ALPS is at ISA!

This week is the Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association in Baltimore, Maryland.  Most of ALPS will be attending, running workshops, participating in panels, and ready to talk all things pedagogy with our readers!  Please do find us, let us know you read the blog, and what else you’d like to see us cover in the future.

A few places you can find us:

Michelle Allendoerfer will be presenting a paper on the NGOs as Key Stakeholders in Human Rights Promotion panel.

Victor Asal can be found co-facilitating the ISA Innovative Teaching Workshop on Simulations on Political Violence and presenting papers on two panels: Conflict Processes and Understanding Change in World Politics (with Corina Simonelli) and Avenues of Violent and Nonviolent Contention (with Kristian Skrede Gleditsch).  He will also serve as a discussant on the Protecting Civilians and Preventing Violence in Peace Operations panel, and will play the role of Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah of Hezbollah in the ISA Syrian Civil War Simulation.

Nina Kollars will be on the roundtable on Disobedience, Resistance, and Transgression in Military Organizations and is presenting her work at the Barriers to Effective Cyber Operations panel.  She can also be found playing the role of King Salman bin Abdelaziz in the ISA Syrian Civil War Simulation.

Chad Raymond will be running the ISA Innovative Teaching Workshop on ‘Teaching the World with Authentic Writing Assignments’ and presenting a paper on the Pedagogy for Transformative Learning and Global Engagement panel, both with Sally Gomaa.

Amanda Rosen is co-facilitating the ISA Innovative Teaching Workshop on Simulations on Political Violence, playing the role of Egypt’s President Abd al-Fattah as-Sisi  in the ISA Syrian Civil War Simulation, and presenting two papers, one on the Universality of Rights Revisited panel, and the other on the Higher Education and Globalization panel.  She’s also a discussant on the Innovations in Assessment of Active Learning panel.

Pedagogical Defense: Avoiding Soul Crushing Writing Assignments

Recently I’ve been working on decoupling/narrowing what I expect in my writing assignments. For those of us who teach 70+ students at a shot and do not have TAs , the prospect of grading their papers is not only daunting…it is SOUL CRUSHING.

Even if their work is well-intentioned with good editing and citation, most undergraduate student work is still under development in nearly every area: structure, readability, sophistication of hypotheses, strength of argument, etc etc etc…

In prior courses I’ve laid out complex rubrics with several categories, points, and lots of very specific feedback. The net result was not only that I hated reading blah papers, but now I had tons of blah feedback to provide which tended to overwhelm and demoralize my students more than help.

This semester I’m trying a different tack with my first-year students: Two developmental criteria per paper ONLY, plus an invitation for creativity. The first criteria is to advance the some aspect of their writing’s quality of thought, the second, to advance one aspect of formatting, the third is to save my soul.

Example: My most recent assignment is an early attempt at synthesizing and discussing the work of more than one author. (Preparatory work for eventual literature reviews) PLUS…and remember this part…I don’t want to have my soul crushed trying to read them all. Note the areas where I’m trying to stop them from killing my soul.

Author Synthesis Assignment (see what I did there?)
Cocktail Party Script: (Soul Crush Avoidance Technique)

Imagine you’re at a cocktail party with three prominent scholars who have published research related to your question. (**Questions and sources were developed and vetted these in a prior class.) Write a script that details the conversation you would have with these authors.

Content: Your script must include…
1. Your question and why it is important
2. Each author’s research and insights and how they pertain to your question. NOTE: Accuracy and specificity get higher grades, vagueness and misinterpretation get lower values.
(Writing Development Emphasis)
3. Potential disagreements and agreements between each member in the party—including yourself.
4. Humor or Drama of some kind. (Soul Crush Avoidance Technique)

Formatting: Your script must focus on …
1. Careful attention to citation frequency, format, and accuracy. (choose any style you like but be consistent) (**Format Development Emphasis)

Dazzle me with your concision and creativity! No more than 6 pages. Focus on citation and accuracy. If you’re all freaked out about margins and font size you’re missing the point. 

I’ll post results next week. Wish me LUCK!

My Test Run of: ISIS Crisis Simulation

A few months ago I downloaded a game simulation from PAXSIMS Rex Brynan…. ISIS Crisis. The download contains the game board and all its pieces which is still under revision and development…but… I decided to give it a go with my summer section of Intro to IR students.

Counters for ISIS Crisis ©
Counters for ISIS Crisis ©

First things first…my students are not gamers and they do not know the conditions on the ground regarding ISIS, Syria, Iraq, etc.. So my purpose in conducting the game was to help them understand the sheer complexity of the situation by making each one of them a player in the system.

The role sheets and directions are pretty good but I STRONGLY recommend that the instructor play through the game once before attempting this in class. Ahem…I did not. ONWARD

Rough Spots

  1. Too many game pieces.. they often got in the way and confused the students. For the simple points I was trying to make, the teeny game pieces could be thinned out or thrown out altogether. Perhaps great for more advanced strategists to make the game more complex, but at the undergraduate civilian level…. not necessary.
  2. I attempted to have students read up and develop a working knowledge of their role before coming to the simulation day. This simply wasn’t enough. (my bad) A much better plan of attack for next time is to have students write a three page personal history in the voice of their role. This way students internalize deeper history in the first person.
  3. Picking methods for game play. The game kit offers several options for turn taking and scoring. Take the simplest one…get a few dice and get on with it! The students got bogged down in more complex systems. Pick the simplest path.

Awesome Spots

  1. By the end of hour 1 of game play it was almost painfully clear to each of the actors in the game that there were no simple answers to “getting rid of ISIS.” Most of this is built into the game through the rule structure which is quite cleverly leveraged to the advantage of ISIS (every time a double is rolled by an actor, ISIS gets to go again…muahahahahaha!…sad but true).
  2. The students were IMMEDIATELY dragged into the game. This, despite the fact that they had only light knowledge of the actual politics going on. (Again, my bad)
  3. The game is definitely in its infancy and will likely evolve to even more robust design. I will absolutely teach with it again. Its core structure seems also to be highly portable to other scenarios which is a triple thumbs up!


Professors Fail Too…

dictionary content kidnapped from Google+Wiki


  1. 1.
    lack of success.
    “an economic policy that is doomed to failure”
    synonyms: lack of success, nonfulfillment, defeat, collapse, foundering More

Another in a continuing effort to help advocates of good pedagogy is the online publishing of our failures as a means to reflection and learning. Not only is this an interesting thought exercise for faculty…but it seems like an equally useful exercise for our students. Have a look.

What kinds of reflective activities might this be well-suited to in the classroom? Please comment!

When a Book Becomes Your Spirit Animal…

As a professor of politics I’m frequently reminded of my obligation to be a contributor to my discipline’s development. Ergo, I publish works about political science and security studies. This is the proposed purpose of my being…(particularly pre-tenure) and certainly NOT to publish in gasp pedagogy, or god forbid….other fields.

As such…I want to talk, briefly, today about the most extraordinary book I’ve read this year…


Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eight Air Force in World War II
– By Charles W. McArthur

It’s not a teaching book, it isn’t a political science book, it isn’t even a methods book. This book is weird.

Before Charles W. McArthur passed away, he was a Mathematics faculty member at Florida State University. I know right? Math prof? McArthur’s book is about a bunch of academics who worked in the European Theater of Operations in the 1940s helping U.S. pilots learn how to fly and fight more effectively. The book details all the ways in which research and science were a fundamental part of winning the war. McArthur himself flew 35 missions as a bombardier for the Eighth Air Force in WWII. He wrote this book as a historical recovery of the work done by Operations Analysts during that time.

McArthur’s book was published by the American Mathematical Society in 1990. It is part of a series of books published by the AMS called “History of Mathematics”

What does this have to do with pedagogy?

McArthur’s book is phenomenal all on its own merits, but what truly makes this book unique and relevant to pedagogy (and political scientists who research it) is that his work is a meta analysis of the honing of his craft (understanding how to conduct military operations analysis), through his craft as a professor, published by the academic community that he claimed as his discipline–Mathematics. Even though there are ZERO mathematics in the book itself.

McArthur’s book is complex, beautifully written, and fascinating to read. But most importantly…this book now sits on my desk as a reminder, that my lasting contribution to this world…should be about writing about those things about which I am passionate, no matter how far outside my field, or tenure requirement…erm okay maybe after tenure….

Either way, Charles W. McArthur’s book is an inspiration.

Insurgent Pedagogy, Unlearning, Tinkerers & Radicals in the Classroom

Yes..I know Giroux, Friere, Halberstam, etc etc… I know for a fact that I’m standing on the shoulders–stepping on the toes–of better pedagogues. And don’t you dare start with “have you read the lit. on (insert blah book on teaching & learning)”… this is a rant…know and respect the genre.

Today I openly declare my allegiance to pedagogical insurgency, to unlearning, to methodological radicalism

…EVERYTHING that I learned through the dominant method of teaching left my head moments after I left undergrad–it is gone. Little nodes and neurons unconnected and lost in a sea of note jumbles and short answer essays. It makes me nauseous to think about how many years I spent perfecting “doing college classroom” only to have it result in … nothing.

Continue reading “Insurgent Pedagogy, Unlearning, Tinkerers & Radicals in the Classroom”

Equal Ground Game: Word Challenge

I owe 100% of the credit for this game to Ashley Rondini at Franklin & Marshall College.

The Game: Word Challenge

Potential Topics: Social Justice, Attribution Error, Levels of Analysis, Methods and Measurement, Bias and Hidden Assumptions

Materials: Envelopes, letters for each team (listed at the bottom of this entry), timer
Prep Time
: 5 minutes (mostly cutting squares and putting them into envelopes
Play Time: 5 minutes
Class Size: 6-100
Debrief Time: As long as you like, this one just keeps opening up the more you look at it. I bridged directly into my lesson. So… 15 minutes debrief and then to lecture.

How to Play:

Continue reading “Equal Ground Game: Word Challenge”

Death to Student Presentation Day

Special thanks to Dr. Dean Hammer for these insights

We’ve all been there….. I designed my course to maximize scholarly thinking as well as “real-world” skill development… in a stroke of brilliance..tah dah!… in-class presentations with obligatory questions expected from the audience…..

And what followed were many many minutes of zzzzzz inducing info-pedia. Student presentation day was just chunk after awkward chunk of soul breaking data spew… artfully guided by ubiquitous but quirky fonts on ppt slides.

I hated it, the students hated it….we all become lifeless automatons inching our way through class time.


Active class + Student Presentations = check email and update the Facebook status.

I had reverted to the stone ages in the pedagogy of active learning…..

Luckily, this day was also in-class observation day…so my senior colleague was available to witness the disaster….ahem…..awesome….juuuuust awesome.

In his wisdom he gently offered ……”Why not have them present an argument instead of just giving information?”


See that? not only had the light gone on in my head…but it was a compact and efficient one..

I said “give presentations. ”

They heard “write a lecture and deliver it to a passive room.” I gave them no context, no real role, and no motivation to participate…..and I expected them to be active.

The only real benefit to the exercise was to the students speaking at the front of the room…which was fine but…no…not it wasn’t.



In-Class Presentation Day
Pandemic Philly: Simulation with Embedded Press Conference Briefings

This Fall….Students will present arguments for a pandemic containment action plan. Each team must convince leaders and press of the soundness of their vision. The role of the presenters is to make a sound case for the thoroughness and unique approach of their 30-day plan of quarantine containment. The media, (the rest of the class) will ask questions for clarification and challenge each presenter’s conclusions. Following all 4 group presentations individual class members will vote for the most effective action plan to be put into place.

What I love about this….is that there is context, motivation, argumentation, and roles for every student.

Stay tuned for how this turns out!

Tacit Tactical Techniques for Teaching

Time to get meta! It is annual review time at my institution….I hate/love this point in the summer because I am forced to/have the opportunity to reflect upon my approaches to research and teaching.

This is me reflecting....
This is me reflecting….


In the process, I came to some generalized insights about my approach to assignment design. I decided that in my most satisfying assignments had one of three tacit techniques buried somewhere underneath. Although I’m certain there are more than three…The following is what I penned typed out…

Alternate Modes of Expression: Demonstrate Mastery Through Transfer
I think that one means to developing student intellectual capacity comes from asking students to express course content in ways that force lateral thinking into other disciplines or topics—this is sometimes referred to as transfer. I attempt this most commonly in my introductory courses because students are generally very good at rote memorization and regurgitation, and often mistake this for mastery of content. Along these lines, I work to develop assignments that force students to manipulate the content they thought they knew into mediums they might normally eschew. Among my favorites? 1. task students groups with drawing images of course concepts and debates without the use of written words; 2. tell them to write a haiku that summarizes the reading for the day; or 3. apply a theoretical perspective studied in class to popular film. (See: Hunger Games Example)

Words Control Perspective: Language Has a Direct Effect on Expression
Political science is full of cool concepts that students take as inherently neutral. The truth is, many words are part of particular communities of discourse. That is, words tend to enable some kinds of expression while disabling others. Concepts such as terrorism, collateral damage, or even mother/child/family… open and close off routes of expression just by using them. My all-time favorite author for breaking this down is Carol Cohn. She wrote a brilliant article in which she discusses “technostrategic talk” (available via pdf through the link)…Cohn beautifully articulates her participation in a community of defense intellectuals. She learns to speak through their acronyms and discuss the very serious business of missile accuracy. In the process, however, Cohn admits that in learning their language, she could no longer clearly express concepts that she found important–human rights, loss of loved ones, the devastation of war on communities. An absolute must for all my courses.

Warning, this is a demanding but thoroughly enjoyable read for undergraduates.

Reflecting on Self and Structure: Games and Simulations
A great deal of my development in pedagogy involves experimentation with simulations and games. Games afford a unique opportunity for role play, oral and written expression, and development of group work skills. Simulation and game play also create a spirit of competition that most (but not all) students find energizing and entertaining. However, the biggest benefit to these teaching tools, in my opinion, is their potential for critical thinking development. This occurs in two ways.

First, post-game exploration of the rules and structures requires that students critique the model inherent to the game and then to ask what role those rules played in driving the outcome.

Second, post-participation self-reflection of behavior requires that students consider their actions in the scope of game play in order to help them identify areas for professional development. My favorite version of this is Victor Asal’s Hobbes Game

Props Can Make the Game

I know …..I know what you are thinking….

“The last thing you need is to spend more money on teaching….. you don’t have the time to jazz up your in-class activities with silly posters or toys….”

But the truth is…

I can’t hear you

over the sound of my new GIANT INFLATABLE 20-sided DICE.


Sometimes if it is more fun for you… it is more fun for them. Cost… between 10-20 dollars shipping included. There are several retailers out there…. email me if you need a list. Happy Saturday.