads-on-a-string, paragraph-per-item format to a more integrated and holistic approach to the literature.

The book’s website, available at, then contains a second draft literature review for students to practice their skills. This is the chicken’s half of the story, arguments for why the chicken had to have preceded the egg. If you’ve reviewed or discussed the first part (the egg primacy half) in class, students should need about 20 minutes to write better drafts of the chicken portion; this works best with a partner or two.  When I’ve done this in class, the results are about a paragraph long. Pairs then exchange drafts and discuss what the other pair did differently.

If time permits, or as a short homework assignment, the website also contains several graduate-student-written ‘dreadful draft’ literature reviews on actual topics in American, comparative, and international politics.

Some extensions for the Parliament game

Interestingly, the European Banderwot is much larger than its American cousin

Chad wrote about his use of my parliament game just yesterday, so it’s a good moment to consider how else this basic model can be used. All my materials are here.

For me, the most interesting point is that Chad’s doing something really quite different from my original objective. Indeed, the game is a great one for me to reflect on, because it has undergone one of the more problematic formulation processes of any of my activities.

At heart, it’s a game about the cross-cutting tensions in accumulating power: Chad gives his students their card and another interest, while I have focused just on getting mine to balance ideological coherence with holding a balance of power in the assembly. In both cases, you can see how that can be built on, to illustrate further elements. Continue reading

Parliament Game with the Gray-Tufted Banderwot

Gray-Tufted Banderwot

A few years ago, Simon invented a game to model coalitions in the European Parliament (also described here and here). I decided to try it in my comparative politics as a lesson in how legislatures function. After some confusion as students figured out what to do, they clustered into two coalitions; the outcome loosely resembled a two-party/median voter system. But I had forgotten to remove the high-value cards from the deck before starting the game. The class has only fourteen students, and the distribution of card values was so great that it was difficult for students to accumulate influence points.

I decided to run the game again in the next class, after removing face cards from the deck. Influence points were calculated the same as before. But I added a twist. Each student received additional instructions that varied according to the value of his or her card: Continue reading

Undergraduates Doing Replication: Strategies for Successful Replication Exercises (Part 3 of 3)

In my last two posts (here and here), I’ve talked through the rationale for undergraduates doing replication and shared a replication assignment of my own. In the final segment of this series, I want to talk a little bit about strategies for developing your own successful replication assignment.

First, start with a highly readable article. Alas, this means that most of what is in the APSR is out. Both Perspectives on Politics and PS: Political Science and Politics have appropriate empirical articles, though, that are typically shorter, more accessible, and less technically sophisticated. The better students can understand the article, the better their chances of success on the assignment. Even if you don’t usually give reading guides, I’d consider doing one (just reading comprehension questions for students to review while reading) for this assignment to help ensure everyone starts off on the right foot with a good understanding of the reading.

Second, talk it up in class. Emphasize that research gets published using only the skills the students currently have, and we’re going to show that to ourselves by replicating published research. This is something they should be proud to be able to do; it’s an achievement.

Third, consider allowing students to work with partners or in trios, even if they turn in separate written work. Working together will give them – especially the women – more confidence about their ability to do the tasks, and that will reduce both the stress on them and the number of anxious questions you’ll get.

Finally, give yourself plenty of time to write the assignment. Be detailed and specific. It will also take you some time to get and clean the data, and possibly write a sketchy codebook in the instructions, so that the assignment is plug-and-play ready when it goes out to students. You’ll want to drop most of the unused variables (especially if there are fixed effects dummies you aren’t using) and similar clutter like that.  There’s a reason I’m posting this blog entry now: writing one of these would be an excellent summer project, a good activity for when you’re stalled on your research or just need to change mental gears for a bit. This will take a few hours, but like all good problem sets, once you’ve written it you can reuse it repeatedly.

What You Say Is Not What They Hear

I was recently reminded that although we like to think we clearly communicate our intent to students, this is not always the case. My globalization class is reading One White Face by Hilary Corna, an autobiographical account of a young college graduate who travels to Singapore on a whim and stumbles into a job with Toyota. I assigned a written response to this question:

The author writes that in her quest for normalcy, she “had become more and more abnormal.” What was the most significant abnormal decision she made after arriving in Singapore? Why? Define what you mean by “significant.”

I asked the question to get students to think about the ways in which an unfamiliar environment forced the author to evaluate her thinking from a new, and therefore abnormal, perspective. However, students understood the question differently. Their responses focused on the word “decision” and for the most part ignored “abnormal.” Most of them wrote about decisions that would be typical of any recent U.S. college graduates instead of pressures to adapt to new cultural norms.

To make the purpose of the question more transparent — in case I use the same book next year — I revised it to: Continue reading

Designing curricula when you have a blank sheet of paper

Opportunity, or bear-trap?

One of the more challenging challenges in my professional life has been curriculum design. I’m currently on my fifth major project, effectively designing an entire programme from scratch.

For those of you from countries/institutions when you don’t get to handle such things, I offer you a mixed greeting. On the one hand, you’re missing an amazing opportunity to contextualise your teaching within a much bigger picture. On the other, it’s a massive pain in the neck to do.

Here in the UK, we have prescribed degree structures: universities validate a package of modules/courses, which together make a named degree. There are options (some of which might come from other degrees), but there’s almost no mixing-and-matching by students to build a major, in the American style. It’s good in that it provides clearer progress and development (plus shorter time-to-completion), but at the price of the limited options for intellectually-curious (or uncertain) students.

Usually, this is a task undertaken by a team from the lead department, but in my case that’s only happened the first two times. All the rest have been for degrees that the university didn’t offer beforehand,  which opens up a whole new can of worms. Continue reading