Welcoming New Regular Columnist, Dr. Jeremy Moulton!

Jeremy has contributed so many guest posts that we invited him to join us as a regular columnist!

Dr. Moulton has been working at the University of York since 2017. He has previously taught at York’s Department of Environment & Geography and at the University of Hull’s School of Politics and International Studies. His teaching practice centres on comparative politics, environmental politics, European Union studies, and the politics of the UK, across Undergraduate and Postgraduate programmes in the Department of Politics and International Relations. He has published peer-reviewed work on EU climate action, urban ecological modernisation, political myth, UK politics and renewables policy, and teaching and learning in Politics and International Relations.

Jeremy is deeply involved in enhancing the teaching and learning environment at York University. He has been awarded funding for and completed research projects on first-generation students’ experiences within Higher Education, student conceptions of teaching innovation, and the experiences of students that study abroad or undertake a year-in-industry placement. He is currently undertaking funded work on the identification of achievement gaps in the Department, the pedagogy of degrowth, and assessment optionality. As well as undertaking teaching and research, Jeremy currently works as the Department’s Admissions Tutor, a role in which he has centred widening participation into Higher Education. In 2020, Jeremy received the ‘Supporting the Student Voice’ award at the University.

Jeremy holds a PhD from the University of Hull, supervised by Prof. Rüdiger Wurzel (School of Politics and International Studies) and Prof. David Gibbs (School of Environmental Sciences), for a thesis entitled ‘A Tale of Two Cities: Climate Action and Political Myth in the European Union.’

In 2023, Jeremy became a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (Advance HE).

Welcome, Jeremy!

Create an Authoritarian State!

I run this fun (yet relevant) activity early in my POLS 347: Comparative Authoritarianism course. Divide into teams of ~4 students and have teams create:

  • State name
  • State map with key geographic features
  • Regime type (and be able to define it)
  • Regime positions for everyone on team
  • Regime institutions
  • Election process (if any)
  • Key cultural features that influence politics
  • Economic structure
  • Defense structure
  • Any allies or opponents
  • If stuck in their design, look up actual authoritarian states (but try not to parrot a single state)

Since this is a 300-level course, I’ve found that students have enough general political science knowledge to think through every point, even without knowing specific authoritarian regime types so early in the course. Inveterate doodlers also love creating the map. I give them about 30 minutes, then have the teams brief their state designs. I finally do a short critique and Q&A for each team. For me, this activity works best in a 75-minute course with 40 students, but I’ve run it in 50-minute courses, cutting team prep to 20 minutes (which admittedly encourages a sense of hustle in the teams).

Yes, students will come up with outlandish designs, such as underwater dome cities, economic structures based entirely on creepy haunted doll manufacturing, and states defended by a single, giant robot. But in my experience, students actively think about each item and, even if outlandish, attempt to make their state designs consistent and coherent. By doing so, the teams almost always apply or extrapolate ideas that align with real-world authoritarian regime types. I imagine this will also work in a democratization course, too!

How do you make sense of a country’s politics?

I spent a few days this New Year in Berlin with my family, seeing the sights and eating the food and avoiding the fireworks.

It’s a fabulous city, for so many reasons, not least because the last time I was there was when I interrailed around Europe in 1992 and it’s changed a bit.

But you don’t care about my holidays, I assume. You’re here for the question in the title.

Since there was only the one person in the group who’d studied German history at university and he “kept using his teaching voice” [fine. whatever.], we decided it would be good to sample some of the numerous museums in the city, including the DDR Museum.

This is a private venture, telling people about the life and nature of East Germany.

Aside from the obligatory Trabant and a bit of Wall, that included a mocked-up flat, multimedia resources and – oddly – a diorama of nude sunbathers on the Baltic coast.

It’s maybe best summarised by the fridge magnets in the shop (pictured above): the reduction of forty year’s to a set of atomised images and memories, packaged for your convenience.

We all found it underwhelming. Me because it left out so much; everyone else because they didn’t know how it fitted together at all.

And this is a frequent problem when teaching comparative politics, both in strictly comparative terms and when doing the “politics of X” course. Where do you start? Where do you go? How do you hang it all together?

Continue reading “How do you make sense of a country’s politics?”

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!

Let there be music!

The sight of a piece whose authors include an erstwhile ALPS colleague on the use of music in teaching politics neatly coincides with the past week’s European extravaganza of music/politics: Eurovision.

I’ll assume that a good number of you know about this, but for the culturally-void here’s a quick run-down.

Each member of the European Broadcast Union gets to submit a song for a competition, where everyone gets to vote, but not for their country. Someone wins.

Obviously, there’s more to it than that.

‘Each member’ obviously doesn’t mean each member does submit, or is allowed to submit. And Australia (very much neither an EBU member nor in (or near) Europe) get to submit for, well, reasons.

And the whole voting thing is quite involved. and occasionally corrupt. Pardon, ‘irregular‘.

Throw in a revolution-triggering song, landmarks on clipboards and opening of borders and you see why it’s catnip to the passing academic.

A quick squizz on Google Scholar throws up thousands of results, from imagery to regional voting blocks, LGBT+ identities to governance. This year you’ve also had a Zelensky dimension too.

Someone’s even made a lovely dataset of voting for you to play with. To help with things like analysis of the popular v. jury voting.

Throw in the wildly varying conceptions of what might constitute a popular song and if you struggle to make a class out of some aspect of this, then you are really not trying.

And since you didn’t ask, here’s my personal favourite of recent years:

‘king Charles III

So there’s been a coronation here.

You might have missed it: I sadly found that I had other, unavoidable, commitments all weekend.

Given that many of our readers might be working in states that have made the (not actually that difficult) leap to becoming republics, this is maybe a good point to suggest some resources for class discussion about constitutional monarchies, and whether they are morally defensible.

I raise this partly because of the arrival of someone new on the throne of the United Kingdom, but partly because it’s also a good way into some basic questions about constitutional design and the relationship between governors and governed.

Moreover, as much as you saw a bunch of Brits all dressed up in union jack-print clothing and cheering the pagent of it all, there were plenty of others from whom it wasn’t a thing at all.

To get a sense of the ambivalence around the coronation and the installation of Charles III, visit the BBC website to see the kinds of stories being created: not quite the effusive or fawning position you might have expected (even if the BBC isn’t a government-funded news channel, Elon).

The Guardian offers a more critical take, on the back of recent investigations into the Royal Family’s extensive assets, but also some archive content to further point up How Times Have Changed.

You might also explore the semiotics of more pro-Royal outlets like The Sun or the Daily Mail. The framing of the Royals as celebrities here is perhaps my main takeaway; any notion of leadership feels distinctly in second place.

Which begs a question of why we put up with it all?

There’s plenty of polling on this (here and here, for example) which highlights the benign neglect of most people: it’s fine, but also not that important.

The question of what you’d replace the Crown with is also a not unimportant point: even Republic, a key protest group, are clearer about problems than solutions.

And for a more scholarly overview, there’s this from my colleagues at UK in a Changing Europe.

Finally, if that’s not enough to stimulate class discussion, try a taste comparison of the official dishes of the past two coronations: Coronation Chicken (Elizabeth II), and, um, Coronation Quiche (Charles III).

Live From COP 27, Part 2

Maybe

Another on the spot report from COP 27. Again, the opinions expressed here are solely my own.

The Saudi Green Initiative is housed under two large geodesic domes near COP 27, but is not one of the official conference venues. Its purpose? Elaborately showcasing the environmentally-friendly innovations of companies like Saudi Aramco and SABIC — some of the world’s largest petrochemical firms headquartered in and capitalized by one of the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters. The people explaining the products being brought to market were all men. Same for the staff at the Saudi Arabia pavilion in the Blue Zone.

Green innovation projects are also on display in the Green Zone space dedicated to Egyptian universities. They are much smaller and obviously receive far less government financial support than their Saudi counterparts. But they are explained to conference attendees, if not headed, by women. Thinking like a comparativist:

The columns could also be labeled as regime type, with monarchy for Saudi Arabia and bureaucratic authoritarianism for Egypt. You get the idea. I’m just wondering if data indicates a relationship between a state’s commitment to green technology and gender parity. One might assume the two are positively correlated (e.g., Germany and Sweden), but maybe in the Middle East it’s an inverse relationship.

While Egypt seems to be doing better than some of its neighbors in how women are treated, I wonder who at the U.N. thought it was a good idea to have COP 27 hosted by a military dictatorship. Egyptian civil society organizations have largely been excluded, and it is simply too dangerous for Egyptian human rights activists to participate. To give a very minor example:

No chickens burger for you

The photo shows an eating establishment that has appeared in the Blue Zone, which is in theory a U.N.-governed space. Note the group seated on the roof deck, consisting of a 60s-ish man surrounded by women half his age. The staircase to seating on top of the shipping container is to the rear. When I tried to ascend these stairs to take in the view from above, I was stopped by a man in skinny jeans and a black t-shirt who said the area was “blocked.” I noticed the attention of a few Mukhabarat (the not-so-secret police) wearing suits and earpieces seated at a nearby ground-level table. I backed off to observe, and saw a few other Mukhabarat milling about. Over the next few minutes, five other people, some of whom were ordinary Egyptians, were prevented from climbing the stairs. My guess is that the man at the table was a government bigwig, and the women he was speaking with were representatives of some kind of business venture.

Last, here is the obligatory Egyptian cat photo:

Update on CHAMP Forecasting Project

My impressions so far of the political forecasting project (described here, here, and here) that I created for the undergraduate course on the Middle East that I’m teaching this semester:

The quality of student writing on the different elements of CHAMP has improved over the first three iterations of the assignment. Their analyses are more specific and relevant to what they are trying to predict. I’m hoping that this is a sign of students’ increasing interest in the project. Citation of sources remains problematic for some students. No, a string of URLs is not a bibliography.

The quality of no-stakes classroom presentations has similarly improved. After each forecast, one member of each team presents his or her team’s collective conclusions without using any visual aids. The first two rounds of presentations were terrible. The third round was adequate. I’m now wondering, if I use this project in the future, whether I should grade the presentations against a simple rubric and introduce a rule that a different team member presents each round.

As for the forecasts themselves, here are the average probabilities assigned to each event for the three rounds of predictions students in the class have made so far:

Team Champ

As promised, here is the prompt for the collaborative portion of the forecasting project in my upcoming Middle East course. There are two of these team deliverables — a draft report due after students have submitted the first three of their individual CHAMP assignments, and a final version (shown below) due at the end of the semester. In terms of contribution to course grade, the draft and final versions together are worth only a third of what the five individual assignments are worth. Also, a portion of the course grade will come from teammate evaluations.

Your team is interviewing for a job with Eurasia Group. The interview process requires that your team submit a jointly-written report on your team’s Forecasting Project topic using the CHAMP framework:

  • Comparisons
  • Historical Trends
  • Average Opinion
  • Mathematical Models
  • Predictable Biases

Your team’s final report should apply all five components of the CHAMP framework in a forecast that is no more than five pages of double-spaced 11- or 12-point font text. Do not use quotations of sources in the report. Reference source material using footnotes. See the list of syllabus readings for proper bibliographic format. Footnotes can be in 10-point font. 

Only one member of your team needs to submit the document for this assignment.

Your team’s work will be assessed using the rubric below.

Now I just need to create rubrics for the project’s individual and team assignments . . .

Assign Like a CHAMP

As promised in my last post, here is an example of iterating so that students repeatedly practice the same skills.

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m putting a forecasting project into my fall semester Middle East course. The project’s constituent assignments will be based on the CHAMP system recommended by people like Phil Tetlock. A brief description of CHAMP is at the end of this Financial Times article by the economist Tim Harford.

My prompt for the first CHAMP assignment reads:

You are interviewing for a job with Eurasia Group. The interview process requires that you submit a forecast on your team’s Forecasting Project topic. The forecast needs to use the CHAMP framework:

  • Comparisons
  • Historical Trends
  • Average Opinion
  • Mathematical Models
  • Predictable Biases

In a one-page, double-spaced, 11- or 12-point font document, answer these questions for the Comparisons portion of your forecast:

What other cases are comparable to this situation?
How do they indicate what will happen this time?

My guiding questions for the other CHAMP assignments are:

Historical Trends

What individuals, groups, and institutions played key roles in similar events in the past?
How are these “power players” likely to influence the current situation?

Average Opinion

What are the experts predicting about this situation?
What is the view that lies in the middle of their assessments? 

Mathematical Models

Are there mathematical models or empirical measures that can be used to gain insight into this situation?
What do these models or measures indicate?

Predictable Biases

How has your thinking been affected by emotion and personal preference?
How have you adjusted your analysis to account for these biases?

I’ll talk about the team-based aspects of this project in a future post.