Say what you see

As part of the package of materials I’m building for our new Masters in IR, I’ve been trying out some different ways of stimulating reflection and discussion with our students.

As a reminder, we run a fully distance-learning model, with weekly asynchronous bundles of written, audio and visual elements, with a lot of our students doing this around work or other commitments.

The mix of elements is an important point for us, both because it maintains interest for students and because it opens up different ways of looking at key questions when opportunities for face-to-face discussion with peers are limited: sometimes just trying to approach an issue in a different manner can help things to click together.

As such, while I’ve been putting a lot of effort into an asynchronous negotiation exercise, I’ve also been looking at ways of tackling other elements in an interesting and engaging way.

So I’ve been exploring some visual analysis of a table.

You’ll know the table, since it launched a thousand memes, back before the visuals from Ukraine became a lot more visceral (in all senses).

Source: DW

We’re written before about getting students to produce memes on subjects, but this time I’m more interested in the image as originally presented.

Strange as the table might be, it’s also evidently a conscious choice (given that Putin met other world leaders in different settings and around different furniture), so the question we might ask of students is: “what impression is Putin trying to convey here?”

That’s partly about the impression on Macron, but also (and more importantly) the impression on other audiences, both within Russia and beyond.

In my exercise, I ask students to write about what they think of these different communications, with some prompts for reflection once they’ve done. These prompts are important because they remind the student that what they see is not necessarily what others see.

This is a key part of this activity, since the polysemic nature of political communication is not always so obvious in other media, whereas visuals set up much more space for multiple interpretations. To make the obvious point here; this table set-up looks so odd to me that it must have some other set of meanings that I have missed.

Moreover, precisely because this image got so reworked for memes and mockery, there’s a follow-up exercise here to ask students to consider what those memes try to do and how they try to do it.

For my students, this will be a 15 minute exercise in total, but if you ran this in class you could easily make an hour of it, through exchanging ideas and grounding it back into wider patterns of Putin’s (self-)representation and communication. Plus how our view of it changes with all that has followed.

Critical thinking and the Ukraine invasion

I’m not an IR person, and I know it.

Unfortunately, a lot of the people I follow on social media do think they are now specialists in warfare, diplomacy or the operations of civil nuclear facilities. These people were also once ‘experts’ in epidemiology, Brexit, macroeconomics, US presidential politics, populism, immigration and many other things besides.

I have my doubts.

This is probably also a problem you face as you try to make sense of the world around us: yes, you know some people who do actually really know stuff, but they get buried in a big pile of hot takes, motivated reasoning and even propaganda.

So what to do?

I’m guessing that Ukraine is an easier case for the readership of ALPS blog to handle, since it’s closer to many of our research interests: even if we don’t work on relevant topics ourselves, then we know the people who do and tap into their expertise.

Of course, as the whole Mearsheimer thing has shown in the past week, even very competent people come up with dubious positions, although you at least get lots of material for your next IR theory class.

(For my part, I’ve limited myself to working up the one element I do feel competent to speak on).

However, for your students this might still be at the edge of their knowledge, abilities and confidence, so how can we help them parse the situation?

For me, task number one has be a strong refresher on how to evaluate information (and it’ll be a refresher, because of course you teach this as a matter of course, right?).

That means making sure they understand the importance of verification, of triangulation, of expertise and of all the other things that we have probably internalised over the years. If we running a class that needed to engage with this I’d be asking students to locate good guides to how to do this, then pulling them together into a master document that they can all use for their subsequent research.

For as fluid as case as an active conflict, information is incomplete and often contradictory, so giving students the tools to determine what they know and what it means is essential. The growing OSINT community is a really good starting point for looking at the operational end of things, while the more strategic reasoning requires engagement with those working in a number of different domains, including Russian politics, military doctrine and sanctions.

As we’ve seen in recent years with whatever crisis you care to imagine, there is a huge potential to access properly informed and well-evidenced specialists on any given topic. But that means cutting through the guff and being able to contextualise what we read.

And that’s a great life-skill to be developing in our students, regardless.

[Turns on Twitter] Seriously…?: Dealing with high-tempo topics

You what?

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.

A Human Rights Foreign Policy Game

Today we have a guest post from Michelle Goodridge, academic librarian at Wilfrid Laurier University. She can be contacted at mgoodridge [at] wlu [dot] ca.

After a casual conversation about classroom games with my colleague Professor Andrew Robinson, we created a foreign policy simulation for his course, HR 100 Human Rights and Human Diversity. We had two goals for the simulation: first, have students explore why state actors fail to advance human rights domestically and internationally, and second, measure the simulation’s effectiveness in helping students achieve desired learning outcomes.

We modified the International Trade Game by:

  • Orienting the exercise around human rights instead of international trade.
  • Dividing students into three teams of high and middle-income pro-human rights. democracies, two teams of low-income democracies indifferent to human rights, one team of a high-income state that is anti-human rights, and one team representing an NGO.
  • Introducing the political objective of re-election.
  • Creating different winning conditions for each team.

To form teams, students picked one of several different colored t-shirts that we had laid out around the classroom. Each team received a corresponding packet of instructions and resources. I had the role of The Trader who accepted the geometric shapes produced by teams in exchange for political support units. Andrew injected human rights crises into the simulation via PowerPoint. The simulation ran an hour, with defined victory conditions that needed to be met to have a winner. Often none of the teams met its victory condition, which came as a shock to the students, but it helped illustrate the complexity of international relations.

After the game concluded, we took time to debrief the students, and this is when students made robust connections between the simulation and concepts they had been studying. I can only assume this is because verbalizing these responses right after the exercise is easier than writing them down a week afterward.

We attempted to measure the effectiveness of our Human Rights Foreign Policy Game with pre/post test evaluations. The evaluation results were anonymized, coded, and analyzed using SPSS. We found that the richest data came from students’ responses to the evaluation’s open-ended questions. So far, we have run this simulation in six semesters, and we will probably continue to use it in the future because of the high percentage of students reporting that it helped them learn. For more details, please see our article “Objective Assessment of Pedagogical Effectiveness and the Human Rights Foreign Policy Simulation Game,” Journal of Political Science Education 17, 2 (2021): 213-233, DOI: 10.1080/15512169.2019.1623048.

Statecraft in the International Relations Classroom

Today we have a guest post from Eric Cox, an associate professor at Texas Christian University. He can be contacted at e[dot]cox[at]tcu[dot]edu.

Does the online Statecraft simulation improve student learning when used as a key component of international relations classes? I explored this question in a Journal of Political Science Education article through a controlled comparison of two IR course sections taught during the same semester. One section was randomly chosen to participate in Statecraft, the other was assigned a research paper. The primary finding of the study was that students in both sections performed similarly on exams when controlling for other factors.

Statecraft is a turn-based simulation that divides students into “countries” that they govern. Each country must choose its form of government, economic system, and other attributes. Players also choose whether to focus on domestic spending priorities such as schools, hospitals and railroads, or on military capabilities. They must deal with terrorism, the melting of Ice Mountain, pirates, and rumors. The simulation is, to put it mildly, complex. I have been using it for just over a decade.

To try to put the students doing the research paper on an equal footing with those engaged with Statecraft, I dedicated several days of class to instruction in research writing skills and peer review. The students in this section spent roughly the same amount of time in class on their paper as the students in the Statecraft section did on the simulation. Both groups also wrote about the same amount.

At the end of the semester, I compared class performance on three exams and gave students a brief survey on their experiences. The initial findings were surprising: the research paper class did much better on exams but were less satisfied with the research assignment than the Statecraft students were with the simulation. I obtained access to students’ GPA when entering the course, and re-ran my analysis with GPA, whether students were taking the course for a grade, and whether students were political science majors as controls. Once these controls were introduced, the effect of Statecraft went away. The strongest predictor of course performance was their incoming GPA. Students with high prior GPAs made As, B students made Bs, and so on. Academic performance was independent of the research paper or Statecraft assignment. However, students in the Statecraft section showed a strong preference for the simulation over a traditional research paper, and students in the research paper section indicated they would have rather done Statecraft. Subsequent student evaluations have also demonstrated the relative popularity of Statecraft.

That said, my use of Statecraft has evolved, something I discuss in detail in my chapter of Teaching International Relations. Foremost, I dedicate class time to the simulation, and draw examples from the simulation when discussing IR theory, issue areas, and current events. Students have indicated that the simulation gives them a greater appreciation for the complexity of international relations and the challenges leaders face. 

Editor’s note: previous posts on Statecraft can be found here.

Observing Observation

Two weeks ago, students in my economic development and environmental politics course played my simulation on freshwater resource scarcity in Asia. If my memory is correct, it was the first time running the simulation in the physical classroom, and I was interesting in whether students behaved differently in the face-to-face environment compared to a prior iteration of the simulation that occurred online.

You can lead the students to knowledge . . .

The underlying mechanics of the simulation were unchanged: six teams, each representing a different country with one or more transnational rivers crossing its territory. Turn by turn, the population expands, more food must be produced, and water demand increases, yet countries are building dams upriver and rainfall declines because of climate change. Eventually a country has a famine and millions of refugees spill into its neighbors.

This time around I added a victory condition: members of the team with the greatest percentage growth in GDP per capita when the simulation ended earned five points (out of a thousand) toward their final grades. I put a copy of the simulation’s spreadsheet, which shows how actions taken by teams affect water availability, food production, hydroelectricity generation, and GDP, on the LMS and encouraged students to experiment with it before the simulation started.

Student did seem more engaged with the simulation in the classroom than they had online, though it was far easier for me to observe their interactions. The real surprise was how baffled students were about the cause and effect relationships built into the spreadsheet. Growth in GDP requires growth in hydroelectric capacity, which only comes from building dams. Yet teams were hesitant to build dams. By the end of the simulation, China, for example, had stockpiled enough of a reserve to have constructed over one hundred dams, yet it had built only a handful. The largest change in GDP among the six teams? Only 1.1 percent over a twelve year period.

Students clearly had not tried to figure out the spreadsheet before the simulation started, and none of them seemed to understand the relationship between economic growth, food, and water. Consequently, many of them flailed about helplessly as their country’s water supply steadily dwindled. When asked during the debriefing why they chose inaction instead of action, I got mostly blank looks. As I’ve noted before, many students seem to have little understanding of cause and effect; instead, in their worlds, stuff just happens. While I would prefer not adding multiple assignments to the course to force students to work with the simulation’s causal relationships before the simulation actually begins, it might be necessary.

The Challenge Game

Elia Elisa Cia Alves

Today we have a guest post from Elia Elisa Cia Alves, Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB), and Ana Paula Maielo Silva and Gabriela Gonçalves Barbosa, State University of Paraíba (UEPB), of Brazil. Elia Elisa Cia Alves can be contacted at eliacia [at] gmail [dot] com.

The Challenge Game was developed by a group of professors at the State University of Paraiba and the Mettrica Lab in Brazil. It is suitable for teaching concepts in international relations theory, such as state survival within an anarchic system, the security dilemma, alliances and the balance of power, and hegemony.

Ana Paula Maielo

To play this game in the classroom, you will need 1) approximately 8 to 50 students who can play either individually or in teams, depending on the purpose to which the game is put, 2) candy, points, or some other reward that can be distributed, and 3) a method of determining the winner of a challenge between two parties, such as dice (high roll wins), rock-paper-scissors, or an online random number generator. Also, the rules of the game should be visible to students during the game.

The game is played in four rounds of approximately ten minutes each. A challenge is a one-candy bet (a loss results in one piece of candy being taken away) with a 50% probability of winning. Any individual or team that is challenged must participate in the challenge. Only one challenge should occur at a time so that the instructor can note what happens. A student or team that ends up with zero candy can no longer issue challenges; they are “dead” for the remainder of the round.

Round 1: Each student starts with one piece of candy. The winner of a challenge takes one piece of candy from the loser and can then challenge someone else. Any student who loses all of his or her candy is out of the game for the round. Depending on class size, the instructor may want to limit each student to a maximum number of challenges.

Round 2: Candy is distributed unequally among students. Most students should have 1-2 candies, a few students should have 3, and only a couple of students should have 4. The instructor may want to allow students to form alliances, in which case students can borrow candies from each other if needed. However, the loan is optional.

Round 3: Group students into teams. Distribute candy unequally among teams as in Round 2. Each team represents a nation-state. Students within a team decide, using any decision making method they choose, whether the team challenges any other team. As in Round 2, the instructor might allow teams to form alliances.

Round 4: Group students into teams and distribute candy as in Round 3. The professor grants special rules to only teams that have the greatest number of candies, such as altering their odds of winning a challenge. After the game, the professor should debrief the class to link theoretical international relations concepts to students’ experiences of the game. In our JPSE article, we suggest several questions that can be used as part of the debriefing.

Exam Essays that Develop Research Skills: A Second Look at Zotero

Today we have a guest post from Adam Irish, an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Chico.

Like many professors, I change my teaching to fit the class or, in the past year, the Zoom discussion I am leading. My lower division, survey courses focus on building a scholarly vocabulary and an understanding of concepts; upper division courses dive deeper into issues so that students can wade into the intellectual fray. However, this past year of online teaching revealed a potential for overlap for this dichotomy: the development of research citation skills through the incorporation of Zotero.

Continue reading “Exam Essays that Develop Research Skills: A Second Look at Zotero”

Online Global Negotiation Conference 2021

Applications are now open for the online Global Negotiation Conference, which will take place from 6 to 9 July, and will be co-hosted by the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich.

The Global Negotiation Conference was founded in 2014 to encourage the practical and theoretical study of negotiation among students of all disciplines. Each year teams of graduate students from across the world take part in a series of workshops led by practitioners and academics culminating in a multiparty simulation on a current global issue. This year the topic of the conference is negotiating an international treaty on the role of business in upholding human rights.

More information on the program and how to apply can be found on the conference webpage: https://www.global-negotiation.org/gnc-2021.

Pandemic Pedagogy Webinar and Workshop

Colleagues, I want to invite you to an upcoming opportunity that I am involved in.

The International Studies Association’s Innovative Pedagogy Conference Initiative is creating virtual opportunities for faculty professional development. Teacher-scholars in International Studies around the world are facing unprecedented challenges to adapt our teaching and learning approaches in the COVID-19 era. The Pandemic Pedagogy series is designed to help instructors think critically and creatively about these needs. It includes two key elements:

  1. An asynchronous webinar designed to preview the workshop and related IPC initiatives has been posted on the ISA YouTube channel: (https://youtu.be/2FF3Lr5w7hg).
  1. The IPC invites teacher-scholars around the world to participate in our live, synchronous remote workshop on Pandemic Pedagogy on Monday, August 3, 2020, from 12:00 noon to 4:00 pm EDT. The workshop will feature presentations by ISA members and award-winning instructors focused on adapting our teaching and learning strategies in these difficult times. It also provides opportunities for base group dialogues, mentoring, the exchange of creative ideas, and professional networking. The registration portal can be found at: https://www.isanet.org/Conferences/Pedagogy-2020.