Critical thinking and reading of contemporary events

“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.

Kim Kardashian: In Prison Again

Kim Kardashian cryingToday I ran a slightly different version of Kim Kardashian’s prisoner’s dilemma. I set the scene with students — “you are arrested, taken into an interrogation room, and accused of committing a crime with an accomplice . . .” Then I gave every student a folded piece of paper. On each paper I had written the name of the other person accused of the crime. I told students not to reveal what was written on the paper, and to just to write down their decision to “confess” or “don’t confess.”

For the first iteration, every piece of paper had the name Kim Kardashian written on it. I tallied the results of students’ decisions on the board. Then I had students play the game a second time, and passed out new pieces of paper, which had my name written on them. I am happy to report that students chose to confess twice as frequently when paired with Kim Kardashian than when paired with me.

During discussion, two students pointed out that the safest option in both iterations of the game was to confess — the payoff structure remained the same. But as happened two years ago, for the majority of students perceptions mattered more than rational calculations of self-interest, and they regarded Ms. Kardashian as less trustworthy. They were more willing to risk the chance of a shorter prison sentence with me.

I then connected Ms. Kardashian’s persistent image problem to soft power and national branding. If one individual has a favorable perception another, the latter is better able to gain the cooperation of the former. The same goes for nation-states and their leaders. Bad image, less ability to persuade others.

This was a fairly easy chain of logic for students to grasp, but I then sent the discussion into a different direction: how they view a national brand is not necessarily how people from other parts of the world view it. Before class, students had written responses to some literature on the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union, and this literature referenced how citizens and governments of EU member states perceived Turkey and the Turks. To put it bluntly, Turkey had an image problem similar to Kim Kardashian’s, at least before the 2008-2009 financial crisis. The solution, as many students saw it, was for Turkey to become more like the USA.

I then revealed some survey data from 2011: Egyptians had been asked, “If Egypt’s political system looked like one of the following countries, which one would you prefer it to be?” Turkey ranked first, at 44 percent. The USA ranked sixth, at 5 percent. For Egyptians, Turkey had a more positive brand than the USA, potentially giving it much more soft power over Egypt.

Here is the literature that I used for today’s class:

  • Robert A. Saunders, “Buying into Brand Borat: Kazakhstan’s Cautious Embrace of Its Unwanted ‘Son’,” Slavic Review 67, 1 (Spring 2008), p. 63-80.
  • Thomas Diez, “Expanding Europe: The Ethics of EU-Turkey Relations,” Ethics and International Affairs 21, 4 (2007), p. 415-422.
  • Rainier Hulsse, “Cool Turkey: Solving the Image Problem to Secure EU Membership,” Mediterranean Politics, 11, 3 (November 2006), p. 309–327.
  • Peter van Ham, “The Rise of the Brand State: The Postmodern Politics of Image and Reputation,” Foreign Affairs 80, 5 (Sep-Oct 2001), p. 2-6.
  • Shibley Telhani, The World Through Arab Eyes: Arab Public Opinion and the Reshaping of the Middle East, New York: Basic Books, 2013.

For another example of how prisoner’s dilemma can lead a class into unexpected directions, go here.

Question Time III

As I’ve discussed here and here, I’ve experimented quite a lot with my comparative politics course, which I teach every spring semester. Simon’s post on ridiculous learning got me thinking again about questions — namely how I’ve structured the course around them in non-optimal ways.

I seem to have fixed the problem of students in the audience being unwilling to ask questions of other students who are delivering presentations in class — just require them to do so.  But more significantly, the presentations themselves are frequently based on ill-formed questions.

Vietnam boySimon’s exercise might be the first step in teaching students that a good question is more about process than about subject. Another step in the right direction might be for me to specify the questions that students can use for their presentations. Previously I’ve given students quite a large degree of freedom in choosing presentation topics — they had to be based on reading assignments, but the actual content of the presentations was left to the students’ initiative. This method hasn’t worked very well.

I thought of a possible alternative when reading articles on teaching about the Middle East since the Arab uprisings in the April 2013 issue of PS: Political Science and Politics. My comparative course is divided into a matrix of geographic regions and themes. Previously I’ve grouped students solely according to theme, with each group creating its own presentation for each geographic region. If I assign students to regional groups instead, and prepare questions ahead of time, students might develop a better ability to think comparatively.

For example, I could assign a general question, such as “Why did authoritarian governments fall in the Middle East?” Each group would need to first decide upon the process it needs to use to answer the question and then select a different case to examine.

Or I could provide groups with specific questions on a single case. For example, “What was the relationship between authoritarian government and the military in Tunisia before the revolution?” and “What role did religious organizations play in the revolution in Tunisia?” Again groups would need to first identify how to answer their respective questions.

Either method will require me to prepare lists of sources relevant to the questions students will be presenting on — additional work for me, so I’ll have to think more about this.

Syria Scholarship Initiative

As some of you know, I advocate for campus internationalization so that undergraduate students in the USA get exposed to multiple cultural perspectives. One of the most rewarding aspects of my college career was getting to know and become friends with people from all over the world, after growing up in a small, rural town where everyone was just like me. I want more students, whether they are from the USA or another country, to have the same opportunity.

Homs DescructionThe Institute for International Education (IIE) is one organization that helps bring
students from different cultures together. One of its major programs is to provide emergency assistance to foreign students and scholars who are under threat. Currently the IIE, in partnership with Jusoor and the Illninois Institute for Technology, is leading a consortium of universities that is providing emergency support to students from Syria.

Here is one such student, who after receiving a scholarship to attend college in the USA, still needs about $3,800 to cover travel, insurance, and other incidental expenses. All donations go directly to the university’s Office for International Programs. I encourage you to support him and others like him — people who have had their educations interrupted by circumstances beyond their control.