Methamphetamine in my Pedagogy: Breaking Bad and International Relations

There’s nothing quite like a quick-start to helping our students wrap their minds around perspectives in IR. This tip comes to me by way of Soomo Publishing (educational dynamos who have their heads on a swivel looking for new ways to connect with our students…and music video rock stars). So… Thanks Z!

This link will take you to a series of slides assembled by Dr. Peter LaVenia.


Mental exercises like this are great fun for instructors and students alike. You take the multiple perspectives of the literature and hunt for them in contemporary culture. The classroom applications are multiple. I like to provide students with a common pop text and then ask them to look for the similarities and differences between the thought patterns of IR theorists and the pop reference.

BUT!!!!!   My favorite application of these kinds of exercises is to make students write exam essays in this format.

  • Explain the security dilemma in terms of the Hunger Games (short essay)
  • Of the key characters in the Dark Knight, who would Machiavelli see as the best leader? Explain and defend your choices using quotes from the original text.
  • What might each of the major schools of thought have to contribute to understanding Neo in the Matrix?

Personally, nothing makes grading take-home essays more rewarding than really pushing your students to reach for creative readings of the pop text. It also significantly thins out the grounds for plagiarism.

Throw one of these questions into your next exam and find yourself smiling at observations like: “The hunger games arena is really nothing more than a mirror of the panopticism of the Capital’s relationship to the districts. But in the game realm the notion of survival is reduced to zero sum calculations. Cooperation is futile.”

Also… you can always try Zombies as a generic notion….



Michelle Catalano, NSA, & Googling: Hidden Assumptions

I love using contemporary examples to teach my students the art of good research and argumentation.

A few days ago Michelle Catalano (freelance writer) detailed an experience she had with a group of policemen she thought were part of a joint terrorism task force. She suggests that they arrived at her house because her family had been on their computer searching for the words “pressure cooker, and backpack.”

She goes on to write the story which she has since updated and clarified.

For the purposes of my teaching activity I will cut and past only those sections revealed on the first day. Her story is titled “Pressure cookers, Backpacks and Quinoa Oh My!”

In the story she provides a series of details that read like a really good conspiracy novel.

excerpt: “What happened was this: At about 9:00 am, my husband, who happened to be home yesterday, was sitting in the living room with our two dogs when he heard a couple of cars pull up outside. He looked out the window and saw three black SUVs in front of our house; two at the curb in front and one pulled up behind my husband’s Jeep in the driveway, as if to block him from leaving.”

She ends the story with.

“Mostly I felt a great sense of anxiety. This is where we are at. Where you have no expectation of privacy. Where trying to learn how to cook some lentils could possibly land you on a watch list. Where you have to watch every little thing you do because someone else is watching every little thing you do.

All I know is if I’m going to buy a pressure cooker in the near future, I’m not doing it online. I’m scared. And not of the right things.”

It is well-written and fun to read….and gorgeously but accidentally misleading. Perfect for teaching. 

Step 1:Take the text from the start all the way to the last line quoted above and provide it in a handout.

Step 2:Give your students about 10 minutes to read and discuss in small groups, asking anyone who has read this story before to hold their tongue.

And then…..

Step 3:Ask them to map her argument and the facts supporting it, leaving the website URL prominent. Ask them to raise questions regarding the story if they have any.

Step 4:Then, provide them with a follow-up story done with all the information.

Step 5:Now open the room to discussion about what the connections are between this exercise and writing for college.

Benefits of the Exercise:These real world examples can provide additional motivation for students to think deeply about: 1. the need to provide arguments and counter arguments; 2. to reveal all the information for and against a thesis; 3. to be perfectly clear about what the stated thesis/argument is.

The Power of the Real Versus Fiction:
In keeping the example linked to real events in the world it can also teach students that the art of skeptical and detailed inquiry isn’t just for scholars. It is the key to being a discerning reader.


Critical reading and thinking Lincoln and Thucydides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.