by Sener Akturk, Political Science
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2009
One almost always encounters two major problems in teaching political developments, and the competing theories that claim to “explain” those developments, in a different part of the world. First, sustaining a high level of interest, while introducing new empirical information on countries that students most likely knew little about before taking the course, is difficult. The second challenge is to encourage students to be critical of the theories they learn. All theories “make sense” at some level, making it difficult for students to find their weaknesses. Hence, many students believe that the political development of the region they study (Europe, Middle East, etc.) could not unfold differently than it did
Both of these problems were to be expected in “Politics of European Integration.” First, I could not expect students to know much about Slovakia or Finland prior to taking this course, let alone expect them to know why these countries wanted to join the European Union (EU), or why and how they were accepted as members when they were. I had to teach them many facts about the EU’s historical development and its member states. Second, in this upper-division undergraduate course, we were teaching the most important theories (neofunctionalism, neorealism, etc.) that claim to explain why the EU developed as it did. Students were convinced by the theory we read in a given week, unable to criticize it. Some students developed a “faith” that the EU expanded as it did because it “had to.”
To overcome these problems, I set aside a section in mid-semester for students to act out 50 years of EU political development in a simulation. I had 27 students in each of my sections, making it possible for every student to represent one of the 27 EU member states. Students randomly picked the countries they were going to represent. Focusing on the key dates for European integration, we sat around a circle, “living through” the key negotiations in the political history of the EU from 1957 to 2007
The first palpable benefit of this exercise was to cultivate country-specific knowledge in every student in the process of their preparation for their roles. While the readings mostly focused on France, Germany, and Britain, this exercise highlighted the importance of all member states, with students learning about Estonia and Greece for the first time. Second, the random assignment of countries boosted the participation of some students, who were previously hesitant to contribute to discussions, to play very active roles as leading members (i.e., France, Germany) of the negotiation process. Conversely, a student representing Luxemburg in one of the sections catapulted this otherwise small Western European country to the forefront of negotiations through the strategic use of her veto powers. By definition, the exercise yielded 100% participation, since every student had to articulate the reasons for their country wanting to be a member of the EU, which stimulated responses from the current members about the candidate’s prospects of membership. Finally, our simulations resulted in a different trajectory for the EU: Britain was vetoed much longer than it was in real history, and some countries were admitted earlier. Negotiations unfolded in unpredictable ways, showing that EU did not “have to” develop as it did.
Benefits that accrued from this exercise proved enduring. There was a marked increase in participation between the first and the second half of the semester in both sections. Many students overcame their “participation anxiety” through this simulation, and they developed a personal connection with the process of EU integration. As a result, of the seven political science courses I have served as a GSI in Berkeley, I was able to facilitate the highest level of participation in this course.