Methamphetamine in my Pedagogy: Breaking Bad and International Relations

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



Michelle Catalano, NSA, & Googling: Hidden Assumptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

She ends the story with.

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

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

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

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

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

And then…..

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

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

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

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

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


What I Talk About When I Talk About Learning

Yesterday I completed my first official half marathon alongside my wife, who introduced me to running a few years ago (I feel comfortable blaming her for the post-race fatigue andJoan Benoit 2 muscle pain). I also recently finished reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008). Both have given me cause to think about the importance of training oneself to learn.

Recent studies on subjects like decision fatigue indicate that the mind responds to exertion much like a muscle. The mind is lazy, preferring to expend as little energy as possible. It employs shortcuts and avoidance to achieve this goal, even though such strategies frequently lead to systematic errors of judgment. To get a sense at how effectively your mind can prevent itself from working hard, try mentally multiplying two- or three-digit numbers together while performing a physical task, like running, that requires a minimal amount of concentration. There’s a good chance that you will either trip and fall or be unable to compute a result.

So, drawing upon some analogies to running and Murakami’s very worthwhile book, here are few ruminations about learning:

  • “Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don’t continue things they don’t like” (Murakami, p. 44). Learning requires effort, and effort is unpleasant, so under normal circumstances people will try to avoid it. Remove the effort and you remove the learning, which is why I react so viscerally against slogans about “making learning fun” in college-level instruction.
  • “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional” (p. vii). As implied by the paragraph above, attitude matters. Accepting that the process of learning is not always butterflies and unicorns  goes a long way toward getting you through the process.
  • A mind that is used to lounging on the couch with a bag of potato chips within easy reach will quickly become overtaxed and shut down if it is confronted with too onerous a task — such as learning a large amount of knowledge in a short period of time. This is the same phenomenon as the sedentary middle-aged male who buys an expensive pair of running shoes, tries to run five miles on his first day out, and never puts on the running shoes again. In contrast, exercising the mind regularly to steadily build endurance leads to dramatic changes over time.
  • “To be able to grasp something of value, sometimes you have to perform seemingly inefficient acts . . . activities that appear fruitless don’t necessarily end up so” (p. 172). We make noises about the importance of scaffolding in teaching students how to write, but we don’t emphasize that moving from the simple to the complex can be just as important in learning how to learn. Because of the preference for immediate and readily apparent gratification, people rarely spend enough time mastering basic tasks that can greatly improve performance over the long run (pun intended).
  • Through experience one learns how to compensate for one’s shortcomings (p. 171). Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, but only through experience will a person discover exactly which ones he or she possesses, how to capitalize on the former, and how to minimize the effects of the latter.

Planting Seeds in the Social Media Jungle

Here’s an idea I’ve been toying with: granting a very small amount of “extra credit” to students who publish well-written reviews of course texts on Here’s why:

  • By the end of the semester a typical student has written five to ten responses to questions on each of the books I’ve assigned, so they should be able to identify an author’s implied thesis and whether it has been sufficiently defended. A book review is an opportunity for these students to synthesize this information into a few paragraphs of writing, while giving them a final opportunity to think about the “big picture” of how the book relates to the course topic.
  • Students get almost instant gratification of seeing their writing appear in a public venue, and because the audience is global, they might try to avoid humiliating themselves with lousy work.
  • Well-crafted reviews will help them establish a web presence that is more attractive to potential employers than what’s on their Facebook walls.
  • I get feedback on whether and how my assigned texts imparted knowledge to students.

Blackboard JungleWriting about historical sites or events for other social media platforms could achieve similar ends. Studying immigration quotas in the USA? What do Wikipedia and TripAdvisor say about the relationship between the Chinese Exclusion Act and Angel Island? Does the information in these locations correspond to what was learned in class?

Pulling The Trigger On The Research Paper

You can add me to the list of those who have serious doubts about the utility of the traditional research paper. For the vast majority of undergraduates, writing a research paper does not involve retrieval practice, spaced repetition, interleaving, or other processes that have been shown to be beneficial for learning. We typically don’t test students on the factual content that their research papers contain (or are supposed to contain) after the paper has been completed. At best, the research paper is an indirect means of assessing domain knowledge. These are all reasons I have migrated away from the lengthy term paper to shorter but more frequent writing assignments that give them repeated opportunities to practice constructing evidence-based arguments and force them to read more.

We believe that twenty page term papers are the best way for students to learn how to conduct research, synthesize information, and develop complex ideas. I don’t think this hype is reflected by reality. Certainly employers don’t see very many recent college graduates who possess these talents, and those that do aren’t required to display them at work in twenty-page documents formatted according to MLA or APA standards.

The Premortem

I regularly teach courses on economic development and complex humanitarian emergencies, and I often employ a case study approach. When students examine past events, it is easy for them — and for me — to fall victim to hindsight bias. We assume that the prospects for failure should have been just as evident in the past when decisions were made as they are to us when we are evaluating those decisions in the present.

Even if teachers take hindsight bias into account when explaining to students why incorrect answers are incorrect, we often see students making the same mistakes over and over again.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman credits fellow psychologist Gary Klein with the idea for engaging in a premortem when making decisions. The premortem is a critique that is crowd-sourced on a very small scale. It can also be described as a quick and dirty outside review. Here’s how it works:

  • A person presents a proposed decision to a group of people who are knowledgeable about the subject matter.
  • The group is told “Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster” (Kahneman, p. 264).

I can see this technique being applied to all sorts of assignments, especially proposals for thesis research or project design. Although many undergraduates don’t have field research or public policy experience, a classroom of students should be able to think of and write about a few ways that the best laid plans can go awry. Including experienced students as a panel of experts during the ensuing discussion  — for example, students who have already conducted thesis research while studying abroad  — might make the process work even better.

What are exams for?

For most people, the question posed in the title is either blindingly obvious or completely left-field: exams are to test people, duh.  However, you are most people so let’s try asking the question again: what are exams for?

 I ask for the simple that it’s a question which bothers me every time I encounter an exam.  It’s all the more pressing this semester, as some of my students are sitting an exam that I’ve written. It’s a bog-standard, 2-essay-questions-in-2-hours, closed book exam.

 This is perhaps a key part of my doubt about exams: they end up being a very standardised piece of assessment, relatively unvarying in format and purpose (i.e. getting students to pull together their learning into relatively concise, quick-to-mark answers). One might argue (as people have argued to me, usually when I’m their external examiner) that this predictability of form allows students to refine their technique and maximise their performance.  In brief, their attraction lies as much in their ease of administering as in their pedagogic value.

What particularly troubles me is that exams have very limited real-world utility: when do you ever find yourself stuck in a room with no access to other materials and get told to produce a reflective analysis on a topic that you previously only knew roughly which aspects to prepare beforehand?  Given that we spend as much time as we do asking students to become good managers of information and efficient and effective researchers, why then do we provide them with an assessment form that doesn’t let them demonstrate this?

Obviously, there is a baby/bathwater issue here. If we have an efficient way of assessing (that also properly captures student ability), then we should use it: none of us has unlimited time.  As I’ve discussed before, you can have open book exams, or seen exams (where the student is told what the questions will be some time in advance), or (I suppose) group exams.  These would certainly add something to the mix and encourage some additional skills and abilities.

I do recognise that this is also partly a matter of taste: as a student, I prefered writing essays to exams, even if my performance was as good in the latter.  But still we need to come back to the original question, albeit in a different way: what do we want to assess and what’s the best way to do that?

Don’t start what you can’t finish

One of the more regular observations I make of (and to) students is the way they start to make a point – either in class or in their coursework – and then don’t follow it up properly.  This offends both my logical and aesthetic sensibilities.

Thus, it was with some discomfort that I found myself doing exactly the same the other day on Twitter.

Having now moved on from my complete dislike of the site (see earlier posts for context) to an only partial dislike of it, I spotted a comment that I felt I should respond to, because it piqued my interest: in essence I just wanted to point out the inconsistency of the person’s views.  It wasn’t the only aspect that I challenged, but it was the most obvious, as well as the easiest to squeeze into the space available.

This then triggered an exchange, in which the original poster sought to rebut my comment and re-emphasise the exceptionality of their case. [You’ll note I’m dressing this up in fancy language: it was rather more prosaic in reality].

At this point I gave up.

Since I’m a good reflective learner, I thought it might be a good idea to think about why I gave up.  Firstly, I needed to challenge the entire normative underpinning of the discussion and Twitter is not the place to do that.  Secondly, in order to do this, I needed to understand better the poster’s thought-process, another thing Twitter isn’t designed for.  Thirdly, someone else was in the discussion with a similar view to my own (although not identical) and it seemed easier to let him keep on going.  Fourthly, tweeting isn’t high in my job spec, and I needed to get back to the rest of the pile of work on my desk.

It’s all classic motes/beams or pots/kettles territory here.  Students often present the same kinds of rationalisations (OK, maybe not the normative thing) when I talk with them and it would be foolish of me not to recognise it in myself.  In retrospect, I should have refrained from replying on Twitter, and instead written a blog post where I could have properly unpacked my thoughts, tweeted the link and gone from there.  What will be interesting is whether I’ll learn from this or not: looking to my students, I’d say it’s 50-50.

Time Well Spent

Maybe it doesn’t matter what techniques we use in the classroom; maybe it’s how much time students spend with the material we want them to learn!

I got this idea after an experiment on the learning efficacy of a collaborative group exercise. Half the students from my and my colleague’s Intro to Political Science classes were split into problem-based learning (PBL) working groups and lecture-discussion groups. The experiment took place during a single class period and included a pre-test/post-test plus a retention test two weeks later.

In contrast to other studies, I found no significant relationship between participating in the PBL exercise and better learning. It’s possible that these results were caused by not debriefing the PBL groups (to keep the experiment to one class period), or because the PBL groups were busy learning skills rather than the content (like how to get along).

It’s possible that the better learning from collaborative projects reported in other studies occurs simply because their participants spend more time with the material than those in more standard settings. Thanks to the two-teacher feature of the quasi-experimental design, I was able to test this ‘time-spent’ hypothesis in two ways.  First, my own classes required all of my students, regardless of treatment group, to write an individual paper that drew on the same material used in the exercise.  This paper was assigned after the post-test, and was due a week before the retention test.  Students who spent the time to write the paper scored significantly higher on the retention-test than those who didn’t.

Second, my students faced the threat of a pop oral quiz each day while my colleague’s didn’t. The data showed that my students were significantly more prepared for class the day of the experiment.  They scored much higher on the pre-test, and held onto that ‘bump’ in the post-test and retention-test.  Again, it seems, students who spent more time doing the reading actually learned and retained more.

Bob Amyot, Hastings College, Hastings, NE –

Live from the TLC

A few thoughts from the initial day of the 2012 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference:

I missed the opening speakers due to a fog-induced flight delay.

The Grand Hyatt in Washington, DC, is pretty swank. The conference sessions are being held about four floors below ground level, an ideal location for the Iranian nuclear  development program. One tunnel connects to the Metro Center station, so it’s easy traveling between the hotel and DCA.

This year’s conference track on IR simulations and role-play again promises to be interesting. We’ve already had Dr. Robert P. Amyot of Hastings College present evidence that brings a fundamental premise of pedagogical simulations into question: that simulations in and of themselves significantly enhance student learning. He argued that learning is more a function of how much time students spend writing and thinking about a topic. Instructors should therefore focus their energies on discovering whatever motivates students to do this, rather than on a particular pedagogical style or tool.

Tomorrow Dr. Victor Asal of SUNY-Albany will be reprising his role as the grandfatherly mentor when he presents a variety of gaming exercises related to identity salience and political violence.