How do you include current events in your courses?
I’m teaching Introduction to Comparative Politics this semester and I just can’t keep up with all the relevant current events. Every morning, I scroll through my Twitter feed, full of examples that I can be using in class. My students tend to be very engaged with the news and I want to tap into this excitement by integrating more current events into class, but I just find it overwhelming.
What, in particular, are some of my challenges to integrating current events into a political science course, particularly an introductory course?
Social capital is a “fuzzy” concept but serves as the foundation for some key comparative politics theories that we cover in my Introduction to Comparative Politics course. To help my students get a better grasp of the concept, I borrowed an activity from economics: the ultimatum game.
Briefly, I have the students pair up and distribute a handout to keep track of offers in the game. The students first need to allocate roles: proposer and responder. I tell them that the student whose middle name starts with an earlier letter in the alphabet is the proposer, just to randomize it somewhat. The proposer makes an offer of a division of some resource. Because candy is a (near) universal motivator, I use M&Ms and Skittles (I let the pairs decide which candy to play for, but I like to offer skittles for lactose-free students). I distribute 50 candies per pair and they play 5 rounds; in each round, the proposer makes an offer to split 10 candies. The responder can only accept or reject the offer. If the responder rejects, neither get any (they go back to me). If the responder accepts, then they divide the candy.
A few thoughts on my comparative politics course this year, now that the semester has ended:
Although I think my revised writing prompts made the intent of assignments more transparent, I forgot to preface each prompt with an overview of how readings related to the topic at hand. Also, for some assignments, it was obvious that students still weren’t reading items that I regarded as essential. If I don’t specifically refer to an author in the prompt, students often don’t read that author’s work. Since the relationship between the author and the question I posed was obscurely implied rather than explicit, I don’t have much justification for reducing students’ marks.
My Gerkhania simulation worked much better, in terms of student engagement, in a class of fourteen than it did in last year’s class of ten. Yet in each parliamentary session, students rapidly disclosed the roles they had randomly acquired to sort out how to construct coalitions that allowed the greatest number of them to “win.” I’m thinking of introducing two changes to the simulation next year that might reduce students’ tendency to default to rational actor behavior. First, keep students’ roles the same throughout the simulation, instead of randomly changing them for each session. This might cause students to develop a greater attachment to their fictional identities. Second, have students draft their own legislation instead of providing them with a a list of pre-determined bills.
Re-arranging course topics and pushing the qualitative comparative analysis deeper into the semester seemed beneficial, but many students still struggled with the assignment. They don’t, for example, understand concepts like “land productivity” and how measures like these can be used as independent variables. I need to continue separating the QCA into smaller components. Baby steps.
So last week was our final teaching week before the Easter break. For reasons we don’t need to go into here, it’s not the end of our teaching block for the semester, so it’s a bit of a breather.
As such, my usual expectation is that class attendance takes a bit of a hit.
However, my lecture of 120 students only saw 15 turn up, which – even by my standards – isn’t good. At all.
Obviously those who came didn’t have the answers for their fellow students’ absence, so I decided to gather some data.
Using a quick SurveyMonkey poll, I offered students a range of options to choose from. As you can see, I got about 40% of the class (including a couple who had come) to respond, so reasonable enough to make some observations.
The first is that timing does matter. My lecture is 1000 on a Thursday, and the night before had been a big sports night, so there was certainly a bunch of students incapacitated by that. Also, a couple of students noted that Thursdays are solid with classes for them, abetted by some deadlines for other modules due at the same time.
However, while those factors explain part of it, I was also rather curious about whether our experiment in flipping plays a role.
My module is a first-year introduction to European integration, and I’ve been trying out a flipped format. This involves a pre-recorded lecture online, with the conventional lecture time being given over to Q&A on the recording and elaboration of key themes: there’s also a seminar session, which runs on more conventional lines.
So far, that Q&A part has not been running as well as I would like: only a small number of students ask questions and there’s evidently a block who haven’t watched the lecture beforehand, so can’t ask.
Part of my concern in trying out flipping was that students might see it as a way to disengage with the face-to-face element of the module. My efforts to tackle this including highlighting that the recording doesn’t have enough in itself to give all the material and framing students need to do well in the module: the Q&A always includes stuff that relates much more directly to the final exam (and I say as much).
Clearly, the survey highlights that this isn’t resonating with the students.
Even if we allow for a degree of “what might look like the answer least likely to cause offence”, there’s a big block covering the lack of utility of the (Q&A) lecture element.
Certainly, I can see that if you’ve not watched the video, then the lecture isn’t that useful, but I’m more concerned about those who feel that the recording suffices.
All of which leaves me in a quandry.
Part of me wants to rework the remaining sessions after Easter to be much more explicit in leaving material out of the online stuff, with the lecture picking it up instead.
But another part of me wants to stick with my approach to date and then we see how it goes with the exam.
Right now, I don’t have the answers to this one. I need to explore some more to see if attendance was similarly down in other modules, to better triangulate what’s happening here.
Below is an example of a recent in-class exercise that I used in my comparative politics course, created in collaboration with our crack staff of librarians. The exercise is designed to teach students that the scholarly journal articles they are reading represent an ongoing conversation between experts. I have included the information students were supposed to locate in italics. Feel free to modify the activity to meet your own needs.
Which former president of the American Political Science Association was one of Dr. Raymond’s professors? (Lucian Pye) First person to submit the correct answer before time expires earns 10 points toward their final course grade.
Locate this article: Larry Diamond, “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?” Journal of Democracy 21, 1 (January 2010): 93-112.
In this article, find citations for academic journal articles about democracy in the Arab world. Locate these articles. Write their citations:
Alfred Stepan and Graeme B. Robertson, “An ‘Arab’ More Than a ‘Muslim’ Democracy Gap,” Journal of Democracy 14 (July 2003): 30–44.
Mark Tessler and Eleanor Gao, “Gauging Arab Support for Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 16 (July 2005): 82–97.
Amaney Jamal and Mark Tessler, “The Democracy Barometers: Attitudes in the Arab World,” Journal of Democracy 19 (January 2008): 97–110.
One of the above articles (Jamal and Tessler) contains a citation for an academic journal article written by another former president of the American Political Science Association. Locate this article. Write the citation:
Samuel Huntington, “Will More Countries Become Democratic?” Political Science Quarterly 99, 2 (Summer 1984): 193-218
In the above article, find citations for these two works: the original version of an academic journal article that you have read for this course, and a book that you have read about for this course. What are the citations for the two works?
Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Review 53 (1959): 75.
Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), 418.
How do the ideas contained in the scholarly works listed above relate to the ideas presented by Diamond in the initial article?
Your Own Research
Choose a research topic of interest (does not have to be related to this course). On the back of this paper, track citations of academic journal articles about the topic through time. What do the authors of these articles say about the topic? How do their ideas correspond or differ?
A few years back I wrote about the The Lego Movie and how it captured the operation of fascism in a form that was both accessible and about as enjoyable as fascism ever can be.
Some readers of this blog were unhappy that I’d ruined that film for them, so it’s only right I try to do that for another generation of scholars and young parents.
The Lego Movie 2 isn’t as good as the first one (confine discussion of whether this is ever possible to yourself, away from me), but obviously I watched it, because, well, Lego.
This aside, there’s still plenty of politics going on in the film., which I’ll write about now with some mild spoilers (because you’re not 9 years old and because you’re a serious scholar).
For the IR types among you, there’s a whole bunch of realism going on, with security dilemmas, anarchy and the brutishness that this engenders in actors. The collapse of the (ultimately benign) dictatorship in the first movie produces a literal and metaphorical wasteland in which actions are guarded and security is everything. The final reconciliation of the actors this time occurs when they identify a common external threat and work together to overcome it.
As a musing on power in its various forms, the movie offers a useful way to conceptualise how actors operate under uncertainty and the tension between collaborative and conflictual action, as captured in the notions of being a ‘master builder’ or a ‘master smasher’.
For the gender scholars, there’s a bunch of gendered roles, paternalism (and maternalism), as well as how children ‘become’ adults going on in all this too. It’s also a classic of the ‘absent father’ trope and all that implies.
But for my purposes, the film is all about constructivism.
The logic of appropriateness runs through the entire piece, as individuals strive and struggle to either fit into their environment or communicate their intentions.
If Emmet’s arc is one of finding a persona and an attitude that works from him (puberty alert!), then Bianca’s is one of learning to signal intentions less ambiguously.
As someone who teaches negotiation, I recognised a lot of these tensions from my classroom, where students are apt to adopt personae as ‘negotiators’ that don’t always sit comfortably with their more general sense of being.
In both classroom and the film, individuals try out different gambits, with varying degrees of sincerity and of success. But ultimately, as the film suggests, it is when there is a more open exchange of views that progress is made, clearing up the confusions and misunderstandings and realigning how we view other’s actions.
Indeed, the whole film turns on how individuals perceive one another and themselves: Finn misunderstands Bianca; Emmet is misled by Rex; Lucy struggles (as in the first film) with her sense of identity; Batman has to learn about living with light as well as dark; and Superman has to find accommodation with the Green Lantern.
Identity here is thus not purely about being true to yourself, but also about being true to others. Whether you accept that being doing both you end up with a happy society – as the movie argues (as movies are wont to do) – is another matter.
But however you take it, this case highlights how we can use cultural products to illustrate and illuminate our teaching: the beauty of politics is that it is pervasive, so we can find it pretty much anywhere we look, if we choose to see.
Another post on changes this year in my comparative politics course:
As usual, students are reading a lot of academic journal articles, especially from the Journal of Democracy. Although the writing in this journal is very user-friendly — concise sentences, little jargon — students lack the kind of familiarity with the genre that I do. Identifying and evaluating the elements of the author’s argument is a skill that gets better with practice, and the undergraduate students that I see need a lot of practice.
I regularly assign journal article analyses in my graduate courses. My original instructions for this assignment were too long so I simplified them. But I can’t assume that the process of analyzing the argument made in a text is immediately understandable to the average undergraduate. Years ago, I used an in-class exercise in textual analysis in an attempt to give undergrads some training in this skill. An actual example of the exercise can be found here. But I was never quite satisfied with the results.
On the first day of class this semester, I tried a new exercise, in part to prepare students for Seymour Martin Lipset’s “The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited: 1993 Presidential Address,” from American Sociological Review 59, 1. This article includes an abstract that handily functions as a summary for the reader. Journal of Democracy articles don’t have abstracts, so I redacted it. I projected the article’s introduction on the wall screen and asked the class to examine each paragraph in sequence to identify Lipset’s subject (which is stated at end of the first page and beginning of the second page).
I then divided the class into groups of two or three students each, and gave each group copies of a different section of the article. Each section presents a particular set of characteristics that, in Lipset’s opinion, facilitates the institutionalization of democracy. I asked students in each group to identify the characteristics discussed in the section that group had been given. Each group then reported its findings to the class, which I wrote on the board.
The exercise seem to work well in terms of demonstrating how to pull apart a journal article’s argument, and it made the first day of class a lot more productive than it usually is. The challenge will be to engage students in this type of exercise using articles that have a more complex structure.
In addition to creating new writing prompts for my comparative politics course this year, I have re-arranged the order in which students encounter different topics. Last year’s version of the course was sequenced as follows:
Why the change? Last year I found myself explicating about research methods used in comparative politics before students had any significant exposure to what actually gets compared. Instead of encountering puzzling real-world situations that might have excited their curiosity, they had to fixate on the mechanics of doing a most similar systems design or a qualitative comparative analysis.
This year these assignments won’t begin until the second third of the semester. I won’t have to rush through my material on methods, and I will have more opportunities in class to ask students “What kind of research design might allow us to compare these cases in a way that allows us satisfactorily answer the question?”
In line with the first and third bullet points in my post last year about teaching comparative politics, I’ve tried to make the relationships between course learning objectives, readings, and writing assignments more transparent to students. I’ve done this in part by making writing prompts refer more explicitly to what I want students to learn. For example, here is last year’s assignment about Venezuela, which I placed in the section of the course about democracy:
Scott Mainwaring and Timothy R. Scully, “Latin America: Eight Lessons for Governance,” Journal of Democracy 19, 3 (July 2008): 113-127.
Uri Friedman, “How Populism Helped Wreck Venezuela,” The Atlantic, 4 Jun 2017.
Moisés Naím and Francisco Toro, “Venezuela Is Falling Apart,” The Atlantic, 12 May 2016.
Juan Cristobal Nagel, “Venezuela’s Constitutional Crisis,” Caracas Chronicles, 12 January 2016.
Meridith Kohut and Isayen Herrera, As Venezuela Collapses, Children Are Dying of Hunger,” The New York Times, 17 December 2017.
Of Mainwaring and Scully’s eight lessons, which is most relevant for Venezuela? Why?
Answering the above question requires reading the Journal of Democracy article, which is good. Yet the question also demands that students apply a general framework to a specific context that is totally unfamiliar to them. A few newspaper and magazine articles aren’t enough to give students a clear sense of what is happening in Venezuela’s political system. The end result is a badly-constructed rhetorical situation likely to generate answers that aren’t relevant to the learning objectives behind the assignment.
Here is the 2019 version of the assignment, which I have placed in the section of the course on political protest: