Authentic Discussion

Some of you might have read last week’s Inside Higher Ed editorial on combatting internet-era cheating with authentic assessment. On this blog, “authentic” has been occasionally applied in the past to writing assignments, presentations, and marshmallows. Before reading the editorial, I had never before carefully thought about authenticity in relation to exams — something I can explore in future posts (and others’ thoughts on the subject are very welcome). Today though I’d like to provide an example of making class discussions more authentic.

In my comparative politics course, students analyzed these two articles for a Monday class (half the students read each article, using my modification to Helen Brown Coverdale’s study huddle method):

Eduardo Mello and Matias Spektor, “Brazil: The Costs of Multiparty Presidentialism, Journal of Democracy 29, 2 (April 2018).

Alfred Stepan, “Brazil’s Decentralized Federalism: Bringing Government Closer to the Citizens?” Daedalus 129, 2 (Spring 2000).

For the next class on Wednesday, students were assigned two short readings and a written response to a prompt:

Uri Friedman, “The Slow Implosion of Brazilian Politics,” The Atlantic, 19 April 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/04/brazil-impeachment-dilma-rousseff/478677/.

Brian Winter, “System Failure: Behind the Rise of Jair Bolsonaro,” Americas Quarterly, 24 January 2018, https://www.americasquarterly.org/content/system-failure-behind-rise-jair-bolsonaro.

What specific change to a Brazilian political institution do you recommend? Why? A statement like “Brazil should become more democratic” is not specific.

Normally I have groups of students discuss their responses to the prompt as written and report their conclusions when the whole class reconvenes. This time I instead created a scenario resembling an actual historical event to which students could apply information gleaned from Monday’s and Wednesday’s readings:

It is 2031. In 2030, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro formed the Organization for Coffee, Rubber, and Petroleum-exporting States (OCRAPS). At his urging, OCRAPS instituted a trade embargo against the USA and its allies. In response to the embargo, U.S. President Eric Trump launched Operation Make America Great Again Again—the invasion and occupation of Brazil.

You are an advisor to former U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, who has been appointed by President Trump to lead the Allied Federal Occupation Government (AFOG) in Brazil. AFOG’s task is to change Brazil’s political system to create a liberal democracy. What is one change to Brazilian political institutions that AFOG should implement? Why should this change be made?

While I have no idea if students actually learned more from this arrangement than they typically do from the usual discussions, they at least seemed more interested in the process. So I’ll count that as a win.