Magic Genie: Quick Exercise on Politics, Distribution, Decision Rules, and Deaths

I did a quick exercise with my intro IR class yesterday that reinforced a lesson on the meaning of politics and its distributive implications, showed them how decision rules matter, and served as a jumping off point for a discussion about Mueller’s arguments about the overblown nature of the terrorist threat. The exercise is very simple, and only takes about five-ten minutes.

I split students into groups of four and gave them one of the following two prompts:

Prompt One

The magic genie of Governlandia is willing to grant you one wish!  Good for you.  Unfortunately, this wish is somewhat restricted—there’s no wishing for more wishes, for one.  In fact, the only thing she’s willing to let you wish for is to permanently cure a single ailment for the world.  Here are the ailments you are allowed to cure:

Terrorism (ends all terrorist attacks permanently)

Cancer (people can still get cancer, but there is a complete and effective cure)

Bumper Cars (deaths by auto accident become a thing of the past—impacts cause no damage)

Global Warming (the temperature will be regulated to prevent largescale climate change)

Nuclear Weapons (all weapons will be permanently disabled, including new ones built)

Bring one extinct animal back to life (T-Rex, dodo’s, wooly mammouths, whatever)

 Prompt 2

The magic genie of Governlandia has granted you one wish—a gift of 100 BILLION dollars.  Good for you.  Unfortunatley, this gift is somewhat restricted—you can only spend it on a handful of things, none of them for your own selfish gain.  Scientists estimate that investing the entire $100 billion in any one area will completely solve that problem; anything less, and the problem will continue.  However, you may distribute the money however you see fit.

Eradicate Terrorism

Universal, unlimited health care

Make Roads Completely Safe

Stop Global Warming

Destroy all Nuclear Weapons

Preserve all Existing Species from Extinction

Groups did not know that there were two different prompts.  When they had made their decision, they posted them on the board, and we discussed why they came to the conclusion they did.

I used this to note a few things.  First, no one gave any attention to the animal rights issues, which led to a discussion about the value of human v. animal life and how some issues can be seen as ‘luxury’ issues. Second, the method of decision making mattered: groups that were allowed to divy up money did so, but had a less intense discussion than those that had to choose only one policy area.  All the groups prioritized health care issues, and we discussed the criteria they use to evaluate the use of funds.  This led us to revisit the definition of politics as ‘who gets what, when, and how’ and segued into a discussion of Mueller’s work on whether or not terrorism is a threat and how people react to it.

Basically this was a neat little 5 minute activity that took no time at all to whip up and explain, but generated numerous discussion points for the remainder of the class.  If you try it out, let me know how it goes!

The Revolution Will Not Be Twittered

Last Friday in class a student asked me to explain the causes of the current global economic recession. It happened to be the same student who said the week before that I was turning her into a Marxist (to which I responded “it’s good to be a Marxist while you’re young, because when you’re older you won’t be able to afford it”).

So off I went on a twenty-five minute tangent on the inflationary real estate bubble in the USA, the securitization and outsourcing of bad debt, Greece’s economic collapse, and Ponzi schemes. Although I find such topics to be a lot more interesting than offensive and defensive realism, I was a little perturbed at the time at the unexpected derailment of my lesson plan for the day. I have not yet learned to embrace uncertainty when it comes to class preparation.

But since then I’ve read this piece about campus police beating students at Berkeley.

And this one by a Penn State alum and Iraq war veteran who has completely lost faith in the leadership of his parents’ generation.

I’ve emailed both to my students in the hopes that the articles will get them thinking and talking about something more important that the latest international relations theory.

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?

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.

 

The Citizenship Test: Confronting Citizenship in the US Politics Classroom

Ninety percent of my incoming students in my introduction to American Politics course cannot pass the US Citizenship test.  This may not surprise those of us who teach it, but it sure surprises them, and is therefore one of my favorite exercises to use in class.

On the first day of class, I hand out an ‘Ungraded Pre-test’ of ten questions—of course, unbeknownst to them, this is an actual citizenship test. I tell them it is simply a way for me to know where they stand as the course starts so that I can keep the material at an appropriate level. They turn it in, and we say nothing more about it until the second class.  At that point I hand back the test—as a bonus, this is a great chance to practice their names—and we go over it together.  I have them raise their hands to indicate who got ten, nine, eight right, noting those who answered six or more correctly, but still say nothing about the actual purpose of the quiz.

I then start a conversation about citizenship, currently by discussing the ongoing Birther movement’s accusations against Barack Obama and the Arizona immigration laws.  We talk about who should be allowed to be a citizen, and what the rights and responsibilities of a citizen should be.  It is only after they have voiced their existing views that I reveal that most of them (and it is always more than 80%) failed the citizenship test.  They are usually some mixture of surprised, horrified, and embarrassed at this revelation, but it promotes very open and self-reflective discussion of immigration and the naturalization process, particularly when we compare US policy to those of countries that require military service of their citizens.

As a bonus, at the end of the semester I give them the test again (with 10 new questions), and usually no more than 10% fail—giving the students a sense of accomplishment, and me some direct evidence of learning.

The official US citizenship test questions can be found at http://www.uscis.gov/USCIS/Office%20of%20Citizenship/Citizenship%20Resource%20Center%20Site/Publications/100q.pdf