Unconventional Movies As Conventional Pedagogical Tools: The Dark Knight

Gigi GokcekToday we have a guest post from Gigi Gokcek, associate professor of political science at the Dominican University of California. She can be contacted at gigi.gokcek[at]dominican[dot]edu.

Professors have long relied on movies like Dr. Strangelove (1964), Red Dawn (1984), and Thirteen Days (2000) to teach about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and the Cold War. While the active-learning literature validates the effectiveness of using movies like these, today’s college students may relate better to more contemporary movies. Do unconventional movies, from such franchises as Fast and Furious, Star Trek, DC Comics, and Marvel’s X-Men and Avengers, work just as well? My experience suggests that they do. When combined with activities derived from the cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, I find that they are valuable tools for teaching important political science theories and concepts.

Although many students may have seen these movies by the time they enroll in my courses, I often leave this activity until the end of the term so that they have acquired sufficient knowledge of course material. The key to the assignment is that students are not told where the course content is portrayed in the movie. Students have to think more critically while viewing the film, and thereby apply what they have learned to a new setting. They use this worksheet to help make these connections. Continue reading

My Test Run of: ISIS Crisis Simulation

A few months ago I downloaded a game simulation from PAXSIMS Rex Brynan…. ISIS Crisis. The download contains the game board and all its pieces which is still under revision and development…but… I decided to give it a go with my summer section of Intro to IR students.

Counters for ISIS Crisis © mapsymbs.com
Counters for ISIS Crisis © mapsymbs.com

First things first…my students are not gamers and they do not know the conditions on the ground regarding ISIS, Syria, Iraq, etc.. So my purpose in conducting the game was to help them understand the sheer complexity of the situation by making each one of them a player in the system.

The role sheets and directions are pretty good but I STRONGLY recommend that the instructor play through the game once before attempting this in class. Ahem…I did not. ONWARD

Rough Spots

  1. Too many game pieces.. they often got in the way and confused the students. For the simple points I was trying to make, the teeny game pieces could be thinned out or thrown out altogether. Perhaps great for more advanced strategists to make the game more complex, but at the undergraduate civilian level…. not necessary.
  2. I attempted to have students read up and develop a working knowledge of their role before coming to the simulation day. This simply wasn’t enough. (my bad) A much better plan of attack for next time is to have students write a three page personal history in the voice of their role. This way students internalize deeper history in the first person.
  3. Picking methods for game play. The game kit offers several options for turn taking and scoring. Take the simplest one…get a few dice and get on with it! The students got bogged down in more complex systems. Pick the simplest path.

Awesome Spots

  1. By the end of hour 1 of game play it was almost painfully clear to each of the actors in the game that there were no simple answers to “getting rid of ISIS.” Most of this is built into the game through the rule structure which is quite cleverly leveraged to the advantage of ISIS (every time a double is rolled by an actor, ISIS gets to go again…muahahahahaha!…sad but true).
  2. The students were IMMEDIATELY dragged into the game. This, despite the fact that they had only light knowledge of the actual politics going on. (Again, my bad)
  3. The game is definitely in its infancy and will likely evolve to even more robust design. I will absolutely teach with it again. Its core structure seems also to be highly portable to other scenarios which is a triple thumbs up!

 

Reading for What? And for Whom?

A bit more on what I refer to as the reading problem, inspired by the cultural anthropologist Angela Jenks and a recently-rebroadcast episode of the On Point radio program.

Perhaps reading something else while on Mt. Sinai would be more useful.
Perhaps reading something else while on Mt. Sinai would be more useful.

Reading has been fundamental to learning for the last 5,000 years, but it’s still an activity that a lot of students avoid whenever possible. So we, as teachers, create a variety of carrots and sticks to get students to read and to read in ways that are beneficial. These carrots and sticks include specifications grading systems, plain old rubrics, and even software tools. I personally expend a lot of mental effort on designing writing assignments that I hope help students improve their analytical reading skills.

Wrapping up my annual summer course on the Middle East inspired me to take a step back from assignment design and look at a more basic question: what should students be reading, given who they are and why they have enrolled in the course? My Middle East course is a bit peculiar: it’s online, only seven weeks long, and for graduate students. A large portion of the students have military or government experience; many of them have worked and even fought wars in some of the locations they study in the course. They tend to be working professionals looking for both a deeper understanding of their interests and a credential that will help them advance their careers. They are not future professors or undergraduates fulfilling a general education requirement.

People often choose required readings for a course on the basis of “coverage” — we define Topics 1 through N as essential to the study of Subject Q, and look for readings that we think address 1 to N. For a survey course on the Middle East, these topics — at U.S. universities — are usually:

  • The brief introductory geographic and pre-modern historical overview.
  • A basic understanding of Islam and its supposed sociocultural effects.
  • The decline of the Ottoman and Safavid empires and European imperialism.
  • Post-independence state-building.
  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • Oil and the USA.
  • Something about “political Islam” (whatever that is), terrorism, and ongoing instability.

For my course, I have always used Westview Press’s A History of the Modern Middle East, by Cleveland and Bunton. It’s a brilliant, well-written synthesis of politics and history. However, the text of the newest edition — excluding notes and index — has crept upward to 556 pages. I also like to assign Reza Aslan’s 266-page No God But God for the topic of Islam.

The length of these two books means that I am not able to assign other readings that might be more pertinent to my students’ interests and futures. For example, while I think it is important for people to know some basic information about the Ottoman era, I don’t think it is necessary for these students to read 200 pages about it. They could very well be better served by reading something that will provide them with a better understanding of the politics behind the Arab Spring and its aftermath, like Rage for Order by Robert F. Worth, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux — which itself clocks in at 272 pages. 

All of this means that I’m now thinking about which topics are the most and least important to my students, rather than the topics that I think must be included to “cover” the subject. It also means that Ellen Lust’s 900+ page The Middle East, from CQ Press, is just too big for students in this course. Instead I am looking at shorter histories, such as James Gelvin’s The Modern Middle East (370 pages), or books that focus on the contemporary period, like James Barr’s Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East (359 pages).

If anyone has any recommendations, please comment.

Comparatively Speaking

Cat HeadstandI don’t teach a research methods course and the quantitative approach is not emphasized by my department, so the subject gets sprinkled in bits and pieces across several of the courses I do teach. My typical introduction of methods in comparative politics used to be a lecture in which I defined cross-country comparisons and case studies, and gave an example of each. It was boring for students and boring for me. Now I flip this topic on its head. Here’s an example from last Tuesday’s class.

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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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Grading Discussion in Online Courses

Cat ErrorIf enrollment holds steady, on June 29 I will start teaching two seven-week online graduate courses.* I’ve been teaching these courses every summer for several years, and I’ve decided to experiment this summer with a different system for grading student discussions.

I incorporate student discussion into all my courses, whether they are on campus or online, because I believe it fosters student engagement. But–yet again–discussion in these two courses last year demonstrated that there is often a difference between my beliefs about what students should do and how they decide to achieve whatever objectives they have set for themselves.

The shift was also prompted by the adoption of a different instructional tool. When I began teaching these courses, my university used Blackboard as its course management system. Anyone who has used Blackboard knows that it lacks an intuitive user interface and requires that both students and instructors click through innumerable screens. I created this rubric for class discussion, but there was no way to easily link it to what students were writing. Also the rubric was much too complicated to use to evaluate every discussion post by every student. My assessment of discussion defaulted to digging into the student analytics feature after the mini-semester had ended, to weigh the total number of a student’s posts against a scale I had created. Students got little direct feedback from me on how well they were performing in this component of the course while it was still running.

Last year a few students did not participate at all in the weekly discussions. Because of how I structure my courses, they were able to exercise other options and still perform well in terms of their final grades. But their absence from the discussions meant that their peers were not learning from them and they were not learning from their peers. And it looked to me that the lack of transparency in how I evaluated discussion made this outcome more likely.

This time around the courses will be delivered via Canvas instead of Blackboard. Canvas allows the instructor to create interactive rubrics that can be linked to specific assignments or posts in a discussion. The instructor clicks on the rubric’s boxes and the resulting grade is generated. Students see how their work will be assessed without having to click through a myriad of webpages, and they get immediate feedback from the instructor. 

So I created this new rubric, simpler than the old one but still containing the criteria that I think are most important for peer learning in a professional environment, for grading each student’s discussion posts on a week-by-week basis.** I’ll let you know how it works.

*The courses are the politics of the Middle East and comparative political development, part of an M.A. program in international relations. If you’re interested in acquiring some transferable graduate credit hours, learning about a new subject, or learning how to design and teach online course on a compressed schedule, get in touch–you don’t need to be admitted to the degree program to  enroll in either course.

**My wife/colleague showed me how to do this.

Critical thinking and reading of contemporary events

220px-Socrates_Louvre
“ask me a question…”

For any Politics student, critical thinking is a central skill that they need to acquire and develop. Without it, it is impossible to engage in a meaningful way with the world around them or to have a sense of how their own ideas work and cohere.

I’m always a bit hesitant about taking relativistic views to an extreme, but certainly contemporary politics requires us to have an appreciation of the way in which we are manipulated – consciously or unconsciously – by political actors and by the media.

With this in mind, recent weeks have been very instructive for me, as I follow events in two conflicts – Ukraine and Gaza.

I’m not a specialist in either region, and their impacts on my own field of research is relatively small, but I am interested in what’s happening.

In both cases, we have multiple actors, each of whom uses a wide range of strategies to communicate their position and interests to a wider public, including me. As such, I find particular interest in the way that news is framed and the way in we encounter Lukes’ three faces of power.

This week has seen a couple of pieces that have made me think some more about these issues and which might be of interest to students when discussing either media effects or the cases themselves.

On Ukraine, The Guardian has a good debate on western media coverage, which opens up some useful questions.

On Gaza, a friend pointed me towards a piece by Ottomansandzionists that made me consider several aspects of what’s happening.

In both cases, it has been the process of reflection that I’ve appreciated, getting me to question what I hear, read or watch. And without questions, we don’t get to answers.

PS – as I finish writing this, I also notice a piece by Simon Jenkins (a man with whom I usually disagree vehemently), which also makes me reflect some more about how we commemorate the First World War.  As with the other articles, it’s somewhat provocative and might stimulate some discussion and debate.