Rousseau in the Gallowgate:

Using drama-based pedagogies with first-generational political theory students

The newly formed Teaching Political Theory Network and UCL’s Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) recently co-hosted an online panel event on the theme of ‘Methods and Challenges in Teaching Political Theory’. In this guest post, one of the panellists at that event, Ruairidh Brown (Forward College, Lisbon), offers further reflections on using drama-based pedagogies to overcome barriers to the study of political theory facing first-generational students.

“Well, I would like to see Mr Rousseau come down and do a shift with me in the Gallowgate; soon see how long he holds on to those views.”

The Gallowgate is a street in Glasgow known both for its association with Celtic football club and for its reputation as one of the roughest streets in the city. It was where the student quoted worked as a barman when not studying for his politics degree. He was a mature student, older indeed than I was at time of teaching, and had disclosed over our seminars a hardened pessimism cultivated over many years serving pints in Glasgow’s roughest bars.

It was no surprise he had found Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s claim that ‘men are naturally good’ ridiculously absurd.

I nevertheless endeavoured to explain Rousseau’s optimism. I related his thought against the backdrop of the French Enlightenment; as reversal of the Christian tradition of original sin; as a seminal moment in revolutionary socialism. He was buying none of it. Whatever framework I placed it in, he insisted such philosophical optimism would collapse at the threshold of his Gallowgate bar.

In truth, the more I gave intellectual context the more I lost him, as the more ‘intellectual’ I made it the less relevant it appeared to him. I needed to change track: reconstructing the world of Rousseau would not help my argument, I needed instead to make it more relatable to the world of my student – I had to bring Rousseau into the Gallowgate.   

The Portal Between Worlds  

We can think of the interpretation of political thought as a portal: the historical world from which the thinker writes at one side, the contemporary reader at the other. The text is what connects them; interpretation taking ideas from one side and translating them into the other. 

The attention we pay to each side is, however, rarely equal. As academics, and teachers, we frequently prioritise the world of the thinker, with emphasis being put on reconstructing their historical context in order to gain accurate interpretation of their meaning.

This is in part the legacy of Quentin Skinner’s Cambridge School, hallmarked by a meticulous dedication to reconstruction of the political and linguistic context in which a past author wrote as to determine exactly what he or she could, and could not, have said.

Political Theory – and especially International Political Theory (IPT), in which my specialism lies – does have its issues with Skinner, especially on how such focus on history can be reductive, eclipsing consideration of contemporary relevance to the point of collapsing the portal between worlds.

Nonetheless, whilst IPT does aim to highlight the relevance of historical thought for the present, it still puts incredible emphasis on the need to reconstruct the historical context first before translation into the present can be attempted. Interpretatively, there is a soundness to this as it prevents us projecting ideas into the past and becoming guilty of anachronism.

Pedagogically, however, this can create a challenging environment for students as they are left with a forest of intellectual, historical, and linguistic context to navigate through before relatable ideas can be located.

The study of Thucydides, the embarking point for most IPT programs, gives clear illustration of this. Before we can even begin discussing ideas, students must quickly orientate themselves in a very strange and alien world: Corcyra and Corinth? Mytilene and Melos? And Lacedaemon, that’s Sparta? And that is before students even get to concepts rooted in the Classical Greek linguistic context, like Nomos and physis. Students’ very first encounter with IPT is thus being thrown into a dark wood of unfamiliar places, people, and words.

Importantly, not all students are thrown in with equal navigational tools. Typically, those who are ‘first-generational’ – those whose parents did not receive higher education; received State education; and/or are from low-income backgrounds – do not have the same background knowledge or tools to quickly reconstruct this historical linguistic context as, say, those who went to private schools with Greek on the curriculum. Nor do they have as much time to dedicate to this reconstruction, often having to work one, or even two, jobs to maintain their studies. They often instead feel alienated by theory classes, failing to see the relevance behind the thick phalanx of contextual tress, and abandon theory for something ‘more relevant’ to their world.

Providing the right machete that will allow the student to cut through these trees and uncover the core relevance needs to be an educator’s primary aim.

Finding Relevance   

Alcohol was the machete that came to mind for my Glasgow barman.

I asked him if alcohol made the behaviour of his clientele worse.

Worse of course, he conceded.

And did poverty and disadvantage turn many to drink?

Yes, indeed, it was intergenerational.

We were thus able to turn our conversation into a discussion about the ‘nature’ of his customers versus the structural factors that led them to behave this way (though admittedly I was borrowing a lot from T.H. Green here, inspired as he was by Rousseau, rather than explicitly the Genevan himself).  

Turning to J.S. Mill the next week, we centred the liberty principle on a debate over minimum pricing, not only as it was a current hot topic amongst my students at the time, but also as we could build on the entry point of alcohol and responsibility from the previous week.

For the following week on freedom of speech, I let the class identify and vote on a topic. They voted for the controversy over a planned Orange March in a neighbouring town. I created a role play for that week, where they simulated the local council deciding whether to let the march go ahead or not.

I found this approach resulted in greater participation amongst my students. The Glasgow barman notably had a lot to say on these subjects, but I also found students who had up to that time been largely silent get more involved; for, whilst they may have struggled to grasp aspects of the philosophy, they often had views on these local issues and, from these, I could introduce the main points of theory on more familiar and accessible ground.

The Most Simple Encounters

I have since then endeavoured to make my students’ first encounters with thinkers occur on more familiar ground. This often involves drama-based learning, where I reconstruct a relatable scenario in which they can first discover ideas.

This can of course be challenging and intensive work, as it requires changing classes according to students’ concerns and having some knowledge of these concerns. This arguably worked well with a largely homogenous Scottish audience, whose concerns I had a degree of familiarity with as a fellow Scot. This can be more difficult, if not impossible, in more heterogenous classrooms or with demographics more distant from the teacher – as I would learn when I left Scotland to teach in mainland China.

Nonetheless, one does not always need an elaborate pedagogy or classroom plan based on familiarity with students’ present concerns to learn from this. It simply requires one to be more sensitive to the situation in which the students are encountering these works. This can be achieved, I have found, by simply distilling a concept to its simplest and most relatable articulation for that audience – our machete to make first cuts into the forest of ideas.

Diversifying the Politics Curriculum: Lessons Learned and Possibilities for Progress

This academic year, the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) is hosting a series of online panel events. Our second event in the series was on the theme of ‘Liberating the politics curriculum: theory and practice’. In this guest post, one of the panellists at that event, Helen McCabe, together with Helen Williams and Andy Fisher, offer reflections on findings from a project at the University of Nottingham, led together with colleagues in Politics and IR and Philosophy.

Questions around why Politics curricula are so often “male”, “pale” and – consequently – “stale” have abounded in the last few years, often linked to wider calls to “decolonise” Higher Education, research, and teaching. As well as this, there has been increasing recognition of, and concern about, the award gap between white undergraduate students and those from Black and minoritised ethnic backgrounds. Closing this gap needs a multifaceted and multidimensional approach, much (though not all!) of which is out of individual academics’ control. However, some elements of a curriculum-based approach are in our control – for instance, as educators we could make significant efforts towards regularising ethnic presence on the curriculum (and diversifying it in other ways).

Making politics curricular more diverse in a variety of ways is a positive pedagogical aim, but efforts in this direction face several challenges. Many of these are practical, as we found when investigating this issue. Sharing best practice can save time, but overall, a balance needs to be found between securing sufficient institutional “buy-in” to succeed, and the whole endeavour appearing to be something being inauthentically imposed from above, causing resistance.

One reason diversifying the curricula is an important thing to try and do is that descriptive representation matters to students and for student outcomes. If we care about diversity and the attainment of all our students, we should be mainstreaming perspectives that are not the traditional white, European, middle-class, male ones. What is more, these diverse perspectives should not be an “add-on” treated in one special week. Nor should authors from specific minoritised groups be treated only as experts on issues seen to affect that group (e.g. female authors included on reading lists for the one week on feminism in a political theory course, but not in other weeks on other topics).

However, there are several barriers for engagement, which might be termed: principled, implacable and practical.

Principled challenges and how to address them. People may be put off by the terminology around “decolonising”, feeling it is either an attack on their current practice (implicating them in colonialism), or that it is not a term which ought to be used in a UK context. That is, decolonising the curriculum is a laudable endeavour in countries which were colonised (e.g. South Africa, where the movement began). But it is not appropriate in countries which were colonisers (such as the UK). These principled reasons for not engaging can be at least somewhat overcome through careful use of – and discussion around – terminology (see our collection of Useful Resources) and awareness around the internal and external politics of this kind of project.

Implacable barriers are harder to overcome. Some people do simply reject the pedagogical bases for diversifying the curriculum along ethnic (or gendered) lines. One version of this view holds that students should be introduced to a range of views, but it is the ideological spectrum which should be diverse, not authors’ demographic data. Another version sees these kinds of efforts as “gimmicky”, and does not want to engage. These barriers may simply need recognising, with related decisions taken about which battles to fight.

A different version relates to some academics’ deep-seated aversion to teaching anything on which they do not themselves feel “expert”, which limits their flexibility around what they teach. (And damages their well-being when they feel forced to teach something on which they are not, in their view, “an expert”.) Although for some this might be an excuse not to develop their teaching year-on-year, it is easy to understand why academics may be very risk-averse in terms of changing their teaching such that they feel they are teaching topics or texts for which they do not have a deep understanding, not least given student expectations to be taught “by experts”, and the negative impacts on career progression and staff well-being from negative or low student evaluations. This may be increasingly an issue as lectures are more routinely recorded, and the likelihood of one slip or apparent revelation of ignorance “going viral”, with potentially wide, and severe, consequences. (This may also underpin reluctance to “diversify” reading lists and include writers who may be seen as controversial.) For these reasons, academics may appear implacably opposed to changing their teaching in any significant way, but this position may be softened by the same sorts of solutions which also aid academics who are positive towards the idea of diversifying, but face practical challenges.

Indeed, practical barriers to are the ones most commonly cited and experienced by academics. These include: lack of relevant decision-making power; lack of time; and lack of space.

The first is most commonly experienced by early-career colleagues (including PhD students) who might be able to introduce more diverse readings into seminars, but have no control over the content of lectures, modes of assessment, or the aims and objectives of a module. The second and third are more commonly experienced by those who have the relevant power, but lack the capacity to make use of it. Academics generally do not get as much time as is really needed to update reading lists; re-design assessments, lecture slides, reading lists and other resources; or gain the required expertise on new content. Even where these efforts are recognised in an official workload planner, the time allocated is not generally sufficient. And even where there are helpful resources which might be used, there is concern about garnering satisfactory expertise to bring something into the curriculum (as noted). There is also often as concern about what has to be taken out in order to fit in something new, given the limited time available for a module (e.g. 10-12 weeks). Escaping from that problem probably takes a significant module re-design and re-think: and colleagues are already suffering from a lack of time.

All these practical concerns are significant issues, which need to be taken seriously if curricula are to be diversified in a meaningful and sustainable way. Staff need time and resources to make significant change and feel confident in delivering new material, and this in turn necessitates buy-in from people with power within the University. However, if the move to diversify the curriculum feels imposed in a “top-down” and/or “gimmicky” fashion, this is likely to be counter-productive. Indeed, power structures in academia may need to be “decolonised” before the curriculum can be.

Useful Resources:

All our resources here hosted here

This includes some “top tips” available here

And a toolkit for thinking about terms and terminology

There is also some great advice from colleagues at Sheffield Hallam available here

Generative AI changes teaching and learning: how to protect the integrity of assessment

This academic year, the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics (CPP) is hosting a series of online panel events. Our first event on 30 October was on the theme of ‘Using technology to teach politics’. In this guest post, one of the panellists at that event, Simon Sweeney (University of York), offers further reflections on the challenges involved in higher education’s embracing generative AI, where tools such as ChatGPT call into question issues of authorship and have profound implications for assessment.

A few years ago, we were worrying about students’ using essay mills, a form of contract cheating that plagiarism detection software struggled to identify. The Covid-19 pandemic and online delivery coincided with a reported increase in academic dishonesty (AD). In late-2022 the arrival of generative artificial intelligence (GAI) chatbots like ChatGPT is a further challenge to the integrity of assessment.

Universities realised that banning chatbots was not feasible, as AI has become an established feature in our lives and graduate employment. As educators, we need to respond positively to the opportunities AI presents, recognising its benefits and assimilating AI into teaching and learning practice.

This means developing strategies that accommodate students’ use of GAI while protecting assessment integrity.

Continue reading “Generative AI changes teaching and learning: how to protect the integrity of assessment”

Project Citizen: Building Citizenship Skills in an Introductory American Government Course

Today’s guest post comes from Dr. Brooklyn Walker at Hutchinson Community College, Kansas!


This semester, on the first day of class, I asked my introductory American Government class to generate a list, in teams, of how they come across American government and politics. They couldn’t think of a single example. I concluded that many of my students haven’t thought about themselves in terms of politics. They lack political efficacy. They are turned off by polarization and negative affect. And they don’t notice the role government and politics play in their everyday lives. 

But years after they graduate, I want my students to be aware of their political environment and equipped to engage it. I wasn’t convinced that exposing students to interesting information or ideas would address the problems I was seeing. Instead, I wanted to help my students learn about themselves as citizens, develop citizenship skills, and see government in action. I developed Project Citizen to advance these three goals, and to create a bridge for my students between the classroom and the ‘real world.  

Project Citizen is the overarching title for a set of five assignments distributed throughout the semester. It comprises approximately a third of the semester’s total points, signaling that that civic engagement is a priority in the class.

Students begin the semester by writing a brief introductory essay (400-500 words). This essay reflects on a class reading making the case for civic engagement, and they describe what an ideal citizen does and knows. Then they detail their own civic engagement and the hurdles they face in becoming the ideal citizen they described. This essay forms the foundation for the remainder of the projects and marks the baseline of each student’s civic engagement.

Students then select three projects from a menu, each of which results in a 500-word essay. Each prompt is linked to a topic we cover in class, and the prompts are intended to advance the three main goals. Giving students choices is a core feature of Project Citizen. Some of the prompts may be triggering for students. For example, a Black male in my class asked if he had to talk to a law enforcement officer, and another student with social anxiety was worried about contacting a local civil rights group. Project Citizen encourages students to choose prompts that take them out of their comfort zone but gives students space to avoid prompts that they feel could be harmful. Finally, choice promotes equity. Many students, especially those with lower socioeconomic statuses, do not have easy access to someone who’s running for office or reliable transportation to civic meeting spaces.

ProblemGoalRelevant Prompts (course topic in parentheses)
“Don’t know who they are as citizens” Learn about self as citizenTake a survey to identify your party identification and ideology (Public Opinion); Make your voting plan (Participation); Develop a media diet plan after comparing news articles (Media)
“No efficacy, intimidated by polarization”Practice political skills, including political  discussionsTalk to a police officer about the role of civil liberties in their work (Civil Liberties);Talk to a local civil rights group about their work (Civil Rights); Interview someone who’s run for office about the role of money in politics (Elections); Complete an action recommended by an interest group (Interest Groups); Contact a member of Congress (Congress)
“Don’t know how government actually pops up in their lives”See politics / government in actionAttend a local meeting (Constitution and Federalism); Identify party linkage strategies via party communications (Political Parties); Analyze presidential communications via inaugural addresses (Presidency); Observe a courtroom (Judiciary);Evaluate bureaucracies after speaking with a recipient of state or federal services (Bureaucracy)

Finally, at the end of the semester, students revisit their initial essay. They annotate that essay with 8 comments, reflecting on what they learned from class readings, lecture, discussion, and their projects. Their comments can introduce new information or examples to support or refute their initial points, reflect on how they have changed through the semester, or describe their next steps for developing their citizenship skills.

While most of the students’ Project Citizen work occurs independently, projects are woven into class periods. I mention project prompts during lectures, pointing out information that may be relevant or questions the project may help them answer. Students learn from each other during a peer review session (for which they also earn Project Citizen points). I print copies of the assignment rubric and students provide feedback on two peers’ essays, using the rubric as a framework. After projects are submitted, we dedicate class time to discussing student experiences and connecting those experiences to course material.  

Some semesters I’ve integrated badges, which are essentially extra credit opportunities, into Project Citizen. Badges encourage students to take more ownership of their learning experience. Some of the badges I’d used include:

  • Jack-of-all-Trades Badge: complete one project for each of the three goals 
  • Design Your Own Adventure Badge: create your own project prompt (in consultation with me)
  • 10,000 Foot View Badge: complete a meta-learning worksheet about a project
  • Second Chances Badge: revise and resubmit a project
  • Collaborator Badge: complete a Project Learning prompt with a co-author

Ultimately, students have reported positive experiences with Project Citizen. One student said that Project Citizen “let me build up my ideas about who I am and about my beliefs. I got to explore what my point of view is and I learned things about myself I never knew.” Another appreciated seeing the government in action. After attending a local meeting, they commented that, “Normally people wouldn’t go out of their way, but Project Citizen gave me exposure to see how my community is run.” 

Project Citizen is constantly evolving, so I look forward to your reflections and comments.  

Tools for Discussion: An Interpersonal Growth Toolkit

Today’s guest post is from Dr. Allison Anoll at Vanderbilt University!

Classroom discussion is a common pedagogical tool, but many instructors and students alike find themselves lost with the lack of structure.  Equally problematic, standard approaches to grading participation that simply count how often students speak can (re)produce racial and gender disparities.

How can we, as instructors, lead effective discussions? How can we help students grow in their interpersonal skills while also ensuring classrooms are inclusive spaces?

In my small, seminar classes I use a tool for structuring and assessing participation I call the Interpersonal Growth Toolkit.This tool relies heavily on a framework developed by Stephen Brookfield in The Skillful Teacher, where he argues that classroom discussion skills need to be taught just like any other learning goal. The Interpersonal Growth Toolkit provides students with learning goals for classroom discussion, tools for achieving these goals, and regular sources of feedback from the instructor about progress.

Here’s how it works. I start by identifying skills I want students to learn and practice in the discussion setting. In my classes, that’s: 1) humility; 2) confidence; and 3) social science thinking. I provide students with a detailed list of tools for how they can practice each of these themes. For instance, to practice humility, students can,

  • Provide credit to classmates for ideas and inspiration by using their name in comments.
  • Ask the group for a moment of silence to slow the pace of discussion and allow you (and others) time to gather your thoughts.
  • Find a way to express appreciation for what is new, interesting, or challenging in the discussion. Be specific about what has helped you understand something new.
  • Make a comment or ask questions that encourages others to elaborate on their ideas.

I then ask my students to identify which of the three areas—humility, confidence, or social science thinking— they are weakest in as a discussion participant.  My students then develop an individualized growth plan by identifying 2-3 skills in their area of weakness they want to try out in class. They write these skills on an index card that I hand back to them at the beginning of each class for the first two weeks. At mid-term, they write a brief reflection on how they think they are doing in their area of growth and what they want to work on for the rest of the semester. In combination with my own notes, I prepare mid-term feedback for each student about their performance in the three areas and tools to try in the second half of the semester. Students receive a final grade for their participation based on their growth and performance in each of the three areas.

This approach increases the quality of classroom discussions immensely. Not only do students and the instructor have a clear sense of what people are supposed to be doing during discussion time, but students themselves can become advocates of inclusivity in the classroom. Students who lean towards dominating a discussion are asked to think about how they can use their skills to draw others in; students who are nervous speaking up are provided with skills for finding their space and ways into a discussion. Using this technique, I have seen students grow immensely over the course of a semester with quieter students getting bolder and more dominant students using their skills to build bridges between other’s ideas. In my seminar courses, it is the norm to hear from every student multiple times over the course of a discussion.

This approach and assessment are well-suited for relatively small classes (less than 20 students). In larger classes, it is more difficult to build a community of trust that fosters vulnerability and to find enough time for all the students to practice their skills. However, this tool is suitable for any level of instruction: I use it with freshman, seniors, and even new graduate students. Instructors should feel empowered to adapt the skills they want students to learn in the discussion as long as they also provide specific tools to complement these skills. Want students to practice intellectual curiosity as a core skill instead of humility? Develop a list of tools that students can practice in a discussion to build this skill. You can look at chapter 8 of Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher for more tools to consider.

To implement this assessment, remember to include a learning objective in your syllabus that highlights interpersonal growth as a key goal of the course.  I use, “By the end of the course, you will be able to:demonstrate growth in discussion techniques including close listening, speaking with evidence, challenging with respect, and summarizing others’ contributions.’’

Keeping track of student contributions and how they fit into each assessment category can be difficult to do on your own while also leading the discussion. When I use this tool, I hire an advanced undergraduate or graduate student to sit in class with me and keep track of student contributions. I use these notes to develop feedback and grades for my students.

You can find details about The Interpersonal Growth Tool Kit here. The document also includes a rubric. (In general, I’m a big fan of rubrics, but that’s a topic for another day.) Happy discussing!

Engaging Students Through Collaborative Research Projects

Today we have a guest post from Rebecca A. Glazier at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (rebecca [dot] glazier [at] gmail [dot] com) and Matthew Pietryka at Florida State University’s political science department (mpietryka [at] fsu [dot] edu).

Rebecca Glazier

Many professors are struggling to engage their students, who are often disengaged and burned out. To address these issues and improve student retention, universities are increasingly turning to edtech solutions or big data—everything from predictive analytics to chatbots in discussion boards. These remedies tend to be far removed from students’ daily lives. In contrast, as professors, we are with students in the classroom every day. And this experience often prepares us to know best how to engage our students.

Matthew Pietryka

In a new, open-access article we just published in Education Sciences, “Learning through Collaborative Data Projects: Engaging Students and Building Rapport,” we illustrate how faculty can engage students through collaborative data projects. Rather than relying on top-down university solutions, faculty can use the content of their own courses to involve students in collaborative projects that build rapport and make them feel included and engaged in the course. We see these collaborative data projects as another kind of active learning—getting students thinking outside of the textbook and involved in contributing to a project that is bigger than themselves.

We used data from more than 120 students over two semesters and our results suggest that most students find these collaborative data projects more enjoyable than typical college assignments. And students report the projects make them feel the professor is invested in their learning.

The article we wrote detailing these projects is open access. It provides advice on implementing these projects as well as the R code used to create individualized reports for students participating in the collaborative data projects. The individualized reports help develop rapport between the professor and each student. And this programmatic approach allows professors to scale up these reports to accommodate classes with hundreds of students. Building rapport and doing active learning is something considered possible only in smaller classes, but our approach demonstrates how it can be done in large classes as well—with significantly positive results.

At a time when many faculty members are struggling to engage students, we can take matters into our own hands by designing projects for our classes that draw students in and build rapport with them. It doesn’t take expensive edtech solutions or top-down directives. Mostly, it takes thoughtful pedagogy and prioritizing student connection.

Open Access article link: https://www.mdpi.com/2227-7102/12/12/897.

Recent episode on the Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast on this research: https://teachinginhighered.com/podcast/engaging-students-through-collaborative-research-projects/.

Mekong Dam Simulation, Part 2

Today we have a second guest post from Sharmaine Loh and Marek Rutkowski, of Monash University—Malaysia, and Joel Moore, Monash University—Australia. They can be contacted at sharmaine [dot] loh [at] monash [dot] edu, marek [dot] rutkowski [at] monash [dot] edu, and joel [dot] moore [at] monash [dot] edu.

In our last post, we described our Mekong River crisis simulation. The assessments that we use for this simulation are designed to reward student preparation and engagement (a detailed breakdown is in this appendix).

Students are initially provided with detailed position descriptions for employment in the organisations to which they’ve been assigned. They are asked to prepare for a mock job interview for that position, which requires them to conduct research and think about their role in the simulation. We have offered this scenario in an applied capstone class, so have required students to identify their own readings and research to be able to fulfil their roles.

Once the simulation begins, students write a weekly strategy memo for the lead member of their organization based on independent research they’ve conducted, an opportunity for them to consider the practical, actionable implications of scholarly work in the social sciences. Students also must also document their interaction with other organisations and the media during the simulation in a reflective journal.

The head of each organization in turn relies on his or her team members to regularly provide advice about the best course of action in the unfolding crisis. If a group suggests a questionable course of action, the instructor uses follow-up questions to prompt students to consider possible negative consequences, e.g. how would investors view a decision to cancel the project?

At the end of the course, students analyze their experience of the simulation in a writing assignment.

The simulation is designed to make it difficult for students to upset the status quo. Local and international NGOs usually must settle for limited gains based on a government’s willingness to placate its critics. While this sometimes leads to frustration and disillusionment for students, it allows them to gain a better understanding of the power disparity between governmental and nongovernmental actors. While students sometimes initially attempt to resolve the crisis by reaching a consensus among all parties involved, they quickly realize that this is impossible due to conflicting interests. While students are allowed to make risky decisions if they are well considered and not purposely disruptive, successfully negotiated political and policy changes in the simulation have always been limited and incremental. 

In past iterations of the simulation, the incumbent Thai leadership has usually been able to retain control of the government and dominate issue framing, in some cases solidifying its position in the process. Thai opposition groups have had to navigate between outright rejection of government policies and a more conciliatory and constructive criticism. Students have learned that political change is difficult to accomplish without a broad anti-government bloc that includes civil society organisations.

Changes at the international level have also been limited, accurately reflecting the shortcomings of the Lower Mekong  governance regime and ASEAN’s commitment to the principle of non-interference. Students’ attempts to amend the 1995 Mekong Agreement have been hindered by states’ competing foreign policy objectives and the strict application of sovereignty. At most, parties have agreed on a controlled and gradual extension of the Mekong River Commission’s supervisory apparatus.

We have identified a few ways in which the simulation can be further improved. Students’ concerns about free riding within teams, while partially mitigated through the use of a team member evaluation tool (e.g. CATME or Feedback Fruits, we used one developed for this class by Joel), have continued. A possible solution could be a “divorce option,” where students would be allowed to “fire” a free riding member. We have also observed that students’ insufficient background knowledge can lead to unrealistic behaviour in the simulation. This could be mitigated by an increased redundancy within groups (multiple students being given the same or similar role) and an added criterion of academic performance in determining group allocation (Joel’s tool for the allocation of students into groups for class assignments has also been used to allocate students into roles for this class). 

Mekong Dam Simulation

Today we have a guest post from Sharmaine Loh and Marek Rutkowski, of Monash University—Malaysia, and Joel Moore, Monash University—Australia. They can be contacted at sharmaine [dot] loh [at] monash [dot] edu, marek [dot] rutkowski [at] monash [dot] edu, and joel [dot] moore [at] monash [dot] edu.

We developed a six weeks long simulation with three contact hours per week about international competition over freshwater resources of the lower Mekong River. The simulation, which we call the Riparian Dam Crisis, is designed to provide students with the opportunity to build collaboration, communication, and negotiation skills while learning about Southeast Asia. Students are introduced to select theories before the start of the simulation and incentivised to conduct independent research and source other relevant materials to inform actions of their groups throughout. 

The simulation involves a Thai-funded hydroelectric dam project in Laos. Most of the dam’s electricity will be purchased by Thailand. Shortly before the dam goes into operation, a drought reduces downstream water to its lowest level in living memory. This scenario, which resembles the real-life Xayaburi dam a few years ago, reflects competing economic and environmental demands, weak regional regimes for dispute resolution, domestic political considerations, and transnational advocacy networks. Students assume the roles of various stakeholders that must try to achieve specific objectives in an evolving situation, such as the Thai, Lao, and Cambodian ministries of foreign affairs, rural NGOs, the regional Mekong River Commission, Thai political parties, and journalists. For example, the dam has been constructed wholly within Laos’s borders, which paradoxically gives the smallest country the largest say in the simulation’s outcome. Cambodia is the most negatively affected by upstream dams in Laos, but it has limited influence over Laos and Thailand because it is not a participant in the project. Meanwhile Thailand is very susceptible to domestic pressure from interests that either support or oppose the dam.

During the simulation, student journalists representing two Thai media outlets conduct interviews and create stories targeting different audiences. The simulation’s other stakeholders need to engage strategically with reporters to have their actions framed in a positive manner. 

Thus, there is one constellation of groups that broadly favours pushing forward with the dam, another one that generally wants to halt the dam, and a third whose position is flexible. After an initial feeling-out period, students identify aligned groups and develop strategies to achieve their objectives. Each time we have run this simulation, students have focused on their efforts on preserving or creating a sympathetic ruling coalition in Thailand after they had exhausted other diplomatic avenues. Students have been quite creative in creating novel strategies to achieve group objectives, such as staging mock mass protest campaigns, lobbying global powers, and bringing down Thailand’s ruling coalition with a vote of no confidence.

In a future post, we will describe how we assess student learning from the simulation and how we adapted it over time in response to student experience.