Hate Group Presentations? Here’s an Alternative

Today we have another guest post from Susan Allen, associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. She can be contacted at shallen [at] olemiss [dot] edu.

Enrollment at the University of Mississippi has grown substantially over the last few years, with my upper division undergraduate courses now often exceeding sixty students each. To shepherd such a large number of students through the research process so that they could eventually write compelling papers, I initially tried using group presentations My hope was that presentations would challenge students to be creative (an explicit grading criteria), improve their ability to speak in front of a group, strengthen their ability to summarize important aspects of their work, and allow students with diverse strengths and weaknesses to step up.

What I got, however, were painful classes of undergraduates awkwardly reading their Power Point slides, mismanaging their time, and complaining noisily about the entire experience – both as participants and as witnesses of their classmates’ efforts.

Enter the research conference, an alternative suggested by a friend in psychology. In addition to writing research papers, groups create posters that are presented at a conference session.

Two class periods are designated for our research conference, and half the class sets up on each day. When possible, I also ask two or three graduate students to join me to interview the students about their work. Students who are not presenting are expected to rank and comment on the day’s posters. The ranking criteria, each on a 1-10 scale, are clarity, creativity, research quality, and group participation. The highest-ranking poster for each session generates extra credit for its designers. Only students who submit rankings for the other students are eligible to earn these points.

I had no idea what to expect for the first iteration of the research conference. The quality and style of the posters varied greatly, but not the enthusiasm with which the students spoke about their research. I was amazed by how excited they were about what they’d learned.

Since then, both poster and paper quality have improved. Designing the posters forces students to boil their work down to its essence, which translates into better organization and flow in their papers. On my end, I’ve learned how to provide clearer directions for and better examples of poster design. While poster printing imposes a cost on students, our library provides this service for a nominal fee. Students also have used local copy shops.

For me, the biggest benefit is being able to hear students talk about their work and learn from them about the development of their topics, how they collaborated, and what sparked the interests of individual students. When I face that stack of research papers at the end of the semester, I don’t dread it nearly as much as I used to because I’ve seen and heard their authors’ sales pitches at the research conference.

Simulating the International Politics of Gender

Today we have a guest post from Susan Allen, associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. She can be contacted at shallen [at] olemiss [dot] edu.

This semester I am teaching a course on gender and international politics for the first time. The first half of the course examines gender and representation, while the second half explores gender in international politics. I aimed to bridge these two sections with a simulation that I created on child marriage—something currently on the agenda of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and a likely topic at the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) this summer.

Students have been working in groups by regions of the world to expand their knowledge base beyond their own experiences. For the simulation, they became spokespersons for their designated regions. As additional preparation, students read about CEDAW and an excerpt from Women, Politics, and Power by Paxton and Hughes. I did not inform them beforehand of the particular issue that would be discussed as part of the simulation, other than to say that the activity would resemble a communication from CEDAW.

During the simulation’s first class session, students met in their regional groups to research child marriage, making use of GirlsNotBrides.org. Each group formulated a regional proposal for what it would like the full class to discuss in the next two sessions. During these classes, a graduate student and I questioned students about their proposals to ensure they remained faithful to their roles. The ultimate objective was to collectively produce a single proposal to be presented at the upcoming CEDAW.

Based on post-simulation debriefing papers, students had mixed feelings about how little official private information was they received prior to negotiations and how much they had to rely on their own research to formulate a regional proposal. Perhaps as a result, discussion on the first day was a little slow to develop and their proposals were not as well fleshed out as I expected. On the second day, the majority of the students participated enthusiastically (and perhaps chaotically).

One of the most interesting things about this experience for the students was that they failed to come to an agreement in the time allotted. Many of them were concerned that they had “failed” the activity. When we debriefed the following week in class after they had written their papers, many of the students offered interesting insights about the difficulty of creating a proposal on something that they as American college students thought was an “easy” issue. The experience highlighted some of the practical challenges of creating laws that codify gender equality.

Next time, I might provide students with slightly more structured guidelines, but I don’t think I’ll do anything to make it easier for the students to create a unified proposal. I think the challenge and failure were essential parts of the value of the activity.

Call for Book Chapter Proposals: Teaching Political Methodology

Today we have a call for proposals from Jeffrey Bernstein at Eastern Michigan University.

I am working with Edward Elgar Publishing to produce an edited volume, tentatively entitled “Teaching Political Methodology,” that will focus on teaching this subject at the undergraduate level. Such a collection, I believe, will fill a hole in the literature.  Most of our departments offer such a class; however, it usually proves to be a hard course to teach. I’m excited about the possibility of a book that articulates rationales for what this course should look like, and for how it can be done well.

The publishers are looking for fairly thin (200-250 page) book, most likely with around twelve contributors.  The volume will likely consist of two parts.  Section One will focus more on the larger, theoretical questions involved in teaching research methods to political science undergraduates.  Why do we see this as an important topic for students to learn?  Do we want to approach the course as teaching mostly research design, statistical analysis, or programming and using Big Data? How much should we focus on qualitative versus quantitative tools?  While quantitative methods have traditionally dominated, scholars have noted the limitations and biases in both the questions asked and the tools used to answer these questions.  To what extent should our courses reflect this? 

Section Two will focus less on the theoretical and more on the applied.  Once we have determined the sort of methods course we want to teach, how do we do it effectively?  What are the best means to get across the central lessons from methods classes?  What does it look like when students achieve our learning goals?  Papers for this section should move beyond assertions of what we should be doing, or what we believe will work, and present evidence of student learning drawn from their work.  They should include things such as sample assignments to help other instructors build on successful approaches to the subject.

If you are interested in contributing to this collection, please email me as soon as possible at jbernstei@emich.edu with a summary of the idea you are proposing, as well as a CV.  The proposal deadline is May 1. Completed chapters will be due to me by May 31, 2020; this extended time frame will allow people to develop ideas for teaching these classes and test these approaches against data during the 2019-2020 academic year.

Perpetual Anarchy: A Game of War and Peace

Today we have a guest post by Matteo Perlini. He can be contacted at
matteoperlini [at] gmail [dot] com.

In a post from August of last year, Nathan Alexander Sears wrote about a simple game he designed that teaches students about IR theory. Based on Sears’s idea, I created “Perpetual Anarchy,” a two-player game where the goal is to maximize the wealth of one’s state. Unlike Sears’s game, mine does not eliminate players or involve diplomacy.

 “Perpetual Anarchy” requires a standard deck of playing cards and paper to record points scored and technological advances. The complete rules of “Perpetual Anarchy” are at https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/273757/perpetual-anarchy.

First Strategic Level

Each state must choose an action every turn: defense, attack or production. The choice of attack starts a war with the other state. Defense allows a player to better resist an attack by the opposing player. Production is an entirely peaceful action that helps increase wealth. The game has weak intransitive preference orderings: it is usually preferred (but not always!) to play defense against attack, attack against production, production against defense.

Defense vs. attack: as in the real world, defending is easier than attacking, so the defender has a bonus in the war (higher probability to win the war), but attacker must pay reputation costs for her belligerence.

Attack vs. production: attacker has a bonus in the war (higher probability to win the war) but she must pay reputation costs for her belligerence. By contrast, if the producer wins, she earns points without reputation costs.

Production vs. defense: both states score, but only the defending state has reputation costs, so the producer generally scores more.

The game is not strictly intransitive because the final outcome depends also on the second strategic level.

Second Strategic Level

States must choose how to allocate their budget across two dimensions: war/peace and long-term/short-term. A player must decide whether to give more prominence to one of the following strategies:

Short-term war: armament allocation helps the player win an urgent war, but the player will not use this allocation in the future.

Short-term peace: wealth allocation helps a player score points during peace.

Long-term war: military technology allocation does not increase the likelihood of winning an actual war, but increases marginally the player’s military efficacy forever.

Long-term peace: civilian technology allocation does not increase the actual points scored by a player, but increases marginally the player’s production efficacy forever.

As an example, a player who chooses a short-term war strategy will be more likely to win if a war occurs and will also prevent the opponent from capitalizing on long-term strategies, because the opponent loses any technology allocations in that turn.

The Pigeon’s Checklist for Classroom Game Design

Today we have a guest post by Lt Col James “Pigeon” Fielder, USAF, Associate Professor of Political Science at The U.S. Air Force Academy. He can be reached at http://www.jdfielder.com.

Interested in designing a classroom game, but have no idea where to start? Being a fan of classroom games, I developed this checklist to help me think through my own designs.  The only checklist items that I think are absolutely necessary are the objective and win conditions, as both are crucial for identifying the concepts you are measuring and providing students with clear and achievable goals. Other checklist items are dependent on your design. For example, if your game is not map-based, then a map and scale are not required, but a game with many pieces likely needs a detailed inventory. Game on!

  • Win Conditions: how the game ends.  Can be competitive (zero-sum) or cooperative (non-zero sum).  Games in which all teams can win are still challenging
  • Objective: what is the specific goal of your game?
  • Number of Players: helps the designer conceptualize the game size and boundaries. 
  • Level of Detail: abstract to elaborate setting.  Increased detail improves conceptual accuracy, but requires significantly more time to develop and play.  Not that abstract games are necessarily easier to design!
  • Inventory: all required pieces and parts to play the game. Be exhaustive, even down to number of spare rulebooks and pencils.  
  • Map or Board: visual display of the gameplay area. 
  • Scale: if the game requires length and volume measurement.  Example: each hex or square equals 1/6 of a mile. 
  • Course of Play: every step for running a game from start to finish. This will be the most detailed portion of the game. 
  • Combat Resolution: determining outcome of players cooperating or conflicting during the course of play.
  • Rewards and Punishments: mechanisms for players to advance or regress based on performance.
  • Measurement: scoring the game.  Can be qualitative (e.g. area of controlled space) or quantitative (number of points).
  • Arbitration: handling rule and player disputes.
  • Feedback: discussing game outcomes and recommended game improvements.
  • Glossary: define key terms.

Recommended Reading:

Asal, Victor. “Playing Games with International Relations,” International Studies Perspectives, Vol. 6, No. 3 (2006): 359-373. 

Dunnigan, James. Wargames Handbook, Third Edition: How to Play and Design Commercial and Professional Wargames. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2000. 

Macklin, Colleen, and John Sharp. Games, Design and Play: A Detailed Approach to Iterative Game Design. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley Professional, 2016. 

Sabin, Philip. Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games. New York, Continuum, 2012. 

Alternatives to Traditional Research Papers

Today we have another guest post by Charity Butcher, Associate Professor of Political Science at Kennesaw State University. She can be reached at cbutche2[at]kennesaw[dot]edu.

Research papers are a common tool used to help students learn about a particular topic. However, students have become accustomed to using information in different ways, and will also be expected to present information differently in their future careers. I therefore decided to give students in my American Foreign Policy course the option of writing a traditional research paper or completing the same research project in a different format – a podcast, video, or poster. Nearly half the students in the class chose one of the alternative formats.

For the assignment, students were asked to choose a current American foreign policy issue, such as U.S. relations with a specific country or a broader foreign policy topic like development aid, human trafficking, climate change, or terrorism. Students first submitted proposals that outlined their topic, included a preliminary bibliography, and identified which format they had chosen. The end product had to describe the foreign policy issue and its importance to the U.S., analyze past U.S. foreign policies on the subject, and recommend future policy. Regardless of the format, students were evaluated on how well they addressed these elements.

Each of the alternative formats had pros and cons. For podcasts, students could include information that was similar in quantity to the traditional research paper. On the other hand, some students first wrote a paper and then read it for the podcast, making some podcasts less dynamic and creative than I had hoped. Overall the podcast option seemed to generate the same effects as a research paper, but added an extra step for students.  

The videos were more dynamic than the podcasts and generally included the same amount of content as a traditional paper. Students were very creative in how they presented information, signaling a bit more thinking than the traditional paper. The downside was that the videos were significantly more time consuming than papers for students to produce. Several students experienced technical problems.

Posters, which students had to present in class, were quite successful. The poster option allowed students to practice their presentation skills, though this occupied class time. It was also more difficult for students to include as much information on a poster as in a paper, though some of this additional information did get communicated in presentations.

Overall, I felt this experiment was successful. In the future, I will eliminate the podcast option and have more specific grading rubrics for each project format. Grades for video and poster formats should incorporate criteria on visual design and presentation delivery. I may also add other presentation options, such as Prezi. I may even add a blogging option!

Interviewing the EU in Brussels

Today we have a guest post by Jamal Shahin and Claske Vos, faculty in European Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Jamal also works at the Institute for University Studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. They can be reached at shahin[at]uva[dot]nl and C[dot]Vos[at]uva[dot]nl.

Students in our one-year M.A. programme at the University of Amerstam needed to simultaneously gain knowledge of the EU and develop research skills, all in a four-week ‘skills seminar’ that runs every January. We decided to address this challenge by having students research policy by gathering data
 first-hand from EU policymakers.

We start by inviting the students to consider their ‘burning question’—what they really want to explore—in their MA theses. In the seminar’s second week, they identify methods and theoretical approaches, with a specific focus on the relationship between policy fields and research methods. Students draft deliverables, which are then peer reviewed at this stage. In the fourth week, students learn more about the practice of European policymaking by interacting with EU officials and other ‘experts’ in Brussels. To prepare for this stage, students must first:

  • Arrange the interviews.
  • Create an interview protocol—semi-structured interview guide.
  • Present a literature and policy review in written form.

These tasks are intended to give students a clearer view of the topics they wish to raise with their interviewees. At the end of the entire process, the students are expected to write up a thesis proposal to submit to their thesis supervisor.

From first contact to first meeting

Many students are daunted by the prospect of interviewing experts in fields that they feel that they are only just starting to understand. It therefore takes some effort to assure them that their requests for information will not go unheard. We help the students write the initial emails that request an interview, and provide them with a rough template that describes the etiquette to use when presenting oneself to the potential informant. Our multidisciplinary faculty, which includes anthropologists, historians, political economists, and political scientists, can help the students express themselves to their interviewees. We hold a half-day workshop with the students, in which a range of lecturers from different departments present their own interview experiences.

Bursting the ‘Brussels bubble’

‘Brussels’ is seen by many as a distant place, remote from the realities of daily life, even for students of European policymaking. This course helps students break through this perceived bubble by allowing them to engage directly with the policymakers themselves, rather than studying the policy process only through literature. It also occurs after an intensive eight-week course on European integration theories, and thus helps bring this knowledge ‘to life’—something that for students is frequently an unexpected benefit.

Beyond the Essay: Briefing Memos

Today we have a guest post from Vincent Druliolle, an assistant professor at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. He can be reached at Vincent[dot]Druliolle[at]gmail[dot]com.

Undergraduates are repeatedly told that what they study is somehow relevant for practice, yet most assignments are structured as academic essays—even though only a handful of them will end up opting for an academic career. A few years ago, I decided that my students should have the opportunity to develop non-academic writing skills, and started assigning a briefing memo about an ongoing conflict.

The briefing memo is indeed a format widely used in government, international organisations, consultancies, and NGOs. However, because of the large range of topics and theoretical perspectives covered by my module and the limited number of teaching weeks, I had to find a way of integrating such an activity into my small-group seminars. I came up with the idea of making the memo a preparatory activity for my in-class simulation on peacebuilding and transitional justice.

The briefing memo differs from the traditional essay in both content and format. It is policy-oriented, because it is aimed at practitioners and decision-makers, and it presents information in a concise and attractive manner. It requires critically analysing source material beyond the standard academic literature, selecting what’s most relevant, and presenting it in a way that can convey the complexities of the conflict analysed.

Most students have never written a memo, but I don’t give them any guidelines. Instead, I ask them to look up examples that they can use as models. I prefer to ask the students to present their memos in class and discuss the difficulties of writing it. The first seminar of the simulation is thus about comparing and learning from the work of one’s fellow classmates. For class discussion, I recommend selecting at least a very good memo, a (very) bad one, and a few with significantly different formats and/or content. The greater the variety of memos, the better. I want the students to learn from each other, so I adopt the role of a facilitator, asking them to explain why they’ve chosen a given format and/or content, and fostering a class discussion about these aspects.

Many students admit that, as I warn them beforehand, it’s difficult at the beginning to figure out how they have to write the memo. Instead of assessing it at this stage, I ask the students to submit a revised version after the simulation that reflects what they’ve learnt from their classmates’ memos. Guidelines about how to write a memo can be provided at this stage or even afterward as part of a debriefing.

While writing the memo is an activity in its own right, in this case it is also a way for the students to acquire the knowledge necessary to participate in the simulation. They learn what information the memo should include because they have to put themselves in the shoes of the actors for whom the memo is written in the first place. In this way, the memo prepares students for the simulation, while the simulation provides an opportunity for them to reflect on the writing of the memo. And for the instructor, memos are quicker (and less boring) to mark than essays.

Using Hidden Brain to Teach Research Design

Today we have a guest post by Sarah Fisher, assistant professor at Emory & Henry College. She can be reached at sfisher[at]ehc[dot]edu.

For undergraduates, the research methods course is often the most dreaded component of the political science curriculum. Students’ fear of mathematics, gaps in content knowledge, and lack of software experience (I’ve had students who have never opened Microsoft Excel, much less heard of a statistical software package) present pedagogical challenges for an instructor. 

Florian Justwan and I recently published an article about teaching social science research methods, “Scaffolding Assignments and Activities for Undergraduate Research Methods,” in the Journal of Political Science Education. The article, available here, includes instructions on how to use an episode of 30 Rock to teach content analysis, how to teach similar systems design with presidential speeches, and other activities. Teaching materials described in the article are available on my website.

One resource the article references is NPR’s show Hidden Brain hosted by Shankar Vedantam, which illustrates social science research for a popular audience with topics like the behavior of baseball umpires in extra innings and ways that colleges try to prevent summer melt. I ask students to identify the theory, hypotheses, causal mechanisms, and findings contained in different episodes and then tie this activity to longer articles assigned as homework readings. The program allows me to expand my range of examples beyond political science, important given that many of the students in my course are in majors ranging from sociology to athletic training to mass communication. This kind of content shows students that the scientific method isn’t reserved for academia; it can be used in their daily lives to interpret the world around them.

Assessing Student Preparation

This is follow-up to a previous guest post by Joel Moore on the benefits of assessing students’ preparation for class discussion rather than their participation in it. Students are asked to rate themselves on the amount of assigned reading they have completed prior to class, and this forms the basis of their preparation grade.

He has created a web app that simplifies the process. The app is available at https://joeldmoore.com/apps/preparation/.

A video that discusses how to use the app is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQdK1FwycKw.