Coalition Governments

Today we have a guest post from Joseph W. Roberts, associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Roger Williams University. He can be contacted at jroberts [at] rwu [dot] edu.

Recently someone on Twitter asked about teaching coalition governments and their formation in an introduction to comparative politics class. I responded to the query with an exercise that I use to demonstrate presidential vs. parliamentary systems and voting systems. The exercise demonstrates why a state might choose one system over another in a way the mirrors the perspective championed by Lijphart (references listed below).

I begin by talking to the students about the size principle and the minimum winning coalition described by Riker and the critiques about whether a minimum winning coalition of two parties with a “margin” of one is actually stable (see Shepsle, Butterworth, or Brown). I explain ways in which party identity/ideology can affect the creation of coalitions, and ask students to think of other factors, such as ethnic identity, that might be part of the process. This subject is usually covered briefly in comparative politics textbooks and I just reinforce some of the basic concepts.

I then use the actual party data from an election available from Wikipedia—usually Israel because it has a lot of elections—but any election where a coalition government is formed will work. I give the students the list of parties that received seats in the election, a rough description of each party’s ideology, and a number line showing where each party fits in the left-right political spectrum, as shown in the table below.

Continue reading “Coalition Governments”

Today in wheel-reinvention news

One of the joys of Brexit is that everyone has their own version, their own Thing That It’s All About.

For many in British universities, that Thing has been the weakening of links with the EU for student exchanges. Yes, the government did keep participation in research funding programmes like Horizon Europe, but not involvement in Erasmus+, the EU’s scheme that allows for exchange years.

The argument at the back end of last year, when this was all being negotiated, was that it would have meant a commitment to a full cycle of EU financial planning, through to 2027, and more students come into the UK than go out from it, so it costs money. Oddly, that didn’t seem to be a problem for the Horizon Europe side of things, which uses the same cycle.

But not to worry, said the government, we’ll replace Erasmus+ with something just as good, and actually even better, because it’ll be more open to the world.

And now, three months later, that replacement arrives: the Turing scheme.

I’ll let you read the website, but the key points are these:

In essence, it’s Erasmus+, but without the bits that make it attractive. And without the huge list of partners that have made Erasmus+ as much of a success as it has been, across Europe.

Put differently, Turing is just a bit of money to support students who want to study overseas, assuming they can find somewhere to study, and with no option to allow overseas students to come back into the UK.

Of course, much of the irrationality of this is bound up in the politics of Brexit, the need to do things by ourselves: Paul James Cardwell has written very well on this. But that doesn’t change the inanity of the move, in practical terms.

As I often note to students, politics is about relationships: you can’t do politics to yourself. That basic point should be even more obvious when it comes to something like an exchange programme, where the existence of other parties is something of a sine qua non.

I’m sure that Turing will be used, mainly because it’s better than nothing, but that shouldn’t hide the relative disconnecting of British HE from the rest of the world. And it should invite us to consider whether there isn’t a better, less costly way of doing things together.

Online Simulations & Games Using Discord

I mentioned Discord about a year ago as we were all turning to virtual instruction at the start of the pandemic. I want to return to it specifically in the games and simulations context, though, as it has some really useful properties that can aid those instructors looking for a way to run their online simulations. If you are ready to start thinking about how to run Model UN, Diplomacy, or other complex simulations online, you should really consider Discord.

Discord is a social media platform used by gamers, podcasters, and other content creators to connect with their communities. Each group has their own discord ‘server’, a private space that you can only enter with an invitation. Inside, you can create text and voice based ‘channels’ that let you structure conversations by topic. These channels can be open to everyone on the server or private and hidden. As the server creator or administrator, you also have a lot of latitude for customizing settings–such as making something read-only or enabling ‘slow mode’, which prevents any one person from dominating the conversation. And server members can message each other individually or create small groups for private conversation. The text conversation is asynchronous, but it is easy to jump into a voice channel for voice-only or video conversations.

This kind of format lends itself very well to running complex simulations. There are several key needs for running an online simulation:

  • Instructors must be able to review rules and procedures, share documents and updates, and take questions from students, publicly and privately.
  • Students need to be able to post in-character public messages for other participants to see.
  • Students need to be able to post privately to their teammates, if they have them.
  • Students need to be able to send private messages to other students for secret negotiations.
  • Students may need to post files or links, share their screen, or jump onto a quick voice conversation.

It is easy to do all of this in Discord, without the constraints of a standard learning management system/virtual learning environment. By creating ‘roles’ in the server with different permissions, you can divide students by their teams or in-game roles and set channels that only they can access and that can identify them within the server. This makes communication much easier. For example, if you are running a UN Security Council simulation, you can create a ‘role’ for each country in Discord. You might not need to set up private channels for each country if there is only one person in each role, but this allows students to message each other without having to check a list of who is playing what role. They could also have a public channel for making speeches, and another where they upload and discuss the wording on resolutions. If you are running a full UN simulation with many different committees, you can have channels dedicated to the General Assembly and each committee, and private channels dedicated to each country so members of the same team can talk privately and share information. Discord therefore supports simulations both large and small.

I’m using Discord right now to run a game of Diplomacy in my ISA Career Course on Games and Simulations in International Relations (with Victor Asal). There are plenty of online platforms that you can use, but I chose to use Discord because I didn’t know in advance if I would have more than 7 players. Most online platforms don’t allow for teams–but Discord does. Here is what the server looks like:

As you can see, I have a general channel for administrative purposes. I’ve since created a new read-only channel called ‘maps and result’s where I post the outcomes of each game turn along with updated maps. The public channels–text and voice–are open to all players if they want to openly communicate. Italy has made a call for peace and protection of the status quo–but no responses so far! the other channels are organized by country category. Each country has a private text and voice channel open only to their team and the facilitators. They also have a private ‘orders’ channel where they submit orders for their units each turn. I use those channels to adjudicate each turn. If they want to message another team, all they have to do is right-click on the name of the person they want to message (their country name is next to their name) and select ‘message’ and that will open up a private conversation for negotiations. The person-shaped icon in the top right of the screen pops up the list of server members for this purpose. It will also tell you who is online in case you want to invite them into a voice chat.

Running the game this way instead of over email or through an online game system gives me several advantages as an instructor. I can keep tabs on most of the gameplay, although some private conversations I would only see if I’m invited to join them (something you can require if you want). I also have a record after the gameplay of everything that happened, which is useful for debriefing, grading, and assessment. The interface is easy to use, and once students get familiar with it, you can reuse it for different games and exercises throughout your course. I can also allow ‘observers’–people who want to watch but not play. I can give them as much access as I want–for example, I can limit them to read- and listen-only so they can’t interfere with the game play.

I’ve used discord for running an monthly trivia game as well as a 200+ person multi day conference, so I can attest to its robust capabilities. It is free, accessible from outside the US, pretty easy to learn, and has a robust mobile app that make it accessible to students. The main downsides are that the server creator needs to put in a bit of work to figure out how to set up the server to meet your needs, and that the video and screen sharing systems aren’t always reliable. Asynchronous text channels and voice channel work just fine though.

I know a lot of faculty want to run simulations but are restricted by social distancing or virtual classrooms. If you are ready to try something new, try Discord. I have no relationship with the company and am not being compensated by them for this post–I just want to recommend something that I’ve found very useful in my own teaching.

Authentic Discussion

Some of you might have read last week’s Inside Higher Ed editorial on combatting internet-era cheating with authentic assessment. On this blog, “authentic” has been occasionally applied in the past to writing assignments, presentations, and marshmallows. Before reading the editorial, I had never before carefully thought about authenticity in relation to exams — something I can explore in future posts (and others’ thoughts on the subject are very welcome). Today though I’d like to provide an example of making class discussions more authentic.

In my comparative politics course, students analyzed these two articles for a Monday class (half the students read each article, using my modification to Helen Brown Coverdale’s study huddle method):

Continue reading “Authentic Discussion”

Escaping your ‘new normal’

OK, this is actually rocket science, but try not to dwell on that

This week I got my first email about making arrangements for the autumn semester’s teaching. Luckily, it was for the institution I’m about to leave, rather than the one I’m about to join, so I could put it in my new and exciting email folder: “not my problem”.

But most of us aren’t that fortunate – we’ll all on a hamster-wheel of some kind, running to stand still, future commitments racing towards us alongside a bunch of deadlines.

All of which makes it hard to stop and take stock of our L&T practice.

Of the (very few) benefits of the pandemic, the ‘opportunity’ to reconsider what we do with our students was perhaps completely undermined by the associated factor of ‘you’re getting no cues on what is either possible or allowed’. Fun times.

But we have navigated that huge change, and in many cases produced learning environments that work really well. Just in time to see a possible shift once again, back into the classroom.

If you’d like an institutionalised take on this, you might try the UK’s Office for Students’ recent report Gravity Assist (plus this critique from WonkHE), that essentially argues we should be trying to retain the new good stuff, rather than just going back to the Olden Days.

That’s all nice, at a sector- or institutional-level, but what about you and me, as individuals? How do we go about that?

The issue strikes me as being primarily one of path dependency: you’ve reworking your teaching a lot during this past year, so you probably only want to tinker around the edges, rather than doing a wholesale reworking MkII.

That might be appropriate in some cases, but equally not in others: without the space to devote to some big thinking, it’s hard to tell. Changing jobs is one solution – especially if your new employer doesn’t do teaching in any way like your old one – but it’d be good if we didn’t introduce any more precarity into it all.

Instead, we have to try to keep the matter in hand as much as possible.

It has been striking how the profusion of interest in L&T during 2020 seems to have fallen back: the excellent PSA webinar series (recordings very recommended) have – in my anecdotal opinion – returned to the ‘usual suspects’ in the audience. It’s a great bunch of people, but that moment of broad professional interest in L&T has not been sustained, most likely because most people got through their crisis and got their head back down.

But pedagogy is just like research: it requires a constant discussion and challenging of ideas and approaches. Indeed, the tempo of the former is perhaps more pressing, given the sustained rapidity of producing outputs.

All of which is to say that we need to try to maintain an active culture of discussion and debate around our teaching. The more we can do that, the easier it will be to manage this transition, and the next and all the other changes that will be coming down the line.

Not very cheery, but perhaps more realistic.

Benefits of Student Reflection

Today we have a guest post from Colin Brown, assistant teaching professor, and Jennifer Ostojski, Ph.D. candidate, from the political science department at Northeastern University. They can be contacted at  colin [dot] brown [at] northeastern [dot] edu and ostojski [dot] j [at] northeastern [dot] edu.

This year we have had to adapt the short, focused simulations for reinforcing material that we like to use in the classroom to the virtual environment. This adaptation has caused us to think more about the value of independent student reflection in relation to group debriefings.

Colin had previously developed a simulation of coalition-building in Germany (available here at APSA Educate) for introductory comparative politics, which had two main learning objectives: (1) gain familiarity with German political parties as an example of multipartism, and (2) understand that big, centrist parties can still exert a lot of agenda-setting power in sometimes-chaotic multiparty systems. A key part of the exercise is the bargaining that occurs as students walk around the physical classroom.

In Spring 2020, we switched to online teaching two weeks before Colin had scheduled the simulation in his course. He made it an optional extra-credit online exercise, in which about one-third of the class participated. In lieu of a debriefing, students submitted ungraded answers to three questions:

1. What did you find hardest about reaching a coalition agreement?

2. What new perspective does this give you on the German case in particular?

3. What might be some of the strengths and weaknesses of coalition governments, and how did those play out here?

We used slightly different online versions of the simulation in Fall 2020. In Colin’s course, students stayed muted/invisible and used the private chat function to communicate during simulation sessions. Jennifer’s larger class used breakout rooms with students communicating with one another behind the scenes via Zoom chat, a classroom Slack channel, and social media (which more directly simulated the more intentionally chaotic in-person discussions). Colin assigned students to parties right as the simulation began while Jennifer provided students with party roles beforehand.

Based on the written responses and discussions, students in our courses learned the central lessons of the simulation equally well, and equal to the in-person format in prior years, despite the difference in communication methods and the timing of role assignments. However, Colin’s Spring cohort seemed to demonstrate better knowledge of both the specifics of the German system and broader concepts about multipartism, whereas the students in our Fall courses displayed more learning of broad concepts than of specific details. We found it interesting that the Spring students seemed to pick up more details from the simulation despite it being, well, March 2020. Our hunch is that writing responses to the reflection questions caused students to spend some minimal amount of time and effort checking whether they were correctly using relevant concepts. Although it is hard to rule out selection effects, engaging in independent reflection might benefit students’ learning whether the simulation is online or in-person, even if it is not the most memorable or visible part of the exercise.

Hello again

“Are you ready for our next panellist, people!?”

At the risk of being too Eeyore-ish about it all, the announcements this week about aiming to end all Covid restrictions in England by the middle of June feels ambitious. Experience so far in this pandemic should at least make us cautious about any kind of planning for a ‘return to normality’.

So we have instead to plan for a lack of normality and even – and perhaps more pertinently – the desirability of a new normality, where we can take some constructive points out of our rushed shift to lockdown living/working for the future.

I’ll come back to the classroom aspects of this another time, but today I’ve been thinking about conferences.

Much like last year, we’re seeing all the key events announce that they are going fully online, at least through to the September round. But it’ll invite us to consider what might happen thereafter.

Narrowly, we have a situation where it might be a couple of years before global vaccine uptake (not to mention travel restrictions) is enough that colleagues from across the world can meet up without significant limitations, so we have a considerable period to cover in any case.

But the benefits of online events are also becoming clearer. The ability to bring together people who might not be able to meet in person; the removal of significant costs in time and money for travel and accommodation; the capacity to create more lasting records of our discussions. The coffee being almost always better.

All these things matter and shouldn’t be lost in any rush to get back to the good old days.

And what was good about them in any case?

Yes, I miss getting to see colleagues in person, and to discovering a bit of a new city, but it’s also easy to end up idealising what was often a less-than-perfect experience. You have your bad conference story and I have mine, so we can spare the blushes of those involved, other than to say that an escape to a heavy metal bar shouldn’t be the highpoint of an international conference.

Especially if you don’t really like heavy metal.

Any way, back to the main thought, namely the need to use this moment to consider how we can bring together the best bits of all these things into something new and improved.

Various colleagues do now tell me about different ways of running online events that work much better than the original stick-it-on-Zoom approaches, with more thought about scheduling and technology to make the most of these things. But it’s still the lack of in-person interaction that chafes.

And that’s a major problem, especially for those newer to the profession. I’m lucky/old; two and a half decades of conferences and workshops has left me with a big network of colleagues who can chat away with online, drawing on that prior interaction. For someone who hasn’t had that, their way into creating and sustaining a community is much tighter.

Put it this way, even though our work has been almost entirely conducted online for a decade, the ALPS Blog only happened because we got to spend four nights in Albuquerque. (Good conference BTW).

Maybe we have to find other ways to allow colleagues to get out of their institutions and make connections that don’t require them to travel hundreds of miles and to spend piles of money.

The half-thought is that we could something more intermediate: local gatherings.

Most of work/live near another HE institution, so why not have periodic meetings for people in our area? Maybe to talk work, but mainly just to make connections and put faces to names. You could connect it to big conferences, so there’s a reason and a focus to talk, maybe even chuck in a speaker/roundtable, but mainly it’d be the coffee break/sampling of local delicacies bit of a conference, the stuff that you remember.

It’s not a problem-free idea: some won’t be close to anyone; others will find it hard to justify to bosses/partners that a social is ‘work’; you’re not going to meet that person from another continent who’d be just right for your new project. But it’s a start and something might come from it.

Winter of Discontent

I thought this was going to be about Shakespeare

Time for another rundown of some of the U.S. colleges and universities whose financial situations have been in the news lately, ordered according to my metric of percentage increase in expenses per undergraduate FTE, from fiscal years 2011 to 2019, the most recent year for which IRS tax filing and IPEDS enrollment data are (usually) available.

As usual, this is my personal opinion based on public information.

31: Pacific Lutheran University*

In November, Pacific Lutheran University declared financial exigency. If a university’s president says his employer “is not closing its doors,” that’s a red flag.

37: University of Evansville*

To rephrase its own statement, Evansville needs to make some changes to remain viable. According to its Form 990s, Evansville received $44 million in contributions in fiscal year (FY) 2013, which allowed net revenue of about $35 million on total expenses of $104 million. In other words, without the contributions, it would have been about $9 million short. Despite that $35 million windfall for FY 2013, Evansville was in deficit in FYs 2015 and 2016. Its budget has a structural problem: even though undergraduate enrollment declined, the number of faculty increased. So it’s time for some faculty to lose their jobs, in the hopes that cutting labor costs will be enough to keep the university operating.

38: College of Saint Rose

I first wrote about Saint Rose in 2015, when it announced a plan to terminate over ten percent of its full-time faculty and close twenty-three of its academic programs. Since then, its undergraduate enrollment has continued to drop, and it was in deficit for FYs 2016, 2017, and 2019. In December, it announced the elimination of an additional twenty-two degree programs in an attempt to balance its budget by 2023.

42: Notre Dame de Namur University

By 2019, de Namur’s FTE undergraduate enrollment had fallen to only 780 students, down from a peak of 1,030 in 2014. In March of last year, it decided not to admit new students for the fall semester. To “continue the operation of the university beyond spring 2021,” it plans to sell part of its campus and end its traditional on-campus undergraduate programs.

49: Guilford College

I first wrote about Guilford a little more than two years ago. Its undergraduate FTE enrollment fell by 42 percent from 2011 and 2019, and it now seems to be up against a wall. Guilford’s previous president resigned and will finish out her career as a tenured English professor there. Efforts by the subsequent interim president to put Guilford on a sustainable financial path look like they are being undermined by the trustees that hired her.

65: Judson College

In December, Judson issued an appeal for $1.5 million in donations, approximately 15 percent of its operating budget, to stay open for the remainder of the 2020-21 academic year. The college ran deficits for every fiscal year between 2011 and 2019, except for 2017. During this period, its undergraduate FTE enrollment declined by a third from 387 to 261. College Scorecard states that Judson has a graduation rate of only 33 percent, with 46 percent of students who enroll withdrawing and another 21 percent transferring.

If you are interested in calculating the percentage increase in your college or university’s expenses per FTE undergraduate, click on the link in the first paragraph. Additional useful information on changes in admissions yields, enrollment, and net tuition revenue can be found by plugging your employer’s name into the Single Institution tab in the Tableau visualization at Jon Boeckenstedt’s Higher Ed Data Stories.

*The school’s 2019 Form 990 isn’t available yet, so percentage increase is calculated from 2011 to 2018.

10 Things Learned From 10 Years of Blogging

Today marks the tenth anniversary of this blog’s first post. Here’s a listicle of some of what I’ve learned from a decade of blogging, in no particular order:

1. Deadlines are useful, because work does expand to fill the time I make available for it.

2. Sloppy writing reveals sloppy thinking. Laying out my ideas as text invariably shows that there is plenty of room for improvement.

3. To communicate effectively, short and simple is better than long and complex. Unfortunately, most academics are trained for the latter. It’s one of the reasons political scientists don’t have the relevance they ought to have in public policy making.

4. I’m really, truly, a morning person. Writing is so much easier for me before lunch.

5. Being married to a colleague whose background is wildly different from my own is incredibly helpful. See the statement about sloppy writing above. That’s hers.

6. Though ALPS has existed for a decade and gets on average 7,000 page views per month, blogging has not brought me fame and fortune. Luckily I’m intrinsically motivated by how the blogging process improves my — here it is again — writing and thinking. But not everyone has the same motivations I do.

7. Blogging on a weekly basis allows me to evaluate my teaching far more effectively than I otherwise would — which helps me minimize some of the more unpleasant aspects of my job.

8. Adapting to new technology never gets easier, but learned helplessness is just not my thing. I will try to figure it out, and if I can’t, I’ll try to find someone who can. Unfortunately this seems to put me in a distinct minority in certain academic circles, given that technological adaptation rarely drives curricular design and delivery. Undergraduate programs in the humanities and social sciences will probably continue to wither as a result.

9. I do some of my best thinking when I alter my environment. On pre-dawn runs. In airport terminals. While sitting on a balcony in Belize. I should do more of this.

10. I’ve learned that one can’t be a prophet in one’s own land. Institutions can preserve the problem to which they have been the solution for only so long, and then they tend to catastrophically fail because of self-organized criticality or some other process. So often it’s easier to just watch the flood waters rise while sitting on high ground, glass of lemonade in hand.

Why are we still doing this?

Ten years ago, I was just getting started on my first sabbatical (actually, my only one so far, now I think about it).

To mark this moment, I’d signed up for a conference about as far from suburban Surrey as was possible: the wilds of New Mexico. Coming as it did just a couple of weeks after visiting one of our placement students in Cape Town, it’s fair to say that I was keen to demonstrate the value of all of this to the rest of the family.

And I hope that I have.

A decade -and 500 posts – later, I’m still benefiting from my time in Albuquerque, even if I remain resolutely unable to spell it without outside help.

I’m well aware that it’s unusual to have such a long-running collaboration, especially when it’s mostly online: in a good year, I’ll maybe see one of my ALPS colleagues once; otherwise it’s emails and comments on posts and the like.

Part of our durability is that we have a lot to share with each other in our practice. I’m still learning new things from them, and vice versa. Our paths have gone in very different directions, which has generated endless points for discussion and reflection, as well as material to put into letters of support for each other.

But it was also about the positivity of that first experience, back in 2011.

Before I hit town, I’d taken a road trip around the region; driving along deserted desert roads, soaking up the landscape, learning to live with MOR on the radio and generally being away from it all. Those few days set me up perfectly for a conference format that actively encouraged building collaborations and getting more fully into each other’s work.

So maybe it’s like my photo, above, from the Canyon de Chelly.

Many centuries ago, the Puebloans built homes at the base of the cliffs, as safe places that also provided them with access to what they needed. It’s not necessarily how you’d do it today, but it’s still pretty impressive, none the less.

Here’s to another decade of sharing and learning.