Study Abroad As Active Learning

Alternative title for this post: What I Did Over Spring Break.

Photo credit:
Chad Raymond

One of the benefits of having a joint appointment in an interdisciplinary department is being able to participate in field research initiatives. Two weeks ago, I was in Belize as a co-leader for a tropical biology course examining the effects of agricultural development on biodiversity. This was a great opportunity to observe and teach about intersections between economic development, environmental sustainability, and public policy — while getting one’s hands dirty among the scorpions, bats, snakes, and octopi.

A few random observations:

Undergraduate political science programs with curricula that exclude experiential learning in favor of scholasticism are really doing their students a disservice. Philosophical treatises are no longer the sole repository of knowledge.

American provincialism did manifest itself, but only occasionally and, in my opinion, innocuously. For example, as this blog’s non-U.S. audience probably already knows, my people are generally at a loss in non-English language environments. But despite English being the official language of Belize, it is English with a Belizean accent. And in everyday conversation among locals, Belizean Creole is used — often mixed with Spanish. Occasionally I asked students, “Did you understand that?” and their answer was “no.” I would then point out that American English is not the only form of English, and that they needed to train themselves for that reality. The few among us competent in Spanish definitely had an advantage when we encountered people who did not speak any version of English. For readers in the U.S., does your political science department require proficiency in a second language? It should. Politics are global.

I was impressed by the students’ initiative and willingness to try to independently solve problems on the fly while doing their research. They were also relatively unperturbed by the conditions. Maybe this is due to self-selection for this specific study abroad program, but whatever the reason, it made my job much easier.

In-country logistics ran like clockwork, mainly due to the talented local program organizer. It was only when returning to the USA, a Third World country, that we ran into problems — a flight delay, a mad scramble through Miami airport, a missed connecting flight, an interminable rebooking process, not all of us finding seats on the last flight of the day, and a portion of our group forced to overnight in an airport hotel. But everyone did return home in the end. Lesson to students: be prepared in case things don’t go according to plan.

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.

The Brand (and Bias) Challenge

Today we have a guest post from Andre Audette of the Department of Political Science at Monmouth College. He can be contacted at aaudette [at] monmouthcollege [dot] edu.

When the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly pushed my classes online, I had to scramble to find ways to incorporate active learning into my online instruction. A unit on ethnocentrism, racism, and religious intolerance in my Religion and Politics course was particularly challenging—a fraught subject even with careful planning for in-person classes, but potentially even more divisive in our current internet culture. I decided to give students a unique “brand challenge.”

Posing it to my students as a replacement for the cancelled March Madness basketball tournament, I took an empty “Sweet 16” bracket and filled it in with classic brand competitions: Coke vs. Pepsi, Apple vs. Microsoft, Netflix vs. Disney+, etc. I asked students to comment in a discussion forum about which of their preferred brands should advance to the next round and why. I accompanied this with a video of myself in a sports hoodie offering brief commentary on each of the “matches.”

After a few days of discussion, the “Elite 8” round got even more interesting with pairings like Ford vs. Kate Middleton, Taco Bell vs. Google Chrome, and Target vs. Netflix. Student comments started centering on which brands were “more American” or have better values or were most familiar and useful to them.

By the time we got to the theoretical discussion of ethnocentrism, we had a personal, real-life example of how the students in my class divide their consumer choices into in-groups and out-groups. A similar attraction or aversion to consumer brands, I argued, applies to our interactions with other social groups. Over time, we learn to divide the world into different groups of people (“Coke people” vs. “Pepsi people”), psychologically attach ourselves to our chosen groups, and defend those groups, even when our rationale for doing so is limited or based on bias or stereotypes.

From my vantage point, this activity served the dual purpose of engaging students while preparing them for the difficult conversations about tolerance to come. We were then able to have meaningful discussions about why some religious groups are not represented in American politics, how perceived religious threat affects peoples’ choices, and how religious “brands” compete in the religious marketplace. I believe that in important part of preparing students to have these conversations is allowing them to experience some of the psychology and emotions that drive our political and social behaviors.

Early empirical studies in American politics were derived from the disciplines of advertising and marketing. The brand challenge activity draws from this tradition and could work well to teach about a variety of social identities and psychological processes. For example, it may help students think about models of partisanship and how individuals interact with party brands. It could also be a useful activity for encouraging students to think about how politics affects our lifestyle choices and the extent to which politics exists in our everyday lives.

Identifying a Generational Zeitgeist?

Sometimes you discover something completely unexpected about how people perceive the world.

Back in February, students in my globalization course read the items below and wrote a response to “Is global trade a zero sum game — a process that causes some people to get poorer while others get richer? Why?”

  • Daron Acemoglu, “Economic Inequality and Globalization,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 13, 1 (Fall/Winter 2006).
  • Joseph Stiglitz, “The Globalization of Our Discontent,” Project Syndicate, 5 December 2017.
  • Branko Milanovic, “Why the Global 1% and the Asian Middle Class Have Gained the Most from Globalization,” Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 13 May 2016.

Nearly the entire class wrote that global trade is a zero sum game. In class, students advocated for trade barriers.

Continue reading “Identifying a Generational Zeitgeist?”

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 6

Another update, this time in relation to the Place Making Essay discussed in Part 2  of this series —

To backtrack a bit, and provide some context I probably should have supplied in Part 1, the objectives of this course are to:

  1. Introduce students to concepts and methods used by social scientists and others to explain globalization.
  2. Develop the skills needed to understand complex problems related to global interconnectedness.

Students’ essays did, with varying degrees of success, thoughtfully respond to the assignment’s two prompts:

  • How does the process by which an object is made affect its ability to create a sense of place for people who use that object?
  • Has globalization altered the meaning of places or of the objects within them? Why? If so, how have meanings changed?

I did not see much discussion about the ways in which globalization affects communities, in the sense of “place making.” In retrospect, this is another example of me assuming, incorrectly, that students will follow ideas down the rabbit hole like I do — examining the more nebulous systemic implications of narrowly-defined events. If I use this assignment in the future, I might change the prompt to something like:

  • People assign meanings to the physical spaces they use. How do these meanings change when built environments and the objects within them are globalized? How are people’s spatial interactions affected? Do communities benefit? Why?

Despite horizons in students’ writing that were narrower than I would have liked, I think the essay unexpectedly hit my second course objective, through the interaction with students in the ART 202 course and the IYRS Digital Materials and Fabrication program. These interactions required students in my course to communicate effectively with complete strangers who had, in many cases, unfamiliar perspectives and different goals. A prerequisite for learning how to solve problems that arise from global interconnectedness is actually connecting with people who are different, and that happened in this assignment.

Links to all posts in this series:

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 1

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 2

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 3

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 4

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 5

Changing a Course on Globalization, Part 6

Changing Course on Globalization, Part 7