Gaming the Professor


A final note about the series of Chasing Chaos simulations from last semester:

Candyfornia GameFor part of the final exam, I put students back into the teams from the Rwanda simulation and had each team select an article from this list:

  • Strobe Talbot, “The Making of Vladimir Putin,” Politico Magazine, 19 August 2014.
  • Dexter Filkins, “The Fight of Their Lives,” The New Yorker, 29 September 2014.
  • Youssef Cherif, “Tunisia’s Elections Amid a Middle East Cold War,” Atlantic Council, 24 October 2014.
  • Howard W. Frenchot, “China’s Dangerous Game,” The Atlantic, 13 October 2014.
  • George Soros, “Wake Up, Europe,” The New York Review of Books, 20 November 2014.
  • Ali Khedery, “Iraq’s Last Chance,” The New York Times, 15 August 2014.
  • Josh Kurlantzick, “Why Obama’s Courtship of Myanmar Backfired,” Bloomberg Businessweek, 6 November 2014.

Each team was tasked with designing a 10-12 minute presentation on the following question:

What international relations theory (constructivist, liberal, realist) and corresponding level of analysis (individual, domestic state, international system) best explain the subject of the article? Why?

I set up the delivery of the presentations as a competition. My usual practice for these competitions is to give each student an amount of Monopoly money for voting, and students are prohibited from voting for their own teams. In this case teams had unequal numbers of members, which would have created an advantage for the smallest teams, so instead I distributed the same amount of money to each team. A team could not vote for itself, but it was free to allocate its money to other teams in whatever way its members wanted.

When teams voted on the best presentation, each team put down all of its money on a different team to produce a tie among all of the teams. Clearly something was afoot — the class expected that a tie would force me to equally distribute the points for winning the competition across the whole class. Shared interest + communication = cooperation, a real-life demonstration of liberal theory!

I exercised the God option to frustrate their gambit. I announced another round of voting, with the provision that a tie would result in no points being awarded. And a clear winner quickly emerged.

This led to an interesting discussion about how the structure of a game affects the behavior of its players and how actors are affected by their environment. I was pleased to see that after a semester of simulations and theories, students were able to make this connection.


Field of Dreams

A follow-up to Simon’s post about field trips:

Dream FieldI too am a fan of changing the physical environment in which students learn. I’ve gone long on two occasions — twelve-day study abroad programs in Egypt — but it’s immensely complicated for the instructor. You never know when a revolution might break out. Also, because of time and money required, the practice frequently excludes students for whom such an experience would be the most beneficial.

Going short, at least in the USA, is also often problematic. I can hold an audience captive for only fifty or seventy-five minutes, depending on the day of the week that the class meets. We can’t go very far on foot or on public transportation in such a short period of time.

There is another version of the field trip that is much more convenient: the campus presentation or lecture. Yet like most of my colleagues, I expected students to attend these events for their own good, and I was dismayed when they didn’t.

Over the last two years my attitude has changed, for three reasons:

  1. If we claim that these events are opportunities for learning, then why shouldn’t they contribute toward students’ grades? I should be sending the message to students that I am not the only person who matters in their college educations.
  2. Assignments based on attending campus lectures do not in any way detract from what I do in the classroom. Students normally don’t remember much of that anyway, and getting a different perspective on the same topic, or a related one, might spark some thinking that would not otherwise occur.
  3. I place responsibility for success on students by calculating the course grade on a 1,000 point scale with assignments and quizzes that are in total worth about 1,2000 points. Campus presentations become just one more option for students to improve their grades, and they occur with such frequency that I can usually connect three or four of them to the subject of a particular course. If a student can’t attend an event because of some other commitment, it won’t automatically negatively affect the student’s performance in the course.

Since I’m a believer in writing as a way of thinking, students have to write about the content of a presentation to earn anything toward the course grade. My standard instructions for the assignment are to discuss the following in no more than two pages:

  • What was the presenter’s argument?
  • What evidence did the presenter use to support his or her argument?
  • Was the presenter’s argument convincing? Why?
  • How could the presentation be improved?

This is my way of ensuring that the student’s written product contains specific details about the presentation. I make these assignments worth ten points, or one percent, of the final grade.

Slumber Party

While lounging in my pajamas with the ALPS angels, the discussion has turned to presentations. I look at events like the Global Citizenship Program Collaboratory at Webster University as an opportunity to engage in some participant observation and learn more about what to do and not to do when presenting information to an audience. To me there is always room for improvement, and the better I get at this form of communication, the more effectively I can teach the skill to students.

Death by Power PointWe’ve posted about student presentations several times before — for example, here, here, here, and here — but I don’t think I’ve provided you with the list of resources on presentations to which I refer students. Here is it:

Last but not least, this is the best fictional depiction of an effective presentation that I’ve ever seen — “The Carousel,” from the TV show Mad Men.


Gerkhania MapIn my post about the Devil’s workshop, I mentioned the fictional state of Gerkhania, a self-created simulation that I’ve been using as a vehicle for competitive student presentations my comparative politics course. In years past, I used Gerkhania as a constitutional convention simulation, in which teams of students represented the country’s various ethnic groups. This exercise didn’t work very well, I stopped doing it for a few years, but then brought it back in its current form, which is fully described here.

Students have been getting a lot of practice with presentations, but the presentation content is still somewhat vague and unfocused. I’m wondering if I should continue to group students by their choice of theme but also assign them to a different set of teams that represent Gerkhania’s ethnic groups. Some classes could be devoted to the theme-based teams presenting about the panopoly of reading assignments. In other classes, students could role play as ethnic interest groups and deliver presentations on Gerkhanian politics.

I’m thinking that for this latter scenario to avoid the vague nature of this semester’s presentations, I will need to create some specific policy debates for students to grapple with. For example, I could dream up a scenario in which exploitation of natural gas reserves has the potential to enrich one ethnic group but cause ecological damage in the region inhabited by another. Perhaps establishing a Gerkhanian News Network in which I’d announce events like street protests would be beneficial as well. But my goal is to keep things as simple as possible and get students to do the work, not me.

Devil’s Workshop

Bosch 2If idle hands are the Devil’s workshop, then idle minds are even worse. I expected my comparative politics students to be mentally absent on the day before Easter vacation, so I surprised them with a rocket pitch competition based on a discussion that occurred the previous week. Students had twenty-five minutes to design a presentation with their teammates. The presentations had to identify the causes of a political process through a comparison of three cases — each team’s choice of two nation-states plus the fictional state of Gerkhania, which I will write about in a future post. Teams were free to select the two or three variables — which I referred to as factors — they thought were most relevant to their team’s analysis. Visually the presentations looked something like:

Continue reading “Devil’s Workshop”

How much should we plan what we say?

A short one, since it’s Easter and all of us should be spending more time with our families (or, at least, less time at work).

Yesterday, I made a day-trip up to Manchester to the Political Studies Association (PSA) annual conference. I was part of a roundtable and we’d agreed before to keep things quite fluid. So I took the approach that I’d see what the others said and then say something different, but related (I was last on the roster).

My colleagues took different approaches. One pulled out a full text and used it to speak to his PowerPoint presentation, while the other also used a PowerPoint, but used them to structure his talk.

After the panel, several people commented that we’d all gone it rather differently and one very good colleague of mine spent much of the train journey back down to London to marvel that I would just stand up and talk, without notes, for 15 minutes in a manner that made sense and spoke to the topic. Indeed, I believe his exact words on this were: “you stood up, with no notes, and I thought – oh no, it’s all going to go wrong.”

We’re still talking, by the way.

However, it does raise the wider point that there is much variation in how we present, be that in conferences or the classroom. My personal tendency has been to cut back ever more what I explicitly prepare (especially in PowerPoint), so that I can work with the people I’m talking to. Yesterday was an extreme example (and probably not one I would have tried at the end of a three-day conference), but it highlights another path we might consider.

At the same time, I am very aware that this is not for everyone, nor for every situation. What ultimately matters is how comfortable we feel about using a particular method: we have to minimise the friction between our intention and our practice, so that those listening/learning can access more readily what we are trying to share.

This notwithstanding, we do also need to remember one of the key lessons of any good pedagogy: it has to work for the listeners. The more we scaffold and fix our output, the less we can tack in the specific environment into which that output is put. In this case, I had an opportunity to work around colleagues whom said more or less what I thought they would, plus it was a subject on which I felt very comfortable (not least because of all the blogging I’ve done, with its emphasis on relatively terse point-making) and the room was amenable to following peoples’ responses.

By contrast, in June I’m off to speak on a roundtable in Montreal on the results of the European elections. It’ll be with people I don’t really know and includes some high-powered names, in a setting that might well number hundreds, rather than tens of people.

Plus it’s in French.

You can bet I’ll have notes for that.

Talk Plus Write 2

WritingIn a previous post I said that I was going to start requiring each group of students, in its discussion of the day’s reading assignment, to write down two reasons or examples in support of the the argument each group would present to the rest of the class.

Comparing the arguments students presented in the second half of the semester with those from the first half, I can’t identify a definitive improvement, and even if there was one, I don’t know if the act of writing group members’ comments down caused the improvement.

What seemed to matter more (again, with no empirical data to support my observations) were two things. First, if a sufficient number of high-performing students completed the assignment on the day’s readings, then the discussion was more focused. Second, if the assignment’s question forced students to choose between two clearly delineated and simple options, discussion appeared to be more detailed and stimulating. While I can’t control the first phenomenon, I can work on the second, by creating questions that are easily understandable to students and that guide them toward constructing arguments that are supported with concrete, specific evidence.

CUNY Games Festival

I just found out about this neat festival/conference on game-based learning in New York City on January 17-18th. Their focus is on exploring the ways in which games can contribute to learning in higher education. Proposals (due tomorrow, October 1st) can be for 20 minute presentations, 10 minute short talks, or interactive demonstrations.

From their website, suggested topics for proposals include:

– Creating and using digital or non-digital games and simulations in higher education
– Working with students as they create games inside or outside the classroom
– Badges and in-game assessment
– Prototyping and/or playtesting
– Skill and drill games vs. deeper learning
– Comparisons of game-based learning to other pedagogies
– Discipline-specific games in higher education
– Critical thinking and social justice games
– Play-based learning
– The impact of games on the student and classroom experience

Sounds pretty neat.  I put in a proposal to discuss my use of World of Warcraft in a first-year seminar, but even if its not accepted I plan to attend.

Working A Room

In Simon’s post about first impressions, he references the need to “own the space” when disseminating information to others — especially people one has never interacted with before.

ChappelleIt would be nice if every doctoral program required students to take an acting class so they learn to walk around, gesture with the hands, vary voice tone, etc.  That’s what I mean by “work a room.”  At my first “real” conference, where I presented post-PhD as a full-time visiting assistant professor, I saw one person deliver her talk while not moving anything below the waist. Another presenter, in contrast, was excellent — she strode across the entire room, connecting with her audience. I asked her afterward if she was a lawyer with courtroom experience, and she said yes.

This is making me remember my classroom experiences as an undergraduate, some of which now make me cringe. Looking back, most of my professors who were terrible at working a room were in the humanities/social sciences rather than in the hard sciences and engineering.

In contrast, at an event on Egypt, I’ve seen people who are frequently assumed to have great hard skills but terrible soft skills  — executives from companies like Google and Microsoft — give the most amazing presentations I’ve ever witnessed. Their ability to communicate to an audience of strangers was far superior to what I’ve seen among the vast majority of academics I’ve encountered over the years. It was a real shock to me — I had thought my ability to communicate was fairly good compared to my peers — I don’t deliver presentations by reading a paper word for word in a monotone — but now I know I have a lot of work to do.

While it is obvious that different subjects and teaching environments can require different strategies of engagement, but there are few techniques that that I’ve learned through trial and error over the years that help me make my presentations more engaging than they otherwise might be:

While being an effective presenter helps us out professionally by making us and our work more interesting to colleagues, it also enables students to learn more while in our classrooms.

Question Time III

As I’ve discussed here and here, I’ve experimented quite a lot with my comparative politics course, which I teach every spring semester. Simon’s post on ridiculous learning got me thinking again about questions — namely how I’ve structured the course around them in non-optimal ways.

I seem to have fixed the problem of students in the audience being unwilling to ask questions of other students who are delivering presentations in class — just require them to do so.  But more significantly, the presentations themselves are frequently based on ill-formed questions.

Vietnam boySimon’s exercise might be the first step in teaching students that a good question is more about process than about subject. Another step in the right direction might be for me to specify the questions that students can use for their presentations. Previously I’ve given students quite a large degree of freedom in choosing presentation topics — they had to be based on reading assignments, but the actual content of the presentations was left to the students’ initiative. This method hasn’t worked very well.

I thought of a possible alternative when reading articles on teaching about the Middle East since the Arab uprisings in the April 2013 issue of PS: Political Science and Politics. My comparative course is divided into a matrix of geographic regions and themes. Previously I’ve grouped students solely according to theme, with each group creating its own presentation for each geographic region. If I assign students to regional groups instead, and prepare questions ahead of time, students might develop a better ability to think comparatively.

For example, I could assign a general question, such as “Why did authoritarian governments fall in the Middle East?” Each group would need to first decide upon the process it needs to use to answer the question and then select a different case to examine.

Or I could provide groups with specific questions on a single case. For example, “What was the relationship between authoritarian government and the military in Tunisia before the revolution?” and “What role did religious organizations play in the revolution in Tunisia?” Again groups would need to first identify how to answer their respective questions.

Either method will require me to prepare lists of sources relevant to the questions students will be presenting on — additional work for me, so I’ll have to think more about this.