Identity Politics Activity

Due to some late summer travel and other obligations, I’m working this week to put together my fall syllabus for Intro to Comparative Politics. One of my favorite class activities comes about mid-way through the semester when we talk about identity politics. One of the main ideas I hope the students take away is that identities can be manipulated for political reasons. More specifically, the following activity has these learning objectives:

  • Explain the difference between symmetric and asymmetric cleavages.
  • Identify the conditions under which particular identity categories will be politically salient.
  • Predict the consequences of a permanently excluded minority.
  • Compare and contrast the political implications of fluid and fixed identities; symmetric and asymmetric cleavages.

Students are given colored index cards to represent one identity category (Green or Pink) with a language written on it (I use Esperanto or Ido). The “Round 1” table is projected with the number of students in each group (see Table at end of post) and students are asked to form a governing coalition that represents at least 51% of the population.

Once a coalition is formed, we discuss (1) what coalition was formed, (2) why, and (3) what happens to those that are excluded? I then project the map of the hypothetical country, showing a significant natural resource in the area controlled by the permanent majority. The students predict the likely consequences of the permanent majority’s control over a natural resource (I use a bag of leftover Halloween candy to illustrate the “natural resource” that the permanent majority can choose to distribute as it wishes). Next, they discuss the likely responses of the permanently excluded minority (e.g. civil war, terrorism).

I collect and redistribute cards and project the “Round 2” table. Students again form coalitions and we continue the discussion. In “Round 2” there are different possible coalitions and identity categories are fluid. The students then compare the political implications (likely democratic stability, probability of conflict between ethnic groups) in the different rounds.

The tables below give a rough approximation of how I allocate the identities, but the table I project in class has the number of students rather than percentages. What’s important is that the “green” coalition is “obvious” in round 1, while the second round has multiple possible coalitions.

Round 1

Esperanto Ido
Green 40% 30%
Pink 10% 20%

Round 2

Esperanto Ido
Green 40% 20%
Pink 20% 20%


Let me know if you have any questions or how it works if you give it a try.

Michelle Allendoerfer: Rational Theory of War II

I used the Fearon bargaining activity outlined in my last post for the first time very recently. Here are my anecdotal observations on its effectiveness.

NapoleonFirst, only one of the four dyads in class fought a war in the initial complete information round.  The other dyads immediately understood why war shouldn’t occur and after some discussion, the warring group got it.  I would have been happy with the success of the game just after that round; in my experience, getting students to accept Fearon’s main premise that a bargaining range always exists is challenging.

Second, students quickly realized that giving me two of their candies (as the cost of war) was undesirable and they’d prefer to reach a deal than lose candy.  I used this to demonstrate that war is rare—most of the time, the sides will reach a deal to avoid paying the high costs of war.  Students have also struggled with this idea in the past and having physical objects taken away as a cost of war really conveyed the message.

During debriefing, I found it useful to walk through at least one “war” and demonstrate how a bargaining range existed.  A lopsided victory is helpful in showing how both sides still would have preferred a deal to avoid war.  Finally, I allowed the students to “negotiate” before the defender had to accept or reject the deal.  This opened up discussion of signaling and the absence of costly signals in the activity.

Although I did not do a formal assessment, student performance on the related questions on the subsequent midterm exam was quite good. The applications in the essay by and large demonstrated a deep understanding of the existence of a bargaining range, issue indivisibility, and how costly signals affect the probability of war.  I’m considering a formal assessment of the activity in the future, but my gut is that it gave the students a better understanding of an abstract theory by helping them internalize its main ideas.

Michelle Allendoerfer: Fearon’s Rational Theory of War

Today we have the first of two posts by Dr. Michelle Allendoerfer, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Women’s Leadership Program (, George Washington University:

Rationality of WarOf the concepts typically taught in an Introduction to International Relations class, Fearon’s rationalist theories of war is one of the most challenging for students.  Getting students to actively engage with these concepts makes them more concrete and less abstract.  There are bargaining activities out there to illustrate the bargaining theory of war, but many treat wars as “all or nothing” — the winner gets the spoils while the loser gets nothing (minus the costs of war to both parties).  I wanted an activity that reflected a wider range of war outcomes in which the loser may end up with some division of the spoils.

I divided my class into dyads made up of two groups.  I made eight groups of 3-4 students (four dyads).  Each dyad gets a modified deck of cards (I used only 2-9 with more cards in the middle of the range), tokens (10 per round), a coin, and a handout.

To play, each group takes a card from the deck. In all rounds but the first, this information is kept private.  The challenger, selected by a coin toss, makes an offer to divide 10 tokens. I used Hershey kisses because my class is small and motivated by chocolate; anything that incentivizes the students will work, such as poker chips tied to extra credit.  If the defender accepts, the tokens are divided according to the offer and the round ends.

If the defender rejects, the groups go to war by showing their cards. I linked the division of tokens to the margin of victory. For example, if side A plays a 6 and side B plays a 3, the margin of victory is 3 in favor of side A and this corresponds to a 8/2 split of the tokens – this information is on the handout provided to the students. If a war occurs both sides pay the cost of 2 tokens.

A practice round helps get the students going.  An initial practice round where cards are not hidden also illustrates to students the crucial point of Fearon that war is ex post inefficient and should not happen in conditions of complete information.

In my next post, I’ll share some of my reflections on the activity and some notes on debriefing.  Feel free to email me (mallendo-at-gwu-dot-edu) with questions or for a copy of the handout I use to facilitate the game.  I’m happy to share those materials.

The Attack of Dr. X: Collective Security Role Play

Here’s a quick role play exercise that takes about 5 minutes and zero preparation.  Announce to the class that Dr. X down the hall (pick any faculty member, preferably someone they might know or who seems completely non-threatening) has just run into the classroom and randomly tried to tackle a member of the class.  Then ask them what they plan to do about it.  If they hesitate, you can start giving a play by play of what’s going on, and then prompt them again to see if someone is going to intervene.  Usually at this point if not sooner, a student or two announce that they will tackle Dr. X; others might offer to hold him/her down or kick them.  You can continue storytelling–maybe the first tackler gets roughed up a bit. Once five or six students have announced their actions, however, offers dry up as the threat seems to be handled.  Then start quizzing the students who were not quick to act on why–you will get a range of reasons, but at least one student will note that their efforts weren’t necessary.

That is, of course, your in to start a discussion about collective security and the problem of free-riding.  Their willingness to allow other students to handle the threat is exactly the kind of behavior we predict amongst sovereign states in a collective security arrangement, where as long as the threat is handled it is in no single state’s interest to expend the resources for that purpose.

I use this exercise whenever I discuss collective security; usually this is in the context of discussing the League of Nations and why it failed.  Its useful because it is very quick, requires no preparation for faculty or students, and is very effective in making the point.  As an ‘organic’ simulation (see Kollars and Rosen 2013), it allows students to show the truth and practice of the theory through their own actions before studying it formally–thus making them more likely to understand and accept the theory.  Plus, Dr. X can become a villain for the rest of the course, and you can constantly reference him/her whenever you need to discuss ‘threats’ to state systems.


World Peace Game

I just saw an amazing documentary about a simulation used in a fourth grade classroom: World Peace Game. The creator, John Hunter, has been continuously using and improving this simulation for thirty-five years, and his account of his experiences has recently been published —World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements.


The Walking Dead: Ethics in War

Note: mild spoilers for the March 10, 2013 episode of The Walking Dead, ‘Arrows on the Doorpost’ below. I avoided names and details as much as possible.

I’m a big fan of finding ways to use pop culture in the classroom.  There are lots of reasons for this–including that it can keep students interested–but honestly, there are two main rationales for why I do it.  The first is that it taps into their prexisting knowledge and thus lowers the stakes in a discussion about politics.  Students who may not feel comfortable entering into a debate about India and Pakistan or Republicans and Democrats may eagerly engage in a discussion of zombies or Tina Fey as Sarah Palin.

The second reason is that it helps demonstrate the idea that politics is not limited to the political sphere, but is embedded in their daily lives and interactions.  Showing them how political ideas are reflected in current tv, movies, books, and music creates buy-in for them to learn the more ‘real-world’ ideas we discuss in class.

I teach a course on politics in film and fiction (also games, and I’m considering adding theater after reading an excellent paper on the subject at TLC), but I’m always on the lookout for small clips and moments to bring into any class. I keep a running list on the notepad on my phone of ideas.

This week, I was watching the most recent episode of the Walking Dead, ‘Arrows on the Doorpost’ and jotted down the note, ‘WD 3/10/13–laws of war’.  In the episode (which you should only show up till the commercial break around minute 40–see below** for the reason why), the leaders of two different groups meet–maybe to resolve their differences, maybe to call a truce, or maybe for some other nefarious purpose.  Their lieutanants, meanwhile, are first in a standoff, but eventually a shared threat–the zombies–show up, and they start communicating and finding common ground and shared experiences.  Now this series in general is excellent for discussing in-group and out-group conflict, democracy v. authoritarianism, and testing the adage that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.  The entire episode is worth showing, particularly as it would be relatively easy for non-viewers to understand what is going on.  One moment I quite liked is when a character, taking notes in a small journal, explains that he’s recording history–that people are going to be around in the future and will want to know what happened. That is quite a symbol of optimism in the face of the zombie apocalypse.

There is a small scene though, that struck me as potentially being quite useful in the classroom.  Back at the camp of one of the groups, someone recommends that they go and kill the leader of the other group–thanks to the meeting, they know where he is.  This character make an excellent argument for doing so, given what we know of the behavior of that leader. The others object–but not due to fear of retaliation or the ethics of the situation or any understanding of the traditional ‘laws of war’–but because of the orders of their own leader.  Another scene later on helps build on the idea of ethics in war.  In their negotiations, one leader offers a deal: he will leave the other group alone if they give up one of their members who injured him in a previous episode.  This person only just joined the group, and as recently as the previous episode the leader of the group indicated his lack of trust of this person. The scene cuts to commercial before the leader gives an answer, allowing a perfect opportunity for discussion: if it means ending this conflict that could destroy both groups, which include a number of innocent people and children, should the leader give up this group member for punishment?

The first scene is only a minute or two and is quite early in the episode, and thus could work very well if you want just a short prompt.  If you have more time, the second scene is quite intense and occurs about 40 minutes in.  It would be worthwhile showing them the entire episode to that point if you are discussing the ethics and laws of war.  **I would definitely stop it at this point regardless though, as there is a fairly graphic sex scene not long after that commercial break!

Effective games

I found myself in a blind panic, spraying bullets wildly into mainly civilian populations, the other day.  For all concerned, it was just as well that this was part of the gameplay in Modern Warfare 2, but I was reminded of the presentation I’d heard last week by Mary Flanagan.

Mary was speaking at a workshop on simulations and game in politics teaching.  Her core message was that games contain value systems, intentionally or not: the design of a game conveys a world-view that the player has to engage with at some level.  Mary’s work has been about building games that create spaces for critical reflection on a wide range of political and social objects, and she presented a range of examples from immunisation to community-building to the consequences of job lay-offs.

The idea that games contain values is a very useful one for us all, not least because that is precisely what we are aiming for in educational games and sims.  Therefore, it’s important to think about how to harness this most productively.  Mary pointed to a number of elements in achieving this:

  • games need to allow for the use of strategy by the player, i.e. they cannot be purely linear.
  • games need to allow the player to make meaningful choices, i.e. they need to have consequences behind them.
  • games need to create situations where ‘the mechanic is the message’, i.e. the implicit structure of the game and how one plays conveys the idea you wish to communicate.
  • games need to provide a testbed for systems thinking, by creating an integrated experience for the player to visualise and internalise an approach.
  • and finally, games need to prepare players for zombie attacks (this might not be so central).

These are all excellent points for us to consider as we develop our own activities.  Certainly, the presentation helped to bring out much of the latent thinking I have done over the years and will spur me on.

To bring it back to MW2, it helped underline the very ambivalent approach to violence that the game embodies, with its situations of deep moral ambiguity (what do you do in the Moscow airport?) and its contestation of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (by the end, who do/can you trust beyond your own team?).  I’m finally moving on to Black Ops (since I’ve now got a machine that can play it), so soon I’ll be covered on the zombie-thing too.

The Results Are In

As I’ve discussed here and here, this past semester I ran a role-playing simulation for undergraduates on international relations in Europe on the eve of World War I. Previously I had tested for the simulation’s possible effects on student learning by comparing essay exam grades from a “regular” class that participated in the simulation to grades from an honors class that had not. Grades from the honors class were higher, and in most cases the differences were statistically significant, but the possibility existed that the higher scores were due to the honors students supposed better academic ability.

This semester I finally was able to teach an honors class again and do a more valid comparison. Some preliminary data crunching indicates that the simulation had no effect on essay assignments and exams, not what I’d expected. However, in a 2009 study, Stroessner,  Beckerman, and Whittaker found that students’ “writing ability, at least extemporaneous writing, was not affected” by Barnard’s Reacting to the Past role-playing simulations.* This makes me wonder what can be changed about history-based role-playing simulations so that students become better able to connect their simulation experiences to course content and demonstrate that connection through their writing.

I know someone reading this is thinking “it’s quite possible that your assignments and exams aren’t measuring what you think they are measuring.” Yes, possible, but logic dictates that if (a) we think it’s important for students to learn how to use theory to create a coherent and persuasive written explanation of an event, and (b) a question asks, for example, “did the international system in Europe prior to World War I best reflect liberal or realist IR theory, and why?” then (c) assignments and exams indicate how well students can accomplish (a). In other words, I’m testing for what I think students should know, and the simulation that I’ve been using doesn’t seem to have any effect on how much knowledge students acquire over a semester.

I will be presenting on this subject at the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference (TLC) in February. I’ve been attending the TLC  since 2007 and it’s been remarkably rewarding — lots of interesting and pedagogically practical information. I encourage you to attend.

*Stroessner, Steven J, Laurie Susser Beckerman, and Alexis Whittaker (2009) “All the World’s a Stage? Consequences of a Role-Playing Pedagogy on Psychological Factors and Writing and Rhetorical Skill in College Undergraduates,” Journal of Educational Psychology 101(3):605-620.

Floods and Famines

The march of Hurricane Irene up the East Coast reminded me of how difficult it is to get students to connect recent events with abstract concepts, especially when students lack direct experience. In students’ thinking, fate explains all. Floods, famines, and wars “just happen.” Somalia is desperately poor and violent because it’s Somalia. Students will donate money or time to a charity because they think it’s a good thing to do, but they don’t examine the role of economic or political institutions (or the lack thereof) in creating human suffering. So for lack of a better term, here is what I call the Hurricane Game:

Tell students to write down, in the form of a list, everything that they do in a typical day. Then say that a hurricane has blown through the night before while they were asleep. Select a student to begin reciting his or her list. The first item will probably be something like “wake up.” Ask the student “do you usually wake up because of an alarm clock?” If the answer is yes, respond with “there’s no electricity, you’re alarm clock didn’t ring, you’re awake, but you don’t know what time it is. What do you do next?” Go through a few more items in the student’s list in a similar fashion — you can remove heat, piped water, refrigerated food, and electronic financial transactions as needed. Students will rapidly find themselves at a loss for what to do, and at point they can form small groups to strategize if they wish. You may even wish to inject a highly contagious disease or zombies into the equation.

Getting students to realize how much of their lives are on autopilot can lead to discussions of everything from social contract theory to markets to public administration. For example, why are there emergency exits and who mandates them? What happens if this doesn’t happen? Why do some people know how to grow food but others don’t? Why do we assume food we haven’t grown ourselves is safe to eat? Why does that food go from a farm to our kitchen table? What happens if someone tries to take that food and there is no enforceable body of law prohibiting theft?

A good book that gives a real-world example of some of these questions is Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers.