Welcome to the Active Learning in Political Science © blog.  Our goal is to provide resources and ideas for using active learning techniques in the political science classroom and to promote general discussion about innovative teaching methods.

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Political readings of ‘The Lego Movie’

As I return from my annual break on the sun-kissed shores of Cornwall, I worry that I have almost singularly failed to think about learning, teaching or any other aspect of my work. Moreover, by foregoing the opportunity to attend UACES’ annual conference in Cork I’ve also missed out on some great L&T papers that I could have discussed here. I’ve even missed out on the whole #APSAonFire thing (which sounded wild, BTW).


Of course I have Lego in my office. Don’t you?

But have no fear, but I now realise that you while can take the senior lecturer out of the university, you can’t take the etc., etc.

One of the joys of spending more time with the kids over the summer has been the excuse to watch more family-oriented movies (when the sun isn’t kissing the shores, obviously), and this year’s big hit chez nous has been the Lego Movie. It’s got jokes, 1980s references, double-decker couches and – as I remarked the first time I watched it – a great representation of fascism and challenges to authoritarian rule.

So, in the spirit of my Game of Thrones post, here are some further thoughts on how you might use the Lego Movie in the classroom to stimulate discussion. And yes, that is something I’m seriously considering doing.

First Reading: Power

The easiest way into the politics of the Lego Movie is its depiction of unlimited power. Lord Business is ‘ruler of the world’ and the whole movie concerns his plot to make everything conform to his ideal (spoiler: he fails). Through his co-option of the police (with their arbitrary justice), any nominal competitive electoral system (there are voting machines (which he makes) and he’s President), the media (which is awesome (a good discussion here)) and the economy (everyone seems to work for his Octan corporation), Business is able to shape and control society through all three of Lukes’ faces of power: imposing preferences (e.g. the Micromanagers), controlling agendas (Taco Tuesday) and shaping desires (the instructions).

Moreover, Business highlights the fragility of authoritarian rule, which is strongly personalised and brittle, and so unable to adapt and change (rather literally in this case, given his plot). This echoes the argument of Runciman in The Confidence Trap (which was part of my summer reading and certainly worth a go), namely that while democracies are sub-optimal, they at least have no sense of when to fail completely and so can bounce back from threats.

There is also an implicit sense that the penetration of power is rather thin. Emmet, the hero of the (Lego) piece [you see what I did there? Ha!], is portrayed as being utterly compliant at the start of the film, but Bad Cop is incredulous that he, Emmet, thinks Business is a ‘great guy’. This suggests that the wider social compact is more tenuous than it immediately appears: certainly, when the revolution comes, it takes very little indeed to make it happen (‘you don’t know me, but I’m on TV, so you can trust me’ is the key line here). Plenty of room here for a discussion about how much people actually pay to their political lives.

Second Reading: The Liberal Ideal?

As the film progresses, we discover that Bricksburg – Emmet’s home – is merely one of many ‘worlds‘. Wyldstyle explains (‘Proper name. Placename. Backstory’) that originally the Lego world was one, until Business got confused about the pieces getting mixed up, so divided them up, to make each one a more pure (my word) place.

While this doesn’t lead to conflict between worlds, it does speak to the benefits of free exchange in stimulating creativity (cf. La-La Land) and reducing tension: consider the volume of resources put into policing the boundaries and chasing down the Master Builders.

If you’re feeling ambitious, you might want to get into notions of social homogenisation and conformity (‘get rid of anything weird-looking’), but this really goes to the edge of what could be grounded in the film itself.

Third Reading: Meta, meta, META!

The core message of the film is that we should not be bound by the instructions, but rather need to believe in ourselves and our ideas. That means not ‘buying over-priced coffee’ or being told what to do more generally. And yet, the film is itself a commercial product, that you are invited to consume, together with various Lego kits from the film.

I leave you to work out how you have a discussion about whether the explicit message is compromised by the manner of its delivery.


So there you go: everything is politics, as they don’t say. Would love to hear your views on this, if only to reassure me that I’m not the only one who does this with kids films.

Posted in Activities, APSA, critical thinking, Exercises, Films and Fiction, Getting Them to Talk, International Relations, Simon Usherwood | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Data Musings

MusesAs another fall semester begins, I thought I’d toss out two recent items about data.

First, an article in the New York Times describes how students are circumventing universities’ fortress-like approach to data management to get the information they need in ways that are the most useful to them. Meanwhile many universities don’t even understand what they are trying to regulate. (More on the Yale experience here.)

Second, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out that attempts to tailor instruction according to data on students’ learning styles, personality types, or average ability level fail because of fundamental attribution error and the ecological fallacy.

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Bird Flu

Dead Canary CageOn August 18, Lebanon College announced via email and its website that fall classes, scheduled to begin today, were cancelled. The college, $2.2 million in debt, ran out of money. Given that its full-time enrollment was only fifty-three students, this is not surprising. But it borrowed heavily at the peak of the pre-recession real estate bubble to purchase retail space in a local shopping mall for a planned new school in allied health professions. Turns out this was a dumb move — the grants needed to get the school up and running never materialized, and it’s doubtful that the local demand for such programs was strong enough to make them viable over the long term.

Lebanon College is part of a growing list of debt-ridden higher education institutions, from the relatively large PASSHE campuses to small Iowa Wesleyan College and Wilberforce University, that are at risk because of years of bad financial management.

Another member of the club is Burlington College, which last year made three department head positions part-time and increased teaching loads for remaining full-time faculty. The college has only about one hundred and eighty full-time students, zero cash reserves, no endowment, and debt amounting to more than $10 million. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges placed Burlington’s accreditation on probation in June because of concerns about its financial condition.

Burlington College’s debt comes from a shady 2010 purchase of lakefront property involving Jane Sanders, the college’s then-president and wife of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Catholic diocese in desperate need of cash to pay legal bills arising from sex abuse litigation, local real estate developers, and others. Burlington’s plans to pay for the land purchase included fantastical projections of twenty percent annual enrollment growth and capital campaign contributions of $1 million to $2 million per year through 2014. Neither the enrollment growth nor the donations materialized, and currently the college is in default to at least one of its creditors.

I predict Burlington College will suffer the same fate as Lebanon College within the next two years, possibly sooner.

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Politics After the Digital Revolution

Digital RevolutionFor those of you attending the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Washington, DC, I can recommend the the theme panel Teaching Politics After the Digital Revolution, scheduled for Friday, Aug 29, 2014, 2:00-3:45 p.m. Several luminaries in the field will be participating, including the current editor of the Journal of Political Science Education. Some presentations may include images of Muppets, Homer Simpson, and/or Kim Kardashian. According to the program, the panel will convene in the Omni Executive Room. The ALPsters who will be present hope to see you there.

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Response to The Real Thing

Fake CokeTracy Lightcap wrote a great comment on The Real Thing. I’ll respond here. He raises three important points about skill development:

  1. When students are working in teams on a collaborative project, often their first instinct is to separate the project into discrete tasks and assign responsibility for the completion of each task to a different each team member. At the end of the semester, students mash the pieces together to produce a malformed whole. None of the students learn the entire process that the project is supposed to teach.
  2. In courses designed around team-based projects, students might not get enough opportunities to adequately learn any single skill.
  3. The prevalence of (1) and (2) can lead to senior seminar or capstone courses that become experiences in emergency triage. Since students did not develop the requisite skills in their first years of college, the instructor is left to focus on one particular skill used in the discipline that he or she thinks students must acquire before graduating.

Although I haven’t completely solved (1), I do scaffold team projects around initial individual assignments that are intended to improve students’ information literacy and prevent free riders. The assignment I use most often is a variation on the analysis of an academic journal article. I often follow this up with what I call an information synthesis, in which I ask each student to read items in his or her team’s reading list and compare them to what he or she wrote in the article analysis in the following fashion:

  • How does the information relate to your team’s project?
  • What perspectives and solutions do these readings suggest are important to the project?
  • What pitfalls or obstacles might your team encounter as it works on the project?

As for (2), I never make a team-based project worth more than about one-third of the final grade, and the project-related individual assignments like the journal article analysis compose a part of that one-third. The final document that represents the culmination of the team’s work accounts for only five to ten percent of the course grade. An equally-sized chunk of the grade consists of spaced repetition in skills such as constructing evidence-based arguments.

Regarding (3), I know of one colleague whose students finally learn — as seniors — how to generate correct citations.

Posted in Assignments, Chad Raymond, Group Collaboration, Projects, Skills, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Real Thing II

Moxie Real Thing 2For my international relations course this fall, I’m introducing a series of brief simulations — two class periods each. I’ve created a preparatory writing assignment that I call the “briefing memo” for each simulation. Here are the instructions:

You are employed by the Humanitarian Information Unit at the U.S. Department of State (HIU). A new President has been inaugurated, and the President’s senior foreign policy advisors want to identify potential areas of conflict around the world. The HIU has been assigned the task of providing these advisors with its assessment of locations that have a history of political and economic instability. Your job is to write a briefing memo for your superiors that does the following:

♦  Analyzes and references the information that is contained in the articles and reports that have been provided to you by HIU staff.
♦  Identifies reasons why conflict might occur in this location.
♦  Explain what form the conflict is likely to take if it does occur.
♦  Recommends in one sentence what the U.S. government’s response should be if conflict does occur.

Your superiors are extremely busy and want information that is concise, detailed, and easy to read. The memo must be in single-spaced paragraphs with a blank line between each paragraph, 11 or 12 point font, and no longer than two pages. Sources should be cited within the text rather than with footnotes or endnotes—for example, “(Eggers, 87)”. The body of the memo should include sub-headings of “Overview” (one paragraph), “Conflict Scenario” (at least one paragraph), and “Recommendation” (one sentence).

I’ve linked these instructions with a sample memo on the course’s website.

Posted in and Simulations, Assignments, Chad Raymond, Multicultural-International-Global, Role-playing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Here comes APSA TLC 2015!


My first attempt at a group selfie back in NM didn’t quite work…

This blog was born out of a slightly-drunken conversation at the American Political Science Association’s Teaching and Learning Conference in Albuquerque, back in 2011. As such, TLC has a special place in the hearts of ALPSblog members, especially because the professors among us are so generous with buying us a fancy dinner [cough].

With all this in mind, it is with a happy heart that we note TLC 2015 is finally announced for 16-18 January in the fair city of Washington DC.

All of us have found the format a particularly useful one for properly discussing our work and building networks. By spending three days with the same stream of colleagues, there is a lot of opportunity to really get into the fine detail and to reflect on the linkages between papers.

Because we’re us, we haven’t yet sorted out if we can all go, but then again the call for papers isn’t open yet either, so let’s say we’re appropriately positioned. However, if you can join us, then we’d love to meet more of our readership, especially me, so do pencil it into your diaries now.

Posted in Academia, Amanda Rosen, APSA, Chad Raymond, Conferences, Getting Them to Talk, Group Collaboration, Nina Kollars, Simon Usherwood, Victor Asal | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment