Tag: pedagogy (page 1 of 2)

Uncomfortable Conversations at a Distance: Lessons from Teaching the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Daniel J. Levine is Aaron Aronov Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Alabama, where he divides his time between the Departments of Political Science and Religious Studies.  Information on his research can be found here

Last fall, I taught – as I have done every year since coming to the University of Alabama (UA) – an upper-division lecture-seminar on the Israel-Palestine Conflict.  The topic is never an easy one, with both the transition to remote teaching, and the acutely partisan political climate of the US elections, adding to the difficulty.  In this post, I describe these challenges, and a set of assignments which I developed in order to address some of them.  I then briefly assess their successes and limitations.  Comments and suggestions regarding the latter would be most appreciated!

Outlining the Challenges

The Israel-Palestine conflict poses particular teaching challenges even in the best of times.   First, the territories and peoples most directly implicated in it are mediated through tangled webs of overlappingutopianand mutually-exclusive mythic imaginaries.  So viewed, Palestinians and Israelis lose much of their humanity and autonomy; they become players in set-piece dramas of the students’ own, often unconscious, imaginings.   

A second challenge relates to student expectations.  UA undergraduates receive a version of political science that emphasizes practicaldispassionate problem-solving.  For many reasons – not least because that traditionis itself implicated in the conflict in a variety of ways – this course is ‘pitched’ somewhat differently.  

The subsequent discussion – following readings that connected the emergence of Zionism to that of 19thCentury anti-Semitism – may illustrate how these problems surface in class.  “If Zionism is a response to anti-Semitism,” one student asked, “then where is the boundary between legitimate criticisms of Israel, and those which are anti-Semitic?”  

A vigorous discussion ensued.  Several students held that the question of anti-Semitism was an invented controversy, a ‘false flag.’  To what end, I asked, and by whom?  

To distract Americans from more difficult historical reckonings of their own, said some.  To cultivate sympathy for Israel, said others.  A smaller number argued for the existence of a well-coordinated, highly influential group of ethnic-religious elites, with hidden ties to media and finance.  One student went so far as to state that I – the university’s only professor of Jewish studies – was myself part of that elite; further, that the design of the course reflected my support for its agenda.

However fraught, this discussion reveals a number of certain shared understandings. First, it acknowledges – if only in the breech – anti-Semitism’s historical-conceptual trajectory.  Second, that the memory of thattrajectory shapecontemporary political normsdiscoursesand policies.  Third, the linkages between critical reflection on that trajectory and claims of bad faith.

The Problem of Political Judgement

Consider the student who is deeply dissatisfied with the terms of contemporary political discourse.  Said student suspects that certain historical facts have been tendentiously assembled, but feels uncertainty – or fear – in raising the matter.  Their fear curdles into resentment.  

In what forums will they seek out to work out those intuitions?  Should one be surprised if some of them are drawn into conversations that are marginal, and anonymous – all the more so in a period of enforced isolation?  Should one then be surprised if some number of them show up for class with lightly-reworked conspiracy theories?  There are, after all, any number of well-conceived scholarly and journalistic discussionsalong the lines summarized above.  That said, the line separating ‘good’ arguments from ‘bad’ ones is no more self-evident here than in my student’s original question.    

This is because such lines cannot be drawn merely with reference to the facts upon which they are predicated.  Some critical or reflexive faculty must be brought to bear on them – political or ethical judgement.  But judgement is both contingent and fallible.  Its exercise has, moreover, become increasingly fraught. The student who asked me ‘where the line was’ intuitively understood this; they sought to substitute my judgement for their own.  

Hannah Arendt has noted that judgement relies on a shared consensus: first, as to what facts are, and second, to those public-discursive frameworks by which they acquire meaning: debates, elections, trials, literary-historical canons, etc.  Each of these has come under increasing pressure.  In the present context, consider recent attempts to formulate or institutionalize detailed definitions of anti-Semitism.  When married to enforcement of Title VI anti-discrimination legislation, these definitions seem intended to police the scope of  ‘acceptable’ scholarly and political discourse in the era of BDS, rather than to focus or direct intellectual argument.    

Fostering Student Solidarities

In the face of these challenges, I have historically relied on approaches that foster trust, openness, and mutual respect in the classroom.  Such trust emerges gradually, and by degree. To feel safe, students must be able to ‘take the measure’ of one another in ways that do not carry over Zoom.  What I needed was some alternative way to foster horizontal solidarities between and among a group of students could not meet in person.

To that end, I developed three inter-connected group assignments for the opening weeks of the course.  Students were placed randomly into groups.  Each was given two short preparatory assignments, and a longer project.  A brief summary of these follows (full details here):

First, each group received a list of web-based informational resources related to the conflict: websites, blogs, and reference materials maintained by leading think tanks, policy shops, NGOs, ministries, etc.  Students were asked to survey the range and depth of the information on offer, and to assess its credibility along different lines.  A second assignment asked them to track how these sites and resources were used, and by whom.    

The third assignment turned them from critics into curators. Each group was asked to arrive at a relevant topic of shared interest, and then to develop their own web-based finding aids.  These would be posted on a shared WordPress site.  Time was set aside in class for groups to meet in breakout rooms. Each group received its own ‘Blackboard’ workspace, with dedicated email, online storage, and a virtual meeting platform.   

Yes, But Did It Work?  

The best of these produced innovative takes on topics as diverse as arms sales, the UNRWA, satellite surveillance, and Israeli collective memory.  Less successful were those that reproduced the reified categories and ‘imagined dramas’ discussed above.  That said, pointing out that reproduction became a way to demonstrate and challenge the hold they exercise over students’ imaginations. My hope is to refine this challenge in future.

Hoping to foster the kind of small-group solidarity that would carry over into general discussion, groups were sized at 4-5.  As hoped, some bonded strongly, collaborating on subsequent projects together and participating interactively in open discussion.  Others suffered from ‘free ridership,’ or failed to arrive at consensus.  Thoughts on how to incentivize the former and address the latter would be welcome.       

It was also evident that this assignment only scratched the surface of the questions from which it arose.  How do we equip students to identify and critique the effects of knowledge networks – a space bounded by partisan politics, the sociology of knowledge, critical media studies, and ‘groupthink’?   Given the flood of information to which students are subjected, how useful is fine-grained analysis as a mode of cultivating judgement?  What becomes of a civic ideal predicated on unhurried, dispassionate reflection and unfettered argument, when the conditions of possibility for such practices, and public faith in them, were either never present or no longer exist?  


The Interviews for Teaching World Politics Project

In less than a month, I’ll be teaching “Introduction to International Relations” for the first time in over ten years. As luck (for certain values of “luck”) would have it, this means I’m building a 100-200 person course from scratch and teaching it online. But where some might see a yawning black pit of despair, I see a yawning black pit of despair… and opportunity. Why not experiment a bit?

I know a lot of professors are thinking this way, so at the start of the summer some of us talked about working together to produce shareable content. We had plans! We had pants to match! And massive coordination problems.

So about a week ago, as I looked down into that black pit, I decided “screw this, I’m going to email lots of friends and see if they’ll record interviews with me. I’ll make it more appealing by putting the results online in an archive. That way anyone can download interviews and integrate excerpts from them into their lectures, class videos, or whatever.”

Shockingly enough, it turns out that academics and practitioners generally like to talk about their work, as well as their career paths. I’ve recorded something like 12 interviews over six days, and have a lot more scheduled.

But it’s been a haphazard process, driven in no small measure by my specific needs for my class. And all that video is useless to anyone else if it’s not processed, and useless to me if I don’t have time to put the course together. So I’ve been teaming up with people, gotten help from an RA, and come to the conclusion that this is the kind of project that works best if it’s crowdsourced.

Enter this post, which serves to announce “The Interviews for Teaching World Politics Project.” (It’s the worst title I’ve ever used for anything, and believe me, that’s a very high bar to cross). Below is a version 1.0 of the project summary. You can also read it via this link, where you will also be able to navigate to the archive and see the two sample videos we’ve got up.


“The Interviews for Teaching World Politics Project” aims to develop a large database of video interviews – currently conducted on Zoom at 720p in .mp4 format – with international-relations scholars and practitioners. 

The interviews are supposed to be suitable for use in introductory or advanced undergraduate classes, and are conducted not to produce a seamless “lecture” but rather excerpts that can be incorporated into prerecorded class videos or lectures. 

In addition to scholars and practitioners talking about their areas of expertise, some interviews will contain discussions of what it’s like to work in various areas of applied international relations. Some videos include biographical information on how participants wound up in their present positions.

Using the Archive

The archive consists of folders that are entitled with the name of the interviewee and the core topic under discussion. Each folder contains a video and a text file with a rough index to the video. The videos themselves have title cards related to the index, so it is possible to scroll through the video to find sections that might be useful to you.

All videos in the archive are under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) license. At minimum, your videos or lectures must identify the name of the interviewee. Preferred citation includes the name of the interviewee, the date of the interview, and some reference to the “Teaching World Politics Project” so that other people can find the archive.

We currently only have a small number of samples up, and it will take a while to even process what we already have.

How Can You Help?

As of now, all of our interviewing, recording, and production work is being done by three people – one of whom is a serious introvert – and we could really use help. There are two ways to help:

  1. Editing and indexing videos. Each video should take 1.5-2 hours to complete, depending on your skill level. Videos are currently being processed this way in iMovie or Final Cut Pro X, but any software is fine so long as the video output isn’t downsampled. Contact Dan Nexon  if you’re interested. We are happy if people are willing to do only one or two videos – indeed, we’d prefer that to anyone taking  on more than they can realistically complete in relatively short order; no one wants to be pestering volunteers.
  2. Recording interviews. We’d love for people to volunteer to interview other scholars or practitioners, and the neat thing is that you can interview pretty much anyone you want. The only restriction on our end is that the interviewer must be someone currently teaching IR at the college or university level, or an advanced PhD in International Relations/International Studies. There is, or will soon be, an access-restricted spreadsheet to track the effort. This will help us a) to avoid pestering those who have already agreed or turned down a request and b) to try to ensure adequate methodological and demographic diversity in the pool of videos.

    Instructions for Zoom: when recording, keep your interface set to speaker view (you’ll notice that our first two videos were in gallery view, and that’s… not great).

    General instructions for recording
    • You and your subject should use headphones, and make sure that all your computer sound is routed through those headphones. Both you and your subject should do their best to remove other sources of noise, such as mobile phones. 
    • If you do get interrupted or the subject wants to start over, make sure that they back up to a point where it will be easy to edit (so at the start of the idea). 
    • There are plenty of resources online that cover best practices, but keep in mind that our interviews are supposed to be informal.
    • Do not split screen your interview. The interviewee will be edited out of the archived video.
    • Keep in mind that our videos are supposed to be informal.
    • Important: as you’re interviewing have a timer going and keep a real-time index of key subjects or anecdotes. This will make it much easier to process the video later.
  3. Volunteering to be interviewed. If you’d like to be interviewed, email Dan and he’ll put you on a list. You should include your name, best email address, position(s), and subject-matter expertise. Note that because 1) we don’t have a lot of labor hours and 2) volunteers are likely to be focused on collecting material for their immediate teaching needs, we cannot guarantee when or if an interview will actually take place. But we do appreciate your willingness to do one and, if this project continues for the next year, we really hope that we can get to you.

But Wait, There’s More

There are a ton of informal efforts by professors to recruit other experts and scholars to speak to their classes, because COVID-19 and remote learning.

There are terrific resources that you can and should use to break the constraints of social capital and find potential speakers. If you’re like me, though, and you’re an introvert, it takes enormous energy to approach even one person you don’t know for this kind of favor.

Thus, over on Facebook I pitched the idea of maintaining a spreadsheet where people could volunteer as speakers. It’s called the “Yes, I would be happy to chat remotely with your class!” list, and if this appeals to you check it out (I’ve entered my name both as an example and also because, yes, indeed, I would be happy to chat remotely with your class!). I’ve put instructions there for how to get your name added.

The other thing that I think would be useful to crowdsource is a list of resources. The Carnegie Endowment is doing great work making video and audio resources available. There are podcasts that might be suitable for specific classes. That kind of thing. If there’s interest, I’m happy to host something that as well.

I really don’t know if any of this will work out. But since I’m doing some of this anyway, I figure “why not?”


The Birth of a Sports Rivalry

cute fighting ducksHow do we communicate ideas to our audience?  What steps can we take to introduce advanced concepts to our students or the general public? Scholars work for decades on the content of their arguments but spend very little time thinking about how to translate their ideas for specific consumers of information.

In Phil Arena’s review of Braumoeller’s new excellent book, he makes a baseball reference, later noting that he does not even like sports.  This is a typical tactic in Political Science, if not all of academia.  We often make sports metaphors and analogies in order to push our point across.  No matter if you have never played an inning of ball in your life, most American academics are apt to make at least one baseball reference in class.  Most British academics are apt to make at least one reference to football, even if they hate the sport.

Continue reading


Podcasting Killed the Lecturing Star

The first video ever played on MTV, back when MTV played music videos most of the time, was the one-hit wonder “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. A lament about how new technology ended the career of a singer who was well-adapted to the production standards and genre constraints of an earlier era, the song recounts an irreversible process:

In my mind and in my car
We can’t rewind we’ve gone too far
Pictures came and broke your heart
Put the blame on VTR

Maybe this rings a faint bell for some of you. In any case, for a quick refresher, you can watch the whole thing here.

The great irony of MTV using this to launch an entirely new avenue for experiencing music (music videos weren’t new in 1981, but the idea of a basic cable channel that showed basically nothing but such videos was quite new) is that it took The Buggles’ tragic tale and drew from it, at least by implication, a silver lining: the end of the radio era was the condition of possibility for the video era, and the experience of music was thereby enhanced and transformed. Radio stars might die, but music would survive and thrive.

As I read the discussion thread that unfolded underneath my brief pedagogical query from a few weeks ago, and kept composing replies in my head that I couldn’t make the time for amidst the chaos of the opening week of the semester (and no, APSA had nothing to do with it, since I don’t go to APSA these days…but that’s material for another post entirely), I kept coming back to the thought that there was something of the sentiment of this song in many of the replies, and something of MTV’s ironic deployment of the song in my reaction. I would submit that podcasting has killed the lecturing star already, although news of that death has yet to reach all corners of the academy. Large live lecturing, like churning one’s own butter or properly loading a flintlock musket, is a historical curiosity, perhaps something one might expect to see in museums or at Renaissance Festivals being practiced as a hobby, but not in the heart of a university. But this death of the lecturer is also an opportunity for teaching, much as MTV was an opportunity for music — not wholly positive, not wholly negative, but different. And ignoring that difference, which we can keep doing in the academy for a while because of our tenuous-but-still-extant-in-many-quarters isolation from broader socioeconomic trends, is not a strategy for continuing to educate the students who keep filling up our classrooms and our campuses. Continue reading


Blogging the syllabus, international security edition: what is security?

With all of the focus on APSA, there’s been little discussion of another Labor Day ritual—the Revising of the Syllabus. In truth, I should have begun this ritual a few weeks ago.  Now that the panic dreams have kicked in—you know, the ones where you show up to class on the first day without a syllabus and thus lose all authority over your students for the rest of the semester…you do get those too, right?—I know I must take action.

My first task is to revise my introductory-level course on security studies and, luckily, it’s in pretty good shape, thanks to some major overhauls I did over the last two years.  But although I’m only engaged in minor tinkering, I at least try to reflect upon the major assumptions that shape the syllabus.  First and foremost, there is the mother of all assumptions: what is security, and what do we mean by security studies?

Continue reading


Common Errors in Essay Writing, as Demonstrated by Film Critics, Part 1

Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post settled on a theme for her extremely negative review of the new “The Lone Ranger” flick. Indeed, one might argue that developing a unifying thread is an important part of short-form writing. It holds everything together and provides the reader with a single, if stylized, takeaway. He basic theme? That The Lone Ranger tries to combine too many different themes, tones, and film elements. It suffers from such a severe case of summer blockbuster-itis that it pushes through mashup, beyond potpourri, and into full-blown incoherence. As she writes:

What’s more, despite its impressively staged set pieces, “The Lone Ranger” can’t survive the epic train wreck resulting from its own tonal clashes, wherein mournful scenes of genocide and stolen immigrant labor are tastelessly juxtaposed with silly slapstick humor, and solemn historic revisionism abuts awkwardly with overblown computer-generated spectacle.

Now, you might ask, “what’s so dumb about that?” Why, nothing at all. Except….

Continue reading


“A university isn’t Disneyland and professors aren’t Mickey Mouse”

Ari Kohen on the value of “edutainment“:

Finally, and most importantly, is the central claim that the test of education is whether or not it’s entertaining. Wales asks, “why wouldn’t you have the most entertaining professor, the one with the proven track record of getting knowledge into people’s heads?” Is there evidence that the most entertaining lecture is the one that gets “knowledge into people’s heads”? Again, I’m not suggesting that a boring lecture is going to do the trick, but I’m arguing that entertaining students doesn’t necessarily equate with teaching them something. When I lecture on Kant, I don’t think I’m really entertaining my students. In my opinion, Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals doesn’t lend itself to entertainment; it’s a dense text that needs some serious explication. Now, I don’t speak in a monotone and I try to find relevant examples to help them make sense of the material, but I’m not standing in front of the class hoping that they’ll all have a great time; I’m standing there with the express purpose of teaching them about Kant.

Continue reading


The Crass Argument for Teaching More Math In Poli Sci Courses

LATE UPDATE: PTJ blogs about undergrad education from a very different starting point.

A few months back, we had a lively debate about what to teach undergraduates in political science. As I prepare to motivate 20 undergraduates to learn elementary statistical analysis tools AND basic R skills, I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot. I think that we both should aim to teach political science to undergraduates–that is, the skills and methodologies that are necessary for understanding research published in, say, the APSR of the 1980s—and also that we should think hard about what employable skills our students should leave with.

I submit that, up to a point, research methodologies and employable skills are pretty well the same thing.

Here’s some crass, utterly unscientific, and in-your-face data to support this point.

This figure (slightly easier to view PDF version here) draws on data from Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute and reflects my impression of plausible alternative careers for the students I’ll be teaching. (This ranges from the ministry to math/computer science–extremes that, at least at Georgetown, carry a vow of chastity.) Across this range, political science does fairly well on both percent employed full time and median wage. What I find striking, though, is that the more “mathy” a subject is, the better its graduates tend to score on both measures.

For students in my seminar, this will become my warrant to expect them to become pretty good at certain types of skills. (In conversations with folks at other institutions, I’ve been assured that undergrads are more eager and willing these skills on average than Ph.D. students, which sounds about right.) For the broader discipline, I think this sort of evidence can be used to justify including more analytical training in our major programs.
Continue reading


Reply on “physics envy”

Because not everyone reads comment threads, in part because of the way that people engage with The Duck via RSS readers, and because think the questions involved are really important ones, I’m going to post my reaction to PM’s “Yes, I do envy physicists”as a separate post of its own:

Man, I was right with you until your advance response to commenters. Making “data and its analysis central to the undergraduate experience” — a.k.a. emphasizing undergraduate research, such that one of the primary learning outcomes of a BA in International Relations or Government or Political Science or whatever is the critical intellectual disposition necessary to be both an intelligent producer of knowledge about the social and political world and an intelligent consumer of other knowledge-claims about that world — is spot-on. (And part of why one of the first administrative changes I made as Associate Dean in my school is to establish the position of Undergraduate Research Coordinator, whose job is both to coordinate our methodological course offerings and to make sure that upper-division classes feature opportunities to actually use those techniques in research projects as appropriate.) Now, you and I (probably) disagree about the relative prominence of statistical training in the enterprise of undergraduate research, since as you know I am a lot more small-c-catholic about (social-)scientific methodology than, well, most people. But hey, we’re in the same basic place…

…and then you had to go and diss history and theory. This is counterproductive for at least three reasons:

1) one can’t do good research without both theory and methodology, and the point of the exercise is to help people learn how to do good research, not how to use methodological tools in isolation.

2) de-emphasizing history and theory at the undergraduate level basically guarantees that “re-emphasizing” it at the graduate level ain’t never gonna happen. Teched-up statisticians going to graduate programs aren’t likely to willingly seek out unfamiliar ways of thinking about knowledge-production, and let’s be honest, theory — whatever your favorite flavor of theory — isn’t like methodology in general and isn’t like statistical-comparative methodology of the quantitative kind in particular. So you’ll either get a) statisticians launching smash-and-grab raids on history and theory for a justificatory fig-leaf for their operational definitions of variables and for supposedly “objective” data to use in testing their hypotheses (hey, wait a second, that sounds familiar…oh yeah, it’s what “mainstream U.S. PoliSci” does ALL THE FRAKKING TIME ALREADY); or b) existential crises when students discover that everything they learned in undergrad — I am referring to the “hidden curriculum” here, the conclusions that students will draw from the emphasis on statistics and the de-emphasis on history and theory — is wrong or at least seriously incomplete. Then you factor in the professional incentives for publication in “top-tier” US journals, and the lack of ability to meaningfully evaluate non-statistical work if one hasn’t spent some serious time training in how do appreciate that work, and you get…well, you get basically what we have at the moment in US PoliSci, but worse.

3) since we’re social scientists and not statisticians (or discourse analysts, or ethnographers, or surveyors, or…), methodology is a means to an end, and that end is or should always be the explanation of stuff in the social world. A social scientist teaching stats should be teaching about how one uses stats to make sense of the social world; ditto a social scientist teaching whatever methodology or technique one is teaching. Yes, the disciplinary specialists in those tools are not going to be particularly pleased with everything that we do, but that’s okay, since we’re on a different mission. And that mission necessitates history and theory just as much as it necessitates methodology (and, I would argue, a broad and diverse set of methodological literacies). If one tries to play the game where one looks for external validation of one’s methodological chops by people whose discipline specializes in a particular set of tools, then one is probably going to lose, or one is going to be dismissed as derivative. We’re not about to locate the Higgs boson with anything we do in the social sciences, and we’re not likely to contribute to any other discipline (I mean, it happens, but I think the frequency is pretty low). What we are going to do, or at least keep on trying to do, is to enhance our understanding of the social world. More stats training — more methodology training of any sort — at the undergraduate level is not necessarily a means to that end, unless it occurs in conjunction with more history and theory.

None of this is going to help the public understand what we do any better. We don’t make nuclear bombs or cel phones or (un)employment, and the U.S. is kind a a dispositionally anti-intellectual place (has been since the founding of the country…see Tocqueville, Hofstader, etc.) theory isn’t respected as a contribution. Everybody wants results that they can easily see — can you build a better mousetrap — and the vague sense that physicists have something to do with engineers and economists have something to do with entrepreneurs (who are, I think, the actual figures that get public prestige, because they do practical stuff) shores up their respective social value. But us, what we have a vague connection to are POLITICIANS, and everybody hates them. So that’s an uphill battle we’re probably fated to lose. So my punchline, which I’ve given many times before: our primary job is teaching students, our scholarship makes us better teachers, and the place to point for evidence of our social value is to those who graduate from our colleges and universities and the people they’ve become as a result of dwelling for a time in the happily intellectual and critical environment we contribute to producing on campus.


That Exceptional Feeling

A crass, gaudy, all-American display.

Someone named Steven Walt has published an article, wildly posted on the Internet, entitled “The Myth of American Exceptionalism”. I don’t know who Mr. Walt is, but the bio says he is a professor at Harvard University.  Unfortunately we are seeing too much of this type of thinking coming out of America’s college professors. I should take the time to offer a point by point rebuttal to Mr. Walt’s article. …But I have found that people like Mr. Walt don’t really listen to facts or care too much about history. —  D. Hancock, RedState.com

Academics often use words differently than their less-credentialed counterparts in the general public. The divergence usually doesn’t matter; who cares if most people misuse the phrase “quantum leap“? Yet the consequences can still be disconcerting, as with the ways scholars and the right-wing appreciate the term “American exceptionalism.”

For academics, “American exceptionalism” is a phrase that either has a specific historical meanings (for instance) or that broadly connotes a flawed and ad-hoc theory based on unfalsifiable beliefs. For conservatives, such as D. Hancock, “American exceptionalism” is an unreservedly good thing:

Mr. Walt has the right to speak his mind – this is part of what makes us exceptional.  But I and most Americans have the right to disagree with him, and in this point disagree quite strongly.  Because a large part of what makes us exceptional is the knowledge that we are, and can continue to be, exceptional.  Ideas like those from Mr. Walt and the few who consider themselves part of some sort of world society concern those of us who understand not just the privilege but also the responsibility of being an American.

Steve Walt, cosseted cosmopolitan world-government-loving Harvard egghead.

RedState, something of a Republican answer to DailyKos, has thousands of posts with messages like D. Hancock’s. Last week, a conservative talk radio host criticized the U.S. women’s gymnastic team for a “soft anti-American feeling” for not exercising in red, white, and blue outfits, speculating that the team didn’t want to offend foreigners by “showing our exceptionalism” and lamenting the fact that Americans have “lost, over time, that jingoistic feeling.” (See also.)

Of course, he’s insane. Americans are plenty patriotic, and it’s hardly the case that the NBC coverage of the Olympics has failed to sate ordinary levels of nationalist exuberance. After all, American conservatives and Chinese Communists alike agree that the country that wins the most gold becomes the next hegemon. (I’ve been reloading the medal count table several times a day, too.)

A lot of people using the term think it’s synonymous with “good.”
Google N-gram of “American exceptionalism” and “American
Exceptionalism,” 1920-2008.

But whether conservatives are objectively correct (they’re not) about levels of patriotism in the United States is not the issue. It’s the fact that the term “American exceptionalism” to them is an affirmation of everything good about the United States.

Unsurprisingly, then, a draft history curriculum in Nebraska is attacked because it fails “to promote American exceptionalism“:

“We need to specifically reject this concept that all ideas are equal or all cultures are equal,” [Nebraska Board of Education member John] Sieler told Fox News Radio. “All cultures are not equal. All ideas are not equal and we need to state that in a positive manner instead of glossing over this and having some ‘Kumbaya let’s all get along, everybody’s wonderful’ feeling.”

Sieler said he’s received at least 30 emails from constituents who are upset that the draft process was not open to the public. Among the chiefs concerns — no mention of American exceptionalism.

“I strongly believe in American exceptionalism,” he said. …

Sieler said the state needs to adopt a specific statement recognizing American exceptionalism.

I mention this in part because you may have encountered pushback on this in your classroom (as I have) and in part because you may not realize that you and your students are speaking what amounts to a different language. Assigning Walt’s Foreign Policy article might be useful precisely because Walt (despite D.  Hancock) is no squishy librul. Doing so could lead to a useful discussion of a theme latent in Morgenthau and complementary to contemporary discussions of constructivism: how does power and status generate identity?

For IR scholars more generally, the question is whether such beliefs have independent causal effects. Does it matter if the citizens and a good chunk of the ruling class of the unipole believe that their state is so constituted that it should not be responsible to international institutions?

[Ed. Note: Readers interested in Duck discussions of the nature of American Exceptionalism, particularly in the context of foreign policy and of conservatism, might check out this, that, and also this, and especially this. More good stuff in the labels.]


New Page: Academia and Graduate School

I’ve put together a collection, albeit not a comprehensive one, of posts at the Duck of Minerva that focus on what might be called “the profession.” The link is now a tab (Academia and Graduate School) below our banner.

The rationale? Many of our most consistently popular pieces — including ones that still get significant hits years after their publication — fall into this category, so I think it might be a good service to try to consolidate links to them.

In theory, post labels should do that, but after seven years of myriad bloggers our “labels” are a disaster. We have over a thousand; they seem to break the blogger widget, which I have been unable to reinstall.

The page remains a work in progress. We’ll add more posts over time. Noticeable absences include Brian Rathbun’s cutting pieces on the discipline.


Exam Time at Georgetown

 On a wall outside of the Intercultural Center auditorium. Make of it what you will.


Are our courses easier than sleeping?

Yes. Your students have less observable brain activity during
lecture than when they’re asleep.

Updated for the humorless. See postscript below.

A new paper in IEEE Transactions in Biomedical Engineering suggests so:

Long-term assessment of EDA [a measure of nervous system activity] revealed interesting trends in the participant’s sympathetic modulation over a week-long period. Intervals of elevated EDA frequently corresponded to times when the participant was studying, doing homework, or taking an exam. This is possibly due to the increased cognitive stress associated with these activities. The characteristic peaks occurring during sleep have been associated with slow-wave sleep [40] and remain a subject for future studies.

What’s telling, by the way, is that coursework did not increase cognitive stress. (Via.)

So what does this mean for our classes? Well, it means that we now have Science (granted, n = 1) to back up our intuition that lecturing is a terribly inefficient way of conveying information.

What is to be done? It’s time to scrap the lecture.

I’ve been a convert to anti-lecturing for a while, but Eric Mazur helped me put intellectual muscle on a skeleton that I’d gotten from reading Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do.

The basic idea is straightforward: Any communication that requires passive acceptance of the material by the student is bad. The idea is to generate active engagement on the student’s part with the material–whether by asking questions, generating discussion, or, from time to time, coercing (gently!) participation.

Easy in seminar. Hard in lecture. But technology–especially in-class clickers (as publicized here by Professor Matt Carnes of Georgetown and probably by a colleague or a mentor in your department; see also the first pages of Brad DeLong’s intro lecture) allows for scalable participation much more easily.

Lectures are more a ritual and a convenience than a pedagogical tool. But in the absence of tutorials and seminars for all, we should at least make them more challenging than napping.

Postscript: I should have learned by now that there is no joke so obvious that some pedant won’t get it. The paper I linked to, the post I linked to, and this post that I wrote all made it clear to varying degrees that we understand that (a) this is not a perfect or even a good measure of cognitive effort and (b) that this is a very small (“n=1″!) sample. So, thanks to the Twitterers who pointed out that this is not Science!!!!1!.

Mazur’s lecture (cheap irony alert) is both long and well worth the time. I suggest that the truly interested take the time to watch it. This post, after all, was nothing more than an excuse to link to it.


Academic Rigor in the Classroom: Time to Get Serious?

Star Trek convention Las Vegas 2009
Charli, Dan and Patrick at ISA 2013?

The academics/educators who write this blog often locate their research and teaching interests in texts from popular culture. Dan has co-edited a book on Harry Potter and IR. Patrick teaches a course on science fiction and social science. Dan offers a course on science fiction and politics. Charli blogs frequently about science fiction and has a working paper on “Security or Human Security? Civil-Military Relations in Battlestar Galactica.” I’ve frequently taught a class on “Global Politics Through Film” and am working on a project about “the comedy of global politics.” I could go on and on, referencing most of the bloggers on the sidebar.

But you already get the idea. Nerdy Duck of Minerva bloggers like to think about popular films, television series, and novels through the lens of international politics. Resistance is futile. We are serious about nonsense, or at least that is likely how critics and skeptics would view these efforts. The other bloggers at the Duck have frequently explained why they do what they do, but I’d like to revisit the issue in light of some recent social science research.

So, here we go again: Given what we know about the ability of higher education to achieve its aims, are we letting our students and colleagues down by focusing on battle stars, death stars, dark materials, the dark side, hunger games, super-heroes, wizard worlds, or zombies?

I have sometimes heard colleagues in the hard sciences snicker at the unusual titles and subjects of courses, papers, and conferences in the social sciences and humanities. Many assume we are all practicing post-modernists, dedicated perhaps to the reification of fantasy. Many colleagues in IR want all of us in the field to spend much more time thinking about the policy relevance of our work. Even sympathetic friends in the social sciences fear that paying parents will be unhappy when they hear about the courses their offspring are taking next term. We had a big debate about this at Louisville when trying to name the new Peace Studies program.

Granted, much of this is familiar ground on this blog and elsewhere. Thus, I’d like to consider the topic in terms of basic student learning outcomes.

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk by Richard Arum, one of the co-authors of Academically Adrift, the much-discussed recent work demonstrating that colleges are failing a huge portion of their students. Perhaps even worse, the work explains the problems Arum and colleagues identify by finding that too many college classes lack basic rigor. Long-time readers may recall that I previously blogged about Arum’s work with Josipa Roksa back in February 2011.

For those unfamiliar with their study, Arum and Roksa used “measures developed by the Collegiate Learning Association (CLA)” to determine what students are getting out of college. They tested students entering school and then tested them again two and four years later. The results were troubling as more than one-third of respondents ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ over four years of college.

Keep that basic point in mind: apparently about 35% of students are wasting tens of thousands of dollars and four years of their lives to gain almost nothing from higher education.

It gets worse.

While speaking in Louisville, Arum revealed that he and his colleagues have continued to follow the student cohort that they started studying in 2005. In other words, they have data from the sixth year after entry into college and now know more about graduation rates, (un)employment, and graduate school entry.

The results are again disturbing, especially for the students who did not significantly improve in college:

Graduates who scored in the bottom quintile of the CLA were three times more likely to be unemployed than those who scored in the top quintile on the CLA (9.6 percent compared to 3.1 percent), twice as likely to be living at home (35 percent compared to 18 percent) and significantly more likely to have amassed credit card debt (51 percent compared to 37 percent).

They also found that their results had political implications, at least for those of us interested in the responsibilities of citizenship, the state of deliberation in the public sphere, etc.

Graduates who exhibited high academic engagement/growth in college were significantly more likely to read the news and discuss politics and public affairs compared to students who displayed low academic engagement/growth. Graduates who scored in the highest quintile on the CLA in their senior year were more likely to read the news and discuss politics and public affairs compared to students in the bottom quintile.

Obviously, the students entering college in 2005 started exiting college at a particularly bad time, economically.  Indeed, the latest  news about college student unemployment is even worse than Arum and colleagues report. From the Associated Press:

According to the AP’s analysis of government data, about 53.6 percent of Americans who have bachelor’s degrees and are 25 and under are unemployed or hold lower-wage jobs, like waiting tables or serving as office receptionists, that don’t require a degree. That translates to about 1.5 million young people who have not, or not yet, gotten the payoff they expected from a college education.

Who should be blamed for all this misery?

As they do in their book, Arum and colleagues continue to argue for more rigor in the college classroom. The standard employed in the study is not all that difficult to meet — 40 pages of reading per course per week and 20 pages of writing per course. Arum emphasized in Louisville that there is nothing magic about these particular numbers, but they they found that many students had actively sought out courses to avoid anything like this kind of workload. And generally, students had no difficulty finding plenty of courses that do not require them to work very hard. This is true even at good schools as fewer than half of seniors in the sample had completed over 20 pages of writing for a course in the prior semester.

To reiterate, colleges are failing their students because too many instructors fail to make their courses sufficiently rigorous — and many students are flocking to them so that they can complete degrees (and likely earn high grades).

In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa point out that a liberal arts education is highly correlated with rigor and learning. Students pursuing traditional liberal arts majors showed “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time.” Oddly enough, students pursuing degrees in practical and applied fields — business, education, social work, and communications — were more likely to be at the bottom of the rankings.

So, what does this research say about the politics of popular culture? When Duck of Minerva scholars take these texts seriously, they think critically and ask their academic audience and students to do the same. Indeed, in the classroom, they ask students to read a healthy amount of material with the aim of analyzing and applying abstract theoretical ideas to texts that they might enjoy reading or viewing. The students read and write and think. Getting serious in the classroom is a matter of critical and analytical pedagogy, not a matter of studying practical and serious subjects.

According to the analysis of Arum, Roksa, and colleagues, the Duck of Minerva bloggers are apparently on the right track.

Live long and prosper. May the force be with you. Yada yada yada.


Book Review: “The Justice Cascade”

My “Human Security” doctoral students just finished reading Kathryn Sikkink‘s new book on international tribunals and it is undisputably their favorite of all those assigned this year. Partly that is because it is written in clear, non-academic prose. Partly it’s the common-sense way in which Sikkink describes her methods and findings, and she ties her story concretely to ongoing policy debates. Partly it’s the way she weaves a portrait of her own intellectual journey into the writing. This book is going to have wide appeal beyond the academy for these reasons, but it was also notably very appealing to doctoral students for the same reasons, as they are hungry for scholarship to which they feel they can relate.

Beyond its appeal to the informed public and as a classroom text, The Justice Cascade makes significant intellectual, theoretical and empirical contributions to human security studies. The title is a little bit misleading since it implies that the story is about the rise of international justice as a norm… and it is, partly. But the real contribution is in demonstrating that trials and truth commissions work, especially in tandem. At least, these mechanisms appear to correlate somewhat to certain favorable outcomes, not least of which is a decline in human rights repression; and notably, in contrast to earlier work by Jack Snyder and Leslie Vinjamuri, her analysis shows such mechanisms certainly do no harm.

This finding should not be understated. Many have made similar arguments in the past, but none of the literature was particularly systematic or well-conceived: Sikkink’s own earlier quantitative work on the topic was either region-specific or failed to control for other causal factors. In fact a 2010 overview of the state of the TJ literature by Oskar Thomas, Jim Ron and Roland Paris concluded that it was impossible to know whether TJ worked due to absence of good data, over-reliance on case data, and conceptual incommensurability.

Sikkink’s new book is a redounding riposte to these claims, providing a much more careful systematic treatment of the relationship between trials and truth commissions and the deterrence of human rights abuses than anything I’ve read. She ties together a career’s worth of research on the subject, describing the evolution of the “norm cascade” toward individual state-level accountability for human rights abuses, documenting the effects within Latin America and then replicating these tests on a new global data-set. Throughout, she is careful to discuss the different analytical ways of thinking about “effects” of transitional justice, and she is clear on her coding and the trade-offs in some of her conceptual choices. Other scholars, she acknowledges, have created different data and found different results, but Sikkink’s reaction to that has been to team up with these colleagues on a new project aimed at reconciling the two sets of findings. So she describes her path-breaking conclusions with humility. Her work is a model of normatively-driven, empirically rigorous, policy-relevant social science.

I have only two mild critiques. The first is that I would have loved if the global deterrence chapter had explored differences between types of tribunals. An important policy question animating discussions of how to try Assad, for example, is whether international tribunals have advantages over local courts. It’s not clear to me that Sikkink’s data reflects the kinds of important variation that we see here: in fact my impression (though I’ve not look at the dataset itself) is that she coded only state-level courts. So there are open questions about the role of international institutions and the transnational international justice epistemic community in creating the outcomes she documents. I am hoping some of these more nuanced variables will be reflected in her new work with Leigh Payne.

My other set of questions has to do with the final empirical chapter on US policy post-9/11 and what this means for the “justice cascade.” First, the chapter itself is brilliant for what it is: it’s the best descriptive overview I’ve seen of the rhetorical mechanisms the Bush Administration used to stave off prosecution for its violations of human rights and humanitarian law in the war on terror (or at least, the best overview situated within the IR theory on norms). But the chapter makes an explanatory claim as well – that the efforts of the US to reinterpret international law indicate the strength of the justice cascade, rather than heralding its decline. Here Sikkink’s argument is weaker: it would be fairer to say she has advanced a new and very interesting hypothesis than that she has adequately demonstrated a finding on this point: the chapter includes no counter-factual comparison to earlier US administrations or to the behavior of other states in the same period; and no genuine causal assessment, actually, of whether the US would have behaved differently in the absence of the justice cascade. Plus it largely ducks the other question of whether a superpower’s malfeasance affects the legitimacy of the international norms it’s breaking, or only its own.

Still, both because of its many strengths and because of these small flaws, the book is absolutely ideal for teaching graduate students about how to do systematic, policy-relevant social science and to communicate it to wide audience. We ended by considering whether Sikkink could have written this book in this way straight out of grad school. Probably not: junior political scientists are still safer if they publish a few books with university presses in the style of Activists Beyond Borders before moving on to this more public-intellectual style. But this discussion not only inspired students to think about the justice cascade – it inspired them to visualize themselves at different places in their careers, as scholar-practitioners embedded in the human rights epistemic community, helping build social justice through research.


Winecoff vs. Nexon Cage Match!

Kindred Winecoff has a pretty sweet rebuttal to my ill-tempered rant of late March. A lot of it makes sense, and I appreciate reading graduate student’s perspective on things.

Some of his post amounts to a reiteration of my points: (over)professionalization is a rational response to market pressure, learning advanced methods that use lots of mathematical symbols is a good thing, and so forth.

On the one hand, I hope that one day Kindred will sit on a hiring committee (because I’d like to see him land a job). On the other hand, I’m a bit saddened by the prospect because his view of the academic job market is just so, well, earnest.  I hate to think what he’ll make of it when he sees how the sausage actually gets made.

I do have one quibble:

While different journals (naturally) tend to publish different types of work, it’s not clear whether that is because authors are submitting strategically, editors are dedicated to advancing their preferred research paradigms, both, or neither. There are so many journals that any discussion of them as doing any one thing — or privileging any one type of work — seems like painting with much too wide a brush.

Well, sure. I’m not critical enough to publish in Alternatives, Krinded’s not likely to storm the gates of International Political Sociology, and I doubt you’ll see me in the Journal of Conflict Resolution in the near future. But while some of my comments are applicable to all journals, regardless of orientation, others are pretty clearly geared toward the “prestige” journals that occupy a central place in academic certification in the United States.

But mostly, this kind of breaks my heart:

I’ve taken more methods classes in my graduate education than substantive classes. I don’t regret that. I’ve come to believe that the majority of coursework in a graduate education in most disciplines should be learning methods of inquiry. Theory-development should be a smaller percentage of classes and (most importantly) come from time spent working with your advisor and dissertation committee. While there are strategic reasons for this — signaling to hiring committees, etc. — there are also good practical reasons for it. The time I spent on my first few substantive classes was little more than wasted; I had no way to evaluate the quality of the work. I had no ability to question whether the theoretical and empirical assumptions the authors were making were valid. I did not even have the ability to locate what assumptions were being made, and why it was important to know what those are.

Of course, most of what we do in graduate school should be about learning methods of inquiry, albeit understood in the broadest terms. The idea that one does this only in designated methods classes, though, is a major part of the problem that I’ve complained about. As is the apparent bifurcation of “substantive” and “methods of inquiry.”And if you didn’t get anything useful out of your “substantive” classes because you hadn’t yet had your coursework in stochastic modeling… well, something just isn’t right there. I won’t tackle what Kindred means by “theory-development,” as I’m not sure we’re talking about precisely the same thing, but I will note that getting a better grasp of theory and theorization is not the same thing as “theory-development.”

Anyway, I’ll spot a TKO to Kindred on most of the issues.


SF, IR, and Pedagogy

After Charli’s video mashup this feels pretty lame, but I did promise the slides from my talk. Thanks again to all those who responded to the bleg. If it isn’t obvious, I should note that everything I said is influenced by PTJ and his course.

The basic takeaways?

1. Science Fiction (SF) has close ties with social-scientific inquiry and, in general, has lots of political and international-relations content. It is therefore well-suited for these kinds of courses.

2. We need to be less focused on using fiction to teach intro to international realism (bad isms!) and more on choosing works that communicate interesting international-political and political ideas. Teaching The Hunger Games, for example, isn’t about stretching for realism or the state of nature, but exploring ‘organic’ themes about the dynamics of empire, revolution, games and politics, roleplaying and narrative expectations, voyeurism, etc. Good novels or films, like Charles Stross’s Halting State and Iain M. Banks’ Player of Games have a lot to say for themselves. Lots of SF deals with state formation, problems of the “other,” and states of exception… so teach those things.

3. Students are smart and creative; render them collaborators in the course by letting them explore themes that they want to pursue.

4. Make the course lots of work to deter students who think that taking a class like this will be a way to bypass serious intellectual engagement.

Slides below the fold.


Crowdsource Syllabus: Advanced IR Theory (Updated)

I’m teaching a PhD-level advanced IR theory class next semester, and my syllabus is growing a bit stale. The idea of the course is to cover recent-ish topics (and necessary background, when appropriate) of importance in the subfield. For example, I usually do a week on “the practice turn,” a week on “arguing and bargaining” that covers a range of approaches to the subject, and so forth. This year I’ll be opening with PTJ’s The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations.

I thought it might generate some good ideas — both with respect to topics and to specific readings — if I asked our readers for their suggestions. So that’s what I’m doing. Right here. Right now. Thoughts?

Per Facebook request, Kate McNamara’s syllabus for the first part of the IR theory sequence:


Interstellar Relations Syllabus

If you’re interested in how the syllabus turned out, you can read it here.

I must say that I am very much enjoying teaching the class so far. Thanks to everyone for their comments and suggestions.


My IR Theory Syllabus, FWIW

Many of you were kind enough to share your thoughts on what I should assign in my IR Theory Seminar this year. Now that I’ve got something on paper, thought I’d provide the link so that those interested can see the current draft. Comments on this thread will no doubt be studied closely by my IR students as empirical evidence of ongoing debates about the constitution of our field. ;)

« Older posts

© 2021 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑