Bridge Repair

Forth BridgeIn my last post about teaching comparative politics, I discussed replacing expository writing assignments with a set of templates for students to use when designing presentations. I thought the templates might be a more effective method of getting students to apply theory to past events. For the spring semester, I have decided to ditch the theoretical content altogether, for these reasons:

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Framing and re-framing terrorism (with cats)

One of the more awkward things that political scientists have to deal with is the way in which the things that are more likely to stimulate student interest are often the things that are most sensitive/tricky to discuss. And since 9/11 and 7/7, terrorism has occupied the top spot in that list. My department was certainly not alone in finding that enrollments on our IR programmes and terrorism modules has been particularly strong.

The issues around discussing such subjects are (hopefully) pretty obvious: most glaringly, the almost boundless capacity to offend someone, given the subjective nature of the phenomenon (indeed, I’ve had at least one discussion about whether it is subjective and why would I say that…).

At the same time, as well as being of interest to students, terrorism also produces materials. Lots of material, in short time frames. And for a classroom discussion, that is a great opportunity, both for the subject itself and for the development of precising and analytical skills. And potentially it offers a way to handle the sensitivity issue.

To take the topical example, we might look at the Brussels lock-down that is currently running after the Paris attacks. Possibly because so many people haven’t got work to go to, there has been a wave of social media activity, which in turn led police to request that reports of their (the police’s) movements not be mentioned, so as to reduce the warning to potential targeted individuals (although the APC rumbling down your road might also be a clue).

In any case, Bruxellois responded with a meme of cats and kittens. As well as intrinsic interest (I’m going to guess you managed to get the end of that last link), this response provides an excellent stepping stone for a class discussion about popular responses to terrorism, both narrowly in the use of humour and more generally. The meme prompts a number of interesting questions, including what is the typical emotional response to terrorism, how can people frame and re-frame terrorism, and whether Belgians are alone in doing this (they’re not BTW – spend a minute or two reading Charlie Hebdo).

By asking students to map what happens around a terrorist event, we enable them to gain an understanding of the reach and depth of its effects and reconnect it to broader questions of political science. In so doing, we might find that we can channel the interest with fewer of the issues.

The Best Laid Plans

Cat and MouseA while back I wrote a series of posts on reworking my first-year seminar. My assumption was that this fall’s version would meet three days a week, as happened in the course’s initial iteration. I recently learned that instead it will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Given that much of the course involves student-to-student interaction in the classroom, the new schedule necessitated further changes. To start, I dropped the book that I had originally fit into the last third of the semester, and with it plans for a class-wide Twine project. The course now looks like this:

  • Team-based Twines on the book An Ordinary Man (Rwanda).
  • Simulation exercises on the first four cases in Chasing Chaos (Rwanda, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone).
  • Team-based Twines on the last case in Chasing Chaos (Haiti).

Since this is a course for incoming college students, I added The New Science of Learning and some other meta-cognitive content on skills for academic success. This means that students will have on average three writing assignments on readings per week even though the class only meets twice a week, which I think this is a good thing. Students won’t be able to forget about the course between Thursdays and Tuesdays.

As I discussed in my informal assessment back in January, I had a problematic formulation for the briefing memo that prepared students for each Chasing Chaos simulation. I’ve rewritten the assignment instructions accordingly, and created a new sample memo for students to use as a guide. The effort that I’m putting into the design of this course reflects something about how college works that I’ll discuss in more detail in my next two posts.

Building critical media skills

POLITICO_Logo
A logo, yesterday.

Today sees the launch of a major new venture in reporting the European Union: US-based Politico has opened a large Brussels office.

American readers will be more familiar with Politico than those elsewhere, but essentially the new bureau aims to provide coverage of the EU without getting lost in the national contexts that most European media operate in.

I mention this partly as a public-service announcement, for those looking for more detailed reporting on the EU, which has previously been rather patchy. The last best source was The European Voice – originally set up by The Economist, before going it alone – which Politico bought out and has now rolled into its new venture. On a first glance, there is a lot of material available to stimulate debate and discussion.

However, I also mention it, because it provides a good opportunity to help students develop their critical reading skills. Politico does fill a gap, but it remains the gorilla in the room, with a staffing base far in excess of other outfits. Some concern has been raised in the previous months about whether such a dominant position risks abuse of that position, but it in terms of killing or promoting certain stories or in terms of framing debate.

It’s obviously too early to tell, but as an exercise in asking students to reflect on how the media shape our understanding, we might ask them to look at the materials posted up and identify any patterns or themes in coverage. These could be compared to outlets such as EUObserver or the FT.

Such meta-criticality has to be part of our work with students if we want to fully develop their understanding of the world. Recognising that the media is part of that is thus no bad thing.

Puzzle Pieces: Part 2

Jigsaw Puzzle 2As mentioned in my first post in this series, Chasing Chaos by Jessica Alexander corresponds well to the student outcomes I created for my first-year seminar — in part because of the associated simulations I had created for another course. But my informal assessment of these simulations last fall leads me to think that they need three major adjustments.

First, the negotiation phase for each simulation can be shortened to only one class period. If no team achieves its goal in the allotted time, that’s ok — these are crisis scenarios. Second, I am dropping the reward for a unanimous agreement between teams so that students are less likely to abandon their roles in pursuit of earning the maximum number of possible points. This will create more contentiousness and by default result in a proportion of student teams “losing” what they didn’t have to begin with, but again, I think this is ok.

Third, the briefing memos that I assigned to prepare students for the simulations were too complex. This type of analytic writing exercise is detailed in CATs (“analytic memos,” pages 177-180). As noted in CATs, the technique requires large amounts of time and effort from both students and the instructor, but it serves as a high-quality and realistic skill-building exercise for students. In my case and in contrast to the recommendations of the authors of CATs, I grade the memos as formal assignments  — otherwise students won’t do them.

Because of these three concerns, I have altered the instructions for the briefing memos as follows, and I have inserted information for the Rwanda simulation for the purposes of example:

You are employed by the Humanitarian Information Unit at the U.S. Department of State (HIU). A new President has been inaugurated, and the President’s senior foreign policy advisors seek recommendations on U.S. responses to emerging political and economic conflicts around the world. The HIU has been assigned the task of providing these advisors with recommendations that conform to the mission of the HIU. Your job is to write a briefing memo for your superiors in the following format:

♦ Single-spaced paragraphs with a blank line between each paragraph, 11 or 12 point font, and no longer than two pages.
♦ Correct identification of memo’s author and recipient. The sub-heading of “Recommendation,” followed by a single concise sentence that states your  recommendation.
♦ The sub-heading “Justification,” followed by at least one paragraph explaining why the U.S. government should adopt your recommendation as foreign policy. Background sources should be referenced using in-text citations rather than with footnotes or endnotes—for example, “(Eggers, 87)”.

See the sample briefing memo for guidance.

 Background sources:

♦ Samantha Power, “Bystanders to genocide: why the United States let the Rwandan genocide happen,” Atlantic Monthly 288, 2 September 2001.
♦ Jason K. Stearns, “Congo’s Peace: Miracle or Mirage?” Current History 106(700), May 2007.
♦ Thomas Turner, “Will Rwanda End Its Meddling in Congo?” Current History 112(754), May 2013.
♦ Jeffrey Gettleman, “The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman,” New York Times, 4 September 2013.

The conflict:

A previously-unknown armed group calling itself the Hutu Liberation Front (HLF) has attacked three Congolese villages near the Rwandan border. The attacks killed the villages’ residents and several Congolese soldiers who were stationed at a checkpoint along a nearby highway that runs between Kinshasha and Kigali. The Rwandan government claims that the HLF is under the direction of Congo’s ruling political party and it has mobilized Rwandan army units for a potential incursion into Congo to fight the HLF. Simultaneously soldiers in Congo’s army who identify themselves as Tutsis have mutinied against their commanders and are leading a rebellion against the country’s elected government. French and U.S. intelligence agencies report that the mutiny may have been encouraged by the Rwandan government.

Puzzle Pieces: Part 1

Jigsaw Puzzle 1In the spirit of sharing, here is the first of a series of examples on the continuous-improvement approach to course redesign.

In the fall semester I will teach for the second time a seminar on disasters and survival to incoming college students. I thought last year’s inaugural version of the seminar was acceptable but that it definitely had room for improvement.

My intended outcomes for the course remain the same and act as my basic design constraint:

  • Create a classroom environment that doesn’t drive down my university’s retention rate, mainly by getting students to interact with each other as much as possible.
  • Foster higher order thinking skills so students become better decision makers (an outcome revealed by the CATS self-assessment for another course that I teach).
  • Encourage awareness of and respect for people who have cultural backgrounds and perspectives that are different from those of the students. (My research on global empathy did not detect any significant improvement on this the first time around.)

Given students’ responses to my online survey at the end of the semester, I knew that assigning different books might strengthen students’ achievement of the third outcome. Students reacted very positively to the book I assigned at the beginning of the semester, An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina, about the 1994 Rwandan genocide. However, some students said that they found the seminar’s other two books to be dull or confusing. Also, I realized after the books had been ordered that all three were written by and about men. It’s easy for me to be Exhibit A for white male privilege, but I do try to avoid it, especially since enrollment at my university is more than sixty percent female and contains a sizable proportion of first-generation college students.

So the first puzzle was finding two new books about disasters that affected people outside the USA, with at least one of them authored by a woman.

I am not be teaching introduction to IR in the fall, which means I can pull the book Chasing Chaos out of that course and into the first-year seminar. The author of Chasing Chaos is female, and the book is an autobiographical account of her experiences as a humanitarian aid worker in far-flung locations around the world. Check marks for relevance of content and author’s gender. Chasing Chaos has another benefit, referenced in the linked post above, but I’ll discuss that in detail soon in another post.

This left the third book, and I already had a few possibilities in mind: My Life As a Traitor, by Zarah Ghahramani; When Broken Glass Floats, by Chanrithy Him; and Even Silence Has an End, by Ingrid Betancourt. All are autobiographical, written by women, and discuss survival in extreme conditions.

My Life As a Traitor is about Ms. Ghahramani’s incarceration in Tehran’s Evin Prison for political activities that Iran’s government deemed subversive. It’s well-written and the author was a college student at the time the events described in the book took place. I was worried though that it would reinforce students’ pre-existing negative stereotypes about the Middle East — with no prior study of the region, it would be easy for them to attribute the treatment of Ms. Ghahramani to religion rather than to an authoritarian state that attempts to use religion to justify its oppression of citizens. So I removed the book from consideration.

When Broken Glass Floats is about the author’s childhood during Khmer Rouge Cambodia, a subject with which I am extremely familiar. This book would be very easy for me to use to stimulate class discussions. However, I realized that both it and An Ordinary Man are about genocide, and I didn’t want to make genocide the focus of the course. So I ruled this book out.

Even Silence Has an End is about the author’s six years as a hostage of the FARC in the jungles of Colombia, a story that probably a lot of people find riveting. But this book is over five hundred pages long — too much for the last third of the semester. I was not willing to drop An Ordinary Man or Chasing Chaos to fit it in. What to do?

In one of those minor epiphanies that sometimes happen when thinking about teaching, I remembered that 1) Chasing Chaos concludes with a chapter on post-earthquake Haiti, and 2) I use a book about the same topic in a graduate course — The Big Truck That Went By, by Jonathan Katz. Disaster, check. Cultural milieu that is different from that of my students, check. Short enough to fit? Check.

I have identified my three books for the next version of the course, and none obviously conflict with my learning outcome criteria. Now I have a framework on which to hang the rest of the course.

Simulating Stubbornness

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Don’t be one (or at least not in a simulation)

We talk a lot on this blog about the beauty of simulations for producing rich and varied environments in which to immerse students. We also talk a lot about how ‘failure’ is usually as valid a learning point as ‘success’ in these games: the inability to reach the nominal objective is a valuable learning moment.

But as I’ve been reading for my other work, I realise there’s a different category of political phenomenon that we have more trouble in capturing: the (pre-planned) impasse.

Let me give you the example that triggered this thought, to illustrate.

As you’ll know – if you live in Europe, at least – Greece’s economy has suffered grievously over the past few years, as a result of the 2008 crisis and (more pertinently here) the strict austerity regime imposed by creditors. The election last month of a radical-left government has since led to efforts to recast that austerity regime into something else.

It would be fair to say that all sides are deeply dug in: the Greeks say the current situation is untenable, the creditors say they won’t wear anything else. As so, after a rather brief meeting last night of finance ministers, there was another failure to agree.

Now my cynical side (yes, I do have one) says that this is all part of the game: you act tough, we act tough, then we reach the settlement we knew we would at the outset, but we can assuage our constituents about it all. It’s a bit the logic of my own austerity game, where heads of government have scope to bluster.

However, from a simulation point of view, it’s actually really tricky to recreate this kind of behaviour. In the real world, actors are not bound to a discrete forum of action, nor to a timetable (although there is nominally one in the Greek case): this means their capacity and willingness to not try for a resolution is greater than normal.

If we were trying to run a game of the Greek situation, then we might have a finance ministers’ meeting, but either we reach an agreement (which might not be very realistic), or we don’t (in which case we have to talk about what happens next). What we probably can’t do is run another meeting, and another, so that we can capture the iterative dynamics of it all, nor the way in which we eventually reach compromise.

In short, politics isn’t built for the convenience of the academic calendar.

So what to do? Three ideas present themselves.

First is to just live with it, and note that a game’s failure to reach agreement is lifelike, but also unrealistic in that real-world actors get many more bites of the cherry.

Second is to try to build in rounds of negotiation into a game. The danger here is that you end up covering the same ground multiple times, and that your players might ‘solve’ the problem early on, in which case you have a bunch of time on your hands (although some crisis could easily be invented to upset things).

Third option is to not try to play out the scenario, but rather to get students to apply their knowledge of negotiation/politics/etc to the real-world situation and suggest ways that the different actors could progress things. Those suggestions might be presented as a negotiation brief or some other forum.

This last idea has some interesting advantages. Most importantly, it forces students to articulate negotiation strategy more explicitly (so you can evaluate it), as well as connecting conventional research with an active project.

Finally, trying this last approach is not site-specific: you can use it with a whole range of political events. I’m sure that a moment’s reflection will bring to mind an example of a political institution or process in your area of interest that isn’t working to its full potential, so use that. Easier than building a full simulation, but still with those elements of active engagement that we like so much.