ISA 2014-Advancing the Learning Environment in the Digital Age

Four of the five ALPS editors are together again, presenting on this ISA Innovative Panel on various aspects of simulations, games, films, and the use of digital technology. Patricia Campbell of American Public University opened the panel with a discussion of the parameters of the digital world of pedagogy. Pamela Chasek of Manhattan College just presented on her Model UN course and how technology has really aided the endeavor, from using the internet for pre-conference research to having students text her when they are about to give speeches in their committees.  Also, I think that every Model UN team should have an award called “The Mike Tyson Award for Diplomacy”.

Susherwood again won the award for best graphics in a presentation, this time for the use of varying images of fruit as a metaphor for assessment, while Victor Asal discussed his WWII negotiation simulation, which helps students learn about mediation, rationality, and discrimination.  One key aspect of the simulation is that certain students, based on either the country they represent or particular attributes, are cut completely out of the simulation and unable to ‘win’. This tied into my own presentation with Nina Kollars, which was on the role of failure in courses and the need to focus on the experience and lessons learned by the losers in our games and simulations.

Patrick James of USC talked about his book, The International Relations of Middle Earth, which focuses on how we can learn positivist and critical theory from the Lord of the Rings.  He later shared that doctoral students are finding this book and its approach useful in studying for comprehensive exams.

Unsurprisingly, this last presentation hit me the closest, as I teach a course that is grounded in learning politics from film and fiction.  I’m going to pick up a copy of the book at the exhibit, and start incorporating the insights into my course.

But the best part was at the end, when a member of the audience called for some public diplomacy on behalf of pedagogy, to create a culture where learning about teaching is valued (and better attended!)

Half the Sky

Half the SkyI’ve mentioned before that Edutopia has some great information on project-based learning. What I haven’t mentioned is that the Edutopia website conveniently indexes content from  multiple blogs according to topic. On the index page for game-based learning, I found a July 2013 post by Matthew Farber on gaming for social good. His post has links to several interesting free online games, such as Ayiti: The Cost of Life (which we’ve talked about here and here). A similar game about rural poverty, but with what some might regard as a more elegant user interface, is 3rd World Farmer.

Farber’s post led me to the Half the Sky Movement, a partnership between USAID and fhi 360‘s Communication for Change (C-Change) project that is focused on women’s empowerment in the developing world. Half the Sky has a simple Facebook adventure gamethree mobile phone-based games, a full-length documentary (George Clooney fans, take note), and eighteen free online videos about the lives of women in Kenya, India, Liberia, and Somaliland. The games and films engagingly present topics such as:

  • Family planning/reproductive health
  • Girls’ education
  • Women and children’s health
  • Economic empowerment
  • Sex trafficking
  • Domestic violence

These resources are quite worthy of your consideration if you are teaching about economics, international development, public health, women and politics, and education.

At Berkeley

Free Speech CafeMy wife and I recently attended a screening of At Berkeley, a documentary created by Frederick Wiseman. The film is four hours long, so be warned. We left the theater at the halfway point to check out an exhibit of the work of some Iranian and Arab women photographers. Seeing on screen the same staff meetings and classroom environments that the two of us experience daily is just not that interesting after a while.

Of the two hours of the documentary that we did watch, a few scenes stand out. One was a retreat of UC Berkeley’s top administrators in 2010 (I think), led by the university’s chancellor at the time, Dr. Robert J. Birgeneau. At the meeting, Dr. Birgeneau laid out the problem facing Berkeley in stark terms: how can the university maintain its academic excellence and affordability for non-wealthy Californians when the state government has steadily divested itself from the public university system? Berkeley was in the position of having to cut $75 million from its operational costs without sacrificing academic quality or student financial aid.

A subsequent scene showed a graduate classroom discussion about poverty and economic opportunity, especially in relation to equitable access to educational resources. An astute student made the point that — in the USA at least — these topics didn’t attract much attention until Caucasian, middle class, suburban families began experiencing unemployment and home foreclosure during the economic crisis that began in 2008.

Although At Berkeley supposedly has no underlying theme beyond presenting an inside look at an organization in a particular place and time, I believe it showcases the implications of treating knowledge production and dissemination, and the universities where that happens, as private rather than public goods. Unfortunately, public divestment in higher education — in terms of state government appropriations of taxpayer dollars — has been occurring in the USA for a few decades now, and the process is likely to continue.

Stimulating debate: what Russell Brand can help us with

One of the great things about teaching Politics is that the subject matter is very connected to the world around us: we can see and live what we discuss in the classroom.

With that in mind, it’s always great when that process comes full-circle and you get to bring the world back into the classroom.

Last week saw a great example of this, when Russell Brand (almost as well-known in the States as I am: maybe even more so, given that I’ve failed to marry Katy Perry) was interviewed on a flagship current affairs programme in the UK, Newsnight, about his recent guest-editing of a special issue of the New Statesman.

Here’s someone with ideas (and possibly with access to a thesaurus), willing to expound them and engage in debate. That those ideas are contestable makes it even more watchable and a perfect springboard for classroom discussion.

This would be a great opening to a debate on the role of ideas, or of framing , or the relationship between ‘old’ and ‘new’ politics or indeed of the conceptualisation of left and right. Brand’s articulation of a different model of political action also nicely sets up an class activity on fleshing out that model.

For me, it’s an interesting way into how we represent political arguments and the way we defend them. One can see the potential value of both sides of the discussion, but also the weaknesses, so offering something to everyone.

These kind of found materials are analogous to the fictional examples we’ve discussed before, but have the additional benefit that they connect more explicitly to political situations. And, in this case, some jokes about beards.*


* – for non-UK readers, you only need to know that the interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, recently grew a beard, to much consternation. It’s a small country and we don’t get out much.

Nigeria, Norway, and Asian Girlz

Much of my teaching connects to the concept of identity, and I could simply lecture about the topic. However, for students, hearing this information from a middle-aged Caucasian man who was born and raised in the U.S. just isn’t very thought-provoking or relevant — especially since many of them think that racism and discrimination in the USA are purely historical phenomena . . . in other words, we now have a (half-)black President.

I’ve found short videos to be a great way to initiate discussion and introduce texts on the subject. This New York Times video essay by Zina Saro-Wiwa on transitioning to natural hair is a great example of how the personal can be political when it comes to identity. I show the video and discuss it with students in class, and only then reveal that Zina  is the daughter of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the writer who was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995 because of his political activism on behalf of his fellow Ogoni, one of Nigeria’s many minority groups.

Charlie ChanThe fictional Africa for Norway charity, a.k.a. Radi-Aid, produced this wonderful parody on foreign aid. When I show this video in class without any prior explanation, most students think Radi-Aid is an actual charity or they get perplexed because it contradicts their assumptions about what Teju Cole calls the White Savior Industrial Complex. Usually only students from other countries immediately identify the video as a joke.

What Kind of Asian Are You? is a great depiction of the unconscious racism that is frequently found in constructions of national identity and in Orientalist perceptions of women as objects of sexual desire. Personally I find this video hilarious — partly because I am a living example of it — but it’s a well-scripted scene played by professional comedic actors.

Comedy is very difficult to pull off successfully, and it can be tricky to use in the classroom because tastes vary wildly. While part of my standard procedure when showing these kinds of videos is to deliberately discuss how they illustrate illogical beliefs and behavior, I also try to use videos that generally succeed at being humorous rather than offensive. A great example of what I avoid is the recent Asian Girlz video by a generic whitebread pop-rock band from Southern California that has finally achieved its fifteen minutes of infamy. I’m not inserting a direct link to the video because the lyrics are fairly explicit; you can do a Google search if you like.  The band has claimed publicly that the song and video are satirical, but as comedy they fail massively. My guess is that the band members thought producing the song would be beneficial to their careers. Probably Levy Tran, the Vietnamese-American actress/model who appears in the video, thought the same thing. But although the video has generated some notoriety, it’s probably the type that isn’t wanted, and for the typical undergraduate classroom, its content is not nearly as useful as scenes from films like Blazing Saddles, the low-budget Terminal USA, or Charlie Chan in Egypt.

Four Lions & Boston Marathon: Breaking the Frame

Orson Welles called it “breaking the frame.” Also known as the fourth wall.…the breaking of a narrative….like when an actor in a movie pauses to speak directly to the audience. Teaching is a performance space too. It is removed from reality. When we are in this space we are allowed to “bracket” many things in order to make our pedagogical performances work…..i.e. narrow the real world down to just us, our space, our thinking. And once in a while the frame breaks….. without your permission. These are the events and their notes.

March, 20-ish 2013
Mid-morning: IR class topic: Terrorism

Readings: Kydd & Walter, Kilcullen, …etc etc.
Discussion point: critical analysis of the film Four Lions. A film about a group of British males who plot to attack their home country.

Notes:Compelling, awkward, funny….Were we supposed to laugh? When the seemingly mentally impaired activist accidentally blows himself up….were we supposed to laugh?

A new perspective on terrorists. They are disaffected, second and first generation young males. They manage to bomb a marathon. No real coordination, just a bunch of dudes acting like asses who also managed to make explosives.

April 15th, 2013–no class day–

Boston bombing suspects
… a couple of young males, disaffected by their lives in the United States… bomb a marathon. The Boston Marathon. Their logic, unclear, seemingly accidental….. no real coordination…. just a couple of dudes ….

April 17th, 2013
Mid-Morning: IR Class Topic: ??????

What? What?    No Seriously…..what?

There are awful coincidences that come along when you teach. A marriage of random events, and fiction.

The real world, it crashes into your classroom, makes a mockery of your safe space. …and you know very well that what happens next just might teach them something…..teach me something.

….or we can collectively run away.

Step 1: Establish a distance between the very shocking thing that had happened and the thing we had just been exploring from an intellectual perspective.

Step 2: No wait…back up…. have a good long look at the event. Maybe we spent the hour talking over the finer points of analysis, guessing from the color of the smoke, the location, the time of day….all the suppositions.

Step 3: Predict and analyze. How would Kydd and Walter understand this? What does this mean for Kilcullen’s hypothesis?

Step 4: Gracefully declare the class productive.

Notes: BULL$!!@% Spackle that damned hole shut again! 
A class assignment accidentally became inextricably fused to a real world event. I hated it….hated it….

I used those articles like a crow bar:…. to pry myself clear, to pry us all clear from the feel of that event. We intellectualized it….. we walked through it, stared at it, shook our heads…..and we giggled. Not at the pain, but the incredulity…. the gross coincidence. And we laughed at the uneasy way we desperately and willingly returned to seeing world through the end of a straw. At least we could memorize that and understand it, mock it sometimes. 

Narcissism. There’s no way to speak to this without inviting that claim. But there’s also no way to talk about struggle in a classroom in the shadow of big events when they break the frame. I felt sick and fortunate at the same time. I didn’t have any answers.

Nothing clever….just a really wicked reminder that no matter how you teach, it is a performance space….

also… apologies for any misuse of the 4th wall concept. I entirely recognize that I’m playing fast and loose with the concept.