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.

Don’t Look Up as possible teaching material

Spoiler alert: Not really, especially as there’s only a couple of ways things could go in a film like this. But if you’re feeling sensitive, then watch it first.

I’ll admit to having been a bit confused about this film, since my timeline had some very divisive opinions about it, when the film itself is about the perils of divisive opinions. Stupid irony.

Anyway, with the time on my hands to invest yet more of it into American cultural products, the obvious question – apart from my daughter’s query about how the hell they got Timothée Chalamet in it – is whether it tells us anything useful for our classes. Since The Matrix or Independence Day are now apparently ‘too dated’.

For the record, I’m on Team “curate’s egg” on the qualities of Don’t Look Up (DLU): it’s got lots of engaging comments to make on The State of Things, but it’s much weaker on any kind of systemic critique of modern American society.

And it is a very American piece: evidently planet-destroying asteroids don’t necessarily produce complex patterns of deep international or global coordination. Or maybe the location budget wasn’t so big.

If there is something that could well be taking into a classroom discussion, then it’s the relationship between science and politics, most obviously with man-made climate change, but also with Covid. Objective facts are one thing, but their representation is another, while their appropriation for other ends is different once again. DLU simplifies this by having one big fact – the big rock thing is going to hit the Earth – that (seemingly) shouldn’t in doubt, and yet is annexed to a number of personal projects by assorted cast members. If students can follow that line, then the path to better engagement with the multiple pathways and dynamics of climate change or the much more conditional and evolving understanding of SARS-CoV-2.

Part of that discussion needs to centre around the disconnect between knowledge of some fact or facts and any question of what to do about that knowledge: DLU has only a limited engagement with this, most obviously when lovely Leo asks the camera how we’ve got to a place where we can’t even agree that a giant asteroid heading to Earth is A Bad Thing, but there’s scope here for debate about one gets from agreeing just that point to doing something.

Ultimately, the issue rests on narratives and interests that are grounding in a range of factors that spread far beyond any objective calculation. The film provides a number of examples of both rational (Bash’s big plans) and less-than-rational (in Bojo Mambo’s) responses to information.

Beyond this major theme, it’s slim pickings, I’d argue.

As a middle-aged, white Professor who does a bit of media, I took rather more note of Leo’s transmutation from hyper-anxious sad-sack to trim Voice of Reason than I should, especially as I’ve never noticed any of the other effects of this change. You might also note the marginalisation of women aspect too. However, as critique of how others see academics it might be of interest to a communication class. That said, the scene of the grad class working on the calculations did stray close to being included in any update of my previous comments on screen representations of teaching.

Similarly, any reflection on the relationship between politics and Big Tech is made difficult by the very personalised relationship between the President and Bash’s Peter. Moreover, Mark Rylance doesn’t seem to have decided if Peter is Steve Jobs or James Halliday or even the BFG, so that’s also a bit frustrating. As is the totally unexplained course of the deflection mission.

So yes, there’s some material here, but it’s not really shaping up to be a classic of the genre. Unlike The Lego Movie.

Beyond the Essay: Briefing Memos

Today we have a guest post from Vincent Druliolle, an assistant professor at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. He can be reached at Vincent[dot]Druliolle[at]gmail[dot]com.

Undergraduates are repeatedly told that what they study is somehow relevant for practice, yet most assignments are structured as academic essays—even though only a handful of them will end up opting for an academic career. A few years ago, I decided that my students should have the opportunity to develop non-academic writing skills, and started assigning a briefing memo about an ongoing conflict.

The briefing memo is indeed a format widely used in government, international organisations, consultancies, and NGOs. However, because of the large range of topics and theoretical perspectives covered by my module and the limited number of teaching weeks, I had to find a way of integrating such an activity into my small-group seminars. I came up with the idea of making the memo a preparatory activity for my in-class simulation on peacebuilding and transitional justice.

The briefing memo differs from the traditional essay in both content and format. It is policy-oriented, because it is aimed at practitioners and decision-makers, and it presents information in a concise and attractive manner. It requires critically analysing source material beyond the standard academic literature, selecting what’s most relevant, and presenting it in a way that can convey the complexities of the conflict analysed.

Most students have never written a memo, but I don’t give them any guidelines. Instead, I ask them to look up examples that they can use as models. I prefer to ask the students to present their memos in class and discuss the difficulties of writing it. The first seminar of the simulation is thus about comparing and learning from the work of one’s fellow classmates. For class discussion, I recommend selecting at least a very good memo, a (very) bad one, and a few with significantly different formats and/or content. The greater the variety of memos, the better. I want the students to learn from each other, so I adopt the role of a facilitator, asking them to explain why they’ve chosen a given format and/or content, and fostering a class discussion about these aspects.

Many students admit that, as I warn them beforehand, it’s difficult at the beginning to figure out how they have to write the memo. Instead of assessing it at this stage, I ask the students to submit a revised version after the simulation that reflects what they’ve learnt from their classmates’ memos. Guidelines about how to write a memo can be provided at this stage or even afterward as part of a debriefing.

While writing the memo is an activity in its own right, in this case it is also a way for the students to acquire the knowledge necessary to participate in the simulation. They learn what information the memo should include because they have to put themselves in the shoes of the actors for whom the memo is written in the first place. In this way, the memo prepares students for the simulation, while the simulation provides an opportunity for them to reflect on the writing of the memo. And for the instructor, memos are quicker (and less boring) to mark than essays.

Game Theory Resource

A brief note on a free resource:

While crawling through the Intertubes, I stumbled across a twenty year old webpage on game theory by Eric Roberts, emeritus professor of computer science at Stanford. The sub-directory pages contain short, simple discussions of different theoretical models, with helpful examples — such as Rousseau’s stag hunt and versions of Prisoner’s Dilemma. Of particular interest, at least to me, is the explanation of strategies of play — given that I almost always try to minimize the maximum possible loss.

Extensions to a Classroom Game on War and Peace in IR Theory

Today we have the second of two guest posts by Nathan Alexander Sears, a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto and previously a professor of international relations at the Universidad de Las Américas, Quito. He can be reached at n[dot]sears[at]mail[dot]utoronto[dot]ca.

The game that I described in my previous post can be modified to demonstrate additional theoretical concepts.

Relative Power: Changing the amount of resources each state possesses at the beginning of each round creates differences in their relative capabilities. For example, State A could begin with $10, State B with $7, and State C with $5. This change may lead to balancing and bandwagoning behavior, which is important in neorealism.

National Identities: The game can be played with actual country names, such as the United States (State A), the Soviet Union (State B), the People’s Republic of China (State C), Great Britain (State D), and France (State E). This opens up the possibility that students’ ideas about national identities or knowledge of history may influence behavior and outcomes, which is central to constructivism.

Democratic/Authoritarian States: The game can include democratic and authoritarian structures for internal decision-making. For example, one team might be required to make decisions by majority vote, while another group may have a single individual who makes such decisions with the other students acting as advisors. Regime and institution type is important in liberalism, especially in democratic peace theory. Continue reading “Extensions to a Classroom Game on War and Peace in IR Theory”

Simulating War and Peace in IR Theory with a Classroom Game

Today we have the first of two guest posts by Nathan Alexander Sears, a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto and previously a professor of international relations at the Universidad de Las Américas, Quito. He can be reached at n[dot]sears[at]mail[dot]utoronto[dot]ca.

This game introduces students to theoretical concepts in IR, such as neorealism, neoliberalism, constructivism, and bargaining theory.

The class is initially divided into two states. The object of the game is to meet two, and only two, goals: (1) to survive and (2) to maximize the amount of money spent on enjoyment. Survival means that a state is not defeated in war by another state.

The game entails multiple rounds, usually three or four depending on class time. Each round should take approximately 10 minutes. In each round, states begin with a budget of $10 and must make two decisions. First, each state must decide how to allocate its budget between two mutually exclusive items: armaments or enjoyment. States may choose any combination of the two items, but must allocate all of their resources each round. For instance, a state may choose $8 for enjoyment and $2 for armaments or $0 for enjoyment and $10 for armaments. These resources are nontransferable between states.

Second, each state must choose a foreign policy of peace or war. If all states choose peace, then the outcome is international peace, and each state ends the round with the money they allocated towards enjoyment. If a state chooses war, then it must declare war against a specific state(s). If war is declared by any state, then the result of that war is determined by the side that has spent more money on armaments. A state that prevails in war not only keeps its own money for enjoyment, but also steals the remaining money that the defeated state(s) allocated for enjoyment. A state that is defeated in war is eliminated. For example: Continue reading “Simulating War and Peace in IR Theory with a Classroom Game”

Model Diplomacy: Smart, easy to use foreign policy simulations

Model Diplomacy is a series of free National Security Council simulations put out by the Council on Foreign Relations. Michelle used it in her class last year, and I decided based on her positive experience to try it in my intro to IR class this year.  In this post I’m going to explain the basics of Model Diplomacy, discuss my experience using it, and give my recommendation.  Spoiler Alert: I loved it.

Continue reading “Model Diplomacy: Smart, easy to use foreign policy simulations”

New Gerkhania Simulation

A slightly delayed report on the latest version of my Gerkhania simulation, which I abandoned back in 2015 because it wasn’t living up to expectations. Last January I wrote a brief preview about changes I had made to it before the start of my spring semester comparative politics course.

Gerkhania now has three rounds of role play: a commission to establish a representative legislature, one legislative session in which students can earn points if certain bills are passed, and a third session with no point rewards. For each session, students randomly receive a short biographical profile with an ethno-religious identity. Because of the laws of probability most students will receive a different role each time. The roles also include objectives that students should try to pursue; the objective of one student conflicts with the objectives of most of the other students.

In the first session, the class almost agreed to three separate electoral districts before settling on a single, national district to elect members of a parliament. In the debate, students quickly affiliated with each other on the basis of their newly-assigned identities. The same behavior occurred in the other two sessions, even though students had different identities . Students spontaneously changed seats to sit next to those who had the same ethnicity. They tried to maximize their own group’s influence and marginalize the influence of others. Some students tried to simultaneously engage in logrolling across ethnic boundaries to achieve their individual objectives.

In the post-simulation debriefing, I highlighted two topics. First, the results of both legislative sessions, in terms of passage or failure of the bills I supplied, were nearly identical — despite the existence of a zero-sum environment for earning individual rewards in the first session but not the second. I asked students whether this outcome could be explained by rational actor theory.

Second, I tried to get students to think about the immediacy and fervor with which they adopted rapidly changing and completely arbitrary identities. I say “tried” because I don’t think I was able to get students to adequately connect their behavior during the simulation to concepts like identity salience, deindividuation, and culture. But obviously identity had a much larger effect than it did in my South China Sea simulation, which is what I had intended. So I rate this activity as a success.

All materials needed to run New Gerkhania are available through my TeachersPayTeachers storefront.

How Much Does the Layperson Know?

Today we have another guest post by Gigi Gokcek of the Dominican University of California.

Students are often surprised to learn how little the average person knows about politics, or even current events. In response, I encourage my students to ask their friends and neighbors how much they know about government in the United States or elsewhere. Occasionally a student reports back to me about his or her conversation in the dining hall with a few friends. I decided to create an assignment to demonstrate to students how much they knew about world events relative to their peers. Continue reading “How Much Does the Layperson Know?”