Destination Unknown?

One of the most interesting parts of this week’s readings happened to be the five points made by Parker J. Palmer on how to educate the new professional. These five points are:

“(1) We must help our students uncover, examine, and debunk the myth that institutions are external to and constrain us, as if they possessed powers that render us helpless – an assumption that is largely unconscious and wholly untrue.

(2) We must take our students’ emotions as seriously as we take their intellects.

(3) We must start taking seriously the “intelligence” in emotional intelligence.

(4) We must offer our students the knowledge, skills, and sensibilities required to cultivate communities of discernment and support.

(5) We must help our students understand what it means to live and work with the question of an undivided life always before them.”

While reflecting on these five points, I realized that not only is Palmer speaking about students gaining a sense of empathy but he is also communicating that students need the ability to deal with ethical issues in various disciplines. My discipline already promotes these ideas partly because my discipline is based in the humanities but also due to the fact that international relations theory has ethics imbedded in it already. I have taken this for granted over time and realized that I need to make sure my students are able to face ethical issues in the discipline. The best way I can do this is through the use of problem based learning in the classroom.

Dan Edelstein supports this idea in his article. “Classes in the humanities not only offer students the best opportunities to practice innovative thinking, but also provide them with models for how to do so.” Not just interdisciplinary studies but transdisciplinary studies is just one of the ways this can be accomplished at the larger university scale. Virginia Tech is attempting to model this through the creation of Destination Areas. Destination Areas provide faculty and students with new tools to identify and solve complex, 21st-century problems in which Virginia Tech already has significant strengths and can take a global leadership role. The initiative represents the next step in the evolution of the land-grant university to meet economic and societal needs of the world. The process will result in the creation of transdisciplinary teams, tools, and processes poised to tackle the world’s most pressing, critical problems.

The Attention Span of 140 Characters or Less

I have noticed a trend with my students. It seems as if they are not doing the readings I assign for class. Or it seems as if they don’t understand what they’re reading and unwilling to ask questions in order to understand the material better.

How dare they not read the material I assign? I should give all of them zeros for participation. I’m not spoon-feeding the information to them. They have to learn how to think for themselves.

These are just some of the thoughts that have raced through my mind regarding this matter. Then a random conversation with one of my undergraduate students last year made me realize that I was wrong in my reading of my students. They were doing the readings. I was not engaging them properly. I was asking questions that required longer answers than they were giving me. I learned to correct the way I ask questions and made sure that I could fire off follow-up questions to get to the material that they needed to know. I also made sure that material was covered in more of a conversational style rather than a Q&A. The Nicholas Carr piece is useful in helping me formulate into words what I had experienced with my students.

“‘We are not only what we read,’ says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. ‘We are how we read.’ Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts ‘efficiency’ and ‘immediacy’ above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains.”

I understand my students capacity to digest information in small bites in order to piece together the whole picture. They are saturated with small bites of information daily. From Twitter to Snapchat to Instagram, these are the ways the current generation of traditional students receive, interpret, and export information. No wonder the shorthand notation of tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) was created. It is is an internet slang expression commonly used in discussion forums as a shorthand response to previous posts that are deemed unnecessarily long and extensive.

Earlier this semester I had decided to enact a no electronic devices policy in my classroom because I wanted my students to truly engage the material I was teaching. I didn’t want the computer screen to be a barrier between them and me. I wanted my classroom to be a place where my students could practice how to formulate ideas, present them to their peers, and get feedback in person before they get into the working world. Since then, I have changed my view on electronics in the classroom. My students can multitask. I have watched them take notes on their computers, answer my questions, and be in conversation with each other almost simultaneously. This is something I would like to improve upon as there a times I feel that I cannot walk and chew bubblegum at the same time.



The Hidden Brain Also Has Hidden Bias

I have personally noticed a trend regarding the idea of inclusivity. It seems that whenever inclusivity is discussed at Virginia Tech, it typically surrounds the discussion of race, gender, and sexual identity. Discussion of disabilities tends to be excluded. Maybe it’s not a trend and is instead a result of a personal bias due to my wife’s background in working amongst individuals with disabilities. Another misconception is that the term disability do not always refer to a disability that manifests in a physical manner either. I’m now getting down from my soap box to continue this post.

Reading about Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain reminded me of a battery of online tests that I have taken on several occasions. Psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington created “Project Implicit” to develop Hidden Bias Tests — called Implicit Association Tests, or IATs, in the academic world — to measure unconscious bias. These tests allow you to find out your implicit associations about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other topics. Scientific research has demonstrated that biases thought to be absent or extinguished remain as “mental residue” in most of us. Studies show people can be consciously committed to egalitarianism, and deliberately work to behave without prejudice, yet still possess hidden negative prejudices or stereotypes. Therefore, I know I have implicit biases and it is a daily task to make sure I remind myself that I have them. Go ahead and try one of them….the results will surely surprise you.

Now I want to tell a story that relates to inclusivity in the classroom.

It was 2006, one year after Hurricane Katrina left its mark on New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I was working for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office in the patrol division and was told by my supervisor that I was scheduled to attend diversity training in the upcoming week.

Now, before I go any further, I would like to point out that the entire sheriff’s office was required to attend diversity training at this time. We were never told why everyone had to attend, but they were some mutterings that the department had been the subject of a civil rights investigation by the United States Department of Justice.

So, the day of diversity training came and I walked into a room of 50 deputies from across the entire department. As I looked across the room for a place to sit, I saw that there were 45 white male deputies, four white female deputies and one African-American male deputy. An outside organization sent the facilitators for the training that day: a white female, a hispanic female, and an African-American female. Every person in the room introduced themselves and then the facilitators began the training.

White female facilitator: Today we will be discussing race at great length. Who has heard the term racism before? [every deputy in the room raises a hand] Good. You can put down your hands.

Hispanic female facilitator: Raise your hand if you believe there is such a thing as reverse racism? [48 deputies raise a hand] Okay. Hands down. Hmmm. [she looks at the other facilitators] 48 out of 50. [deputies bgin looking around to attempt to figure out who didn’t raise their hand]

African-American female facilitator: Two of you don’t agree with your colleagues and I took a mental note of who they were. [makes eye contact with the African-American male deputy and a solitary white male deputy] You. [gestures at the solitary white male deputy] Why did you not agree with your colleagues?

Me: It doesn’t matter who’s doing it, racism is racism.


I have always been a huge fan of games since I was younger. Whether it was a card game, a board game, a video game, a role-playing game, miniature gaming, or even live-action roleplaying, I was doing it. Even as a 40 year old graduate student, I still meet with friends once a week for a gaming night. It is something I always felt connected to and helped me form connections with others. The genre of games doesn’t matter either. It can be fantasy, science-fiction, or historically based. One of my all-time favorites that I experienced early on in school is historical wargaming. I remember playing a game of Axis and Allies during my lunch breaks with some classmates while we learned about World War II history. The game took almost the entire school year to complete. During my undergraduate, I worked at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, LA. The educational department at the museum used wargaming to help teach history to school groups that would visit the museum year-round. The following comes from their website:

Wargaming has been around for a very long time. The game of chess is a simple form of wargame, first devised in India long ago. Risk and Battleship are other simple wargames. In historical wargaming, participants work with either historical battles, or historical armies in hypothetical situations. In modern wargaming, a battle typically has two applications. In its first (professional military) use, military forces attempt to model hypothetical battles that might, but have not yet, occurred. Often known as simulations, wargames of this type help real military commanders understand potential problems before actual men and material are deployed. In the second (civilian hobby) form of wargaming, real or hypothetical battles from the past are recreated. Participants discover what could have, or did, occur — and why. Participants learn what could have been done differently to change outcomes. Learning from the past can help prevent mistakes in the present. They also have fun, and build friendships, while learning! The National WWII Museum focuses on board or miniatures games, rather than electronic wargames. We do this for several reasons listed below.

dividing bar

Development of social skills.

Board and miniature wargame players sit across from each other. They see each other and directly interact. Large games involving teams promotes team building, management skills and resource management in a cooperative environment. In recreating difficult military situations, players vicariously gain glory in victory, or suffer dismal defeat in the social setting of the group. As they do so, they develop real human friendships. Game friendships, formed through sharing the hobby, can last a lifetime. Unless playing with someone in the next chair through a shared network, electronic games only provide a limited comradeship through disembodied voices, though possibly from across the globe.

dividing bar

Development of critical and strategic thinking.

In most board and miniatures games, as in life, players must generate a workable strategic plan to be successful. Games encourage consideration of future challenges, and the best responses, before those challenges occur. In many electronic games, advance planning may not be feasible, as game challenges may remain unknown — and the mission may only involve a body count.

Game scales and probability can be misrepresented in electronic games. Board and miniatures games generally let you know — in advance — the probability of various occurrences in the wargame and put the probability in your hand in the form of dice. Math skills are reinforced by the player’s personal game calculations. This makes the board or miniatures wargame a better historical educational tool. In electronic gaming, computers handle all calculations and probability is located in the device’s random number generator. The player has no idea how easy or hard a function is, unless they reboot to play multiple sessions.

dividing bar


Electronic first-person shooter games often immerse the player in an exciting, ongoing environment, but single person e-games often provide little understanding of the risks involved beyond the player’s role. The role of leadership can be misconstrued. However, it is true that electronic first-person shooter games more accurately portray the often horrific violence of war. This is abstracted in board and miniatures games, but those do a better job of educating players as to the larger scope of battle. This debate has informed The National WWII Museum’s educational wargame choices; as an institution, we hope to introduce youth to a critical time in world history. We also recognize the desire to involve parents in gaming.

All wargames sacrifice realism for playability, the question is how much — and whether it is acknowledged by the game developers. If a gameplay situation seems questionable in light of reality, it probably is. Learn more and come to your own determination about the accuracy of that game and the reality of that battle.

dividing bar

Development of creativity.

In miniature games, hobbyists often research the military units they are using, and often try to replicate the paint scheme of the real military unit. They must also analyze (and, in miniature games, build) the map, the roads, hills and other historical terrain fought over. Books, magazines, multimedia and interviews are all used in the discovery process. This process requires patience and creativity — and makes for a better learning experience. It also provides a more complete, and thus more interesting, panoramic overview of the battlefield. Electronic games are constrained by the scenarios and responses programmed into them, thus they generally offer low replay value. Board and miniatures games played against human opponents allow for the creative flexibility of the human mind.

In March 2016, I was in Atlanta, GA for the International Studies Association Conference. I was there to present and to listen to others present research in my field. My mentor and I had just finished lunch when he told me that he had a meeting to get to. I responded that I would see him at the next session we were both planning on going to when he told me that he wanted me to accompany him to his meeting. At that moment, I had no clue that my life as an instructor and the way I taught world politics was about to change.

My mentor and I met the CEO and co-founder of an online simulation called Statecraft. In the world of Statecraft students take the reins of power, becoming presidents, kings, military dictators, Secretaries of State and Defense, intelligence chiefs, and political advisers (among other roles). They are free to use their country’s diplomatic, economic, and military resources to build or to destroy, to work for the betterment of all countries or to focus on maximizing their own country’s wealth, power, and quality of life.

Statecraft has been designed to replicate core dynamics of world politics, so students will face the same challenges, opportunities, and tradeoffs that real world leaders confront every day. In so doing they will gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of world politics and gain insight into a host of critical concepts, theories, and real world cases.

I was excited to begin using Statecraft in my Introduction to World Politics course. I saw the potential for using the simulation to teach concepts in the course. It would either reinforce material that was already taught or allow me to foresee future concepts that needed to be taught sooner rather than later because of what was occurring in the simulation. The simulation is fully automated so the instructor does not need to spend much time preparing for the simulation. The instructor is also asked not to be directly involved in the simulation but to be merely an observer.

I knew ahead of time that  the Summer I semester was only 6 weeks long and the simulation usually takes 7-10 turns to work well. If I were to do 7-10 turns, that meant that the turn periods would have to be short (3-4 days) instead of the typical week per turn model. The other foreseeable issues were: 1) getting the students to stick with a timetable for the simulation that required a quick turnaround, 2) getting the students to submit memos regarding their actions in the simulation on time due to the quick turnaround, and 3) getting the students to read the Statecraft student manual, take the Statecraft manual quizzes, and take the Foreign Policy Attitude Test (this sorts the students into their respective countries) before the simulation went “live.” I was also concerned about the final paper I would assign my students that said,

“Suppose that as a political scientist you were interested in explaining precisely why things unfolded the way they did in your Statecraft world (wars, international agreements, alliances, etc.). How much importance would you attach to each of the factors of geography, starting resources, individual leaders’ personalities and beliefs, foreign policy beliefs, domestic faction demands, the United nations and other international governmental organizations, regime types and attributes, the structure of the international system, norma, and any other factors as causal forces driving these events? Explain why. Conclude by discussing whether or not these factors’ importance in Statecraft accurately reflects their real world importance, and why.”

I first used the simulation in an online version of the course during the 2016 Summer I semester. There were no attacks by one country to another. Although, there was a “United States” like country that threatened to attack other countries if they did not destroy the terrorists within their borders. Overall, the actions in the simulation resulted in peace amongst the countries by the end of the simulation. The students enjoyed the simulation and their biggest complaint was that they wanted more time to play the simulation. There was also some criticism by students that I was not “hands-on” within the simulation and that I referred them to the manual too often instead of outright answering their questions about the simulation. My response, in my head and not to my students, is that I cannot hold their hand in life and in this simulation. They have to make all of the decisions in the simulation and deal with the repercussions of those decisions just like any leader in the actual world. A majority of the students only viewed Statecraft as a game and did not see the learning that was embedded within it. I also think these same students thought that a summer online course would not be as rigorous as one taught in the fall and spring.

I used the simulation again during the 2016 Fall semester. This time, the students had similar yet different reactions. During the Thanksgiving break, one of the countries, Nukehavistan, (that had decided to be a pacifist country when they set up their country attributes) attacked Westeros without provocation. When other students asked why Nukehavistan did this, their leader stated that he played computer games similar to Statecraft and that he was a master of said games and that he was pretty much bored and knew that this would help him “win” the game. Again, some students only saw this as a game and did not see the inherent learning within Statecraft. The attack angered the rest of the countries in the simulation and by the last turn of the semester, nuclear weapons had been launched against Nukehavistan by Nettopolis. All of the students that saw the benefit of using the simulation stated that it made my class one of their favorite classes that semester and during their entire time at Virginia Tech up to that point. I will teach the Introduction to World Politics course again during the 2017 Summer I semester and I plan to use Statecraft again. I am just trying to see how I can make my students’ online experience better, so I am open to any suggestions.

During the last turn of the Fall 2016 simulation, Nettopolis deployed nuclear weapons against Nukehavistan.





















Check Yes or No?

“[did thing] Check! [did thing] Check! [did thing] Check! [did thing] Check!…”

As an instructor of record at Virginia Tech, I am “forced” into using letter grades to assess my students. This is the exact same framework that affects my own graduate studies. Virginia Tech goes beyond the standard “A-D and F” grading scale and adds further qualifiers through the use of “pluses” and “minuses.” I cannot count the number of emails I have received from students towards the end of the semester in which they are requesting any possible way to receive tenths of a point in order to move them from an A- to an A or a B to a B+. This perception of an education and its impact on life often leads to viewing every day as a routine series of checklists and compartmentalization. It becomes a question of “Yes or No?” not “Why or How?” This is because they fear that their GPA will be affected and in turn, their GPA affects the quality of job they will receive after graduation.”Grades don’t prepare children for the ‘real world’ — unless one has in mind a world where interest in learning and quality of thinking are unimportant” (Kohn).

Have we reached a world where interest and quality of thinking are unimportant? Today’s current political climate, the disavowing of science, and and the use of “alternative facts” by those in power would surely suggest this. It almost seems that I refer to a quote from Sir Isaac Asimov on almost a daily basis. The quote I reference is from a January 21, 1980 Newsweek article he wrote titled “A Cult of Ignorance” where he says, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” Has the university become an extension of trade and vocational schools? I personally hope that this is not the case. I am hopeful that students realize the necessity of gaining a diversity of knowledge and what we might perceive as skills usually taught in trade and vocational schools are in fact examples of experiential learning.”Employers complain that many college graduates are not prepared for the workplace and lack the new set of skills necessary for successful employment and continuous career development” (Lombardi). These skills are not just knowing the mechanics of the student’s chosen trade or discipline but how to problem solve, how to do group work, how to not operate in a silo and work between disciplines. These skills can be found in experiential learning. My experience with experiential learning as a student was a positive experience. In my undergraduate program, I was required to have a semester long internship in order to graduate. That internship eventually turned into a job after I graduated. I was also involved in National Model United Nations (NMUN) in New York City. NMUN taught me daily skills used by diplomats, such as negotiation with others, writing position papers, and writing resolutions to solve global problems that are difficult to learn in the classroom at times. However, as an instructor, I have implemented this type of experiential learning with limited success. In a course here at Virginia Tech, titled Multilateral Diplomacy Workshop, some students felt the use of National Model United Nations in the classroom was too nebulous and that there should have been more lectures and direct applications to what they would have to do in their future jobs. Their work indicated a lack of creativity as they relied on current real world solutions to solve the issues presented to them. Instead, they should have come to the realization that we still have constant discussions about the same real world problems and that the current answers might not work. Therefore, they should primarily ask what is not working within the current structures and then creatively think about solutions involving those structures or invent new solutions.


Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon, in Imagination First, propose that the United States has created a society that stifles ideas; creativity; imagination; and deep thinking. The use of grades, metrics, rubrics, and teaching to the test are the root cause of the educational society we have created and we must innovatively disrupt this if we are to progress our educational system. This is supported via a point offered  by Kohn, “…the absence of grades is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for promoting deep thinking and a desire to engage in it.”


(Side note: Since I am a New Orleanian, I am inordinately appreciative of Liu and Noppe-Brandon’s acknowledgement of the Lower Ninth Ward that was decimated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and remains an area of New Orleans that, even 10 1/2 years later, has not completely recovered.)



Asimov, Isaac. “A Cult of Ignorance.” Newsweek. January 21, 1980.

Kohn, Alfie. “The Case Against Grades.” Educational Leadership. November 2011.

Liu, Eric and Scott Noppe-Brandon. Imagination First. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco. 2009.

Lombardi, Marilyn M. “Making the Grade: The Role of Assessment in Authentic Learning.” Educause Learning Initiative. January 2008.

A Mind Full

Sir Ken Robinson, in his TED talk proposes that there are three principles that are crucial for the human mind to flourish and how we can see the opposite of these principles in our current education system:

  • Human beings are naturally different and diverse (No Child Left Behind policy is based upon conformity)*

*I find it interesting that the current undergraduate students are products of the former No Child Left Behind policies and that I see a lot of Robinson’s comments on this policy in the classroom.

  • Curiosity (the point of teaching is to facilitate learning; testing should not be the dominant culture)
  • Human life is inherently creative (culture of standardization)


Ellen Langer echoes Robinson’s principles in her explanation of mindful and mindlessness learning. She states, “A mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics: the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective. Mindlessness, in contrast, is characterized by an entrapment in old categories; by automatic behavior that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective. Being mindless, colloquially speaking, is like being on automatic pilot” (1997, p. 4).


So what does this mean to me as an instructor? It actually means a lot. When I started being an instructor of record, I thought back to my own experiences as an undergraduate student and my attitude towards learning. I had not been given any pedagogical instruction, only past syllabi to assist in planning my course. I needed ideas. What was it that excited me? What did professors do to engage me? I realized that they made me feel as if I was an intricate part of the learning process. They were willing to field my questions and listen to my ideas. They helped me express my creativity and go beyond my comfort zone when it came to choosing topics for class presentations or final projects. I was never told outright that I was wrong or that I just didn’t get it. I was usually given a “clue” and asked to retrace my steps to find a different outcome on my own.

“Look! A clue!”

My next thought was how to incorporate these things into my classroom. First I thought about the physical space and I would agree with Mike Wesch, “The physical structure of the classrooms in which I work simply does not inspire dialogue and critical thinking. They are physical manifestations of the pervasive narrow and naïve assumption that learning is simple information gathering, built for teachers to effectively carry out the relatively simple task of conveying information” (Wesch, 6). I wanted to convey information but not as the typical “sage on the stage.” Again, this semester I am trying the no electronic device approach to conveying information. I felt that electronic devices, while connecting students virtually, hindered their connections in the physical realm. In my experience, students seemed more apt to take notes on their laptops when I spoke, but were reluctant to see the possible learning in the questions and comments of their peers. So far, there has been success. Students are attentive. They are asking questions of each other and me. Discussion is lively and thoughtful. Is this the answer? I don’t think so. I know I have to be flexible and adaptable. Each semester has been and will be a new experience and experiment with my “teaching style.”

Old-Fashioned Network Learning

I agree that individuals are more connected today compared to 25 years ago. Advancements in communications technology have brought us closer together by making it easier to communicate with each other, while at the same time they have increased the number of individuals that are within our network. The current generation of college students has always known the Internet and has had access to information at their fingertips in the blink of an eye.

However, I am of a different generation. I am neither Generation X nor am I a Millennial. I am a bridge between both of them or as was proposed at one time, Generation Y. I was born in an age where there was a boom in home computer ownership. My first home computer was a T/I-99 – basically a keyboard that connected to your television. My television came in through a cable box that had a dial that you clicked to change the channel, the movies of my childhood were on VHS and rented at a local video store or Blockbuster, my music was on cassettes. The Internet wasn’t around, and by the time it was in any way that meant something, someone picking up a phone somewhere else in the house could disconnect you. I am well versed in most things digital, but only because I grew up in tandem with the Internet. I will make the claim that my generation was highly effected by the Reagan years, saw the Berlin Wall crumble, woke up during the new American heyday of the Clinton presidency, and struck out on our own under George W. Bush. We watched the OJ Simpson trial and the LA riots, Waco and Columbine, and the first truly televised war in Iraq, all live. We watched MTV when it still aired more music videos than it did scripted shows like Beavis and Butthead, Liquid Television, and Ren and Stimpy. My friends and I got our first cellphones when we were adults. We actually spoke to our friends in person or on the telephone, not through texting or messaging systems. I had social anxiety because I used to stutter when I spoke. I had to face actual consequences for the things I said and did. There was no sense of anonymity or hiding like we have on social media nowadays.

This semester I decided to enact a no electronic devices policy in my classroom. Why? Because I want my students to truly engage the material I am teaching. I want discussions that they lead and I prompt along with questions. I don’t want the computer screen to be a barrier between them and me. It would not be a barrier between each of them because they typically communicate via electronic devices. I want my classroom to be a place where my students can practice how to formulate ideas, present them to their peers, and get feedback in person before they get into the working world. I am not totally against using social media and technology in my class. I have used an online simulation to help teach the concepts of world politics in previous courses I have taught. My goal is to be a bridge in the classroom like I am a generational bridge…to bring together face-to-face interaction and technology. We shall see how it goes.