Another reflection on last semester’s comparative politics course . . .
I noticed a loose association between final course grades and students’ Perusall activity, so the cost-benefit of engaging or not engaging with Perusall assignments ought to be transparent to students.* Another plus: because Perusall scores student activity automatically with an AI algorithm, the assignments are basically “set and forget” on my end. This aspect was very convenient when I didn’t have the time or inclination to read all of the students’ annotations on certain assignments.
I’m so pleased with how Perusall functions that I’m going to incorporate it into my fall semester undergraduate courses.
Time to reflect on the previous semester’s successes and failures:
I might be on to something with the Wicked Problems that I created for my comparative politics course. Previous posts on the subject are here and here. A brief synopsis of the activity: in class, teams of students have to quickly determine and present a possible solution to an unstructured, authentic problem. I put four of these exercises into the course:
Political risk consultants recommend to Volkswagen executives which of two sub-Saharan African states is most suitable for establishing a new automobile manufacturing site and sales network.
Defense Intelligence Agency analysts identify which of three Latin American U.S. allies is most susceptible to a Russian GRU election disinformation campaign.
The United States Institute for Peace delivers a conference speech on constitutional design for leaders of Libya’s major political parties that compares constitutionally-established institutions of government across four states.
Members of Iran’s Mujahedin-e-Khalq create a strategy for overthrowing the Islamic Republic by examining revolutionary movements in four other states.
Students found the exercises engaging. My exams included a question that asked students to reflect on what they learned about their problem-solving ability from each Wicked Problem, and their answers indicated a reasonable degree of meta-cognition.
But it was obvious that students failed to use the methods of comparison that I repeatedly demonstrated during class discussions. I expected students to organize their cases and variables into a simple table, like I had, but they didn’t. So, for example, instead of something like this:
Prior civil war
Major oil exporter
High level of political risk
students presented the equivalent of this:
Nigeria has a large population and represents a larger automobile market than Rwanda, so Volkswagen should site its new operation in Nigeria.
I suppose the solution is to require that students create their presentations by filling in a blank table, which will force them to select cases and variables in a logical manner.
Along the lines of my last post, I’ve tweaked another game that I have used previously — the marshmallow challenge. My goal was to illustrate how economic development can be considered a collective action problem in which trust plays a key role. Here are the rules of the game:
Each team has 18 minutes to build a tower topped by a marshmallow using the materials provided.
The members of the team that builds the tallest tower earn 25 points each.
A “Red” player secretly placed on your team gets 25 points if their real team wins.
If a team correctly identifies its Red player, each team member wins 25 points. Only one guess per team.
The debriefing discussion included my brief description of Rousseau’s stag hunt scenario, and these questions:
If one considers the height of a tower as an indicator of a society’s level of economic development, why did some societies (teams) develop more quickly than others?
Did cultural values promote trust among team members?
What was in each person’s best interest? Were these interests achieved?
How did having a Red on your team affect your team’s behavior?
Who do you think the Reds were? Why?
How does it feel to be accused of being a Red?
At the very end of the discussion, I revealed that there were no Red players.
The class had ten students that I divided into three teams. One team’s tower collapsed when time expired, but none of the teams exhibited a high degree of dysfunction due to suspicions about the identity of its Red player. As usual, I think the game would work better in a class with more students.
In an attempt to rectify the failure of my previous classroom game on ethnic heterogeneity, democracy and dictatorship, I created another game that included a loss aversion component. I intended the game to demonstrate the concepts found in Mancur Olson’s 1993 article, “Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development” (The American Political Science Review 87, 3). Here are the rules for game’s initial version:
Each person gets a playing card and 4 chips.
The class is divided into small groups.
The person with the highest card value in each group is a bandit.
The game has five rounds.
Each group’s bandit confiscates 1, 2, 3, or 4 chips each round from every other group member. This decision is made by the bandit. The bandit has to confiscate at least 1 chip from each group member each round, assuming the group member has a chip.
After round 1, 2, 3, and 4, each non-bandit gets 1 additional chip if they have ended the round with > 0 chips.
The person in each group with the most chips after round 5 earns points equivalent to the number of chips in their possession.
Version 2 of the game has the same rules as Version 1, plus:
A bandit can switch to a different group after each of rounds 1-4. The bandit with a higher value card turns another group’s bandit into an ordinary person.
The new bandit takes the eliminated bandit’s chips and can keep them or distribute some or all of them in any manner to members of their new group.
Version 3 has the same rules as Versions 1 and 2, plus:
Members of a group can eliminate a bandit if (a) they have card suits different from the bandit’s suit, and (b) the combined value of their cards exceeds the value of the bandit’s card. If a bandit is eliminated, the bandit’s chips are distributed equally among the challengers.
A bandit can retain control if (a) group members with cards of the same suit as the bandit’s decide to ally with the bandit and (b) the combined value of cards of this suit exceeds that of the bandit’s challengers.
Before play started, I stacked the deck with cards from only three suits because of the small class size — thirteen students are registered for the course, but only eleven showed up. I divided these eleven students into three groups.
For all versions of the game, all bandits confiscated the same number of chips from their group’s members in each round, even though the rules did not specify that they had to do this. In Version 1, one bandit confiscated all the chips from every group member in one round, which ended that group’s game play for the remaining rounds — demonstrating that it’s better for a stationary bandit to extract only a portion of wealth from the populace at any given time. During Version 2, no bandit changed groups, and in Version 3, no one tried to eliminate a bandit.
This game worked better than the last one, but it still needs a much larger number of participants for it to function as intended.
I recently ran a game in two classes that I had hoped would demonstrate the effects of ethnic heterogeneity in dictatorships and democracies. The basic mechanics of the game:
The class is split into groups. Each person gets a playing card. Card suit represents ethnicity, though I didn’t tell students this. A card’s numeric value equates to the power level of the person holding it. If someone in a group has a face card, then the group is a dictatorship. The person in the group with the highest value face card is the dictator, who makes all decisions. If no one in the group has a face card, then the group is a democracy, with decisions made by majority vote. The numeric values of the cards don’t matter.
The game is played in multiple rounds, with a greater number of points at stake in each round — I used five rounds, worth 3, 5, 7, 10, and 15 points, respectively. These points count toward the final course grade. In every round, each group allocates its points to its members according to the rules above. If anyone in a group is dissatisfied with how the points were distributed, the person can recruit a cluster of allies who have cards of the same suit to challenge the distribution. In a dictatorship, the challenge succeeds if the cluster’s combined power level exceeds that formed by the dictator’s allies. In a democracy, the challenge succeeds if the cluster’s total power level exceeds that of the rest of the group. When there is a successful challenge, the group has to distribute its points in a different way. Each round had a time limit of just a few minutes, and if a group failed to successfully allocate its points before a round ended, the group’s points for that round disappeared.
I decided to survey my comparative politics class on their opinions about Perusall after the first exam. Of a total of thirteen students, only eight were in class on the day of the survey, so the results are in no way statistically representative. But here they are anyway. Each survey item was on a five-point scale, with 1 equal to “strongly disagree” and 5 as “strongly agree.”
Reading other people’s annotations helps me understand assigned readings.
The university should continue to offer Perusall as an option for undergraduate courses.
I find Perusall difficult to use.
I’m more likely to read assigned journal articles that are on Perusall.
Perusall helped me complete reading responses.
Perusall helped me study for the exam.
No obvious warning signs in the results. And my main objective in using Perusall — to increase students’ understanding of assigned readings — was the statement with which they most strongly agreed.
The class has scored on average 80% on Perusall assignments so far. In my opinion, this is a sign that Perusall’s assessment algorithm fairly evaluates the quality of students’ interaction with assigned readings. Since the marking process involves no effort on my part, it’s win-win situation. I’m now thinking of how I can incorporate Perusall into other courses.
Next week I’m giving a community class about the situation in Ukraine. Aside from my “that’s not my specialism” queries, my main issue is the obvious one of “what’s the situation in Ukraine going to be next week?”
Of course, as a specialist on EU-UK relations, I have plenty of techniques to hand to deal with subject matter that flies along, faster than any journal article publication timeline. So let’s lay them out, for your benefit and mine.
First up: don’t teach just about today’s events, or even particular much about them.
Any political events happen within a set of contexts and those don’t move so fast. Yes, the flashing headline in your feed is exciting and NOW, but it’s part of a bigger picture. And that bigger picture is going to be more valuable to your students than your hot take, precisely because it’s more durable and gives them the skills to understand what happens the day (or week, or year) after your lesson.
So keeping the contexts and underlying dynamics clear is route one for handling these topics. For Brexit, that meant unpacking British European policy in the post-war, the changing nature of the EU’s operation and the legal and economic logics that might bound action. For Ukraine, I’m reading up on Russian foreign policy, European security architectures and a bit of contemporary military doctrine.
Communicating a framework for understanding is going to be much more useful to students than a narrow explanation of why this event happened right now.
Second: check your feed, but not too much.
While the here and now shouldn’t be the primary focus, you still want (and need) to be able to talk about it: if nothing else, students often want your take on it all and that can be a good way to pull them into the framework of analysis you’re offering.
That means you do need to be abreast of what’s going on, so make sure you have a sense of it all.
In the case of Brexit, I had several classes where important things happened literally as I spoke: then we used that to try and test our framework, as a kind of proof of concept. For Ukraine, the pace is less hectic, but I will need to have answers should someone decide that a Thursday lunchtime is a good moment to launch a cyberattack or a ground invasion.
Finally: don’t panic.
This is always good advice, for all teaching.
Don’t panic, because you’ve done your prep [right?] and you have a analytical framework to soak up surprises.
Don’t panic, because surprises will be as surprising for your students as they are for you, so any response you can articulate is going to be impressive.
And don’t panic, because everyone should understand that things move on. Worst case, you don’t have an answer, and that’s fine: you’re a teacher, not a talk radio pundit. Explain what you can and can’t say, on the basis of the evidence there is and point to what you’d need to know to be able to make a further determination. It’s basically the framework point, narrowed down to the specific thing.
As I noted in my first post about Perusall and in previous comments about teaching comparative politics, students have not demonstrated a sufficient level of engagement with or understanding of journal articles I’ve assigned. While collaboratively annotating journal articles ought to help solve this problem, I’m hoping to make the learning benefits of the process more transparent to students by connecting each Perusall assignment to one of my traditional reading responses.
Here is the prompt for all of the Persuall assignments:
Annotate the article to answer these questions:
Article’s subject—what is the question, puzzle, or problem examined?
What and where is the thesis?
What are the independent variables (causes) and how are they examined?
How are the independent variables related to the dependent variable (effect)?
What is the conclusion of the author(s)?
Here is an example of a reading response — the journal article in the Perusall assignment is at the top:
Why did the Arab Spring “succeed” in Tunisia but “fail” in Egypt and Libya?
The Perusall annotations and the reading response are due an hour before the start of the class in which the material will be discussed.
In today’s class, the first of the semester, students will be doing an ungraded practice run at using Perusall. The first graded Perusall assignment, along with its associated reading response, is due Wednesday morning. We’ll see how this goes.