Rousseau in the Gallowgate:

Using drama-based pedagogies with first-generational political theory students

The newly formed Teaching Political Theory Network and UCL’s Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) recently co-hosted an online panel event on the theme of ‘Methods and Challenges in Teaching Political Theory’. In this guest post, one of the panellists at that event, Ruairidh Brown (Forward College, Lisbon), offers further reflections on using drama-based pedagogies to overcome barriers to the study of political theory facing first-generational students.

“Well, I would like to see Mr Rousseau come down and do a shift with me in the Gallowgate; soon see how long he holds on to those views.”

The Gallowgate is a street in Glasgow known both for its association with Celtic football club and for its reputation as one of the roughest streets in the city. It was where the student quoted worked as a barman when not studying for his politics degree. He was a mature student, older indeed than I was at time of teaching, and had disclosed over our seminars a hardened pessimism cultivated over many years serving pints in Glasgow’s roughest bars.

It was no surprise he had found Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s claim that ‘men are naturally good’ ridiculously absurd.

I nevertheless endeavoured to explain Rousseau’s optimism. I related his thought against the backdrop of the French Enlightenment; as reversal of the Christian tradition of original sin; as a seminal moment in revolutionary socialism. He was buying none of it. Whatever framework I placed it in, he insisted such philosophical optimism would collapse at the threshold of his Gallowgate bar.

In truth, the more I gave intellectual context the more I lost him, as the more ‘intellectual’ I made it the less relevant it appeared to him. I needed to change track: reconstructing the world of Rousseau would not help my argument, I needed instead to make it more relatable to the world of my student – I had to bring Rousseau into the Gallowgate.   

The Portal Between Worlds  

We can think of the interpretation of political thought as a portal: the historical world from which the thinker writes at one side, the contemporary reader at the other. The text is what connects them; interpretation taking ideas from one side and translating them into the other. 

The attention we pay to each side is, however, rarely equal. As academics, and teachers, we frequently prioritise the world of the thinker, with emphasis being put on reconstructing their historical context in order to gain accurate interpretation of their meaning.

This is in part the legacy of Quentin Skinner’s Cambridge School, hallmarked by a meticulous dedication to reconstruction of the political and linguistic context in which a past author wrote as to determine exactly what he or she could, and could not, have said.

Political Theory – and especially International Political Theory (IPT), in which my specialism lies – does have its issues with Skinner, especially on how such focus on history can be reductive, eclipsing consideration of contemporary relevance to the point of collapsing the portal between worlds.

Nonetheless, whilst IPT does aim to highlight the relevance of historical thought for the present, it still puts incredible emphasis on the need to reconstruct the historical context first before translation into the present can be attempted. Interpretatively, there is a soundness to this as it prevents us projecting ideas into the past and becoming guilty of anachronism.

Pedagogically, however, this can create a challenging environment for students as they are left with a forest of intellectual, historical, and linguistic context to navigate through before relatable ideas can be located.

The study of Thucydides, the embarking point for most IPT programs, gives clear illustration of this. Before we can even begin discussing ideas, students must quickly orientate themselves in a very strange and alien world: Corcyra and Corinth? Mytilene and Melos? And Lacedaemon, that’s Sparta? And that is before students even get to concepts rooted in the Classical Greek linguistic context, like Nomos and physis. Students’ very first encounter with IPT is thus being thrown into a dark wood of unfamiliar places, people, and words.

Importantly, not all students are thrown in with equal navigational tools. Typically, those who are ‘first-generational’ – those whose parents did not receive higher education; received State education; and/or are from low-income backgrounds – do not have the same background knowledge or tools to quickly reconstruct this historical linguistic context as, say, those who went to private schools with Greek on the curriculum. Nor do they have as much time to dedicate to this reconstruction, often having to work one, or even two, jobs to maintain their studies. They often instead feel alienated by theory classes, failing to see the relevance behind the thick phalanx of contextual tress, and abandon theory for something ‘more relevant’ to their world.

Providing the right machete that will allow the student to cut through these trees and uncover the core relevance needs to be an educator’s primary aim.

Finding Relevance   

Alcohol was the machete that came to mind for my Glasgow barman.

I asked him if alcohol made the behaviour of his clientele worse.

Worse of course, he conceded.

And did poverty and disadvantage turn many to drink?

Yes, indeed, it was intergenerational.

We were thus able to turn our conversation into a discussion about the ‘nature’ of his customers versus the structural factors that led them to behave this way (though admittedly I was borrowing a lot from T.H. Green here, inspired as he was by Rousseau, rather than explicitly the Genevan himself).  

Turning to J.S. Mill the next week, we centred the liberty principle on a debate over minimum pricing, not only as it was a current hot topic amongst my students at the time, but also as we could build on the entry point of alcohol and responsibility from the previous week.

For the following week on freedom of speech, I let the class identify and vote on a topic. They voted for the controversy over a planned Orange March in a neighbouring town. I created a role play for that week, where they simulated the local council deciding whether to let the march go ahead or not.

I found this approach resulted in greater participation amongst my students. The Glasgow barman notably had a lot to say on these subjects, but I also found students who had up to that time been largely silent get more involved; for, whilst they may have struggled to grasp aspects of the philosophy, they often had views on these local issues and, from these, I could introduce the main points of theory on more familiar and accessible ground.

The Most Simple Encounters

I have since then endeavoured to make my students’ first encounters with thinkers occur on more familiar ground. This often involves drama-based learning, where I reconstruct a relatable scenario in which they can first discover ideas.

This can of course be challenging and intensive work, as it requires changing classes according to students’ concerns and having some knowledge of these concerns. This arguably worked well with a largely homogenous Scottish audience, whose concerns I had a degree of familiarity with as a fellow Scot. This can be more difficult, if not impossible, in more heterogenous classrooms or with demographics more distant from the teacher – as I would learn when I left Scotland to teach in mainland China.

Nonetheless, one does not always need an elaborate pedagogy or classroom plan based on familiarity with students’ present concerns to learn from this. It simply requires one to be more sensitive to the situation in which the students are encountering these works. This can be achieved, I have found, by simply distilling a concept to its simplest and most relatable articulation for that audience – our machete to make first cuts into the forest of ideas.

Online panel event: Methods and Challenges in Teaching Political Theory (14 May, 11:00 – 12:30)

The newly formed Teaching Political Theory Network and UCL’s Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) are co-hosting an online panel event on the theme of ‘Methods and Challenges in Teaching Political Theory‘ on 14 May from 11:00-12:30 (UK time).

The event will include contributions from the following panellists on the following topics, alongside audience Q&A:

Diana Popescu-Sarry (University of Nottingham): The least we can do: trigger warnings and teaching the political theory canon.

Matthias Heil (Ruprecht Karls University Heidelberg): Taking teaching seriously.

Ruairidh Brown (Forward College, Lisbon): Dramatic Encounters: Overcoming the barriers to the study of Political Theory for first-generational students using a drama based Pedagogy.

This event follows on from the inaugural conference of the Teaching Political Theory Network at the University of York in June 2023. Contributions to both events are intended to form the basis of an upcoming edited volume on Methods and Challenges in Teaching Political Theory.

This event is open to all and is aimed at political theorists who have an interest in pedagogical scholarship and/or who teach and are interested in more practical insights. 

If you would like to attend, please register beforehand on the following event page, whereupon you will receive access details: Panel event: Methods and Challenges in Teaching Political Theory.

Many thanks to the Teaching Political Theory Network’s Adam Fusco and Sara Van Goozen (University of York) for helping to organise this panel event and leading on the wider suite of activities surrounding it.

Online panel event: Using technology to teach politics (30 October, 3.30 – 5.00pm)

If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you will have enjoyed recent posts by some of my colleagues at the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP), Cathy, JP, and Kalina.

You might also be interested to hear about a series of online panel events UCL CPP is organising this year, each of which will bring together a mix of political scientists and political theorists to discuss their work and thoughts on a particular pedagogical theme.

Our first panel event on the theme of ‘Using technology to teach politics’ is taking place this Monday (30 October) from 3.30-5.00pm (UK time).

Our four panellists are: Dr. Natalie Jester (Gloucestershire), Dr. David Roberts (Loughborough), Prof. Georgina Blakeley (Huddersfield), and Dr. Simon Sweeney (York) .

We hope for a wide-ranging discussion, including reflections on effectively incorporating new tech, concerns about certain uses of tech, and ideas for using older tech in new/better ways, with plenty of time set aside for audience Q&A.

If you would like to attend, you can register beforehand at the following event page, whereupon you will receive access details: UCL CPP panel event: Using technology to teach politics.

We hope to see some of you there for a thought-provoking discussion. If you are unable to attend, fear not – we will be sharing some of the main insights from the events on this blog throughout the year.

Let there be music!

The sight of a piece whose authors include an erstwhile ALPS colleague on the use of music in teaching politics neatly coincides with the past week’s European extravaganza of music/politics: Eurovision.

I’ll assume that a good number of you know about this, but for the culturally-void here’s a quick run-down.

Each member of the European Broadcast Union gets to submit a song for a competition, where everyone gets to vote, but not for their country. Someone wins.

Obviously, there’s more to it than that.

‘Each member’ obviously doesn’t mean each member does submit, or is allowed to submit. And Australia (very much neither an EBU member nor in (or near) Europe) get to submit for, well, reasons.

And the whole voting thing is quite involved. and occasionally corrupt. Pardon, ‘irregular‘.

Throw in a revolution-triggering song, landmarks on clipboards and opening of borders and you see why it’s catnip to the passing academic.

A quick squizz on Google Scholar throws up thousands of results, from imagery to regional voting blocks, LGBT+ identities to governance. This year you’ve also had a Zelensky dimension too.

Someone’s even made a lovely dataset of voting for you to play with. To help with things like analysis of the popular v. jury voting.

Throw in the wildly varying conceptions of what might constitute a popular song and if you struggle to make a class out of some aspect of this, then you are really not trying.

And since you didn’t ask, here’s my personal favourite of recent years:

The Bandit Game

In an attempt to rectify the failure of my previous classroom game on ethnic heterogeneity, democracy and dictatorship, I created another game that included a loss aversion component. I intended the game to demonstrate the concepts found in Mancur Olson’s 1993 article, “Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development” (The American Political Science Review 87, 3). Here are the rules for game’s initial version:

  • Each person gets a playing card and 4 chips.
  • The class is divided into small groups.
  • The person with the highest card value in each group is a bandit.
  • The game has five rounds.
  • Each group’s bandit confiscates 1, 2, 3, or 4 chips each round from every other group member. This decision is made by the bandit. The bandit has to confiscate at least 1 chip from each group member each round, assuming the group member has a chip.
  • After round 1, 2, 3, and 4, each non-bandit gets 1 additional chip if they have ended the round with > 0 chips.
  • The person in each group with the most chips after round 5 earns points equivalent to the number of chips in their possession.

Version 2 of the game has the same rules as Version 1, plus:

  • A bandit can switch to a different group after each of rounds 1-4. The bandit with a higher value card turns another group’s bandit into an ordinary person.
  • The new bandit takes the eliminated bandit’s chips and can keep them or distribute some or all of them in any manner to members of their new group.

Version 3 has the same rules as Versions 1 and 2, plus:

  • Members of a group can eliminate a bandit if (a) they have card suits different from the bandit’s suit, and (b) the combined value of their cards exceeds the value of the bandit’s card. If a bandit is eliminated, the bandit’s chips are distributed equally among the challengers.
  • A bandit can retain control if (a) group members with cards of the same suit as the bandit’s decide to ally with the bandit and (b) the combined value of cards of this suit exceeds that of the bandit’s challengers.

Before play started, I stacked the deck with cards from only three suits because of the small class size — thirteen students are registered for the course, but only eleven showed up. I divided these eleven students into three groups.

For all versions of the game, all bandits confiscated the same number of chips from their group’s members in each round, even though the rules did not specify that they had to do this. In Version 1, one bandit confiscated all the chips from every group member in one round, which ended that group’s game play for the remaining rounds — demonstrating that it’s better for a stationary bandit to extract only a portion of wealth from the populace at any given time. During Version 2, no bandit changed groups, and in Version 3, no one tried to eliminate a bandit.

This game worked better than the last one, but it still needs a much larger number of participants for it to function as intended.

Blindfolds, philosophers, and negotiations

This guest post comes from Alex Leveringhaus, from the Department of Politics, University of Surrey. He played Simon’s blindfold ice-breaker last week and it prompted some thoughts about philosophy. Obviously 

Imagine you are a member of a team that has been assigned a particular task. Nothing unusual about that. Imagine further that your team is competing with a second team that has been instructed to carry out the same task. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that, either. But now imagine that all participating team members (your team and your opponents) have to carry out their respective task while blindfolded. That’s probably a bit more unusual.

Naturally, the blindfold generates all sorts of practical challenges. How do you know who your team members are? How do you coordinate the successful completion of the task? The answer to these questions seems quite straightforward. You need to engage in team work! That is, you need to devise a strategy for carrying out your assigned task while blindfolded, and you need to trust your team mates that they pull their weight. The two ingredients of success: strategy and trust.

But not so fast. Strategy and trust have an inward and an outward component. The former relates to your teammates, the latter relates to the competing team. With regard to the latter component, the question is whether you can trust the competing team to play by the rules of the game and wear their blindfolds (and vice versa). More precisely, can you trust them not to peep underneath their blindfolds in order to gain an unfair advantage in the completion of the task? And how would you be able to ascertain this without breaking the rules of the competition yourself?

After all, in order to assess whether members of the other team are peeping underneath their blindfolds, you must peep underneath your blindfold, too. Naturally, whether you trust the other team or not will affect your team’s strategy. Arguably, a strategy that assumes universal compliance with the rules will differ from a strategy that assumes non-compliance.

The conundrum generated by the blindfold game is not new, of course. Nor has it primarily preoccupied the minds of political scientists. For instance, in his seminal work A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls, arguably the most important (political) philosopher in the English-speaking world post-World War II, offers a helpful distinction.

Rawls and Plato

According to Rawls, ideal theory, which he is primarily concerned with, assumes that there is universal compliance with principles of justice. Non-ideal theory, by contrast, assumes that not everybody complies with principles of justice.

Non-ideal theory generates two primary moral challenges. First, non-compliant individuals are free-riding. Second, moral obligations can quickly become over-demanding. Put simply, not only do non-compliant individuals benefit unfairly; to add insult to injury, compliant individuals also have to pick up the slack.

However, the problem is older than Rawls’ distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory. In fact, it goes right back to the inception of western political theorising in Ancient Greece. In his work The Republic (circa 380/1 BCE), Plato considers the story of a young shepherd who finds a ring that makes him invisible. (Sounds familiar anyone?) What should the shepherd do? He could kill the king, marry the queen, and become the new ruler. Untold riches beckon.

But Plato counsels against this. It is better, according to Plato, to play by the rules and not become a usurper, even if this means that the shepherd foregoes worldly riches. Why? Being a just person, Plato contends, is important for the well-being of one’s soul. It is, in other words, better to be a poor but happy shepherd than a powerful but miserable (Lady) Macbeth.

Hobbes and Machiavelli

Several centuries later, Thomas Hobbes devised a different solution to the problem. You can’t rely on justice or a sense of fair play, Hobbes claims. For, as Hobbes argues in Leviathan (1651), justice does simply not exist in the absence of a suitable authority to enforce the necessary rules.

The solution, then, for Hobbes, consists in establishing an authority, the Leviathan, to enforce the rules and punish those who transgress them. That sounds sensible, I hear you say. But is trust in the Leviathan enough? And how does the Leviathan maintain its own grip on power to lay down the law?

In Renaissance Florence, a disgraced former civil servant by the name of Niccolo Machiavelli had his own thoughts on this issue. In his work The Prince (1532), a guidebook on how to be a successful ruler (primarily by not getting killed by one’s subjects), Machiavelli advises that you should not trust anyone, at least if you want to remain in power. Nor should you try to act ethically. That won’t do you any good because everyone around you won’t act ethically, either. It is necessary, therefore, to be ruthless and act unethically. Nice guys, as the saying goes, always come last (or get their head chopped off).

However, the trick, according to Machiavelli, is not to brag that you are the toughest Pitbull in the yard. People will eventually hate you for doing so. And if they hate you, they will get rid of you sooner or later. Rather, what you should do is to appear to be an ethical person while acting unethically. Be a smiling assassin but ensure you sink the dagger in. Go to church and pretend to be a good Christian king but be prepared to mercilessly crush your enemies (or any other saboteurs, for that matter).

What does all this mean for the blindfold scenario? To peep or not to peep, that is here the question. Well. If you are a Platonist, you won’t peep underneath your blindfold. You and your teammates will do the right thing. You will play by the rules, even though you cannot be a hundred percent sure that the other team is doing the same. If you lose, you can console yourself that you played by the rules. But will that make you happy? Or will you be a sore loser?

By contrast, if you are a Hobbesian, you won’t peep underneath your blindfold because you trust that the person who supervises the game will enforce the rules. More importantly, you fear that the umpire/Leviathan/Simon will disqualify you if he catches you. (And let’s not even talk about getting a reference for that job application from Simon. ‘I blindfold my students on a regular basis. Student X, however, consistently peeped underneath his/her blindfold. X is untrustworthy and finds it hard to play by the rules. Hence X is completely unsuited to your organisation. Don’t give X a job. Sincerely, Dr U’.)

Finally, if you are a Machiavellian, you will mostly definitely peep underneath the blindfold. Heck, everyone else will be doing it, too. However, what you won’t do is rip the blindfold off at the earliest opportunity to check what the other team is up to. Rather, you will pretend that you are complying with the rules. So, all Machiavelli will allow for are a couple of discrete glances underneath your blindfold. Discrete glances! And of course, if you win, don’t tell anyone you cheated. Remember you stuck to the rules. It was your group’s ingenuity that pulled it off. But what if you get caught? Don’t be a chicken, Machiavelli would say. You were unlucky – fortune abandoned you. But at least you tried to win.

Blindfolds and philosopher asides, are there any repercussions for actual negotiations between governments? Sure, you need to have a strategy and you need to have trust in your teammates and vice versa (which kind of explains Theresa May’s current Brexit predicament: she seems to have neither). But what about the other side? Are they really negotiating in good faith? Do they have a Plan B? Do they have ulterior motives? Do they possess insider information that gives them an advantage? Perhaps it is time to give the intelligence services a call … after all, the other side might do, too.

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”

Some more pop culture ethics

I’m pleased to report that even after a gap of several years, I still recently managed to destroy a colleague’s enjoyment of The Lego Movie by pointing out its representation of fascism, including the Newspeak of “everything is awesome.”

Such found objects are valuable, not simply as a way of robbing the joy from quality time with the kids, but also a way into discussing complex political issues.

This resurfaced for me once again, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, there was a very interesting piece on the morality of superheroes, which built on the emerging questioning within the Hollywood system of whether masked individuals meting out extra-judicial ‘justice’ might not be quite the unmitigated good it once was portrayed as.

(And yes, I know that graphic novels got to this a long time ago, but we’re talking here about a form that a lot more people consume.)

The second was the consequence of being left home alone and watching The Hitman’s Bodyguard (THB), which I shall not review beyond noting a key piece of action occurs in Coventry.

It’s a classic odd-couple buddy movie, with many wisecracks and location scenery, and for that it’s very run-of-the-mill.

However, the story turns on genocide and responsibilities to act (in various ways). There’s a bunch of ethics thrown in, although not enough that anyone seems to notice the jarring effort of key characters laughing about ‘ass’ as they walk through the scene of a bombing.

All of which suggests that there might be two levels of discussion one could have with students about the issues involved.

At the obvious level, there’s the ethics as promoted by the film(s) you discuss. In the case of THB, there’s a tension between natural and judicial justice, as well as between means and ends. There’s even an element of the balance between structure and agency, in the discussion about life-partners, that might open up some useful lines of debate.

As the article notes, such overt discussion of the great responsibilities of great power is becoming more common in superhero movies, which might be a reflection of producers’ increased confidence in what audiences can handle, or might simply be because just fighting people eventually runs out of steam at some point. But the consequence is that ethics, even if it is ethics-by-numbers, is there on the screen to be considered. And if you have a class that’s still getting to grips with the basics, then this is as good a way in as any.

But there’s also the less-obvious layer of discussion: the kind of stuff that’s either not mentioned or not even obviously considered by the movie’s makers.

To take an obvious example, THB isn’t about gender, but it’s also about gender. That’s clear from the gendering of roles, the rescuing of women and the occasional knob joke. I’m guessing it’s not what the director wanted me to think about, as I watched, and I’m also guessing it’s not what the director thought very much about either, but that’s precisely the point. Such dimensions get woven into the fabric of a cultural product, and it is for us to notice and unpick those.

Culture invites multiple readings, and so let’s try doing just that. Wikipedia tells me THB got ‘mixed reviews’, and I can believe that: any film that portrays such a lax depiction of border controls deserves to be challenged.

Happy viewing…