Reality Check

As a response to the situation described in my last post, I created an in-class exercise for my comparative politics course — this worksheet:

1. Write the main thesis of these articles by changing each article’s title into a declarative sentence containing “because,” “causes,” “is caused by,” etc.:

Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, “How Development Leads to Democracy: What We Know About Modernization,” Foreign Affairs 88, 2 (March/April 2009): 33-48.

Alfred Stepan, “Brazil’s Decentralized Federalism: Bringing Government Closer to the Citizens?” Daedalus 129, 2 (Spring 2000): 145-169.

Larry Diamond, “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?” Journal of Democracy 21, 1 (January 2010): 93-112.

Javier Corrales, “Authoritarian Survival: Why Maduro Hasn’t Fallen,” Journal of Democracy 31, 3 (July 2020): 39-53.

Scott Mainwaring, “The Crisis of Representation in the Andes,” Journal of Democracy 17, 3 (July 2006): 13-27.

2. Fill in the blank cells in the table below with information from Larry Diamond, “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?”:

3. Given the above, what causes the value of the dependent variable? How do you know this? Is this a Most Different Systems Design or a Most Similar Systems Design?

I gave students 10 minutes to work on these questions individually, followed by 10 minutes in breakout rooms with teammates to discuss their answers. Afterward, I reviewed the lesson by asking students to state what they wrote for each thesis or blank table cell. This occupied the remaining 30 minutes of class. While I don’t know what students thought of this exercise, it’s something I can use in the future either in the same way or as part of an exam.

Identifying How Assumptions Meet Reality

Four weeks until classes end, and I’m noticing some of the same problems in my comparative politics course that I saw a year ago. First, some students are not able to consistently locate a journal article’s main thesis, even though I simplified the assignment’s format, students discuss their work among themselves when creating presentations about the articles, and I review the organization of each article after the presentations. Second, students aren’t sharing notes about assigned articles despite my adaptation of Helen Brown Coverdale’s study huddle system. Since collaborative notetaking with Google Docs didn’t work, I assumed that students would at least share their completed article analyses with their green or red teammates. Nope. While the analyses are graded as individual assignments, the “sharing” aspect is not, so probably students see no reason to do it.

Seven years ago, I wrote about mistakenly assuming that students knew the meaning of methods in social science research. A similar problem might be occurring with thesis. Although students have probably heard the term since ninth grade English, maybe they still don’t really understand it. Or, even if they do understand, they could be unwilling to make the effort required to identify what and where it is in a text. As a more direct colleague put it, the problem can originate with stupidity, laziness, or a combination of both.

A solution might be to ask students to find where in the body of an article its title has been converted into a cause and effect statement. For example, I recently assigned “Authoritarian Survival: Why Maduro Hasn’t Fallen” by Javier Corrales (Journal of Democracy 31, 3). The thesis is essentially “Maduro hasn’t fallen because . . .”

As for the unwillingness of students to share their ideas about readings via collaborative notetaking, I would not be surprised if this stems from being taught since early childhood that reading is an isolated rather than a social activity. I.e., the ideal reading environment involves a room of one’s own, a blanket, a cup of tea, and possibly a cat, to ponder silently the meaning of what one has just read. This technique works fine for people like ourselves, because academia self-selects for the highly literate. But the average undergraduate student probably doesn’t know really know how to think about what they’re reading while they’re reading it. According to colleagues who know much more about this subject than I do, if reading is instead a public activity, the metacognition that occurs in the truly literate becomes visible and transferable to others. Social interaction facilitates a better understanding of the text.

Luckily we live in an era of digital tools that allow a reader to easily interact with a text and with other readers. One of these tools is Perusall, which a couple of English professors on my campus have been raving about. I have asked our IT support unit to link Perusall to my Canvas account so that I can start experimenting with it, hopefully before the semester ends. If that happens, I’ll report my observations here.

When the Medium Becomes the Message

More musings about higher education in a post-pandemic world . . .

While isolating at home during the winter Covid-19 surge, I re-established contact with an academic fellow traveler from my pre-21st century days as a doctoral student. Our conversation turned to the declining popularity of traditional humanities and social science disciplines among undergraduates, a trend seemingly initiated by the 2008 recession and possibly accelerated by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. As professors tend to do, we each had previously identified a second possible cause of this trend: the failure at the undergraduate level of these disciplines to evolve in response to technological change. Back in 2013, I wrote an ALPS post about the need for faculty to examine assumptions about curricular content and delivery given the new technological demands of employers, but my friend expressed it much better late last year here. His basic point: students are more likely to study what reflects their daily experiences and clearly connects to attractive careers than what does not. Universities, being subject to finite resources, will institutionalize the former while casting aside the latter.

As my friend wrote, technologies like internet search, smartphones, big data, and social media were already having an effect before 2008, but they radically altered life afterward. Yet how many undergraduate political science, history, or English literature programs now train majors in app design, predictive analytics, or video production? I’ve taken a few small steps in this direction, with online video content, ArcGIS storymaps, and KnightLab timelines, but always at my own expense and independently of the formal curriculum. My friend has made a much deeper commitment to learning and teaching these technologies, but again, he’s done it despite, not because of, the norms of his discipline.

Forward, Not Back

A brief response* to Simon’s last post about not slipping back into old habits:

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran this article (paywalled) about how the pandemic might have permanently altered campuses. People interviewed for the article believed that the use of a hybrid delivery format that includes online, asynchronous components will persist, because even full-time, traditionally-aged students like the convenience and flexibility.

Another reason to continue the practice: hybrid design enables students to get out of a passive environment and into more active experiences. For example, last fall my previously 100% face-to-face course on economic development went on Zoom. I do not teach by lecturing in fifty-minute increments three times per week; students in my classes experience a lot of interaction with peers. However, many of these activities can’t be easily replicated in an online environment given the usual tools I have at my disposal. So as a substitute I created a series of assignments in which students documented evidence of economic inequality in the local community with photos and presented their findings in online asynchronous discussions. The assignments met my intended objectives and the students were really engaged, so I’m going to use them again in Fall 2021, when (most likely) the course will once again be delivered face-to-face on campus. But the assignments can’t be completed effectively in fifty-minute time blocks. My proposed solution? Just cut the students loose — not hold class on certain days. My hope is that the institutional hype about maximizing student learning matches reality, and my plan isn’t quashed by higher ups.

If you’re interested in modifying any of your course in a similar fashion, The Aga Khan University has produced an excellent step-by-step guide on the development, design, and implementation of online courses. The guide also applies to hybrid courses.

*The title of this post is also a very obscure reference to the phrase uttered by Muammar Qaddafi during the now decade-old Arab Spring — إلى الأمام — immortalized in Zenga Zenga.

Coalition Governments

Today we have a guest post from Joseph W. Roberts, associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Roger Williams University. He can be contacted at jroberts [at] rwu [dot] edu.

Recently someone on Twitter asked about teaching coalition governments and their formation in an introduction to comparative politics class. I responded to the query with an exercise that I use to demonstrate presidential vs. parliamentary systems and voting systems. The exercise demonstrates why a state might choose one system over another in a way the mirrors the perspective championed by Lijphart (references listed below).

I begin by talking to the students about the size principle and the minimum winning coalition described by Riker and the critiques about whether a minimum winning coalition of two parties with a “margin” of one is actually stable (see Shepsle, Butterworth, or Brown). I explain ways in which party identity/ideology can affect the creation of coalitions, and ask students to think of other factors, such as ethnic identity, that might be part of the process. This subject is usually covered briefly in comparative politics textbooks and I just reinforce some of the basic concepts.

I then use the actual party data from an election available from Wikipedia—usually Israel because it has a lot of elections—but any election where a coalition government is formed will work. I give the students the list of parties that received seats in the election, a rough description of each party’s ideology, and a number line showing where each party fits in the left-right political spectrum, as shown in the table below.

Continue reading “Coalition Governments”

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):

Continue reading “Authentic Discussion”

Benefits of Student Reflection

Today we have a guest post from Colin Brown, assistant teaching professor, and Jennifer Ostojski, Ph.D. candidate, from the political science department at Northeastern University. They can be contacted at  colin [dot] brown [at] northeastern [dot] edu and ostojski [dot] j [at] northeastern [dot] edu.

This year we have had to adapt the short, focused simulations for reinforcing material that we like to use in the classroom to the virtual environment. This adaptation has caused us to think more about the value of independent student reflection in relation to group debriefings.

Colin had previously developed a simulation of coalition-building in Germany (available here at APSA Educate) for introductory comparative politics, which had two main learning objectives: (1) gain familiarity with German political parties as an example of multipartism, and (2) understand that big, centrist parties can still exert a lot of agenda-setting power in sometimes-chaotic multiparty systems. A key part of the exercise is the bargaining that occurs as students walk around the physical classroom.

In Spring 2020, we switched to online teaching two weeks before Colin had scheduled the simulation in his course. He made it an optional extra-credit online exercise, in which about one-third of the class participated. In lieu of a debriefing, students submitted ungraded answers to three questions:

1. What did you find hardest about reaching a coalition agreement?

2. What new perspective does this give you on the German case in particular?

3. What might be some of the strengths and weaknesses of coalition governments, and how did those play out here?

We used slightly different online versions of the simulation in Fall 2020. In Colin’s course, students stayed muted/invisible and used the private chat function to communicate during simulation sessions. Jennifer’s larger class used breakout rooms with students communicating with one another behind the scenes via Zoom chat, a classroom Slack channel, and social media (which more directly simulated the more intentionally chaotic in-person discussions). Colin assigned students to parties right as the simulation began while Jennifer provided students with party roles beforehand.

Based on the written responses and discussions, students in our courses learned the central lessons of the simulation equally well, and equal to the in-person format in prior years, despite the difference in communication methods and the timing of role assignments. However, Colin’s Spring cohort seemed to demonstrate better knowledge of both the specifics of the German system and broader concepts about multipartism, whereas the students in our Fall courses displayed more learning of broad concepts than of specific details. We found it interesting that the Spring students seemed to pick up more details from the simulation despite it being, well, March 2020. Our hunch is that writing responses to the reflection questions caused students to spend some minimal amount of time and effort checking whether they were correctly using relevant concepts. Although it is hard to rule out selection effects, engaging in independent reflection might benefit students’ learning whether the simulation is online or in-person, even if it is not the most memorable or visible part of the exercise.

Winter of Discontent

I thought this was going to be about Shakespeare

Time for another rundown of some of the U.S. colleges and universities whose financial situations have been in the news lately, ordered according to my metric of percentage increase in expenses per undergraduate FTE, from fiscal years 2011 to 2019, the most recent year for which IRS tax filing and IPEDS enrollment data are (usually) available.

As usual, this is my personal opinion based on public information.

31: Pacific Lutheran University*

In November, Pacific Lutheran University declared financial exigency. If a university’s president says his employer “is not closing its doors,” that’s a red flag.

37: University of Evansville*

To rephrase its own statement, Evansville needs to make some changes to remain viable. According to its Form 990s, Evansville received $44 million in contributions in fiscal year (FY) 2013, which allowed net revenue of about $35 million on total expenses of $104 million. In other words, without the contributions, it would have been about $9 million short. Despite that $35 million windfall for FY 2013, Evansville was in deficit in FYs 2015 and 2016. Its budget has a structural problem: even though undergraduate enrollment declined, the number of faculty increased. So it’s time for some faculty to lose their jobs, in the hopes that cutting labor costs will be enough to keep the university operating.

38: College of Saint Rose

I first wrote about Saint Rose in 2015, when it announced a plan to terminate over ten percent of its full-time faculty and close twenty-three of its academic programs. Since then, its undergraduate enrollment has continued to drop, and it was in deficit for FYs 2016, 2017, and 2019. In December, it announced the elimination of an additional twenty-two degree programs in an attempt to balance its budget by 2023.

42: Notre Dame de Namur University

By 2019, de Namur’s FTE undergraduate enrollment had fallen to only 780 students, down from a peak of 1,030 in 2014. In March of last year, it decided not to admit new students for the fall semester. To “continue the operation of the university beyond spring 2021,” it plans to sell part of its campus and end its traditional on-campus undergraduate programs.

49: Guilford College

I first wrote about Guilford a little more than two years ago. Its undergraduate FTE enrollment fell by 42 percent from 2011 and 2019, and it now seems to be up against a wall. Guilford’s previous president resigned and will finish out her career as a tenured English professor there. Efforts by the subsequent interim president to put Guilford on a sustainable financial path look like they are being undermined by the trustees that hired her.

65: Judson College

In December, Judson issued an appeal for $1.5 million in donations, approximately 15 percent of its operating budget, to stay open for the remainder of the 2020-21 academic year. The college ran deficits for every fiscal year between 2011 and 2019, except for 2017. During this period, its undergraduate FTE enrollment declined by a third from 387 to 261. College Scorecard states that Judson has a graduation rate of only 33 percent, with 46 percent of students who enroll withdrawing and another 21 percent transferring.

If you are interested in calculating the percentage increase in your college or university’s expenses per FTE undergraduate, click on the link in the first paragraph. Additional useful information on changes in admissions yields, enrollment, and net tuition revenue can be found by plugging your employer’s name into the Single Institution tab in the Tableau visualization at Jon Boeckenstedt’s Higher Ed Data Stories.

*The school’s 2019 Form 990 isn’t available yet, so percentage increase is calculated from 2011 to 2018.

10 Things Learned From 10 Years of Blogging

Today marks the tenth anniversary of this blog’s first post. Here’s a listicle of some of what I’ve learned from a decade of blogging, in no particular order:

1. Deadlines are useful, because work does expand to fill the time I make available for it.

2. Sloppy writing reveals sloppy thinking. Laying out my ideas as text invariably shows that there is plenty of room for improvement.

3. To communicate effectively, short and simple is better than long and complex. Unfortunately, most academics are trained for the latter. It’s one of the reasons political scientists don’t have the relevance they ought to have in public policy making.

4. I’m really, truly, a morning person. Writing is so much easier for me before lunch.

5. Being married to a colleague whose background is wildly different from my own is incredibly helpful. See the statement about sloppy writing above. That’s hers.

6. Though ALPS has existed for a decade and gets on average 7,000 page views per month, blogging has not brought me fame and fortune. Luckily I’m intrinsically motivated by how the blogging process improves my — here it is again — writing and thinking. But not everyone has the same motivations I do.

7. Blogging on a weekly basis allows me to evaluate my teaching far more effectively than I otherwise would — which helps me minimize some of the more unpleasant aspects of my job.

8. Adapting to new technology never gets easier, but learned helplessness is just not my thing. I will try to figure it out, and if I can’t, I’ll try to find someone who can. Unfortunately this seems to put me in a distinct minority in certain academic circles, given that technological adaptation rarely drives curricular design and delivery. Undergraduate programs in the humanities and social sciences will probably continue to wither as a result.

9. I do some of my best thinking when I alter my environment. On pre-dawn runs. In airport terminals. While sitting on a balcony in Belize. I should do more of this.

10. I’ve learned that one can’t be a prophet in one’s own land. Institutions can preserve the problem to which they have been the solution for only so long, and then they tend to catastrophically fail because of self-organized criticality or some other process. So often it’s easier to just watch the flood waters rise while sitting on high ground, glass of lemonade in hand.