The Advantage of the Long Course

Last night my 8 week US politics course finished up–its the same credits as a 16 week course, but we meet once a week for 4 hours for 8 weeks, so everything is condensed. These types of courses are primarily aimed at the non-traditional student who works during the day, although many traditional aged students take them as well.

Three or four hour courses are not uncommon in colleges today, and when we tell job candidates about them, the reaction typically varies from mild horror to ‘thanks, i’d rather not have a job right now’.  My reaction was similar at first, but I’ve come to love these courses.  Here are my top five reasons to perk up at the chance to teach a long night class.

5. It counts as part of your load.

We have a 3-3 teaching load, with no more than 25 students per class.  The 8 week class counts as part of the load–which means that the other 8 weeks, I only have two courses.  Teach two night classes a semester, and you either have a 2-2 the entire year, or if you teach them at the same time, the odd 3-1.  And if you want to pick up some extra cash via an overload, a night class in your ‘off’ term is the way to do it.

4. You Can Take Advantage of the Down Time

You have to break up the time anyway–the best lecturer in the world is not going to keep students on their toes for 4 hours week after week. Sure you can give them ‘breaks’ but why not take it further?  In the middle of each class I give the students a 15 minute break followed by ‘current issues discussion’.  The break is long enough for them to scour the local food options for dinner; then we sit down and eat while talking politics for 20-30 minutes.  Each week 3-4 students are responsible for choosing the issue and leading the discussion, which has the added bonus of giving me a break and time to eat my own dinner. Its a great way to take a ‘break’ from the class while still giving the students time to talk and learn.

3. Active Learning Bonanza

Four hour classes offer an amazing opportunity to try out active learning principles.  There is so much room for simulations and games in these classes–finally you have the time to brief, play the game, and debrief.  You can get the students out of their seats and moving around, and still have plenty of time to hit the highlights of the week’s topic.  In a four hour class, active learning becomes a necessary part of the course.

2. Students Can Really Learn The Material

I don’t find any difference in student learning in the 16 and 8 week version of my US politics course.  As previously posted, I use the US citizenship test as a pre- and post- test in this class, and the 8 week students do just as well as the 16 week students (last nights crop was no different: on the pre-test only 1 student passed; on the post-test everyone passed).  Students sometimes feel that they are missing out by only having 8 weeks instead of 16, and indeed they have to learn the material twice as quickly.  But I can be confident that these students aren’t being cheated in any way.

1. They Push You as a Teacher

I may feel exhausted both before and after I step into the classroom, but while I’m there, I’m completely energized. Four hours isn’t a hardship: its an opportunity–an opportunity to figure out the essential ideas of each content area and how to deliver it to the students.  I can experiment with new types of assessment, with new games and simulations, with readings, and with different technologies.  The challenges of this kind of course have led me to engage in more reflection on my teaching than any other course.

Are there downsides?  Sure.  Its exhausting.  The students are sometimes late to class due to traffic or work or kid issues; and sometimes they power down despite your best efforts.  But these hassles are no different than those faced in day time classes.  So my advice?  If you get a chance to teach a non-traditionally timed class, jump at it.  You may be surprised at how much you enjoy it!

 

 

Do I have a Right? A game on Civil Liberties

This is a neat little game from I Civics where you control a law firm that specializes in civil liberties and rights.  Your job is to assemble a team of lawyers with different specialties and then arbitrate between potential clients, turning away those with frivolous cases and directing others to the appropriate lawyer.  Winning cases earns you prestige, which you can use to hire new lawyers and diversify the range of specialties you cover, or to upgrade the equipment in your firm.  Turning away clients with legitimate grievances, accepting frivolous cases, or mismatching clients to lawyers loses prestige points. Feedback is both immediate and written up as amusing newspaper articles at the end of each workday.

The game is easy to learn and the gameplay itself is simple; a game goes through seven workdays and takes about 20 minutes.  Like all the games on I Civics, it is also free, and if you have students register they can save the game midway through and track their performance.  The game would work in either a general American Politics course or one themed around civil liberties and rights.  The nature of the game makes it better for active assessment than active learning, though—it’s a great way for students to test themselves on their Amendments, but not particularly suited as an introduction to the material.  It is also not practical for a group project or an in-class exercise.  But I think it could work really well as a practice exercise for students, a review for an exam, or even a quiz (using the standings and achievements to monitor performance).

20 Minute Interest Groups

Interest Groups and the Bureaucracy are in a constant battle for my least favorite material to teach in my intro US course.  They are just not as sexy as elections and the media or even the judiciary, and every time I get to this part of the course, I want to throw everything out the window and rebuild the course from the ground up just for the chance to add some excitement.

For now, however, I try to alleviate this particular instinct with simulations.  Here’s one on interest groups that I’ve found effective for starting off the class and getting students to understand the role and strategies of interest groups without having to lecture.

This sim comes to us courtesy of WW Norton, who do not require use of their textbook to use the resources on their site.  The Interactive Politics Simulation: Interest Groups puts students in the role of either an environmental group or a drug company and gives them a budget of $200k to spend on various strategies for influencing an evenly matched legislature to vote in your favor.  You can hire a lobbyist, donate to committee chairs, party leadership, or friends or enemies of your cause; alternatives include preparing a supreme court brief, recruiting members, or having a press conference.  Some strategies work in either case–hiring a lobbyist is always a good idea–while others work only for one group or the other, such as a press conference, which only helps the environmental group.

I usually do this at the start of the lesson, but have with success used it in the middle or end of the lesson, depending on when it makes sense to talk about interest group tactics. I let the class pick a role as a group, and then divide them into small groups to discuss how they would spend the money (5 minutes).  Proposals are put on the board and discussion ensues as to the merits of different strategies (5 minutes).  Once we decide on an overall class strategy, I enter in their choices and we discuss how they did (5 minutes).  Then we debrief, and they take notes on the different strategies interest groups use to affect policy (5 minutes). Mission accomplished, sans lecture!

The students seem to like it.  The last time I used this, one student passionately argued against  a press conference for the drug company, but was outvoted by students who thought that spending the most money possible was a good idea. His exultation when they lost votes was fun to watch, and it led to a neat discussion about quality v. quantity.

Are there other ideas out there for making bureaucracy and/or interest groups more exciting?

Interesting online exercise on poverty and budgeting

I have used online simulations with my students for a variety of different pedagogical goals – something I am planning on blogging about later – but today I came across an online simulation that seems very appropriate for the current economic environment.  (I found information about the game here).    The game is called Spent and the idea is that you are trying to manage a budget for your family on  a very small income.  The organization that sponsors the game, the Urban Ministries of Durham clearly has a political agenda – as well as a desire for donations.  Because of this I am reticent to use this in class but I felt it did a very good job of illustrating the challenges of the urban poor with families for people who may not have a real sense of how hard it is to live on a tight budget.  Have other people used this simulation with their students?   Did it work well?

Songs about International Relations

I have noticed in the past that every so often people will put up a list of songs that match certain International Relations theories.   One list that I like is by Michael J. Tierney which you can find here:  http://mjtier.people.wm.edu/teaching/irplaylist.php.

Tierney  for example cites “One is the Loneliest Number ” by Three Dog Night”  as an illustration of Polarity  and   Imagine  by John Lennon as an example of Norms and Ideas.   While lists like this are fun I have thought about how this hobby might be used in the classroom to engage students. I have done so in a couple of different ways that students have enjoyed. The first has been to play a song in class or list it on blackboard and have the students debate briefly which theory is best tied to the song.   This has had unusual outcomes.  For example I had one student tell me that they struggled with what Post Modern analysis was getting at  until we talked briefly about the song “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” by Wang Chung.   Really.  What got them thinking were the lyrics:

 

Turn up your radio
The words we use are strong
They make reality

 

What I thought of as a fun little game made the light bulb light up for this one student.   I have also had students send me songs and their lyrics with a theoretical explanation about why that song is a useful primer on one theory or another.  I have gotten passionate expositions on the NeoMarxist assumptions behind Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”  , (of course) Pink Floyd’s “Money”or the Hobbesian logic of the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil.”   Realism also led a student to recommend a song by No More Kings I had not heard before but ended up really enjoying (note it is a lot better if you have seen the Karate Kid) called “Sweep the Leg.”   Has anyone else used music in class in this way or others?


Site Administration 

I Civics: Aging up a K-12 curriculum

I recently discovered a neat little site called I Civics, a “web-based education project designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in our democracy.”  Founded by former SCOTUS Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the site features curriculum and online games aimed at different lessons in American civics.  The lesson plans are clearly designed according to active learning principles.  For example, the ‘Separation of Powers’ lesson includes a role playing exercise where students create a school lunch menu by acting as each branch of government in turn.  The lesson includes an optional PowerPoint presentation, student worksheets, a group activity, and several online games, plus a teacher’s guide for the instructor. Everything you need for a successful class!

Of course there is a drawback: the use of colored pencils, cutesy graphics, crossword puzzles and simple language clearly mark the material for a younger demographic. The worksheets are particularly juvenile, but then, occasionally, so too is American politics. I wouldn’t let this turn you off: the ideas and activities themselves with a bit of adaptation could easily work in the college classroom.  For example, one activity asks students to analyze a Supreme Court decision in the light of civil liberties, in a lesson on the 1st Amendment.  You could ask your students to do that and ignore the worksheet that goes with the exercise.

I particularly like the lesson on balancing the budget.  Not for the materials, but the exercises—having students act as Representatives and Senators and negotiating between several appropriations bills and resolutions—and for the idea of how to cover the budget process as a single lesson, which I confess I have found difficult to fit into my curriculum—though I do keep trying.  In fact, this may be the best feature of this site: it provides some neat ideas on how to edit down the immense material we can cover into smaller, easily digested bites.

Actually, that’s not true.  The best feature is all the cool games and simulations on American politics.  I’ve played through a few of them and they are hit and miss in terms of their potential to be made age-appropriate, but even the ones that can’t directly be used have helped generate some ideas on how to tackle this material better in the classroom.   In the coming weeks I’ll be giving you my feedback on these games and how they could be modified for our courses.

Satire in the classroom

While I have not used their products, I have been very impressed with what the online textbook publisher soomopublishing is doing in terms of sharing information about pedagogical tactics.  Clearly some of this is oriented towards marketing their own products but a lot of it is not – and also very useful.    they send out an email related to their blog-   poliscilounge  -which often has very useful suggestions and one I saw this morning I wanted to pass along.   They  discussSatirical Resource Repository put together by Rebecca Glazier, Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock.   While many of the links that Rebecca Glazier lists are not related to international or comparative politics – a lot of them are – and are excellent resources.   One of my favorites is from the Onion entitled   Northern Irish, Serbs, Hutus Granted Homeland In West Bank.  The only thing missing (for someone as lazy as me)  is that Rebecca Glazier gives you the names of the articles and the links to the general websites but not direct links.  Still a lot of fun though and something that I think is a useful tool to use with students.

P.S. one of the favorite things of mine produced by soomopublishing  is a video called Too Late to Apologize: A Declaration  (while related to American History) is fun to use when teaching about revolutions.   Plus it is a pretty good cover.

20 Minute Legislature

I’m a big fan of the twenty minute simulation.  One of the big hurdles to using sims in the classroom is the perception that they take a lot of preparation on the part of the professor and a lot of class time to do properly. But sims do not need to be a big production in order to be successful.

Take for example my 20 Minute Legislature, an adaptation of an exercise found in the endlessly useful Instructor’s Manual for Ginsberg, Lowi, and Weir’s We the People.  I should note that I don’t use their text, but this is the best guide I’ve found in terms of suggesting discussion questions and activities.  Its a great go to reference, and deserves its own post.

Basically I give students five categories for spending a $100 billion national budget: Education, Transportation, Health and Welfare, Environmental Protection, and Defense.  They must budget each of these areas, and cannot give equal amounts to each.  They have 2 minutes to do so as individuals, and then based on their ranking of each area, I assign them to ‘committees’ which then have three minutes to come up with a committee budget for the legislature to consider.  Proposed budgets get placed on the board.  The students then have five minutes to persuade others to vote for their budget bill, making whatever promises and exchanges they please.  The final vote is held, and then we debrief for the last 7 minutes or so.

I’ve tried this a couple of times with good success.  I served as the Rules Committee (and the President) and mandated that there were no amendments allowed, that no one could vote for their own bill (in unequally sized groups this was important), and that only one bill could pass.  I also determined the order the bills were discussed.  I have played with the incentives involved, offering extra credit to the winning bill’s team and to the individual who’s personal budget most closely matches the budget that passes.  These rules and incentives do matter–the last time I tried this game, no bills passed.

Ultimately whether someone wins or loses is irrelevant.  The game is a quick and interactive way for students to understand the tradeoffs in budgeting, the role of committees in the legislative process, log rolling, and the influence of self-interest (as the authors predict, education always receives the most money).  Students can see that the process is messy and that what they consider to be good bills still need votes in order to pass. As a bonus, you can also compare their budgets with the actual discretionary budget of the US.

The exercise provides a great reference point throughout discussions of Congress and general discussions of politics as “who gets what, when and how” (as the authors note).  It works particularly well at the start of the lesson on Congress, and while I used it in a class of 25 could be adapted for larger and smaller groups relatively easily.

Putting APSA ideas into practice

One of the APSA panels I attended was the “Unique Approaches to Teaching Political Science” panel and there were some neat ideas there I wanted to share.

Patrick McGovern of Buffalo State College presented his department’s approach to teaching introduction to political science in “Teaching Res Publica and Individual Rights in the First-Year Political Science Course,” coauthored by Laurie Ann Buonanno.  (As an aside, why is it that we never have catchy names for our pedagogy papers?). The standout details on this course were that it was an intro for majors only and is grounded in 3 texts: Joseph Ellis’ American Creation; Anthony Lewis’ Gideon’s Trumpet; and Larry Diamond’s Spirit of Democracy.  The premise of the class is the push and pull between individual and community.  I liked this idea–my own intro to politics course is an elective aimed at non-majors and focuses on the need for and role of government but uses film and fiction to explore the ideas– and it made me wonder how many departments have a core ‘intro to politics’ class for their majors, and whether this is a desirable thing.  Recently I found myself explaining to students about the sub-fields of polisci, and faced a number of blank looks when I explained why American politics is its own field and considered the gateway to the major.

McGovern did give a shout out to IdeaLog, which has a good quiz to help students see where they stand ideologically. I prefer the OK Cupid Politics Test, but that’s because students are alternatively amused and horrified when they find out they share their politics with Darth Vader or Stalin.

The other two papers–“Engaging Students in the Classroom: How Can I Know What I Think Until I See What I Draw” from John Hogan and Paul Donnelly at the Dublin Institute of Technology and “Engaging Student’s Creativity on Exams: Writing Political Science Poetry” by Natalie Jackson of the University of Oklahoma and Elizabeth Wheat of Western Michigan University–dealt with using creative arts to engage students.  Hogan and Donnelly start off their first class of the semester with asking students to first draw the answer to the question ‘what is Irish politics?” and afterward, explain their drawing, first in writing, then in groups, and then in wider discussion.  The stated goal is to help students master critical self-reflection and create space to examine their existing knowledge and assumptions.  The Jackson and Wheat presentation discussed using poetry as an extra credit device on exams, which seems like a neat idea but ultimately I don’t really see the pedagogical value in it.  I decided to try it out immediately on a quiz in my US politics class last night and while the entries were amusing, I remain unconvinced that this adds to my student’s learning in any way.  If we want to achieve the sociologist goal of ‘diversity of voice’, then it should be in the form of a more extensive project than a simple extra credit assignment.

 

APSA Thoughts

I have a love and hate relationship with APSA, but one thing I like is that it kicks off the year. I always come home with more energy to work.  Tomorrow I’ll be posting about some of the active learning ideas I encountered at panels, but today I’m going to take a time out to talk briefly about a disturbing trends that I saw and would love to discuss in the comments.

Panels are DEPRESSING.  Its rare that I leave a panel feeling happy that I attended instead of just downloading the papers on my own time.  There are plenty of reasons for this, but I think the most prominent one is that our format for exchanging knowledge at conferences is fundamentally flawed.  All the research that we know about how people learn best, and our preferred method is to have a group of individuals talk at the audience and each other for an hour and a half and then (if we are lucky!) allow for questions and dialogue with the audience.  I wish I could say that the teaching and learning sections did better, but one of these panels was the worst offender, with only ten minutes left for questions, and most of those more technical ‘how-do-I-do-this’ type questions instead of genuine discussion.

I much prefer the working group model of ECPR’s joint sessions, round-table style conversations, or the track method at TLC.  I would love to see us just throw out the rulebook, look up from our own papers, and talk to each other.  Perhaps that’s wishful thinking, but I do want to think through some other models that would really allow us to engage with each other and perhaps, even–dare I say it?–teach each other about our findings.

Edited to add: Nina posted about the working group model at APSA which also sounds like a better method and one that could be applied more broadly.