Close Reading a Syllabus

How many of you spend the first day of class “reviewing” a syllabus? How many times do you then get students asking questions that can easily be answered by reading the syllabus? I got so tired of this routine that several years ago I instituted a quiz on the syllabus for every course, worth 2-5 percent of the final grade. These were “open book” quizzes, so students had no excuse for not knowing the correct answers.

These quizzes were the only way that I could get students to devote some attention to the syllabus. I changed jobs and dropped the practice because it didn’t seem necessary with the new and different student population. Now I’m teaching first-year students again, and I’m seeing the same old problem.

As my jaw began to clench at the thought of making a syllabus quiz worth five percent of the final grade, it occurred to me that I could instead use the syllabus for a close reading exercise. Close reading is the examination of a text’s meaning given its linguistic, semantic, structural, and cultural content. Linguistic content refers to vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and other stylistic choices of the author. Semantic content is the denotative and connotative meaning of the words. Structural content is the relationships between words in the text, from both linguistic and structural perspectives.  Analyzing cultural content requires that the reader infer relationships between the text and concepts that are not explicitly contained within it.

A close reading exercise on a syllabus prods students to answer questions like:

  • given the way the syllabus is organized, what does the instructor think is important about the course?
  • is what the instructor thinks is important also important to me?
  • what do I need to do to achieve my goals for this course?

Close reading is a skill that most academics learn unconsciously. Using the syllabus to introduce students to this skill might be productive for them and the instructor.

20 Minute Interest Groups

Interest Groups and the Bureaucracy are in a constant battle for my least favorite material to teach in my intro US course.  They are just not as sexy as elections and the media or even the judiciary, and every time I get to this part of the course, I want to throw everything out the window and rebuild the course from the ground up just for the chance to add some excitement.

For now, however, I try to alleviate this particular instinct with simulations.  Here’s one on interest groups that I’ve found effective for starting off the class and getting students to understand the role and strategies of interest groups without having to lecture.

This sim comes to us courtesy of WW Norton, who do not require use of their textbook to use the resources on their site.  The Interactive Politics Simulation: Interest Groups puts students in the role of either an environmental group or a drug company and gives them a budget of $200k to spend on various strategies for influencing an evenly matched legislature to vote in your favor.  You can hire a lobbyist, donate to committee chairs, party leadership, or friends or enemies of your cause; alternatives include preparing a supreme court brief, recruiting members, or having a press conference.  Some strategies work in either case–hiring a lobbyist is always a good idea–while others work only for one group or the other, such as a press conference, which only helps the environmental group.

I usually do this at the start of the lesson, but have with success used it in the middle or end of the lesson, depending on when it makes sense to talk about interest group tactics. I let the class pick a role as a group, and then divide them into small groups to discuss how they would spend the money (5 minutes).  Proposals are put on the board and discussion ensues as to the merits of different strategies (5 minutes).  Once we decide on an overall class strategy, I enter in their choices and we discuss how they did (5 minutes).  Then we debrief, and they take notes on the different strategies interest groups use to affect policy (5 minutes). Mission accomplished, sans lecture!

The students seem to like it.  The last time I used this, one student passionately argued against  a press conference for the drug company, but was outvoted by students who thought that spending the most money possible was a good idea. His exultation when they lost votes was fun to watch, and it led to a neat discussion about quality v. quantity.

Are there other ideas out there for making bureaucracy and/or interest groups more exciting?

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.

Interesting online exercise on poverty and budgeting

I have used online simulations with my students for a variety of different pedagogical goals – something I am planning on blogging about later – but today I came across an online simulation that seems very appropriate for the current economic environment.  (I found information about the game here).    The game is called Spent and the idea is that you are trying to manage a budget for your family on  a very small income.  The organization that sponsors the game, the Urban Ministries of Durham clearly has a political agenda – as well as a desire for donations.  Because of this I am reticent to use this in class but I felt it did a very good job of illustrating the challenges of the urban poor with families for people who may not have a real sense of how hard it is to live on a tight budget.  Have other people used this simulation with their students?   Did it work well?

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?


Site Administration 

Using Modular Architecture to Build Choice Into Courses

In all of my courses I’ve been migrating away from the standard textbooks put out by academic publishing houses. They are expensive, have a brief shelf-life, and are usually collections of easily-forgettable facts rather than memorable narratives.  Chuck the textbooks and you’re left with the exciting (at least for me) but time consuming process of identifying replacements. It’s a challenge to find just the right journalistic accounts, memoirs, and fiction to apply to the broad themes of whatever course I’m teaching.

While seeking out such books for a comparative politics course, a question popped into my head: “is it really necessary for all students in a course to read the same books?” This then led to another question: “is it necessary that all students in a class study the same topics and learn the same things?” To a certain extent, people choose what universities to attend, what to major in, and what courses to take. Yet once in a class, all students march in lockstep through whatever content the instructor has selected. No more choice. I’ll make an educated guess that that lack of choice at the end of the educational pipeline produces a lack of intellectual and emotional investment among students — there’s not as much buy-in as there could be.

So I’m contemplating an experiment: putting together a modular architecture for my comparative politics course. Modular architecture is a term coined by author and business guru Clayton Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma and other books. It refers to designing components (in this case particular topics and the assignments that relate to them) independently so that they can be swapped in and out of a system as needed. The “module” format is a well-known method of organizing a course — the whole class studies certain topics in a sequence. But this is different — students choose topics from a larger list and study them throughout the semester, independently of what other students in the class have chosen. I can see how such an approach might facilitate grouping students into project teams according to topic, but beyond that I’m still trying to figure out how to make this idea work.

I Civics: Aging up a K-12 curriculum

I recently discovered a neat little site called I Civics, a “web-based education project designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in our democracy.”  Founded by former SCOTUS Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the site features curriculum and online games aimed at different lessons in American civics.  The lesson plans are clearly designed according to active learning principles.  For example, the ‘Separation of Powers’ lesson includes a role playing exercise where students create a school lunch menu by acting as each branch of government in turn.  The lesson includes an optional PowerPoint presentation, student worksheets, a group activity, and several online games, plus a teacher’s guide for the instructor. Everything you need for a successful class!

Of course there is a drawback: the use of colored pencils, cutesy graphics, crossword puzzles and simple language clearly mark the material for a younger demographic. The worksheets are particularly juvenile, but then, occasionally, so too is American politics. I wouldn’t let this turn you off: the ideas and activities themselves with a bit of adaptation could easily work in the college classroom.  For example, one activity asks students to analyze a Supreme Court decision in the light of civil liberties, in a lesson on the 1st Amendment.  You could ask your students to do that and ignore the worksheet that goes with the exercise.

I particularly like the lesson on balancing the budget.  Not for the materials, but the exercises—having students act as Representatives and Senators and negotiating between several appropriations bills and resolutions—and for the idea of how to cover the budget process as a single lesson, which I confess I have found difficult to fit into my curriculum—though I do keep trying.  In fact, this may be the best feature of this site: it provides some neat ideas on how to edit down the immense material we can cover into smaller, easily digested bites.

Actually, that’s not true.  The best feature is all the cool games and simulations on American politics.  I’ve played through a few of them and they are hit and miss in terms of their potential to be made age-appropriate, but even the ones that can’t directly be used have helped generate some ideas on how to tackle this material better in the classroom.   In the coming weeks I’ll be giving you my feedback on these games and how they could be modified for our courses.

Satire in the classroom

While I have not used their products, I have been very impressed with what the online textbook publisher soomopublishing is doing in terms of sharing information about pedagogical tactics.  Clearly some of this is oriented towards marketing their own products but a lot of it is not – and also very useful.    they send out an email related to their blog-   poliscilounge  -which often has very useful suggestions and one I saw this morning I wanted to pass along.   They  discussSatirical Resource Repository put together by Rebecca Glazier, Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock.   While many of the links that Rebecca Glazier lists are not related to international or comparative politics – a lot of them are – and are excellent resources.   One of my favorites is from the Onion entitled   Northern Irish, Serbs, Hutus Granted Homeland In West Bank.  The only thing missing (for someone as lazy as me)  is that Rebecca Glazier gives you the names of the articles and the links to the general websites but not direct links.  Still a lot of fun though and something that I think is a useful tool to use with students.

P.S. one of the favorite things of mine produced by soomopublishing  is a video called Too Late to Apologize: A Declaration  (while related to American History) is fun to use when teaching about revolutions.   Plus it is a pretty good cover.

20 Minute Legislature

I’m a big fan of the twenty minute simulation.  One of the big hurdles to using sims in the classroom is the perception that they take a lot of preparation on the part of the professor and a lot of class time to do properly. But sims do not need to be a big production in order to be successful.

Take for example my 20 Minute Legislature, an adaptation of an exercise found in the endlessly useful Instructor’s Manual for Ginsberg, Lowi, and Weir’s We the People.  I should note that I don’t use their text, but this is the best guide I’ve found in terms of suggesting discussion questions and activities.  Its a great go to reference, and deserves its own post.

Basically I give students five categories for spending a $100 billion national budget: Education, Transportation, Health and Welfare, Environmental Protection, and Defense.  They must budget each of these areas, and cannot give equal amounts to each.  They have 2 minutes to do so as individuals, and then based on their ranking of each area, I assign them to ‘committees’ which then have three minutes to come up with a committee budget for the legislature to consider.  Proposed budgets get placed on the board.  The students then have five minutes to persuade others to vote for their budget bill, making whatever promises and exchanges they please.  The final vote is held, and then we debrief for the last 7 minutes or so.

I’ve tried this a couple of times with good success.  I served as the Rules Committee (and the President) and mandated that there were no amendments allowed, that no one could vote for their own bill (in unequally sized groups this was important), and that only one bill could pass.  I also determined the order the bills were discussed.  I have played with the incentives involved, offering extra credit to the winning bill’s team and to the individual who’s personal budget most closely matches the budget that passes.  These rules and incentives do matter–the last time I tried this game, no bills passed.

Ultimately whether someone wins or loses is irrelevant.  The game is a quick and interactive way for students to understand the tradeoffs in budgeting, the role of committees in the legislative process, log rolling, and the influence of self-interest (as the authors predict, education always receives the most money).  Students can see that the process is messy and that what they consider to be good bills still need votes in order to pass. As a bonus, you can also compare their budgets with the actual discretionary budget of the US.

The exercise provides a great reference point throughout discussions of Congress and general discussions of politics as “who gets what, when and how” (as the authors note).  It works particularly well at the start of the lesson on Congress, and while I used it in a class of 25 could be adapted for larger and smaller groups relatively easily.

More on a Blog-based Simulation

This semester marks the second time I’m running my Europe1914 simulation in an introductory international relations course. I first taught this course to honors students in Fall 2008. In Fall 2009, I ran the simulation, but in a non-honors section. I had hoped that the simulation would be associated with better student performance on exams, but the data didn’t bear this out, probably because of the difference in academic abilities among students in the two groups.

In 2009, I asked students to rate themselves on how confident they were about being able to meet their goals at four different points in the simulation, before and after simulation sessions in class. Students’ confidence dropped markedly between the first and second assessments and then rebounded somewhat in the third and fourth assessments. The before and after ratings converged at the last assessment:

Student Confidence Over Time

I also asked how much control students thought they had over their success in the simulation (possible responses ranged from “I control my destiny in the simulation” to “I do not control my destiny in the simulation at all”). The results were similar – a sharp decline between the first and second assessments, followed by a rebound and convergence between the before and after scores.

My findings from the 2008/2009 comparison will appear in a 2012 issue of Journal of Political Science Education. If you’d like a copy of the Teaching and Learning Conference paper that the article is based on, please contact me.

This semester I’m teaching an honors section again, so I’m hoping to be avoid the apples-oranges problem by comparing exam scores from this semester with those from Fall 2008.

Even if my current students enjoy the simulation as much as the Fall 2009 students did, I’m questioning whether the exercise is worth the time and effort. In addition to the in-class time that the simulation eats up, I have to monitor the blogs (my inbox explodes), and students have technical problems that I can’t solve. It would be a lot more convenient if web apps like “Angry Birds” existed for instructional simulations.

If exam scores and other indicators show that the simulation has a beneficial effect on student performance, then I might continue to use this simulation. If there’s no demonstrable benefit, then I probably will not.