In line with the first and third bullet points in my post last year about teaching comparative politics, I’ve tried to make the relationships between course learning objectives, readings, and writing assignments more transparent to students. I’ve done this in part by making writing prompts refer more explicitly to what I want students to learn. For example, here is last year’s assignment about Venezuela, which I placed in the section of the course about democracy:
- Scott Mainwaring and Timothy R. Scully, “Latin America: Eight Lessons for Governance,” Journal of Democracy 19, 3 (July 2008): 113-127.
- Uri Friedman, “How Populism Helped Wreck Venezuela,” The Atlantic, 4 Jun 2017.
- Moisés Naím and Francisco Toro, “Venezuela Is Falling Apart,” The Atlantic, 12 May 2016.
- Juan Cristobal Nagel, “Venezuela’s Constitutional Crisis,” Caracas Chronicles, 12 January 2016.
- Meridith Kohut and Isayen Herrera, As Venezuela Collapses, Children Are Dying of Hunger,” The New York Times, 17 December 2017.
Of Mainwaring and Scully’s eight lessons, which is most relevant for Venezuela? Why?
Answering the above question requires reading the Journal of Democracy article, which is good. Yet the question also demands that students apply a general framework to a specific context that is totally unfamiliar to them. A few newspaper and magazine articles aren’t enough to give students a clear sense of what is happening in Venezuela’s political system. The end result is a badly-constructed rhetorical situation likely to generate answers that aren’t relevant to the learning objectives behind the assignment.
Here is the 2019 version of the assignment, which I have placed in the section of the course on political protest:
- Chad Raymond, “Resistance, Rebellion, and Revolution” (on Canvas).
- Nicholas Casey, “Venezuelans Flee in Boats to Escape Economic Collapse,” The New York Times, 25 November 2016.
- Sam Ellis, Christina Thornell, Edwin Corona, “The Collapse of Venezuela, Explained,” Vox.com, 25 August 2017.
- Wil S. Hylton, “Can Venezuela Be Saved?” The New York Times, 1 March 2018.
- Moisés Naím, “The Tragedy of Venezuela,” The Atlantic, 25 February 2014.
- Nicholas Casey, “Venezuela Is in Crisis but Its President Might Be Stronger for It,” The New York Times, 6 August 2018.
Do the ideas of Albert Hirschman, James Scott, Samuel Popkin, or Theda Skocpol best explain opposition to the government in Venezuela? Why?
The new question still requires that students apply abstract concepts to a specific context, but in a manner that is less dependent on prior knowledge of that context. And the application that students are performing is an actual comparison — in this case, of the ideas of four well-known figures in the field.