What ChatGPT can never do

It’s a belated summer here in Belfast, where I’m attending the UACES conference. As well as a lot else, we’re running a series of L&T panels, including one on assessment.

The prompt for this was the bruhaha over ChatGPT and Why All Assessment Is Impossible (I paraphrase): while we might understand that the problems lie much more with the assessment design than the scary AI, that’s still not really filtered through to all of our colleagues.

Our discussion was really stimulating, both for its breadth and for its reflection on what we are trying to achieve in our assessment – and, by extension, in our teaching.

A concern that was raised was that if AI can produce more encompassing integration of knowledge than any human, almost instantaneously, does this mean the ‘end of thinking’ for our students? Even if the lurid framing might rile, the idea is not to be dismissed.

For me, this prompted the thought that even in an era of all-knowing technology there is still a clear role for us as teaching, instructors and facilitators: to help emancipate our students by giving them the tools to build their agency in the world.

We frequently talk about building self-reflection and criticality in our students. In an age when the challenge is parsing and navigating through too much information, getting students to make informed choices about what to use and how to use it is essential.

And we do that because it gives them a way of standing more firmly in the world, to achieve what they want to achieve.

We don’t (I think) want to produce reproductions of ourselves, but autonomous individuals who can both define their own purpose in life and find ways to realise that purpose.

In this framing of education-as-emancipation, it becomes irrelevant what AI can do, precisely because it’s AI doing it, not the student. As one colleague noted, almost all our students don’t come to university to cheat, but to learn and to develop themselves.

Put differently, if everyone can just turn to ChatGPT, then what gives you the edge is understanding that that technology can and can’t do and understanding how you can use that to your own purposes.

This points to assessment that valorises reflection and critical engagement with knowledge and with arguments, so that the student is able to apply such tools to other situations. It also suggests that we as instructors have to spend more time on assessment that is grounded in individual experience and that recognises there is as much value in being able to articulate your self-awareness as in nominal achievement of a particular task.

A case in point in our discussion was groupwork. Yes, you can mark how well a group functions together, but we know from our own lives that sometimes we have to work with people who aren’t our optimal partners [cough], so there’s as much value in understanding how to cope with and mitigate that scenario as there is in everything being super-positive.

When we can pick up a device and find out a pretty decent amount about any given subject at the drop of a hat, ‘knowing stuff’ isn’t useful in the way it used to (even if we go to lots of pub quizzes), and we need to recognise that in all of our teaching practice.

Indeed, you might argue this is a great example of being self-aware and self-critical that we should be applying to ourselves, even as we apply it to our students.

Using ‘Oppenheimer’ in the classroom

In other thermonuclear news…

This week, to make up for the end of my holiday, I went to see Oppenheimer. It’s a great piece of film-making and as impressive a movie as I’ve watched for quite some time. Plus the movie theatre was packed, which was nice.

Of course, you can take the pedagogue out of the classroom, etc. etc., so my thoughts now turn to the question of whether and how you might use a film that there’s a pretty good chance your students have actually watched to support their learning.

[Two spoilers: first, I’m thinking Barbie has a lot more potential (and I’ve not yet seen that); second, the rest of this contains some Oppenheimer spoilers, but frankly if you’re not across most of the story already then [shrug emoji]]

Oppenheimer is focused on the internal dilemmas of the titular character, torn between the urgent need to understand the new domain of quantum physics and the clear-eyed calculation of what a nuclear bomb does, both immediately and for human society.

As a discourse on the larger human tension between ‘can we do it’ and ‘should we do it’ it’s highly stimulating and rather emotional.

But that’s not super-easy to fit into a political science/IR programme, because it’s more moral philosophy than anything else.

Yes, we have some rudimentary running-through of the ‘the Bomb will save lives by avoiding a ground invasion of Japan’ argument but precisely because the focus is on Oppenheimer himself, rather than on the political-military calculation to use the weapons, there’s not really enough to hang a full-on discussion on.

However, what was potentially more productive for our present range of needs was the portrayal of institutional logics. More precisely, civil-military relations and the role of individual agency within institutional frameworks.

The illusion of solidity

The film sets up very nicely how an emergent field of science builds international networks and exchanges of ideas, where ideas are tested and re-tested and shared. It highlights how knowledge is constructed and bounded and how we have to meld theory with practice to make advances and understand what we understand.

The arrival of hostilities collapses much of that into a securitised logic, where sharing is A Bad Thing and where it matters more than you beat the Others. Even if the compartmentalisation at Los Alamos is depicted as pretty entry level (even before the arrival of Klaus Fuchs), the difference in basic approach to the endevour is clear to see: do you optimise for progress or for security?

The pervasive anti-communist note throughout the movie is also interesting here, with Nazi Germany frequently treated as less of a threat than the USSR, even at the start of the Manhattan Project. We might see this as a parallel to the levels of scientific progress: the Bomb is one part of a wider project in the tussle between Einsteinian relativity and the quantum world, even as the A Bomb is already being swallowed up by the H Bomb.

The navigation of the two logics is articulated through Oppenheimer, “more politician than scientist” in the words of one colleague, and it bears reflection on how politics is a space in which we repeatedly have to do this.

To take one example, it’s clear that once the scientists have made a working weapon, then they open the door to a more purely industrialised process of producing further weapons. Their success is also their downfall, the punching of the ticket to being kicked out for all the foibles and problems that were overlooked when the war effort needed them. But does that stop them? Of course not, partly for scientific glory, but also partly because they are coopted into the logic of “if we don’t do it to them, then they’ll do it to us”.

“This isn’t a trial”

Which is a good point to swing over to the agency aspect.

Oppenheimer is a film about people with things to prove. Mostly that’s about proving their ideas are right, but it’s not insignificantly about people proving that they’ve not forgotten being humiliated. To call the relationship between Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss messed-up would be an understatement, given both men’s resolve to hold deep, deep grudges against each other for many years.

The film explores this at much length and opens up a lot of space for various characters to demonstrate how they work within assorted institutional constraints.

Whether it’s Senate confirmation hearings, or the disciplinary action against Oppenheimer, or the flaunting of directions on compartmentalisation, we repeatedly get the message that while we can build procedures and rules, we still cannot control human agency and the associated need/desire to break out of “what should happen”.

If you want to take that further, then just consider Oppenheimer’s personal life and his disregard for conventionalities about marriage, parenting or killing your teachers.

Yes, the director is also making a point about Oppenheimer’s science as being a revolution and stepping into a new world, but it does illuminate a critical question in institutionalism, namely the limits to institutional power.

18 years later…

As a postscript, I ended up watching Thirteen Days soon after Oppenheimer, partly because I enjoy actors destroying Boston accents and partly because everyone else was out.

Obviously it’s a very different kind of film, at all levels, but it was striking how the nuclear threat and its existential challenges are shifted from the the period covered by Oppenheimer. In less than two decades, the debate moves from one of Oppenheimer’s hope for a “a great peace” to a hair-trigger crisis wherein quite a lot of (military) decision-makers are cool about bouncing into nuclear exchanges.

Yes, the horror of nuclear war still hangs, but it is much more bounded and internalised. I leave it to you to consider how much that is the case today.

Building a community of practice

As you’ll know, we’ve been looking for people to join ALPS blog since Chad has to start thinking about his post-retirement golf swing and I’ve ended up at a university that doesn’t do face-to-face teaching.

That our call got any response is already a big win, a bit for us but much more because it reflects on the community we have been able to build since the blog’s inception in 2011.

I was reflecting on this just the other day, when I was on a call about promoting research culture in my university.

A lot of the discussion was about the difficulty of engaging colleagues in a sustainable way, especially when there are so many other demands on everyone’s time. It’s easy to say we should do stuff together, but someone’s got to organise the stuff and others have to attend the stuff.

It’s not dissimilar to here, except that I know that all of the original crew at ALPS benefited from Albuquerque’s lack of sightseeing options (and its excellent margarita provision) in generating initial interest in each other’s work.

But what sustained us beyond the memory of New Mexico was the realisation of the value of writing about our practice.

For a dozen years, this space has been central to the development of my teaching, both because I’ve read hundreds of insightful posts from others and because I’ve tried to work through what I do in my own writing. Teaching is learning, indeed.

That others have also found the same over the years is a constant source of happiness for me: our guest contributors have added a depth of richness to this blog that I hope you have all found as rewarded as we do.

So as we continue our discussions with the various people who’ve been in touch, I just want to thank you all for being part of this blog, whatever you’ve done and to encourage you all to keep on being very excellent people.

(Obviously, I’m now about to have a bit of a holiday, but the point still stands).

Neo-Colonialism Mini-Card Game UPDATED

Tim (left)

This guest post comes from Tim Ruback, University of Southern Maine.

To introduce neocolonialism and postcolonialism to students in my Intro IR Class, I created a mini-game, which can be run in a single class session. The purpose of the game is to get students to think about the ways that colonial and imperial histories still are relevant, especially when it comes to disparities of power and wealth. It also is meant to encourage them to ask questions about systems and institutions that seem, on the surface, to be fair and equitable — and to explore how systemic inequalities can be hidden within seemingly-neutral approaches to maintaining international order. You can find the complete game and its rules here

The game requires 4 or more visually-distinct decks of cards and a giant bag of candy (I used Jolly Ranchers). Each deck represents a different nation state, with the cards representing resources they have. The decks also reflect three different relationships to colonial power. One was a former imperial power. Two are newly-independent states, former colonies of the imperial power. One was neither.

At the start of class, I put the students into small groups, and invited each group to send a member to the front to select their deck of cards. Students expect each box to contain a full deck of cards. But they are not equivalent. Before class, I ‘stacked the decks’ by taking cards away from the former colonies, and putting them in the former empire’s deck. These cards represent the material wealth extracted during the colonial era.  

In brief, the card game takes us through decolonization and into the present day. The game has two phases, each with multiple rounds, reflecting the two eras. For each round, groups are given a task to complete. Typical tasks include reorganizing the deck, or putting together specific cards to form a hand. Successful completion of each task earns Jolly Ranchers (JRs). I tell them they want to earn as many as possible, but each group needs at least 25 (and should aspire to at least 100) JRs. Groups can trade cards for candy, or borrow candy from the World Bank (the instructor) in order to trade for the cards they need. Having the right cards is essential to earn JRs and win the game.

The first part of the game takes place during decolonization. The purpose of these rounds is to establish the ways in which colonial histories advantage some groups over others during the age of decolonization. In this part, students are told that they are preparing their economies so that they can compete in a global marketplace. The early rounds ask students to display all the jokers in their deck, or to organize their deck by suit, from low to high. The group with the former empire discovers that their deck is already organized. They also find they have extra jokers (and other cards), taken from other decks, which earns them additional JRs. The former colonies discover that their decks are disorganized, and important cards are missing. After the first rounds, the former empire has already won most of the candy they need and the former colonies have only a few candies each. 

Importantly, the extraction of cards happens before the game begins. The students with the imperial deck did not, themselves, take those resources from the other decks; they inherited those resources. Nevertheless, because these early rounds have lasting effects — including penalties and bonuses that carry over throughout the rest of the game — students witness how these early advantages pile up. They must reckon with the consequences of actions which took place before their time.

The last rounds in part I set up the remainder of the game. In these rounds, they’re given two hands of 3 cards each (such as: Red 4 + 6❤️ + J🔸) and are told these hands represent products they can export to the global market. Students earn JRs for each product they create. These initial products are designed with extracted cards so that the former empire can build multiple hands, and the former colonies cannot build all of them. Those who cannot build the products, but have some cards, can earn a lesser amount of Jolly Ranchers for raw materials. 

In part II, each round has the same basic gameplay: groups try to assemble as many products (specific 3 card hands) as possible. They earn candy for each product, and lesser amounts for raw materials. But there’s one big change! The instructor doesn’t dictate the hands that make up the products. That’s up to the groups. Initially, the group with the most Jolly Ranchers will decide which cards will create the round’s products. After that, the group that earns the most JR in the round determines the products for the next round. 

It should be immediately apparent to all that the former empire will be first to set the rules. This group has the opportunity to dictate conditions that will allow them to remain in that role. But soon, agreement is required to set the round’s product combinations. Initially, the group in charge needs to get one group to support their proposed products. Soon, a majority is needed. By the last rounds, products require consensus. 

Ultimately, the last rounds are more egalitarian than the first rounds were. But the advantage that the former empire had in the early rounds carries over, and the net result yields continued inequality — even when all groups are formally equal and consensus is required. 


In the complete game, I include a set of debrief questions which can get the conversation started. These questions start with practical observations about the game and its outcomes. Then they turn to prompts intended to help students develop explanations of why the game unfolded as it did. These include questions like:

  •  What did you discover when you first opened your deck?
  • There is a large disparity between the group with the most candy, and those with the least. How do we explain this?
  • Do groups that possess cards which were originally from another group’s deck have any obligations toward those other groups? Why or why not?
  • Is colonialism a thing of the past?

Here are some ideas that came up in my class debrief discussion:

  1. After consensus was required, the game became fairer. But outcomes were never equitable, primarily due to the extraction of resources prior to when the game began. This opened to a discussion of how closely global political economies need to mirror colonial systems in order to be deemed neo-colonial. Does continued extraction matter? Is perpetuating the gap enough? 
  2. In my class, the former empire became embarrassed about the piles of JRs they amassed. They offered some of their JRs to others. As we discussed this, we noticed:
    1. Every group refused to accept JRs from the former empire. When asked why, the answer was something like  “I don’t want their charity. They only have all those JRs, because they have our cards.”
    2. The former empire offered JRs, but did not offer to give back the cards that they inherited from colonial extraction. When asked why, reasons ranged from “We might need those,” to “It didn’t occur to me.” They didn’t feel responsible for having taken those cards.
    3. When I asked the former colonies if they would have been willing to buy back the cards that were taken from them, they refused. They thought that the cards already rightly belonged to them.
    4. I use the Edkins & Zehfuss Global Politics textbook, and this entire part of the discussion dovetailed with Naeem Inayatullah’s chapter. Discussions about knowledge, difference, and power came to the fore.
  3. The wealthiest group remained in power for the entire second half of the game. They never proposed rules that would have given others the chance to make the rules. They thought the safest thing was to remain in charge — even when consensus was required.
  4. Groups refused loans from the World Bank because of the conditions attached. They had to repay with interest. They were obliged to accept any “reasonable” offers to sell their cards for JRs; the World Bank would decide whether an offer was reasonable. Students’ arguments against these conditions mirrored their readings on underdevelopment.
  5. Overall, the students determined that the game seemed fair. They chose their own decks. The rules were equally applied. Once consensus was required, outcomes improved for the former colonies. But because of the stacked decks and the early rounds, the game systematically advantaged some groups over others. The consequences of colonialism remained with us.

Ultimately, students enjoyed the game, and were able to make strong connections between the gameplay and the important ideas from their readings. But the game can be improved. Please adapt it for your purposes. In the downloadable game, I offer advice about ways you can tailor the game to best meet your needs, such as how to adapt it for a larger class. If you try something that works well, please let me know!

UPDATE 08 Nov 2023. Powerpoint slides with round-by-round rules are now also available here

From knowing what you want to do to actually doing it

It’s that time of year when one’s attention turns to writing. In the past couple of weeks I’ve had several conversations about books; mostly other peoples’, which is also good.

Those conversations have prompted me to think a bit more about how you translate an idea into a thing.

Regular readers will know that I often start with asking ‘what are you trying to achieve?’: it’s good for teaching, for communication, for lots of things. After all, if you don’t know what you’re trying to do, how can you do it?

But that rather ignores the subsequent challenge: even if you know what your goals are, turning that into a plan of practical action is not automatic.

Writing is a case in point, especially if we’re thinking about long-form text, like books.

Case in point is the renewed discussion with a colleague about a new edition of a short introduction to the EU.

Since we’ve not worked together on this project before, we’re taking the opportunity to go for a wholesale reworking, rather than a update-the-graphs-and-examples.

But how to go about that?

It seems to me that there are three main options, each with advantages and disadvantages.

The classic model is the long-run-up approach. You set out all the Things You Need To Know, so the reader knows all the Things, and only towards the back end of the text do you get to more synthetic analysis.

This is comprehensive, but also suffers from the same issue as when we try it in class: it’s not very engaging, mainly because there’s lots of content where’s it’s not evident why it matters.

So we could jump to the opposite model and build out from an engaging vignette. Think Freakonomics.

Yes, the “this weird thing tells us so much” approach is much more stimulating, but if you’re aiming to generate a rounded overview, then unless you get really lucky, your weird thing(s) is/are unlikely to cover all the bases, making it either scrappy or incomplete.

So the third path is the strong analytical frame. Here you’re driven not by A Weird Thing, but a Big Idea. For me, Hix and Hoyland‘s volume is the best example of this, taking the reader around the EU, guided by a very clear theoretical framing. You’re clear from the off about why you’re reading what you’re reading and how it all fits together.

The difficulty here is, obviously, that there’s more than one way to look at things. Any theoretical framing comes with normative agendas of some kind. Even if that’s an inoffensive agenda (as in Hix and Hoyland’s book), it can hinder the development of the reader’s critical engagement, something that matters with political subject matter.

There’s no right answer to this and I’m still turning over options with my co-author. However, as you do your own writing, it’s worth considering whether there’s value in changing approach, not because it’ll be better but because it’ll be different, letting your readers get something they might otherwise have missed out on.

Navigating small groups

“I’ll save you a seat at the back…”

For someone who now runs (distance-learning) courses for hundreds of students, Chad’s post about the perils of small groups hit home, not least because much of my career until now has been very much about those situations.

In a nutshell, small groups are great because you get that much closer to the kind of individual support we all think is most likely to generate and sustain individual learning, but also crappy because you can’t (reliably) do the kinds of things that work with larger groups.

Like many of us, I got into active learning precisely because it worked better for engaging students than a lecture-and-seminar format.

Put like that, I’m suggesting that perhaps we have to just recognise that small (i.e. 10 or fewer) groups aren’t going to be as conducive to these techniques.

One way I’ve dealt with that is building exercises where individual roles are not exercise-critical: someone’s absence then becomes just another obstacle to be navigated by students, rather than cause to grind to a halt.

For negotiation-style exercises that means not allocating roles like chairs until the class itself, or having generic roles that can flex with attendees.

I also tend to avoid multi-student groups, because that increases the chances of someone deciding they aren’t needed.

Plus, I try to align assessment to attendance, for example by saying students have to reflect on what they’ve done in class.

But mainly, I’ve found that in small groups it makes most sense to just not get into such activity in the first place.

10 of you around a table, having an engaged and detailed discussion about the topic is really valuable and something that we tend not to get very often: put it this way, I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone present on that as a pedagogic technique and I doubt it’s because it’s so common.

Channeling your inner Socrates (not that one) is something we have floating around, but seldom get to put to full effect.

Yes, it’s a hard sell and I take Chad’s point that students typically want the easy option, but being able to show them that level of close attention is also a very good way to build value for them. Even if they don’t know or get much, you are able to work with that, especially if you can get everyone in the room pulling along too.

It’s active learning, but with an activer you.



Learning styles, or just what works?

I’m writing this during my annual Faculty Assembly.

Among (many) other things, we’ve had several mentions of learning styles, mainly because the university seems to be moving to stopping using hard copies of materials in teaching and cutting back on the few remaining face-to-face elements we have in our distance-learning model.

Learning styles were thrown into the discussion, amid concerns about excluding some students.

This is unsurprising, given how pervasive educators’ belief in the concept of styles is, but perhaps more surprising, given how weak the evidence for styles actually is.

Chad has written about this here for many years, so rather than rehearse those arguments again, I’m just going to point to this discussion from Newton and Miah, who explore this dilemma.

Rather than trying to debunk styles, they suggest a more productive approach might be to focus on what works.

To take my current (and on-going) example, rather than making arguments for hard copies or in-person elements because of particular styles, we might more usefully consider whether these are associated with improved outcomes for students, either as a whole or for sub-sets.

This might feel like a bit of jujitsu, if we end up saying some things work better for some students, but the difference is that we’re not back-constructing to a model that says X always works better for Y group.

Being able to discern the value of particular teaching elements in particular contexts is central here and provides more scope to adapt to the particularities of our own situations.

One size doesn’t fit all, but that also means one size doesn’t necessarily fit a sub-group.

Teaching over the summer

Having found myself in several ‘normal’ university campuses in recent weeks, I’m reminded that most of you have an obvious cycle to the year.

Right now, I imagine you’ve probably put most of your teaching duties to bed, with final assessments done and graduation ceremonies leaving you with the usual dilemma of ‘what goes with a gown?’

I also imagine that you will know of colleagues who see this as the point in the year where they get to focus on the ‘proper bit’ of being an academic: research.

But you’re not like that; you understand that teaching is an integral and essential part of the job too.

So some quick thoughts about this time of year.

Firstly, capture your fine thoughts about your teaching now. As with every class you have, your proximity to that interaction made you think about how you’re doing, and how you could do better.

Making a note of that as you go is ideal, but now, with the whole year just behind you, is also a great moment to take stock, while it’s still fresh in your mind.

Waiting until just before the start of the new academic year is likely to result in several good ideas getting lost, or just trampled in the rush.

So the second thought is to avoid the trampling.

Update handbooks/syllabi/VLE/etc now, as much as you can. Again, you’ll have the thoughts of the last use fresher in your mind and even if you can do it all until someone in a back office works out the timetable, you can certainly ease the load.

And maybe next year you might try creating a living draft of the 2024-5 materials, to make that even smoother.

Finally, now is a good time to work on whatever bigger teaching project you might have.

Maybe that’s trying out a new thing in class, or a switch to flipped, or a restructuring of sessions. All these macro changes take time and effort, so you can’t really leave them until later.

And if you want to make some more of it, think about writing a paper/blogpost about the changes: you get a research output, plus you like about how you embed data collection, plus an editor out there [waves] will love to hear from you, plus colleagues elsewhere will benefit from your insights.

What’s not to like?

Making good use of the time you have together

That’s us: totally free of any issues whatsoever

For many, now is the time for the annual departmental away-day(s). There’s no teaching to do done, just a pile of marking, so someone senior feels the best thing would be to get everyone into a room to do something.

I used to consider that it wasn’t an away-day if you could still see your campus from the window, but times/finances have changed.

Last week, I spent two days approximately 20 metres from my departmental building for our away-day, but since a) I’m very rarely on-site and b) I’d never been to this particular building, I didn’t feel aggrieved about it.

Plus if left enough money for the accommodation and for nice lunches.

Perhaps precisely we don’t see much of each other, a good amount of reflection and debate went into making the days worthwhile.

That meant avoiding reporting anything and giving much time to discussion and advancing projects.

Reporting is a killer: lots of description of things that have happened, which if it were important to you then you would know about already. It’s largely a relic of the Good Old Days, when committees where actually the beating heart of academic governance: now it just makes sense to keep such things confined to written notes or access to dashboards.

By contrast, discussion is something that is increasingly rare, especially as remote working destroys the notion of water-cooler moments.

For us, just being able to spend time chatting about anything with a colleague in person is much valued, and if we can tie that towards something specific and valuable then even better.

This year, we tried making the research-focused elements build up to generating more internal collaborations. That meant making space for sharing interests and ideas, and nudging everyone to think about linkages, without imposing anything too heavy.

For teaching, we worked on sharing best practice tips and trouble-shooting, as well as revisiting the long-term planning ideas we created at last year’s event.

Stick in a nice meal at the pub in the middle and it was a recipe for constructive and purposeful community-building, rather than a chore. We didn’t even need to resort to a team-building exercise.

If your away-day isn’t giving you that, then maybe you want to offer organising next year’s event, to everyone’s enjoyment.

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: