Grading on Spec II

Blueprint And RulerEarlier this week students in my globalization course wrote draft statement of purpose essays for Fulbright grant applications. This exercise hit several objectives:

  • The writing task was authentic. Even though the vast majority of the class will probably never actually seek to be a post-graduation Fulbright award recipient, almost all of them write application essays for scholarships. Scholarship application essays have a nearly identical audience and purpose.
  • The exercise reinforced for students the idea that they can actively experience other parts of the world — instead of just reading about it — and will almost certainly benefit from doing so. In this I was assisted by the assistant director of our office of international programs. She visited the class to give a 15-minute overview of the Fulbright program and to provide an example of a recent alumna who just received a Fulbright award to do work in Colombia.
  • Students were incredibly engaged. For thirty minutes I heard nothing but the clicking of keys as students wrote furiously on their laptops. The resulting drafts demonstrated that students took the work seriously, perhaps because they were writing about their own interests and potential futures.
  • Grading was easy because I explicitly defined the essay as a first draft and employed my own version of specifications grading with the two-criteria rubric shown below.

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When a Book Becomes Your Spirit Animal…

As a professor of politics I’m frequently reminded of my obligation to be a contributor to my discipline’s development. Ergo, I publish works about political science and security studies. This is the proposed purpose of my being…(particularly pre-tenure) and certainly NOT to publish in gasp pedagogy, or god forbid….other fields.

As such…I want to talk, briefly, today about the most extraordinary book I’ve read this year…


Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eight Air Force in World War II
– By Charles W. McArthur

It’s not a teaching book, it isn’t a political science book, it isn’t even a methods book. This book is weird.

Before Charles W. McArthur passed away, he was a Mathematics faculty member at Florida State University. I know right? Math prof? McArthur’s book is about a bunch of academics who worked in the European Theater of Operations in the 1940s helping U.S. pilots learn how to fly and fight more effectively. The book details all the ways in which research and science were a fundamental part of winning the war. McArthur himself flew 35 missions as a bombardier for the Eighth Air Force in WWII. He wrote this book as a historical recovery of the work done by Operations Analysts during that time.

McArthur’s book was published by the American Mathematical Society in 1990. It is part of a series of books published by the AMS called “History of Mathematics”

What does this have to do with pedagogy?

McArthur’s book is phenomenal all on its own merits, but what truly makes this book unique and relevant to pedagogy (and political scientists who research it) is that his work is a meta analysis of the honing of his craft (understanding how to conduct military operations analysis), through his craft as a professor, published by the academic community that he claimed as his discipline–Mathematics. Even though there are ZERO mathematics in the book itself.

McArthur’s book is complex, beautifully written, and fascinating to read. But most importantly…this book now sits on my desk as a reminder, that my lasting contribution to this world…should be about writing about those things about which I am passionate, no matter how far outside my field, or tenure requirement…erm okay maybe after tenure….

Either way, Charles W. McArthur’s book is an inspiration.

Engaging Students, Part 2: Lecture Summaries

Transitioning from passive to active learning in our courses can be a daunting task.  At ALPS we focus quite a bit on games and simulations, and one of the chief concerns raised by newcomers to these pedagogies is the loss of control an instructor must face as they move away from a lecture model.  This week’s technique is aimed at instructors who want to dip their toes into the active learning pool, rather than cannonballing off the diving board.

Let’s talk about the lecture summary.

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LeBron James, Realist: A Paper Assignment for Intro to International Relations

This is a guest post from Sarah Fisher, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Emory & Henry College.

Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper has his quirks, but his deeply rooted concern for relative power and hegemony, whether winning a Nobel Prize or crushing trivia, is pure realism. LeBron James’ contract details reflect the fluidity of alliances, another realist.


Sheldon Cooper and LeBron James are just two of the individuals my Introduction to International Relations students analyzed for their final paper this past semester. After assigning this paper assignment to three different classes, I’ve enjoyed reading papers that outline Leslie Knope’s liberal tendencies and even the realist principles in a sorority’s official pledge.

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Leading Donkeys To Water

Never assume.
Never assume.

Given the value I place on authentic writing assignments, I’ve been a bit frustrated at recurring problems in the briefing memos submitted by students who are taking my first-year seminar. For example, each memo is supposed to begin with a specific one-sentence recommendation, but I often see vague run-on sentences that would not be acceptable in the workplace. One potential mechanical solution is to adopt the fifty-word sentence method, but set the limit at perhaps only thirty words.

While thinking about the above technique, I suddenly recognized a more fundamental problem: as with methods of investigation, most students don’t know what memos are or why they exist. And if students don’t understand the function of a type of writing, content and format become meaningless.
The Purdue Online Writing Lab contains excellent information about professional writing, and its description of memos is worth quoting in full:


Memos have a twofold purpose: they bring attention to problems and they solve problems. They accomplish their goals by informing the reader about new information like policy changes, price increases, or by persuading the reader to take an action, such as attend a meeting, or change a current production procedure. Regardless of the specific goal, memos are most effective when they connect the purpose of the writer with the interests and needs of the reader.

If I use the briefing memo assignment in the future, I’ll point students to this resource and assess whether students understand why memos are used.

Outsourcing Manuscript Reviews

Smile SecretaryAcademic journal editors regularly ask me to anonymously review manuscripts that have been submitted for publication. Given that this work is unpaid and has a negligible effect on my prospects for promotion, it usually ends up far from the top of my priority list.

I recently realized that this task could be outsourced to undergraduate students as a writing assignment. Students in many of my courses already analyze journal articles, so why not make the process experiential? They can use the same guidelines and rubrics they use now, but with a more authentic role, audience, and format.

I can see a series of scaffolded components to this exercise:

  • Evaluate the manuscript from a stylistic perspective. Is the writing free of  mechanical errors? Is it concise and easy to follow?
  • Locate a piece of literature in the manuscript’s bibliography. Analyze it using the criteria that I link to above. Explain whether the author of the manuscript under review is referencing this literature appropriately.
  • Analyze the argument in the manuscript itself using the same criteria.
  • Make a recommendation about the manuscript–for example, accept, revise, or reject–and justify one’s recommendation. This could be performed in teams as a collaborative activity, with the members of each team deciding upon a joint recommendation and then presenting this recommendation to the class.
  • I compile the students’ work into a single assessment of the manuscript and submit it to the journal’s editorial staff.

The downside to this idea is that I never know when I will be asked to review a manuscript, so I can’t schedule it as an assignment before the course starts. But I’ve found that both I and my students often enjoy a change in routine.

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.

Back to Basics with CATs

Two Eye Color CatAs promised in a previous post, an example of the usefulness of CATs:

I’m teaching comparative politics this semester, and in this course I divide the content into five geographic regions. and four themes (formerly five themes, but I spun one of them off into a separate course). For each region, students have the following assignment:

Write an essay that uses a single theoretical perspective (rational actor, structural, or cultural) to explain the political events described by the assigned readings.

The first two iterations of this assignment did not meet my expectations — overall the class had done a poor job synthesizing information and presenting coherent written arguments. I looked through CATs for a technique that might work as an in-class writing exercise and found the “one-sentence summary,” which I modified. I gave each student a copy of the following text, created by yours truly but reflective of students’ writing:

I feel as though without a strong and effective ruler being in command a country will either have a revolution or the people will be politically oppressed. A democracy requires economic growth, import and export markets, an education system so people have well-rounded knowledge to participate effectively in elections, and the right culture. The readings discussed South Africa’s modern economy being the product of technology which in turn was able to create democracy. However, in other countries the political leaders control power rather than the people and this results in democracy depending on them by means of their interests. Although the readings we read about sub-Saharan Africa had many different views on the economies of African states all of the readings emphasized the role of political leadership in a rational actor mindset in order to create the democratic systems that they do have.

I gave students ten minutes to edit this passage to make it better address the assignment instructions. I projected the instructions and the passage on the wall screen.

After ten minutes I had each student come to the front of the room and use the classroom computer to make a change to the passage. Other students provided input and I facilitated discussion.

By the time the last student was finished making changes, the passage had been reduced to a single sentence. It wasn’t the ideal thesis statement, but students seemed to understand my point that it’s important to concisely state one’s argument at the beginning of an essay or a presentation.

I then demonstrated how the easiest way to construct a thesis statement for this kind of assignment is to simply reword the question asked in the instructions — in this case, something like:

The rational actor theoretical perspective best explains political events in sub-Saharan Africa.

Once this was accomplished, I had five minutes of class left to do a “wellness check-in” — I went around the room asking each student “How is life treating you?”

Blogging as Getting Beyond the Classroom

Undoubtedly, the online writing forum is the dominant form of contemporary national conversations about any topic you can think of. While some of us have attempted to use blogging as a way to teach, many of us have found the challenge of the online environment has only added to complexity of the teaching process.

Technology is here to assist! Not drag us down!  But it can be made simple….

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 10.15.19 AM

An excellent working example (that I encourage you to visit and comment upon) is Stephanie McNulty’s Comparative Politics blog “Wandering Classroom” at Franklin & Marshall College. Dr. McNulty  has used blogging as a platform for students to connect what is happening around the world to the concepts covered in her class. Students must post a blog providing analysis on a contemporary event, and also comment on each other’s blog posts.

Dr. Stephanie McNulty

McNulty grades students on their blog posts and their comments on one another’s work….but here’s the kicker…. because these posts are public anyone can read and comment. It is an added pressure to perform and to interact outside the walls of the classroom.

(Feel free to comment on their posts to get in on the game!)

Most importantly, these blog posts are more than just fodder, they are actual graded writing! THINGS WE ALREADY DO MADE INTERACTIVE, PEER CRITIQUED, AND GRADED?

This is where I double face palm myself for all the one page reaction memos I have assigned that go only onto my own desk. Simple, better, interactive.

Bravo Dr. McNulty!