Blogging as Getting Beyond the Classroom

Undoubtedly, the online writing forum is the dominant form of contemporary national conversations about any topic you can think of. While some of us have attempted to use blogging as a way to teach, many of us have found the challenge of the online environment has only added to complexity of the teaching process.

Technology is here to assist! Not drag us down!  But it can be made simple….

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 10.15.19 AM

An excellent working example (that I encourage you to visit and comment upon) is Stephanie McNulty’s Comparative Politics blog “Wandering Classroom” at Franklin & Marshall College. Dr. McNulty  has used blogging as a platform for students to connect what is happening around the world to the concepts covered in her class. Students must post a blog providing analysis on a contemporary event, and also comment on each other’s blog posts.

Dr. Stephanie McNulty

McNulty grades students on their blog posts and their comments on one another’s work….but here’s the kicker…. because these posts are public anyone can read and comment. It is an added pressure to perform and to interact outside the walls of the classroom.

(Feel free to comment on their posts to get in on the game!)

Most importantly, these blog posts are more than just fodder, they are actual graded writing! THINGS WE ALREADY DO MADE INTERACTIVE, PEER CRITIQUED, AND GRADED?

This is where I double face palm myself for all the one page reaction memos I have assigned that go only onto my own desk. Simple, better, interactive.

Bravo Dr. McNulty!

Does Active Learning Increase Student Retention?


What are the effects of our choice to engage in active learning on the college’s overall health?

It is admissions review season for us at F&M. It is the period of time that we think about bigger picture effects of our teaching and learning models. As advocates of our method, we should be aware that our penchant for manipulation and game play just might play a role in overall student happiness, connectedness to the faculty, and retention at our home institutions. As I went in search of research that might support this inkling, I found a few sources like the work of John Ishiyama. But it appears uncommon to try and situate the active engagement in game play into this bigger picture of keeping butts in seats for the entire institution.

So it is your turn…. what hypotheses are available? How can we study this? Personally I could imagine a somewhat nuanced relationship between active learning in the classroom and its effects on connectedness to a campus identity. But conversely, I suspect that personal academic performance isn’t a conscious factor for student attachment to a particular place….

What do you think? Does active learning affect college retention? How so?

Failing Fisheries Online Game: More Tragedy, More Hope, More Complexity


For those who are interested in a slightly longer game of tragedy of the commons than the Bunnies game (see below)…particularly one with a little more complexity, readers may prefer’s Failing Fisheries game. (scroll down a little on the page. It is under failing fisheries)


Much like the bunnies game, failing fisheries pits you against virtual opponents on a quest to make money. In contrast to the bunnies game, however, you can select for the temperament of your opponents or allow the game to randomly generate flexible, cooperative, or “independent” boat captains.

The game is more suited to a module on environmental decline than as an assist to clarify Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. This is because the game permits you to attempt to set fishing limits through agreements with other fisherman.

In my own rounds of play I managed to preserve the fisheries. Having said this, I was working with reasonably cooperative boat captains who permitted limits to be set on our maximum catch. So I didn’t ruin the fishery, but I also experienced my own pangs of jealousy as other boat captains were clearly better at fishing. (the snapshot clearly is a demo shot, I always made about 1/3rd what everyone else made.)


The game is winnable if you are moderately willing to watch the game’s fishery market trends and take out an occasional loan for better fishing equipment.

I strongly recommend reading the instructions FIRST on how to actually fish, since I succeeded in driving my boat several places but forgot to cast my nets. Live and learn.

Simulations and Games Index

One request we here at ALPS received at TLC was to create a page that indexed all the various games, simulations, and class exercises that we’ve posted over the years on the blog so that they are more readily accessible for folks.  We’ve gone ahead and done just that–the page, accessible from the home page of ALPS or this link, now has a fairly comprehensive list of everything we’ve covered, plus some we have not.  The various posts are organized by category–American Politics, IR/CP, methods, theory, etc– for your quick reference. Hopefully our readers–whether long time or just arrived–will find the page useful for tracking done an exercise or game on a particular topic in political science.

If the Shmoo fits…. How Hackers Create Amazing Learning Spaces at Conferences

Shmoocon 2015 Logo

I waited to blog until today…. despite the fact that I met a handful of amazing new colleagues equally as interested in pedagogy and games… I waited. Just downstairs from the APSA TLC this year was an internet security conference called ShmooCon

I waited to blog until today because I was warned…. that it was probably best to leave my electronics unconnected to the hotel internet…. lest some mischievous lurker find their way into my system.

Instead, however…. I decided to infiltrate their conference to learn what there was to learn about being a ‘hacker’ at a conference with other hackers. And what I found….

Hacker conferences are designed with tacit active learning methods beneath them! Everywhere I went, everyone was asking questions, interacting, playing, pushing boundaries, and generally smiling. This in stunning contrast to our own national political science conferences. So… in no particular order….

this year’s shmooball was red

Stuff That Happens at Hacker Conferences That Engages and Encourages Learning

1. The Shmoo Ball…. looks like a red stress ball. In fact…. everyone at the conference has one. When the presenter(s) begins to make claims that are contestable… go ahead… throw it… throw that ball right up on stage! The sage on stage is openly questioned…Shock horror, fantastic!

2. Games games games everywhere… you can’t walk three feet in any direction at that conference and someone isn’t actively engaging their skills in active puzzle play. Hacker Fortress, Ghost in the Shell, all sorts of challenges for people to try and showcase their capabilities.

3. Active conversation, open critique, debate, and curiosity. Attendees were curious about each other, worked hard to listen, and teach each other!!!! It wasn’t just the speakers that had the monopoly on teaching…everyone taught everyone else.

4. Ethical behavior requirements? Never hurts to be clear: ” ShmooCon supports the free and open exchange of information. We are proud to have attendees with unique and diverse viewpoints on just about any topic. We want to foster the exchange of ideas among attendees and think the community benefits from inclusiveness. To that end, we are committed to providing a friendly, lively, and welcoming environment for all. For your part, please be awesome to one another.”  –read… you get thrown out for being a jerk.

I found myself saying the same things over and over again…. THIS IS A LEARNING ENVIRONMENT…. a conference as a learning environment!… TLC is good but I see we have much to aspire to…. Well done shmoo…. well done!

On the downside however? in a brief emergency I did end up flipping on my phone’s hotspot to download a file…. and now whenever I type “hahaha” into my google hangout screen an animated fox and chicken pop up and laugh at me. Touche….

When Hobbes Turned Liberal Institutionalist….

This week I returned to my roots to replay another version of Victor Asal’s Hobbes game. One of my favorite things about the Hobbes game is that it can always be slightly altered to introduce new kinds of interaction in the game.

In order to do this you really do need to play Victor’s original game first.

Then, a week or two later…. hand out the cards again. I wanted Wednesday’s interaction to be more akin to the picture of the international system represented by liberal institutional models of interaction. Specifically, I wanted to introduce variation, not simply in terms of individual power levels, but types of potential cooperation.

Tell them, today, the kind of card you get matters. (watch them peer at the front of their card anxiously….see how the people holding aces and kings begin to smile)

Project an image of the hierarchy of poker hands on the board and explain which kinds of hands are better than others. (you will get confused looks from people who have never played cards…don’t linger on this …. just smile and say…. everything will be alright)

The text and images below are from the website but you can find the image anywhere really.

Straight Flush & Royal Flush


Four of a Kind:

Four of a Kind

Full House:

Full House





Three of a kind:

Three of a Kind

Two pair

Two Pair

One pair

One Pair

High card

High Card

Now… tell them that individual cards can challenge each other. In that case, the higher value card wins, takes the other card, and then the loser sits down.

BUT… they are also free to create pairs, triples, and even complete 5 card poker hands. (I limited them to five…. continue to ignore the people who don’t know cards)

Then…. say…. go!

Observations by Students in Debrief:

  1. MASSIVE VARIATION in behavior from the original game….. some team up and produce collective security others go it alone.

  2. Students who had initially powerful cards (Aces) felt more assured than those who had low number cards. But everyone had an opportunity to collaborate to build a good poker hand in order to feel safer.

  3. Students reported feeling less concerned about relative gains and more interested in absolute gains as they searched for other potential allies.

  4. All the students agreed that the structure of the game more closely aligned with what they imagined the international system to be like: more opportunities for cooperation in many different ways, but still anarchic and fraught with distrust and fear for survival.

  5. Students who had no idea about poker hands were sometimes preyed upon, but most often, were assisted by colleagues with similar cards.

Prior to this exercise the students were unconvinced by the Kupchans‘ work on collective security and the institutionalist perspective. They preferred the ‘pragmatism’ of Mearsheimer and Waltz. After the exercise, the students reported understanding, more clearly, what the Kupchans’ were getting at. I’ll definitely do this again in tandem with the original form of the Hobbes game.

Here comes APSA TLC 2015!

My first attempt at a group selfie back in NM didn’t quite work…

This blog was born out of a slightly-drunken conversation at the American Political Science Association’s Teaching and Learning Conference in Albuquerque, back in 2011. As such, TLC has a special place in the hearts of ALPSblog members, especially because the professors among us are so generous with buying us a fancy dinner [cough].

With all this in mind, it is with a happy heart that we note TLC 2015 is finally announced for 16-18 January in the fair city of Washington DC.

All of us have found the format a particularly useful one for properly discussing our work and building networks. By spending three days with the same stream of colleagues, there is a lot of opportunity to really get into the fine detail and to reflect on the linkages between papers.

Because we’re us, we haven’t yet sorted out if we can all go, but then again the call for papers isn’t open yet either, so let’s say we’re appropriately positioned. However, if you can join us, then we’d love to meet more of our readership, especially me, so do pencil it into your diaries now.

Building networks: we’re on Facebook now!

download (1)As a mark of our desire to build the community of users/readers that we already have here at ALPS, we’ve finally decided (a mere three years in) to set up a Facebook page.

The page will have all the latest blog posts linked in [sic – we’ll do that one another time], plus we hope we can get more of you to chip in with links, comments and ideas.

Do remember we also have our Twitter feed, so you really have no excuse for missing anything we do.

The ALPS team

ISA 2014: Hands across the (disciplinary) sea

As the last man standing at ISA 2014, it falls to me to make one of our regular appeals for more contributors to join us here at ALPS.

One of the things that has really struck us during the past few days is that IR and Political Science are facing very similar pedagogical challenges, but that we have taken different paths in addressing them. Both need to make often complex materials and concepts accessible to students who are easily distracted and both find themselves trying to marry what is in the classroom with what is happening on the news and on the streets outside.

The difference is perhaps one of attitude. My personal impression of the IR group here has been one of playfulness, a greater willingness to co-opt pop culture to serve pedagogical ends: zombies are the archetype here, but also movies, TV and books feature too. The opportunities that offers for engaging students are clear, even if the level of systematisation of approach has not been as great as in PolSci: the notion of the found object, the chance discovery holds strong.

Political Scientists use captions, IR scholars don’t

Despite our similarities, we have tended to keep apart. One of my colleagues (who shall remain nameless, but he’s got a beard and glasses) chanced to suggest yesterday that I was an IR scholar, because I study the EU and I know who Kant is. My forceful reply ran along the lines that I also know what a dolphin is, but I’m not a marine biologist and that my congenital ambivalence about the notion of hegemony meant I very much wasn’t a IR’er, but a comparativist (actually, I’m not even that, but we’ll move on here).

So it comes to this: we think some IR input would be good, both for us and for IR. We can see opportunities to move beyond telling people what you’ve done in your classroom, to discussing what one might do in the classroom and the wider lessons and implications thereof.

As we travel back to our respective homes, the ALPS crew are working on several ideas to move our work here into new fields and approaches, so if you’d like to be part of it, then we’d like to here from you, whether that’s just a post, or something more substantial.

ISA 2014-Advancing the Learning Environment in the Digital Age

Four of the five ALPS editors are together again, presenting on this ISA Innovative Panel on various aspects of simulations, games, films, and the use of digital technology. Patricia Campbell of American Public University opened the panel with a discussion of the parameters of the digital world of pedagogy. Pamela Chasek of Manhattan College just presented on her Model UN course and how technology has really aided the endeavor, from using the internet for pre-conference research to having students text her when they are about to give speeches in their committees.  Also, I think that every Model UN team should have an award called “The Mike Tyson Award for Diplomacy”.

Susherwood again won the award for best graphics in a presentation, this time for the use of varying images of fruit as a metaphor for assessment, while Victor Asal discussed his WWII negotiation simulation, which helps students learn about mediation, rationality, and discrimination.  One key aspect of the simulation is that certain students, based on either the country they represent or particular attributes, are cut completely out of the simulation and unable to ‘win’. This tied into my own presentation with Nina Kollars, which was on the role of failure in courses and the need to focus on the experience and lessons learned by the losers in our games and simulations.

Patrick James of USC talked about his book, The International Relations of Middle Earth, which focuses on how we can learn positivist and critical theory from the Lord of the Rings.  He later shared that doctoral students are finding this book and its approach useful in studying for comprehensive exams.

Unsurprisingly, this last presentation hit me the closest, as I teach a course that is grounded in learning politics from film and fiction.  I’m going to pick up a copy of the book at the exhibit, and start incorporating the insights into my course.

But the best part was at the end, when a member of the audience called for some public diplomacy on behalf of pedagogy, to create a culture where learning about teaching is valued (and better attended!)