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.

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”

Changing a Comparative Politics Course, Part 4

My previous post explained how students will complete the template that identifies possible causes of either increased democracy or increased authoritarianism in two nation-states from 2000 to 2020. The next step in this project is for students to work in teams to produce qualitative comparative analyses. Here are my instructions for this collaborative assignment:

Continue reading “Changing a Comparative Politics Course, Part 4”

Changing a Comparative Politics Course, Part 3

As promised in my last post, here is Comparison 3, an assignment in which each student chooses independent variables and operationalizes them for the two cases chosen in Comparison 1. The instructions for the assignment:

Using the template that you submitted for Comparison 2, replace “Variable 1” and “Variable 2” with two independent variables that you think have a causal relationship with the dependent variable. Replace “Indicator 1” and “Indicator 2” with indicators of each of the independent variables you have selected — indicators are the means by which you will measure changes in your variables. Enter the data for the indicators for 2000 and ~ 2020 as shown in the template. Enter + or – to show where these measures increased or decreased.

Data on many indicators for independent variables can be found at:

Continue reading “Changing a Comparative Politics Course, Part 3”

Changing a Comparative Politics Course, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed changing my approach to teaching students how to analyze the arguments contained in journal articles. I also think it is important for students to actually do some discipline-related research rather than just read about it. Previously in this course, my students compared two nation-states using either a most similar systems or most different systems design. That assignment never worked very well because of student confusion about the basic nature of cause and effect. I’ve decided to replace this with a scaffolded process culminating in a team-produced qualitative comparative analysis.

There are three individual assignments that I’m calling Comparison 1, 2, and 3. For Comparison 1, each student chooses two nation-states from a list. That’s it. The list comes from Freedom House’s rankings of citizen freedom in countries around the world; I selected a subset of states for which scores differed between 2000 and 2019 — so that students choose cases where the dependent variable varies over time.

For Comparison 2, students calculate a value for the dependent variable. Here are the instructions for the assignment:

Continue reading “Changing a Comparative Politics Course, Part 2”

Changing a Comparative Politics Course

Looking back at Spring 2020, and making changes accordingly for 2021, despite that semester’s pandemic-induced weirdness:

I decided to use Helen Brown Coverdale’s study huddle technique, in the hopes that it will allow students to become more proficient in decoding academic literature. I am dividing the class into teams of 4-5 students each. Half of each team will be “green” and half will be “red.” Each week, students are responsible for analyzing a journal article of the corresponding color. I chose to use green and red font in the syllabus instead of red/blue because my hyperlinks are blue, and I did not want students to be confused. In addition to the font color, I have included the words “green” and “red” in case of students with colorblindness.

For the analysis assignments, students will be completing this template, which I believe is simpler than the worksheet I used last spring. I also expect it to be easier for me to grade, given my rubric, shown below:

Continue reading “Changing a Comparative Politics Course”

Increasing Buyer Bewareness

As an example of one of my points in my last post — making the connection between assignments and course learning objectives explicit to students — I have created an ungraded, anonymous survey for the first day of class. One of the survey items is “I want to learn how to . . . ” Students can choose from the following responses:

(1) decode scholarly literature about comparative politics through frequent practice.

(2) improve my argumentative writing skills through frequent practice.

(3) improve my reading comprehension skills through frequent practice.

(4) None of the above.

Once students complete the survey, I will explain to them how the question corresponds to course assignments. On Mondays, students will submit journal article analyses (options 1 and 3). Wednesdays will be dedicated to reading responses (options 2 and 3). This will be the weekly routine across most of the semester. If anyone in the class chooses option 4, I will encourage those people to drop the course.

I will post details about my Monday and Wednesday assignments in the coming weeks.

Explaining the Exploding Clown Car

I had something else scheduled to appear today, but since readers might be making last minute changes to their syllabi to reflect recent events in the USA, here are some potentially useful resources for undergraduate instruction:

Zara Abrams, “What do we know about conspiracy theories?American Psychological Association, 18 November 2020.

Reza Aslan, “Is the Trump presidency a religious cult?Big Think, 15 April 2018.

Benedict Carey, “A Theory About Conspiracy Theories,” The New York Times, 28 September 2020.

Nicky Case, “To Build a Better Ballot: An Interactive Guide to Alternative Voting Systems,” December 2016.

Tyler Cowen, “The Theory of the Median Voter,” Marginal Revolution University.

Anna Kusmer and Carol Hills, “‘Even if a coup fails, it still damages your government’: What the US can learn from Sri Lanka’s coup attempt,” The World, 8 January 2021.

Richard Moulding et al., “Better the devil you know than a world you don’t? Intolerance of uncertainty and worldview explanations for belief in conspiracy theories,” Personality and Individual Differences 98 (2016): 345-354.

Radio Lab, “Tweak the Vote,” 5 November 2018.

James Purtill, “This model forecast the US’s current unrest a decade ago. It now says ‘civil war’,” ABC Triple J Hack, 17 June 2020.

Steve Saideman, “Why Do We Care About Ethnic Outbidding?Saideman’s Semi-Spew, 9 December 2015.

Milan W. Svolik, “Polarization versus Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 30, 3 (July 2019): 20-32.

Amanda Taub, “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” Vox.com, 1 March 2016.

Brian Winter, “System Failure: Behind the Rise of Jair Bolsonaro,” Americas Quarterly, 24 January 2018.

Looking Backward and Forward

Expanding on my last post on failures from this semester:

From where I stand, information literacy skills are important, because they help one identify and demolish specious claims made by authority figures. An assignment that, for example, forces students to locate three peer-reviewed journal articles is practice in finding credible information. It also allows students to determine whether a topic is suitable for a semester-long research project.

To me, these outcomes are both beneficial and rather obvious. But from the students’ perspective, the assignment could simply be yet another meaningless hoop to jump through on the way to getting another A+ on a transcript. Given the sources many students cited in the different stages of their storymap projects, it looks like too many of them customarily take the latter approach to research.

Therefore, in future courses that involve research projects, I should create assignments that are limited to the task of locating scholarly sources and place those assignments at the beginning of the semester. I should demonstrate why this skill is useful outside of the classroom.

I’ve noticed a similar problem with student writing — really basic errors that indicate a lack of proofreading. I don’t expend more effort evaluating a student’s work than the student did creating it. But I do know that sloppy writing indicates sloppy thinking and that the former advertises one’s propensity for the latter to the rest of the world. Again, I should demonstrate early in the semester why it’s important to proofread one’s work before it reaches an audience. My favorite example? The missing Oxford comma that cost a dairy company US$5 million.

I’m also seeing, from the last few journal article worksheets students are submitting, that many still do not have a clear understanding of how evidence-based arguments are constructed in academic literature. An author typically poses a research hypothesis or question at the beginning of a journal article and concludes with the same hypothesis or question reworded as declarative statement. I.e., “Why is the sky blue?” in the introduction with “The sky is blue because . . . ” as the conclusion. Yet on worksheets some students are writing that the hypothesis is about one thing while the conclusion is about some other thing. So again, students need practice in understanding the components of a written argument in scholarly literature, and that practice needs to happen early in the semester.

In principle I’m talking about scaffolding. But many of my assignments are attempts at getting students to builds several different skills simultaneously. I think I need to disentangle my goals for these assignments so that they target only one skill at a time.