By Steven McGuire, December 9, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching
Iím a political theorist, but I teach comparative politics as well. Instead of canvassing the whole subfield in my introductory class, rapidly moving from topic to topic, I focus on the varieties of democracy and the possibilities for democratic consolidation in traditionally non-democratic societies. Iím sure itís more usual to offer a full survey of the subfield, but Iíve heard too many grad students (and professors) say they donít remember their introductory courses in comparative, so I try to give the students a chance to sink their teeth into something.
In any event, one of my biggest tasks in the class is to help students understand why different institutional arrangements matter. All other things being equal, a single-member-district-plurality electoral system will not produce the same results as a system of proportional representation. A presidential system is going to operate very differently than a parliamentary one. Thatís all fine and good in the abstract, but the real trick is to help students understand why it matters—especially in countries that are struggling to become democratic—and, like almost anything else in politics, thatís difficult to grasp from the outside looking in.
Thus, in an effort to help students see for themselves why these things matter, I have adopted an active learning solution that I learned as a TA. For three weeks, after weíve studied several democratic countries and talked about the challenges of creating and maintaining democratic order in new democracies, students undertake a constitutional design workshop. I break them up into groups of five, six, or seven and assign them each a hypothetical country scenario. Every scenario is fairly bleak—years of oppression, ethnic, religious, and linguistic divides, a complete lack on infrastructure, etc.—and the students are charged with the task of writing a constitution for their country. Each student represents one of the ethnic or religious groups that makes up the population of the country and they must negotiate with the others and vote on every provision that is included in the constitution. Afterward, each student writes a paper analyzing the constitution and reflecting on its prospects for success using the materials I have assigned for the class.
In my experience, students love the project. They also learn from it. As I move around the room, sometimes interjecting into their discussions and sometimes not, I repeatedly see students learning from one another as they debate each other's ideas. Students who originally proposed a presidential system come to understand why that would be disastrous in their given scenario. Students who wanted federalism are forced to think about whether it would exacerbate ethnic tensions rather than alleviate them. In short, students develop not only a better understanding of the varieties of democracy through the project; more importantly, they come to see why itís necessary to understand these things. As a theorist, I certainly think that reflecting on politics is important, but politics is above all something that we do, and, in this instance, I think there is a real virtue in having students act out what Iím trying to teach them.