Global to Local with Podcasts

Homer CakeI recently stumbled across Ecological Economics: A Workbook for Problem-Based Learning, by Drs. Joshua Farley and Jon D. Erickson of the University of Vermont and Dr. Herman E. Daly of the University of Maryland (Island Press, 2005). The book begins with the premise that current social and environmental problems “require armies of independent-minded, collaborative, and passionate problem-solvers, not more Jeopardy champions” (p. xii). Unfortunately, educational systems are typically organized to deliver knowledge as isolated packets that, once encountered, can safely be forgotten. Students infrequently learn how to collaborate, much less apply different types of knowledge in an integrative fashion.

Problem solving often requires that one be aware of and be interested in how problems manifest themselves differently across different temporal or physical dimensions. I find this to be exceedingly difficult to teach to U.S. undergraduates, but I’ve found public TV and radio to be helpful. For example, when looking at environmental change in the context of economic development, I might assign stories about:

These podcasts, videos, and interactive online features are timely and serve as localized examples of global processes that would otherwise remain vague and of no real concern for many students. Also the content is in a novel format, at least in terms of what usually is assigned to students, which gets their attention.

Nigeria, Norway, and Asian Girlz

Much of my teaching connects to the concept of identity, and I could simply lecture about the topic. However, for students, hearing this information from a middle-aged Caucasian man who was born and raised in the U.S. just isn’t very thought-provoking or relevant — especially since many of them think that racism and discrimination in the USA are purely historical phenomena . . . in other words, we now have a (half-)black President.

I’ve found short videos to be a great way to initiate discussion and introduce texts on the subject. This New York Times video essay by Zina Saro-Wiwa on transitioning to natural hair is a great example of how the personal can be political when it comes to identity. I show the video and discuss it with students in class, and only then reveal that Zina  is the daughter of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the writer who was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995 because of his political activism on behalf of his fellow Ogoni, one of Nigeria’s many minority groups.

Charlie ChanThe fictional Africa for Norway charity, a.k.a. Radi-Aid, produced this wonderful parody on foreign aid. When I show this video in class without any prior explanation, most students think Radi-Aid is an actual charity or they get perplexed because it contradicts their assumptions about what Teju Cole calls the White Savior Industrial Complex. Usually only students from other countries immediately identify the video as a joke.

What Kind of Asian Are You? is a great depiction of the unconscious racism that is frequently found in constructions of national identity and in Orientalist perceptions of women as objects of sexual desire. Personally I find this video hilarious — partly because I am a living example of it — but it’s a well-scripted scene played by professional comedic actors.

Comedy is very difficult to pull off successfully, and it can be tricky to use in the classroom because tastes vary wildly. While part of my standard procedure when showing these kinds of videos is to deliberately discuss how they illustrate illogical beliefs and behavior, I also try to use videos that generally succeed at being humorous rather than offensive. A great example of what I avoid is the recent Asian Girlz video by a generic whitebread pop-rock band from Southern California that has finally achieved its fifteen minutes of infamy. I’m not inserting a direct link to the video because the lyrics are fairly explicit; you can do a Google search if you like.  The band has claimed publicly that the song and video are satirical, but as comedy they fail massively. My guess is that the band members thought producing the song would be beneficial to their careers. Probably Levy Tran, the Vietnamese-American actress/model who appears in the video, thought the same thing. But although the video has generated some notoriety, it’s probably the type that isn’t wanted, and for the typical undergraduate classroom, its content is not nearly as useful as scenes from films like Blazing Saddles, the low-budget Terminal USA, or Charlie Chan in Egypt.

Climate Challenge Politics–Quick Online Game

BBC Climate Challenge is an online interactive game that deals with the politics of solving a transnational problem. It took me about 25 minutes to complete the game and admittedly I charged right in for a few rounds before I really gathered what I was doing.

Click Here to Access the BBC Online Game

the link to the game is somewhat hard to understand. Click on the graphic that says OPEN. The interface for the actual game is not large. You may want to investigate ways to enlarge the screen in order to accommodate those with vision limitations 

The premise is this… You are the leader of your country and you need to make choices about the policies you will enact over several years. Each policy has a cost or a benefit. The cost or benefit categories are : money, food, power, and water. They operate on a sliding scale that goes up and down based on your choices.


You select policy cards in each round and once every three rounds you go to an international negotiation to try and establish global CO2 level reduction pledges.

For the record, I barely managed to keep my office and I completely THRASHED the British economy… BUT I did hold up my international agreements.  Success? It isn’t clear…And that’s the nice part about this game. This is clearly a two-level game with competing objectives. You develop a very strong sense (if you play more than once) of the problem with public approval and managing an economy while trying to keep the world from descending into global climate hell.

The game teaches you almost nothing about the global effects of climate change and to be honest I’m thankful. I find many resources about politics and environmental issues have a tendency to highlight the problem of the environment over the problem of the political calculations in dealing with the environment.

Students who are reflective about the game will pick up on the sheer difficulty of making policy decisions and calculating the costs and benefits. Additionally, even if I wasn’t interested in getting reelected by my people, I found myself enacting competing policies year over year. I was an absolute hypocrite dealing out water privatization one round and then enacting massive public works projects the next.

I think for maximum effect students should be made to play this game at least twice recording their choices and outcomes after each round. The game isn’t flashy, or even exciting… but its points are clear and for this I give it a stamp of awesome.

Baselining II: Intro to Comparative Politics

Having created a pre- and post-test for my introductory course on international relations, it’s time to do the same for comparative politics. As regular readers of this blog know, I have an unusual approach to teaching this subject — themes and competitive presentations rather than lectures on government institutions.

Buckminster Fuller Map of Earth

My primary objective of the course — which I state in the syllabus — is to provide students with an opportunity to acquire some sense of what they do and do not know about the world. In other words, I want them to recognize that not everyone in the world has the same experiences and perspectives they do — because of cultural, historical, geographic, and economic differences. I focus more on getting students curious about why political institutions and patterns of political behavior vary from one part of the world to another than getting them to memorize exactly what those differences are.

This approach makes it difficult to reduce course content to a series of multiple choice test questions, but the questions that I came up with are listed below. As before, this process of created a pre-test/post-test has caused me to think harder than I usually do about what specific learning outcomes I want to structure the course around.

  • Modernization is . . . 
  • A revolution results in . . .
  • A person’s political identity is often based on . . .
  • Genocide is . . .
  • The speed or success of democratization can be affected by  . . .
  • Liberal democracy is usually defined as including . . .
  • A state is . . .
  • A nation is . . .
  • Nationalism is the belief that . . .
  • Power is . . .
  • Authority is . . .
  • Legitimacy is . . .
  • Political economy is the study of . . .
  • In a parliamentary system of democratic government . . . 
  • In a presidential system of democratic government . . .

More on the College-Employer Mismatch

A brief update to Joe Jaeger’s post on political science degrees and what employers want:

Women WorkersToday’s online New York Times has an interesting article on the lack of communication between employers and colleges on what the former expects and what the latter provides. The two seem to be talking past each other, if they are talking at all. Employers are reluctant to provide expensive on-the-job training; they want new hires to be productive and profitable right out of the box. In contrast, most colleges and universities seek to provide undergraduate students with broad communication and thinking skills that don’t necessarily lend themselves to immediate application in a specific job — and that’s probably a good thing, since students who spend four years learning how to sell widgets will probably find upon graduation that no one buys widgets anymore.

One would assume that internships would be the solution to this problem, but according to the article, the vast majority of internship experiences are too short and too simplistic.

The most telling information, which was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, was that in 2008 the Boeing Company (the people who make the big airplanes) “ranked colleges based on how well their graduates performed within the corporation,” and then presented this information to the colleges in question. Some colleges partnered with the company to change their curricula, while others did nothing. Boeing adjusted its recruitment of new college graduates accordingly.


Teaching Tolerance

The Southern Poverty Law Center has some great resources on teaching tolerance. One exercise uses a carefully chosen falsehood to demonstrate how easily the truth can be overwhelmed by irrationality and emotion: divide a class into teams, have the teams compete against each other in the performance of an arbitrary task, but tell students that each team contains a traitor who will secretly attempt to sabotage his or her team’s efforts. The fact that no traitors actually exist is only revealed afterward, in the debriefing discussion. The exercise can serve as a simple but effective way of getting students to examine trust, stereotyping, and the effects of false assumptions.

Before incorporating this or any other such exercise into one’s classroom repertoire, it’s wise to think hard about the ethical and methodological complications that can potentially arise, especially when using simulations that relate to race and ethnic identity.

Syria Scholarship Initiative

As some of you know, I advocate for campus internationalization so that undergraduate students in the USA get exposed to multiple cultural perspectives. One of the most rewarding aspects of my college career was getting to know and become friends with people from all over the world, after growing up in a small, rural town where everyone was just like me. I want more students, whether they are from the USA or another country, to have the same opportunity.

Homs DescructionThe Institute for International Education (IIE) is one organization that helps bring
students from different cultures together. One of its major programs is to provide emergency assistance to foreign students and scholars who are under threat. Currently the IIE, in partnership with Jusoor and the Illninois Institute for Technology, is leading a consortium of universities that is providing emergency support to students from Syria.

Here is one such student, who after receiving a scholarship to attend college in the USA, still needs about $3,800 to cover travel, insurance, and other incidental expenses. All donations go directly to the university’s Office for International Programs. I encourage you to support him and others like him — people who have had their educations interrupted by circumstances beyond their control.

Poverty Games, pt. 1: Ayiti The Cost of Life

In my spare time I like to play-test online games and feel them out for classroom use.  I’ve been working through quite a few of games about poverty and hunger and plan to share my thoughts on them here.

Ayiti, The Cost of Life, is one that we have discussed previously on the blog.  You play as a family of five in Haiti and make decisions about how each family member should spend their time each season–working, getting an education, or resting.  Each member has stats on their health, happiness, and education that you have to monitor, and your success is measured by the number of diplomas you earn over the 16 turns of the game.  I’ve played this game maybe 6 or 7 times now and its pretty fun.  At the start of the game you choose a focus–happiness, money, health, or education–and it seems like the decision does matter.  The one time I chose health, almost my entire family died of cholera or tuberculosis, and I found there was little I could do to stop it.   Education works out the best in my experience, which is unsurprising given the goal of the game.  Even with that as a choice, it’s difficult to get everybody in the family an adequate education, as health issues can be quite difficult to manage.  I’ve found that ‘education’ is the go-to answer for a lot of my students as a way of fixing issues of poverty and human rights, and this game may help them see why its not such an easy answer.  As an assignment then, this game can be quite effective as its pretty easy to learn and illustrates a number of challenges with getting out of the poverty cycle.  Its also pretty fun and has high re-playability. It would work best either as a homework assignment with questions to answer, maybe linked to a good reading, or as an in-class activity in a computer lab accompanied with a discussion afterwards.

Fun: 3/4 Although the subject matter keeps it from being completely fun, it is an enjoyable game experience.

Ease of Use: 3/4 Its fairly intuitive but does take a while to learn how to move your family members from place to place and to understand all the options.

Polisci Class Application: 3/4 Definitely a good game for understanding the connections between education, poverty, and health.

Poverty Games Pt. 2

Poverty Games Pt 3

Poverty Games Pt 4

Planting Seeds in the Social Media Jungle

Here’s an idea I’ve been toying with: granting a very small amount of “extra credit” to students who publish well-written reviews of course texts on Here’s why:

  • By the end of the semester a typical student has written five to ten responses to questions on each of the books I’ve assigned, so they should be able to identify an author’s implied thesis and whether it has been sufficiently defended. A book review is an opportunity for these students to synthesize this information into a few paragraphs of writing, while giving them a final opportunity to think about the “big picture” of how the book relates to the course topic.
  • Students get almost instant gratification of seeing their writing appear in a public venue, and because the audience is global, they might try to avoid humiliating themselves with lousy work.
  • Well-crafted reviews will help them establish a web presence that is more attractive to potential employers than what’s on their Facebook walls.
  • I get feedback on whether and how my assigned texts imparted knowledge to students.

Blackboard JungleWriting about historical sites or events for other social media platforms could achieve similar ends. Studying immigration quotas in the USA? What do Wikipedia and TripAdvisor say about the relationship between the Chinese Exclusion Act and Angel Island? Does the information in these locations correspond to what was learned in class?