Thanksgiving Duck and Running Large Classroom Games

First, what is everyone thankful for this year? Share your comments! 🙂

I’m thankful for my family, working with great colleagues, and the two ducks thawing in my fridge. My wife and I have never liked turkey, and aside from trying turducken (too dry) and goose (expensive duck) once each, we’ve roasted up two ducks every Thanksgiving since 1996. My wife loves post-Thanksgiving sandwiches the best, where she layers duck, stuffing, and cranberry sauce between two thick-cut slices of buttered and lightly toasted bread. The look she gets on her face with the first bite is best described as rated PG-13.

Next Wednesday, I kick off Cold Winter, my end-of-course exercise for POLS 131: Current World Problems (think intro to IR and CP for non-political science majors). POLS 131 sections range from 100 to 200 students, so it’s quite a handful to run even with my TAs and ~2 student assistants. Students form six-person teams early in the semester and design a state, IGO, or NGO using the DIME model (diplomacy, intelligence/information, military, economic). It is straightforward for the state teams, but the IGO and NGO teams must think creatively about how the model fits their structures (for example, economic for an NGO might mean how they solicit donations, and military might mean how they hire security). Aside from using real-world cities for their state capitals or headquarters, the teams otherwise create everything from scratch (albeit they can use real states, IGOs, and NGOs for inspiration).

Discord sreenshot from a previous Cold Winter exercise

During the exercise, the teams react to an evolving international crisis. It’s usually a zombie apocalypse, but I’ve run it with evil robots, too (at some point, I’ll use vampires or werewolves). Why a speculative crisis? It encourages students to think outside the box without preconceived notions and avoids partisanship associated with real-world issues. I know how the scenario starts, but I improvise the rest based on how teams react and apply course concepts. It’s four days of absolute chaos, but feedback from previous semesters suggests that the students love it–it makes the course material come alive.

I use Discord to manage the game, which is fantastic for running large and specific events (in contrast, I don’t like using Discord for day-to-day communication). I set up channels for each team, a news and intelligence channel where I post scenario updates, a request for information channel for teams to ask questions, and a white cell channel just for myself and my assistants. I deputize my TAs and student assistants to adjudicate questions and events as they circulate around the room, which I then add to the scenario. Even with students using Discord, the room is a raucous cacophony of shouting and hustling students.

Students are not graded on their in-game performance; rather, they submit an after-action report essay in which they reflect on their team’s strategies, failures, and successes. This way, they can take risks during the game without worrying about grades.

I’d love to write this up for, say, the Journal of Political Science Education or International Studies Perspectives, but the hard part is conveying the improvisation required. I can teach someone how to build the exercise, but I don’t know how to teach someone how to be a dungeon master (it’s a skill I picked up over many years. That, and I don’t get stage fright). I’m open to suggestions and a co-author on the subject of improv!

One Reply to “Thanksgiving Duck and Running Large Classroom Games”

  1. James, this sounds amazing! I’d love to see you write it up so that those of us who would like to use it can have access to it!

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