Bridge Repair

Forth BridgeIn my last post about teaching comparative politics, I discussed replacing expository writing assignments with a set of templates for students to use when designing presentations. I thought the templates might be a more effective method of getting students to apply theory to past events. For the spring semester, I have decided to ditch the theoretical content altogether, for these reasons:

Continue reading “Bridge Repair”

Arts and Crafts day… aka Exploring Global Inequality and Poverty

This is a guest post from Leanne Powner, Visiting Assistant Professor in Government at Christopher Newport University.  Leanne is also the author of the Empirical Research and Writing: A Political Science Student’s Practical Guide.

To begin my unit on global poverty and inequality in Introduction to International Relations, I asked students to pick a poor country from a list that I provided and use the World Bank World Development Indicators databank to extract information on population, GDP, and GDP per capita, as well as the composition of the national economy (percent from industry, services, and agriculture). We then constructed scale models of the size and composition of the economies out of three colors of crepe paper; they input their GDP and composition data into a Google spreadsheet which calculated the length of the streamers. Students attached the streamers to a sheet of paper showing the country name, GDP, GDP per capita, and population, and we taped them to the board. We compared these to ones I had made showing the US, Russia, and the Philippines (middle-income). This all seemed fine – the US’s was a bit excessive (see below) – until I explained that the scale on their models was 10 times greater than the scale of mine. 20151119_161829Their 29 cm streamer would have been 2.9 cm using the scale for the US/etc ones. I drew this on one of the posters to demonstrate and showed them a model for Ethiopia (a low-income country) on the same scale as the US and Russia.

The difference in streamer lengths was staggering and really gave students a good idea of how relatively wealthy the US is. When presenting the streamers that I had made, I taped them to the bottom of the projector screen and presented them in the order of Philippines, Russia, US. The R
ussia one trailed on the floor, but after taping the US one to the screen, I retracted the screen up to the ceiling…. then rolled the ball of crepe paper all the way to the back of the classroom…. and then all the way back to the front again…. and there was still a pile of crepe paper left on the floor. Ethiopia’s, in contrast, was only about 6″ long. It was an absolutely priceless teaching moment for $3 in dollar-store crepe paper.

The basic spreadsheet, which includes a sheet that calculates streamer length from student data, can be found here. I am happy to share additional materials from this project on request to .

Refugees in the Neighborhood

FugeesYesterday in my first-year seminar, I made up on the spot a role-playing exercise about refugees. I divided the class into three groups:

  • A northern Kenyan village of 400 farmers and livestock herders.
  • 1,100 refugees migrating from South Sudan.
  • A humanitarian aid organization.

I told the refugees that their goal was to cross the border with Kenya and that they could only take with them what fit into a small box that I had grabbed from my desk before class (a box that had contained business cards, approximately 7″ X 4″ X 2″). They had to decide what to put in the box and determine the route to take into Kenya.

The Kenyans were told that 1,100 South Sudanese had arrived without food, water, or shelter — tripling the village’s population. These students were tasked with identifying the pre-existing needs of their village and how the refugee influx would affect village conditions.

The humanitarian aid workers got to select which NGO they were part of, and they chose Doctors Without Borders. I arbitrarily assigned them a budget of $20,000 to operate a medical clinic in the village. These students had to decide what forms of medical care they would supply and who would receive it.

Refugees chose to carry identity documents, money, photos, pocket knives, and snacks. All of them assumed that rural East Africans don’t have cell phones. I pointed out the implicit bias in this assumption.To identify a route, the refugees required a demonstration of how to use Google Maps — never underestimate the digital illiteracy of supposed digital natives. They ignored the possibility of paying people to drive them across the border.

The staff of Doctors Without Borders decided to treat both the refugees and villagers at an 80:20 ratio in terms of the clinic’s budget. They also agreed that the limited resources at their disposal necessitated a system of triage. Severe injuries and illnesses simply could not be treated in a cost-effective manner and those individuals would be left to die. Unfortunately one of the refugees had gotten shot in the chest while crossing the border and the lower right arm of the wealthiest villager was traumatically amputated when he tried to clear a jammed piece of agricultural machinery. Malaria was not judged to be worthy of treatment either because of its low mortality rate.

The villagers were upset that Doctors Without Borders was providing aid to people who were causing a shortage of clean drinking water. They also resented not being asked by wealthy foreigners what kind of aid was most needed in the village — better seeds, a reliable supply of electricity, and irrigation equipment.

Did students get any significant benefits from the exercise? I don’t know. The back and forth conversation that occurred when I questioned students about their decisions seemed useful.

I think the exercise easily could be improved by adding some structure. For example, I could provide the NGO workers with a list of different types of aid — tents, jugs of drinking water, antibiotics — the number of people helped by each type, and associated costs. This would allow me to establish specific unintended consequences for various choices.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), a non-profit organization that assists refugees around the world, operates a news feed on Medium that could function as a source of preparatory readings.  For example, there is “What refugees ask when they arrive in Europe” and “What’s in my bag? What refugees bring when they run for their lives.”

Perhaps I should make these adjustments and run the exercise a second time.

Back to Basics with CATs

Two Eye Color CatAs promised in a previous post, an example of the usefulness of CATs:

I’m teaching comparative politics this semester, and in this course I divide the content into five geographic regions. and four themes (formerly five themes, but I spun one of them off into a separate course). For each region, students have the following assignment:

Write an essay that uses a single theoretical perspective (rational actor, structural, or cultural) to explain the political events described by the assigned readings.

The first two iterations of this assignment did not meet my expectations — overall the class had done a poor job synthesizing information and presenting coherent written arguments. I looked through CATs for a technique that might work as an in-class writing exercise and found the “one-sentence summary,” which I modified. I gave each student a copy of the following text, created by yours truly but reflective of students’ writing:

I feel as though without a strong and effective ruler being in command a country will either have a revolution or the people will be politically oppressed. A democracy requires economic growth, import and export markets, an education system so people have well-rounded knowledge to participate effectively in elections, and the right culture. The readings discussed South Africa’s modern economy being the product of technology which in turn was able to create democracy. However, in other countries the political leaders control power rather than the people and this results in democracy depending on them by means of their interests. Although the readings we read about sub-Saharan Africa had many different views on the economies of African states all of the readings emphasized the role of political leadership in a rational actor mindset in order to create the democratic systems that they do have.

I gave students ten minutes to edit this passage to make it better address the assignment instructions. I projected the instructions and the passage on the wall screen.

After ten minutes I had each student come to the front of the room and use the classroom computer to make a change to the passage. Other students provided input and I facilitated discussion.

By the time the last student was finished making changes, the passage had been reduced to a single sentence. It wasn’t the ideal thesis statement, but students seemed to understand my point that it’s important to concisely state one’s argument at the beginning of an essay or a presentation.

I then demonstrated how the easiest way to construct a thesis statement for this kind of assignment is to simply reword the question asked in the instructions — in this case, something like:

The rational actor theoretical perspective best explains political events in sub-Saharan Africa.

Once this was accomplished, I had five minutes of class left to do a “wellness check-in” — I went around the room asking each student “How is life treating you?”

Puzzle Pieces: Part 2

Jigsaw Puzzle 2As mentioned in my first post in this series, Chasing Chaos by Jessica Alexander corresponds well to the student outcomes I created for my first-year seminar — in part because of the associated simulations I had created for another course. But my informal assessment of these simulations last fall leads me to think that they need three major adjustments.

First, the negotiation phase for each simulation can be shortened to only one class period. If no team achieves its goal in the allotted time, that’s ok — these are crisis scenarios. Second, I am dropping the reward for a unanimous agreement between teams so that students are less likely to abandon their roles in pursuit of earning the maximum number of possible points. This will create more contentiousness and by default result in a proportion of student teams “losing” what they didn’t have to begin with, but again, I think this is ok.

Third, the briefing memos that I assigned to prepare students for the simulations were too complex. This type of analytic writing exercise is detailed in CATs (“analytic memos,” pages 177-180). As noted in CATs, the technique requires large amounts of time and effort from both students and the instructor, but it serves as a high-quality and realistic skill-building exercise for students. In my case and in contrast to the recommendations of the authors of CATs, I grade the memos as formal assignments  — otherwise students won’t do them.

Because of these three concerns, I have altered the instructions for the briefing memos as follows, and I have inserted information for the Rwanda simulation for the purposes of example:

You are employed by the Humanitarian Information Unit at the U.S. Department of State (HIU). A new President has been inaugurated, and the President’s senior foreign policy advisors seek recommendations on U.S. responses to emerging political and economic conflicts around the world. The HIU has been assigned the task of providing these advisors with recommendations that conform to the mission of the HIU. Your job is to write a briefing memo for your superiors in the following format:

♦ Single-spaced paragraphs with a blank line between each paragraph, 11 or 12 point font, and no longer than two pages.
♦ Correct identification of memo’s author and recipient. The sub-heading of “Recommendation,” followed by a single concise sentence that states your  recommendation.
♦ The sub-heading “Justification,” followed by at least one paragraph explaining why the U.S. government should adopt your recommendation as foreign policy. Background sources should be referenced using in-text citations rather than with footnotes or endnotes—for example, “(Eggers, 87)”.

See the sample briefing memo for guidance.

 Background sources:

♦ Samantha Power, “Bystanders to genocide: why the United States let the Rwandan genocide happen,” Atlantic Monthly 288, 2 September 2001.
♦ Jason K. Stearns, “Congo’s Peace: Miracle or Mirage?” Current History 106(700), May 2007.
♦ Thomas Turner, “Will Rwanda End Its Meddling in Congo?” Current History 112(754), May 2013.
♦ Jeffrey Gettleman, “The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman,” New York Times, 4 September 2013.

The conflict:

A previously-unknown armed group calling itself the Hutu Liberation Front (HLF) has attacked three Congolese villages near the Rwandan border. The attacks killed the villages’ residents and several Congolese soldiers who were stationed at a checkpoint along a nearby highway that runs between Kinshasha and Kigali. The Rwandan government claims that the HLF is under the direction of Congo’s ruling political party and it has mobilized Rwandan army units for a potential incursion into Congo to fight the HLF. Simultaneously soldiers in Congo’s army who identify themselves as Tutsis have mutinied against their commanders and are leading a rebellion against the country’s elected government. French and U.S. intelligence agencies report that the mutiny may have been encouraged by the Rwandan government.

Rwanda Simulation After-Action Report

KagameLast week I launched the first of my five two-day simulations in my introduction to IR course. Last week’s simulation was on conflict in central Africa with student teams representing Rwanda, Uganda, Congo, the USA, and France. I’ll run through the elements of the simulation and students’ responses to it.


I wanted students to learn something about a region of the world they were unfamiliar with, experience negotiation in a real-time, crisis-driven environment, and connect their experience to international relations theories.


Students are reading Chasing Chaos by Jessica Alexander to gain some contextual knowledge on the geographic setting for each simulation; I’ll talk more about this book in a later post. Students are also wrote briefing memos; the readings on which the memos are based provide additional information relevant to each simulation.


Day 1 of the simulation:

  1. An intelligence report — a fictional crisis scenario — is revealed. Each team also gets informed of its  goals. I set up both of these tasks beforehand on our Canvas LMS so that I could just click a few buttons before class started.
  2. Teams prepare positions (15 minutes) and present them (3 minutes each).
  3. Negotiation (15 minutes).

Day 2:

  1. Teams reconvene to discuss strategy and prepare counter-proposals (10 minutes).
  2. Teams present their positions (2 minutes each).
  3. Negotiation (20 minutes).
  4. Debriefing (10 minutes).

Points added to students’ final grades, calculated on a 1,000 point scale, served as the incentive for students to participate:

  • 20 points if a student’s team achieved its primary goal.
  • 10 points for achieving the team’s secondary goal.
  • 0 points for not achieving either goal.
  • 40 points for achieving either the primary or secondary goal as part of a unanimous agreement between all five teams.



Some of the goals that I wrote for teams were too vaguely worded; for example, “Uganda establishes an alliance with Rwanda.” The goal should have specified the commitments expected from Rwanda in an alliance. Also, teams did not need the entire amount of time allotted to present their positions, and the positions that were presented were too general. I should probably ask teams to create specific proposals, perhaps by having teams write them down before announcing them to the class.


The class energetically dove into the simulation and they stayed within role, so I think the preparation by means of the briefing memo paid dividends. Students clearly understood the effects of political actors with conflicting interests. One student took a purely instrumentalist approach by trying to convince all five teams to reveal their goals in the hopes of thereby reaching a unanimous agreement, so that everyone could earn the maximum possible points, but he got nowhere — an interesting sub-optimal outcome.

In the debriefing, students identified realist theory as the best explanation for the events that occurred during the simulation, a natural conclusion given the competing interests and the fact that all five actors were nation-states.

If anyone would like the documentation I created for this simulation, just let me know. I’m happy to share.

MOOCing an Epidemic Simulation

Walking ZombiesIn case anyone is looking to add a public health policy component to a course running right now, instructors at Pennsylvania State University are collaborating again with Coursera* to offer a MOOC on epidemics and the dynamics of infectious disease. The MOOC begins on Monday, September 29, and includes the Moocdemic, a massive virtual epidemic in which students use social media to track the spread of a disease and measure the effectiveness of efforts to control it. The subject is definitely pertinent to current events given what’s happening with Ebola in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

*I have no financial association with Coursera.