Tag Archives: pedagogy

Thinking About Nuclear Weapons

nukeAlex Wellerstein, a nuclear weapons historian at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics, has produced an amazing (if somewhat ghoulish) tool for thinking about the potential impact of nuclear weapons. The Nukemap takes advantage of Google Earth’s 3D technology to evaluate the impact of various sized nuclear explosions—ranging from the 20 ton “Davy Crocket,” the smallest nuclear weapon ever created, to the massive 100 megaton “Tsar Bomba,” the largest ever created. Once a target is selected, the impact of explosion can be viewed, fallout patterns can be plotted (taking into account prevailing weather patterns and topography), and casualties are estimated.

It’s a very interesting addition to thinking about nuclear deterrence and proliferation, and I’ll certainly add it to my list of teaching resources for future use.


Pedagogy: Teaching Our Students the Skills They Need

Chemistry Lecture at the University of Iowa in the 1930s (image courtesy University of Iowa Libraries)

Chemistry Lecture at the University of Iowa in the 1930s (image courtesy University of Iowa Libraries)

Amid all the angst of the declining value of a liberal arts education, the American Association of Colleges and Universities last week released its latest survey of employers. The findings, which echo similar results from a study by the Chronicle of Higher Education last month, found that 93 percent of employers agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve major problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” The study also noted that employers placed high value on the application of analytic and problem solving skills. Eighty percent believed that regardless of major, every college student should acquire a broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences. The complete survey results make for interesting reading.

In an era where the classical model of a liberal arts education is under attack, legislatures are interested only in funding STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, and students (and their parents) are increasingly focused on directly connecting college major to post-college careers, such findings are important. But they also signal the need for faculty to rethink both the content and delivery of our courses and how we communicate the value of our fields.

To develop the skillsets desired by employers, we need to focus on providing more opportunities for students to practice those skills. The traditional read-lecture-test model of education does little to develop the critical thinking, teamwork, negotiation, oral and written communication, and problem solving skills that our students need. Active and problem-based learning strategies are more effective. Ample classroom discussion also helps.

We also need to do a better job helping our students articulate their own skillsets. It’s not enough for our students to say they are good writers or have good teamwork skills. They need to be able to communicate specific examples of how they used those skills and—ideally—provide relevant samples of their work.

It’s in the development of these “soft” skills that our students will be successful.

Another Reason for Literature in the Classroom

A student emailed me a very powerful Ted talk this morning that follows nicely on yesterday’s post on Chinua Achebe. In the Ted Talk, Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian author, explains the danger of a single story.

From the video: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story…Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

Remembering Chinua Achebe: Using Fiction in the Political Science Classroom

Nelson Mandela was a fan of Chinua Achebe’s work, having said that while reading Achebe’s novels as a prisoner of Robbin Island for 27 years, “prison walls fell down.” Mandela also said that Achebe’s work, “brought Africa to the rest of the world.”

Nelson Mandela was a fan of Chinua Achebe’s (left) work, having said that while reading Achebe’s novels as a prisoner of Robbin Island for 27 years, “prison walls fell down.” Mandela also said that Achebe’s work, “brought Africa to the rest of the world.”

Nigerian author and poet Chinua Achebe died on Friday. He was 82. Achebe’s work centered on understanding the effects of colonialism and corruption in Africa. His first—and most famous—book was Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, the classic text analyzed the clash between African and British colonial values in Nigeria, seeking to understand how local norms and values were undermined by colonialism.

In the book, Obierika comments that, “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

Although Achebe was never awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was regularly held in the pantheon of the best African writers, including Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Lewis Nkosi. Achebe also served as a role model for countless younger African authors.

His passing was indeed a tragedy. But it also provided me pause. I had regularly used fiction, most notably Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (Nigeria), but also other works such as Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (Zimbabwe), Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel (Nigeria), Chukwuemeka Ike’s Bottled Leopard (Nigeria), and Gillian Slovo’s Red Dust (South Africa), among others, as part of my introductory comparative politics course. Finding myself constantly trying to fit additional materials into the course, I stopped using novels in favor of other (nonfiction) readings covering key themes and debates.

Yet increasingly I suspect that fiction should have a more central place in the class again. Good fiction provides students with an additional avenue to make sense of the issues faced in regions and societies far removed from their own. While a well-written journal article or textbook chapter can covey all the factual information students need, the more emotive, visceral, and evocative learning atmosphere created through fiction speaks to students in a different way. Students, in short, get a better “feel” for the places they are studying.

I’ve provided a few recommendations for books covering several African countries above. I’d welcome recommendations for some of the other regions we typically cover in an intro to comparative politics course. Leave your suggestions below. And thanks!

Pedagogy: The International Relations of Star Wars

The Battle of Hoth

The Battle of Hoth

Over the past week there has been an outstanding exchange at the Duck of Minerva blog exploring the international relations and military strategy of Star Wars.

It all started when Wired Magazine’s Spencer Ackerman explored the Battle for Hoth.  His analysis carried real world implications for counterinsurgency strategy, most notably observing that religious fanatics should never be placed in wartime command, and hegemonic powers tend to underestimating an insurgency’s ability to keep fighting.

The comments on Ackerman’s post are worth reading in their own right. One, for example, reads,

Have you even served with the Imperial forces? Sure it’s easy to take potshots from your military blog in some no-name star system while the fleet and its legions fight the rebel insurgents, but combined space/air/ground operations are a lot messier than any infographic could ever portray.

Even with the Empire’s full spectrum dominance of the battlespace, you can’t just leverage fleet assets which are optimized for ship-to-ship combat into a large scale ground invasion force. A Star Destroyer might have more firepower than the entire militaries of less advanced worlds but you still need a proper ground assault ship to support infantry landings.

Unfortunately, the do-nothing blowhards in Coruscant couldn’t get funding for the promising alternative designs from Sienar Fleet Systems and we ended up (as usual) with Kuat Drive Yards’ overpriced, overdue, and underperforming AT-AT mess.

Others continue in a similar vein. Then we get the Duck of Minerva’s responses.

First, we have Robert Kelly examined the five biggest strategic errors of the Empire, with a hat-tip to counterinsurgency strategy.

Then Steve Saideman considers the command structure of the Empire from the principal agent problem, drawing important lessons for Nato strategy in Afghanistan.

Finally we get Patrick Thaddeus Jackson examining the challenges post by the Empire’s command structure and the weakness of its military strategy against the Rebel Alliance. In doing so, he explores the tradeoff between material and ideological interests in foreign policy.

Outstanding stuff. Great fun, and an interesting way to use pop culture to think about global conflict.

Pedagogy: Maintaining Student Engagement

Word Cloud on Student Engagement from the Berlin Fang's North Institute blog.

Word Cloud on Student Engagement from Berlin Fang’s North Institute blog.

Faculty Focus’ Teaching and Learning blog this week listed their top 12 teaching and learning articles for 2012. The list covers some great topics, including strategies for engaging students, developing effective online assignments, helping students move from surface to deep learning, addressing the challenges of group work, and debating the pedagogical effectiveness of PowerPoint.

But the one that struck me the most dealt with student perceptions of multitasking. Unless you’ve been teaching on a remote desert island (and even then, I’m not sure) you’ve had to deal with students texting, surfing the web, or engaging in other activities which distract from the learning process. Among my colleagues, some have banned electronic devices outright, some attempt to manage it on a case-by-case basis, and others take a permissive attitude, concluding that students are only hurting themselves through their actions.

But Marellen Weimer’s post on her Teaching Professor blog cites several studies showing sharp declines in student performance among multitaskers. Faced with this evidence, do we have an obligation to intervene and help students avoid this pitfall?

For me, a similar question arises with respect to class attendance. Should we require class attendance, penalizing those students who choose not to come regularly?

Here’s my solution. On the first day of class, I share a scatterplot diagram with my students. The figure, based on data collected from my classes over the past few years, graphs class attendance against final grades. I also tell students I don’t grade based on attendance. Yet in these classes—particularly in the larger sections—there is a clear correlation between the two. While there a few outliers—students who come regularly but nevertheless struggle, and the occasional student who can do well without coming regularly—the graph shows that, on average, every class missed after the first leads to a one step decline in final grade. In other words, students who miss one class over the course of the semester perform at the same general level as those who miss none. But students who miss a second class generally earn a grade one step lower (a B- rather than a B, for example) than a similar student who missed didn’t miss class. This continues in a straight linear regression all the way down. Interestingly (perhaps alarmingly), students always seem to be surprised by the data.

From my perspective, this solution provides students with the data they need to make an informed decision while leaving them the agency to actually make that decision. Now I’m considering a similar graph on multitasking.

What do you do to address the challenges of maintaining student engagement? How do you manage classroom attendance and multitasking issues? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Pedagogy: Using Rubrics to Cut Grading Time

We’re reaching the end of the semester, the time when faculty frequently become overwhelmed by the amount of grading at hand. Between term papers, final exams, oral presentations, and other graded assignments, this is easily the busiest time of the semester. But using rubrics can cut the amount of time spent grading student work. A rubric is a tool that lists the factors of student performance that will be evaluated and the criteria for each level of performance on an assignment. Rubrics provide a structured way to think quickly but comprehensively about student work. It also permits the instructor to provide clearer feedback to students.

Sample rubrics are available from the Department of Political Science at Skidmore College, Southern Utah University, Delta State University, and the University of Richmond. The RCampus Gallery also maintains an extensive collection of rubrics. Try using one and see if it cuts your grading time.