Critical reading and thinking Lincoln and Thucydides

This week’s assignment tip is about complementary assignments… I don’t recall when someone gave me this tip but I’m always happy to pass this along.

Not only do we want our students to read for content and argument, but we also want them to synthesize and expand their analysis across texts. Analysis of two separate texts is usually done with CONTRASTING views. That is to say that we select texts that are opposed in position–the “taking sides” approach, but this tends to eliminate the opportunity to synthesize and see connections.

So….Let’s talk COMPLEMENTARY……. This is an assignment of two texts that are seemingly different at the outset, but are ultimately closely aligned.

I’m a huge fan of going ‘meta’ on my students…. helping them to develop their skills rather than focusing too closely on the authority and historical weight of political science writings. This activity is done early in the semester (political theory, freshman writing, political science courses)

Step 1: Have the students read Pericles’ Funeral Oration–this is Thucydides’ telling of the motivational speech regarding war, war death, and how to pay homage to those who fall.You could easily squeeze it in on a segment on political violence or causes of war (rally round the flag effect).

Step 2: Have the students mark up the text with the usual notes and outline of the argument. My favorite questions are always in play: What is the speaker trying to do? How is he trying to do it–what evidence? What is compelling?

Step 3: When they return to the next class period have them spend about 3 minutes reviewing their notes and their thoughts. Sometimes you can have them start their discussion in “pair and share.”  Now… here comes he magic…

Step 4: Hand out a copy of the Gettysburg Address and provide a brief explanation of the where and when of this address.

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Step 6: Have students do step 2 for the address but in class. You can have them work in pairs or on their own.

Step 7: Open the class to discussion. Have them compare and contrast the two speeches…. and discuss. ***cheat *****… if you want a head start… someone was kind enough to write this Foreign Policy Article.

Then…. watch…. as they start to synthesize…. see across texts…. If you want to expand this activity into a research activity–(a la Chad Raymond’s PBL in the prior posts) do the comparison near the end of class and generate questions for research. Usually you will find a few students asking: ‘Did Lincoln read Thucydides?’ Once you have your questions set, designate groups to return to the next class with answers…. it is a highly portable exercise that can be stretched to fit most courses.

**Analysis…. there’s something important in analyzing complementary arguments in addition to contrasting ones.

1. Specifically, it asks students to look with an even more refined eye at the texts to get under the deep assumptions to see if the two pieces really do agree. It is a much finer discussion with a higher degree of fidelity.

2. The assignment not only bootstraps two wonderful pieces of history into the student’s hands,  but in being complementary it adds a degree of historical timelessness. History does rhyme.

3. Contrasting assignments are less available to students for synthesis which is a skill we want our students to develop. In this sense, while politics tends to be cast as the great debates of history, this notion is somewhat overplayed.

4. Complementary assignments allows the students a basis for building theory and seeing how things are connected rather than isolating them as discreet instances in the human experience.

I’ll be offering a paper on game simulation and complementary and contrasting work  for teaching and learning conference next year (Philly 2014). Let’s hope I get in!

Classical Realism Game

This exercise comes from Victor Asal at SUNY-Albany. All it requires is a deck of playing cards, students, and the following slide presentation. I show the first four images in the presentation before starting the game, and the last four after the game has concluded when the class is discussing what happened.

Classical Realism Game

The Revolution Will Not Be Twittered

Last Friday in class a student asked me to explain the causes of the current global economic recession. It happened to be the same student who said the week before that I was turning her into a Marxist (to which I responded “it’s good to be a Marxist while you’re young, because when you’re older you won’t be able to afford it”).

So off I went on a twenty-five minute tangent on the inflationary real estate bubble in the USA, the securitization and outsourcing of bad debt, Greece’s economic collapse, and Ponzi schemes. Although I find such topics to be a lot more interesting than offensive and defensive realism, I was a little perturbed at the time at the unexpected derailment of my lesson plan for the day. I have not yet learned to embrace uncertainty when it comes to class preparation.

But since then I’ve read this piece about campus police beating students at Berkeley.

And this one by a Penn State alum and Iraq war veteran who has completely lost faith in the leadership of his parents’ generation.

I’ve emailed both to my students in the hopes that the articles will get them thinking and talking about something more important that the latest international relations theory.

From the mouths of babies (story books)…

Having finally been forced out of our Greek property so it can be sold off to help sort out the whole debt crisis thing, I’m back in the UK, enjoying the fine weather here.

As part of the long trip back, I had the pleasure of listening to a small number of children’s stories as audio books.  Being a good academic, always on the look-out for new ideas, my pleasure was only increased by thinking about these tales as learning resources.  The format has a number of advantages: they are relatively short and engagingly written; they set up open questions, rather than impose closed solutions; and they are easily shared among learners (pace copyright, of course).

The idea here is simply to use such stories as starting points for seminar discussions, as another way into some key political and philosophical questions. In my experience, beign stuck in a car for some hours listening to the same story several times over is an excellent way to start one’s own grappling with such points.

To take a couple of examples:

  • Is Fantatastic Mr Fox a fascist or a communist? At first glance, he’s neither, with his heroic deeds and putting one over the nasty farmers.  But his final gambit is to have all the creatures live under his rules and within his power: this collapsing of individual freedom under the guise of collective liberty speaks precisely to the heart of totalitarian regimes and offers students much scope to consider such ideas as the propaganda of the deed and othering.
  • What does the Reluctant Dragon tell us about the nature of rules in the International system?  Here we see a number of characters adopting social norms via a logic of approriateness to guide their actions, despite their unwillingness so to do, but it also suggests a higher set of objective values that must be complied with.  As such, it opens up a whole literature about constructionism and realism, as well as the more obvious aspect of hegemony and power.

I won’t pretend this holds good for all such stories (there’s very little to be drawn from Sandra Boyton’s excellent Belly Button Book, for example), but as a more accessible way into political theory and philosophy, it’s well worth a try.

PS: The kids’ birthdays have occasioned the purchase of more titles, which again (although I should stress, coincidentally) underline the idea here.  Treasure Island is an excellent description of the Logic of Collective Action, while Doctor Dolittle has some useful ideas about the importance of empathy and the perils of socialisation.

Songs about International Relations

I have noticed in the past that every so often people will put up a list of songs that match certain International Relations theories.   One list that I like is by Michael J. Tierney which you can find here:  http://mjtier.people.wm.edu/teaching/irplaylist.php.

Tierney  for example cites “One is the Loneliest Number ” by Three Dog Night”  as an illustration of Polarity  and   Imagine  by John Lennon as an example of Norms and Ideas.   While lists like this are fun I have thought about how this hobby might be used in the classroom to engage students. I have done so in a couple of different ways that students have enjoyed. The first has been to play a song in class or list it on blackboard and have the students debate briefly which theory is best tied to the song.   This has had unusual outcomes.  For example I had one student tell me that they struggled with what Post Modern analysis was getting at  until we talked briefly about the song “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” by Wang Chung.   Really.  What got them thinking were the lyrics:

 

Turn up your radio
The words we use are strong
They make reality

 

What I thought of as a fun little game made the light bulb light up for this one student.   I have also had students send me songs and their lyrics with a theoretical explanation about why that song is a useful primer on one theory or another.  I have gotten passionate expositions on the NeoMarxist assumptions behind Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”  , (of course) Pink Floyd’s “Money”or the Hobbesian logic of the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil.”   Realism also led a student to recommend a song by No More Kings I had not heard before but ended up really enjoying (note it is a lot better if you have seen the Karate Kid) called “Sweep the Leg.”   Has anyone else used music in class in this way or others?


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Putting APSA ideas into practice

One of the APSA panels I attended was the “Unique Approaches to Teaching Political Science” panel and there were some neat ideas there I wanted to share.

Patrick McGovern of Buffalo State College presented his department’s approach to teaching introduction to political science in “Teaching Res Publica and Individual Rights in the First-Year Political Science Course,” coauthored by Laurie Ann Buonanno.  (As an aside, why is it that we never have catchy names for our pedagogy papers?). The standout details on this course were that it was an intro for majors only and is grounded in 3 texts: Joseph Ellis’ American Creation; Anthony Lewis’ Gideon’s Trumpet; and Larry Diamond’s Spirit of Democracy.  The premise of the class is the push and pull between individual and community.  I liked this idea–my own intro to politics course is an elective aimed at non-majors and focuses on the need for and role of government but uses film and fiction to explore the ideas– and it made me wonder how many departments have a core ‘intro to politics’ class for their majors, and whether this is a desirable thing.  Recently I found myself explaining to students about the sub-fields of polisci, and faced a number of blank looks when I explained why American politics is its own field and considered the gateway to the major.

McGovern did give a shout out to IdeaLog, which has a good quiz to help students see where they stand ideologically. I prefer the OK Cupid Politics Test, but that’s because students are alternatively amused and horrified when they find out they share their politics with Darth Vader or Stalin.

The other two papers–“Engaging Students in the Classroom: How Can I Know What I Think Until I See What I Draw” from John Hogan and Paul Donnelly at the Dublin Institute of Technology and “Engaging Student’s Creativity on Exams: Writing Political Science Poetry” by Natalie Jackson of the University of Oklahoma and Elizabeth Wheat of Western Michigan University–dealt with using creative arts to engage students.  Hogan and Donnelly start off their first class of the semester with asking students to first draw the answer to the question ‘what is Irish politics?” and afterward, explain their drawing, first in writing, then in groups, and then in wider discussion.  The stated goal is to help students master critical self-reflection and create space to examine their existing knowledge and assumptions.  The Jackson and Wheat presentation discussed using poetry as an extra credit device on exams, which seems like a neat idea but ultimately I don’t really see the pedagogical value in it.  I decided to try it out immediately on a quiz in my US politics class last night and while the entries were amusing, I remain unconvinced that this adds to my student’s learning in any way.  If we want to achieve the sociologist goal of ‘diversity of voice’, then it should be in the form of a more extensive project than a simple extra credit assignment.

 

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.