The joy of contestation: using technology to scope political ideas

After some big thinking (here and here), I’m back in the office, so it’s world of more mundane matters, mainly revolving around ‘how do we actually do X?’-type questions.

Is there nothing that can’t be done with a post-it note?

In among my trips abroad, I squeezed in a day at our summer school, talking about euroscepticism. Quite aside from any observations that doctoral-level students produce a very different classroom experience to undergrads, it was an opportunity to start trying out an idea that’s been bubbling under since my ERASMUS exchange to Maastricht.

The starting point is the contested nature of much/most* of politics: there is no one ‘right’ answer, but many different interpretations, each dependent on one’s world-view and fundamental assumptions.

For me, that’s a great source of interest and engagement, trying to get into other peoples’ heads to appreciate better how they see things. It’s something that runs all areas of my professional work, from simulations, to negotiation, to euroscepticism.

Sadly, for my students, it’s a source of frustration and confusion: ‘why don’t you just tell us what to write down?’ in the refrain.

A key difficulty is students’ unwillingness to accept that their ideas might be just as valid as those of someone who has written a book or a journal article. Certainly, even when we practice active learning, we often still have the implicit hierarchy of ‘who matters’ behind it, with our reading lists.

So this brings me to the idea I had, which was to embrace the situation and scope the diversity of views.

Very simply put, I was going to ask students to tweet a definition of a key term, with a hashtag, so that they could be collected and discussed.

So in my own case, I planned to do this with the Maastricht students – a couple of hundred – with ‘euroscepticism’, on a hashtag of #scepsis. I’d gather them up with Storify and then maybe make a word cloud with Wordle.

Using Twitter would get students to focus on key elements and be concise. The Storify page would demonstrate the breadth of definitions, while the world cloud would stress common words. And because it’s all driven by a rare hashtag, it could be built upon with subsequent groups of students.

One small problem: Maastricht students don’t really use Twitter. So I did something else with them instead in the class.

But the idea still intrigues me, so at the summer school I ran a low-rent version, using the most important tool in the teaching stationary cupboard, post-it notes. Same deal, but students stick their definition on the whiteboard, we all look at them and we discuss.

I’ve typed up what I’ve got, to get the ball rolling, with a quick page on Google Sites.

In short, we’re using technology to produce communal debates and aggregation of ideas. Obviously, we can do this with any political term, across many individual sites and over time. If you were feeling more ambitious, you could add some extra data to definitions, to see if level of education or location produces differences, although it’s somewhat against I started with, namely the democracy of ideas.

I’m going to come back to this for my word, since it’s actually a pretty good problem for researchers in euroscepticism, but if you use it for your area, then I’d really like to hear about it.

    • this might be just such an example…

Bringing students in: a Maastricht model?

Right now, I’m sat at the back of a room, watching a meeting. It’s more interesting than I’ve made it sound, and not only because cake has been laid on.

It’s the annual course meeting of the European Studies section at the University of Maastricht (where I’m visiting this week), where the team of student representatives meet the faculty staff. There are about 15 of each.IMAG1305

The student rep team – and they are a team – have organised the session, and picked the topics they want to discuss. This includes one about future careers and the programme prepares them, and one about ‘course coherence and interdisciplinarity’: broken student lockers, it ain’t.

These discussions are taken by small groups, taking about 30 minutes to discuss positive and negative aspects, as well as ideas for improvement. Everyone gets to talk about everything, with the reps taking notes, to produce a consolidated document afterwards.

For me, this is a somewhat different model from the ones I encounter at home. It’s more open than a Board of Studies (which is about programme management in general), but more structured than a Student-Staff Liaison Committee (which is often more of a clearing house for all manner of issues).

Instead, it’s coming across as a means of linking students and staff in a constructive discussion about major topics, with a view to producing outputs. With a couple of hours (and the aforementioned refreshments), it’s also an opportunity for issues to be explored and clarified and misunderstandings (on both sides) to be resolved.

The most striking feature of this process is the way in which the values of the section’s Problem-Based Learning approach is extended out of the classroom and into programme management. Students are front-and-centre, creating their own agendas, working towards targeted results. Such an approach has to be lauded, not least for making sure that the student focus does not stop once they step out of classroom.

In so doing, it also makes students stakeholders in their education, as they take some of the responsibility for the process. Interestingly, it is a good way of helping the reps to see that staff have to manage different interests and work within constraints: more of one thing often means less of another.

For staff, it’s a way to remember that their students can and do engage with issues beyond the mundane, and that some of the ideas that emerge can add genuine value.

To call all of this a model might be pushing it, but it is still the kind of activity that more institutions will need to use if they are to maintain and improve student engagement and satisfaction. The process is as important as the outcome here: by treating students with respect and as colleagues, we can start to get the emergence of new practice that serves all our interests.

Kim Kardashian: In Prison Again

Kim Kardashian cryingToday I ran a slightly different version of Kim Kardashian’s prisoner’s dilemma. I set the scene with students — “you are arrested, taken into an interrogation room, and accused of committing a crime with an accomplice . . .” Then I gave every student a folded piece of paper. On each paper I had written the name of the other person accused of the crime. I told students not to reveal what was written on the paper, and to just to write down their decision to “confess” or “don’t confess.”

For the first iteration, every piece of paper had the name Kim Kardashian written on it. I tallied the results of students’ decisions on the board. Then I had students play the game a second time, and passed out new pieces of paper, which had my name written on them. I am happy to report that students chose to confess twice as frequently when paired with Kim Kardashian than when paired with me.

During discussion, two students pointed out that the safest option in both iterations of the game was to confess — the payoff structure remained the same. But as happened two years ago, for the majority of students perceptions mattered more than rational calculations of self-interest, and they regarded Ms. Kardashian as less trustworthy. They were more willing to risk the chance of a shorter prison sentence with me.

I then connected Ms. Kardashian’s persistent image problem to soft power and national branding. If one individual has a favorable perception another, the latter is better able to gain the cooperation of the former. The same goes for nation-states and their leaders. Bad image, less ability to persuade others.

This was a fairly easy chain of logic for students to grasp, but I then sent the discussion into a different direction: how they view a national brand is not necessarily how people from other parts of the world view it. Before class, students had written responses to some literature on the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union, and this literature referenced how citizens and governments of EU member states perceived Turkey and the Turks. To put it bluntly, Turkey had an image problem similar to Kim Kardashian’s, at least before the 2008-2009 financial crisis. The solution, as many students saw it, was for Turkey to become more like the USA.

I then revealed some survey data from 2011: Egyptians had been asked, “If Egypt’s political system looked like one of the following countries, which one would you prefer it to be?” Turkey ranked first, at 44 percent. The USA ranked sixth, at 5 percent. For Egyptians, Turkey had a more positive brand than the USA, potentially giving it much more soft power over Egypt.

Here is the literature that I used for today’s class:

  • Robert A. Saunders, “Buying into Brand Borat: Kazakhstan’s Cautious Embrace of Its Unwanted ‘Son’,” Slavic Review 67, 1 (Spring 2008), p. 63-80.
  • Thomas Diez, “Expanding Europe: The Ethics of EU-Turkey Relations,” Ethics and International Affairs 21, 4 (2007), p. 415-422.
  • Rainier Hulsse, “Cool Turkey: Solving the Image Problem to Secure EU Membership,” Mediterranean Politics, 11, 3 (November 2006), p. 309–327.
  • Peter van Ham, “The Rise of the Brand State: The Postmodern Politics of Image and Reputation,” Foreign Affairs 80, 5 (Sep-Oct 2001), p. 2-6.
  • Shibley Telhani, The World Through Arab Eyes: Arab Public Opinion and the Reshaping of the Middle East, New York: Basic Books, 2013.

For another example of how prisoner’s dilemma can lead a class into unexpected directions, go here.