Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Immigration myths: Cultural arguments for closed borders

This post deals with common culture-based arguments people use to defend the "we need to close our borders for immigration"-position. Much of the anxiety involved here, I believe, stems from a lack of understanding for how cultures work. That has been explored in-depth in both sociology and anthropology, but the findings have apparently not been disseminated successfully.

Culture arguments

"Refugees/immigrants are too different from 'our own' people, if they get to enter the country, our society will suffer from this difference."

First of all, research shows that migrants, regardless of "cultural distance" (whatever that means) can settle just fine in the host society. A conservative think tank has published the "assimilation index" (which seems to be really about integration, not assimilation) showing that migrants from countries like Vietnam and the Philippines do very well in terms of labour force participation, income levels and military service. This has not gone down with increased immigration, but rather the opposite. There is also this report that says roughly the same thing.

Second, the argument assumes that difference is bad. It thus builds on a long tradition of "us vs. them" that has been fueled by the idea that the "nation has to be ethnically homogeneous". That idea is a relatively recent one, emerging primarily in the 1800s. It argues that the state should be the vehicle for the self-determination of "the nation", and thus that borders should be created between nations, so that each nation gets its own state. See here an overview of nationalism as an ideology:

The problem is that nationalism idealizes the "magic line in the dirt", i.e. border-making. In reality, it's impossible to draw borders that creates homogeneous nation-states. Attempts to do so have led to disaster (see the ethnic cleansing during the wars after the collapse of Yugoslavia).

Also, a culture does not stop where the line on the map is drawn. I used to do an exercise where I challenged my students to name a country that was ethnically homogeneous. Just about any country that people usually think of as nation-states actually have a demographic reality that conflicts with the image of the ethnically homogeneous nation. A contemporary case in point is France, framed as a nation-state (some might say the original nation-state). Historically, the nation-state project was strong there, with heavy centralization from Paris. Just recently, the people in the Catalan region in Spain voted for separatist parties. Notably, the region with Catalan culture extends into France, but the way the borders have been drawn, the nationalist would expect that the Catalans of Southern France have more culturally in common with the Alsatians in Eastern France than they do with the Catalans in Northern Spain.

Japan also comes up often in this context, as it is a country many perceive as homogeneous, mostly because the Japanese government maintains this image to avoid acknowledging the ethnic minorities that do exist in the country. These include indigenous peoples in both the north and on Okinawa, as well as guest workers from China, Korea and the Philippines. Notably, the country's very restrictive border policies continues to block its economic development - the demographic challenge of an aging population that confronts all rich countries is most severe here, and as a consequence it experiences significant labour shortages. That could be solved if it opened up the borders to more immigration. So far, Japanese governments have refused, because of the strong pressure in the political culture to maintain the myth of nation-state homogeneity. Thus, the problem persists.

The most recent incarnation of the idea that difference is bad is Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations", which argues that the defining conflict in the post-Cold War era will be one between Western and other civilizations, particularly the Muslim world. This theoretical framework has been thoroughly picked apart. I even used to pick it apart together with my students to demonstrate the inconsistencies in Huntington's conceptualization of "civilization", but that's a subject for a blog post on its own. Suffice to say is that many politicians and pundits seem to have found Huntington to be deeply inspirational and keep using "Clash of Civilization"-style framing to argue that some cultures are "incompatible with others" and use that as a rationale to close borders.

Conflicts, instead, flare up when ethnic difference are politicized. That has happened in many places in the past, but in that case, bigotry is to blame, not ethnic difference in itself.  Consider the Chinese, Korean or Japanese communities in the US. I would say that racism from the mainstream population have been a bigger barrier in their settlement than their "cultural difference". Conflict on a societal scale only tends to emerge when political leaders work hard to make them happen by blaming an ethnic group for things that go wrong in society (i.e. scapegoating). We could see that in Rwanda, in Yugoslavia, and so on. In that sense, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy, difference will lead to conflict when someone makes it a problem.

"They will destroy our culture/We have the right to preserve our national identity/values"

This argument is closely related to the previous one, but focuses more on the maintenance of "us as similar" rather than on "them as different". It is based on the idea that sameness is inherently good, which can be contested. Also, it assumes that culture is something static, and that it has always been there and somehow was more "pure" in the olden days, before we "mixed with others". This view is called primordealism and has problems. The idea that culture was "pure" once assumes that people didn't mix back in the day, but they did. People have always moved and cultures have always changed over time. This is most easily identifiable in how languages change: English today is not what it was 1 000 years ago, or 500 years ago or even a century ago.

Those governments that tried to stop cultural change have done poorly. Governments in both Imperial China and Japan tried to isolate those countries from the rest of the world precisely based on this idea - both felt that their own cultures were superior to all other cultures in the world. China implemented that policy in the early 1400s, at a time when China was the global superpower in just about every sense of the word - culturally, economically, technologically, militarily. 400 years later, the Chinese government discovered the consequences of the policy the hard way when it found how the Western European countries had passed it by entirely. Loss of innovation is the price of isolation. The Chinese population has paid a high price for that policy over the last couple of centuries and are only now, when the Chinese government has opened up the Chinese economy, starting to recover from it.

To take an opposite example, the United States accepted many migrants from diverse countries in the late 19th century. That did not destroy American culture, but rather contributed to the country's economic and cultural success in the 20th century.

Such examples call to mind research on group-think done on organizations. Such studies show how organizations that are too internally homogeneous lose the capacity to innovate, because there are too few perspectives, too few ways to challenging what is taken for granted. I don't think such experiences should be dismissed in this context.

Interestingly, when this "preserving our values"-argument comes up, it proves very difficult for its advocates to present a comprehensive overview of what those values are. Now, this is not to argue that ethnic identities do not exist, they do. A Swedish person does not have the same outlook on the world as someone from China or Brazil. Rather, cultures are diffuse, and also internally heterogeneous, and thus they resist attempts at codifying them for the purposes of legislation. For example, when the government of the UK tried to put together a document intended to demonstrate "British values"for immigrants, it ended up turning to the European Charter of Humans Rights. The European Charter of Human Rights is, of course, European, not specifically British. Also, Human Rights are not even specifically European, but much more universal. That's how it usually goes - the document becomes something very vague along the lines of democracy and human rights are important. They are, but they are not values that are unique for any particular nation-state, but rather shared by people globally.

"Their culture is primitive/backwards/heathen"

This is another argument inspired by a Huntingtonian worldview. Instead of saying "difference is bad" or "sameness is good", it says "we are better than those people in particular", which is a classic driver behind the racialization of ethnic groups. Notably, the hierarchy still is colour-coded. On top can always be found the "whitest" peoples, who are framed as "more civilized", and as we descend through the ranking, the peoples are increasingly coloured, where the bottom of the hierarchy is "the most primitive". Essentially, it creates a hierarchy of "good people" vs. "bad people", repeating the statements made by racial biologists a century ago, only, now it frames the ranking in terms of culture instead of race.

In Sweden, that ranking would have ethnic Swedes on top, as "the most enlightened, democratic, civilized and developed". After that come peoples from neighbouring areas, with Norwegians and Danes first, Finns and Sapmi last (they've always been at the bottom of the Nordic rankings). Then come other Western, Central Europeans and Anglo-Saxons, with Protestants higher and Catholics lower. Then comes the Mediterranean peoples and Eastern Europeans. After that come Latin Americans, followed by Asians and then Middle Eastern peoples. Africans come last, particularly Somalis. This hierarchy is  not just a matter of perception, but so entrenched that it is found in the labour market. Swedes have the highest employment numbers, Somalis the lowest.

"Immigrants may bring homophobia, sexism or other bigotry"

Yet another way of invoking Huntington's "Clash of Civilization"-argument. This is a spin of the former argument, and equally targeted at racialized immigrants (mostly Muslims). Only, in this case it has been reframed and dressed with key values that most people in democracies will find anathema. The irony is that many nationalist parties tend to be weak when it comes to protecting the rights of non-ethnic subaltern groups. Their track records when it comes to women's rights, the protection of sexual minorities or those of disabled people are not impressive. Another irony is that the person who argues this effectively stereotypes a whole group of people, which is bigotry itself. Like all other categories of people, immigrants are diverse. Many migrants are actually moving because they have been persecuted by bigots and because they are pro-democracy and human rights activists.

Furthermore, if we are to take values like freedom of thought and freedom of speech seriously, this argument is impossible to sustain. You can't have a border control based on political opinion for a country that says that all citizens have the right to hold whatever political opinions they want. Notably, some countries have tried adopting policies that would "educate" newcomers about "acceptable values" in the host  society, for instance the Netherlands and France. The data I've taken part indicates that integration outcomes for the Netherlands actually have taken a turn for the worse, so apparently the policy isn't working. That doesn't surprise me much, as the policy strongly signals that newcomers are not trusted. That is a poor way to welcome them.

"We should treat them like we would be treated in their country"

I've seen this one with some regularity. It is often invoked when talking about people moving from particularly oppressive authoritarian states. The strange part about this is that the speaker somehow is holding a person who is oppressed by a dictatorship (a government without any democratic legitimacy) partially responsible for what that government is doing. Listen, you can't hold the citizens of Saudi-Arabia responsible for the fact that their government is prohibiting women from driving cars. The people have no say in the matter - it's a dictatorship! Also: are you really suggesting that the government of [insert the democratic country you live in] should start acting like a dictatorship? Surely, we prefer democracies precisely because they do not act like dictatorships. Stop advocating dictatorship!

"They are radical and anti-democratic and will destroy our democracy and replace it with their totalitarian theocracy" 

This one is usually used about Muslims who get stereotyped as radical fundamentalists. I'll let this man respond:

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Immigration myths: Law and order arguments for closed borders

This post deals with common law and arguments people use to defend the "we need to close our borders for immigration"-position. As the overview will show, these arguments are difficult to sustain on closer scrutiny. An examination exposes their weak foundation.

Law and order arguments

"Refugees and/or immigrants are criminals/terrorists and should be kept out of the country lest social unrest results"

No. There is no research suggesting that crime rates are higher among immigrants than among the native born population that I am aware of. In fact, the opposite is often true. Now, consider what some are suggesting here: because a marginal fraction of immigrants might have committed criminal acts, everyone should be kept out. That's a form of collective punishment, seriously disproportionate to the problem at hand, and as such a severe infringement of human rights. A better approach would be to keep the borders open and then use regular law enforcement services to bring those who do commit crimes to justice - the way that is done with any native born.

New immigrants are expected to abide by the laws of the land, like everyone else. No one has argued that immigrants should be allowed to break the law. Designing a law that keeps people out because someone else has broken a law and "we think these people might break the law in the future" goes against some fundamental legal principles, like "presumed innocent until proven guilty".

"Allowing immigrants in undermines social cohesion"

People who argue this often refer to Robert Putnam's famous study E Pluribus Unum, which found that local trust levels tend to go down when new immigrants settle in a neighbourhood. They tend to read that piece selectively, however, because the piece then goes on to explain how that can be remedied by building networks between newcomers and long time residents. In short, when people get to know each other, they develop trust. He also cites a number of organizations that have done well with an ethnically diverse workforce.

Also, note how political leaders who speak of how "multiculturalism has failed" and how it challenges "social cohesion" (like David Cameron) never manage to define social cohesion. It's one of those words that sound important but has no real meaning. That makes it particularly useful for xenophobic groups.

"Immigrants bring disease"

During the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, this argument was used by some who wanted to close the borders for people from the affected areas. This, again, would be a form of collective punishment that is completely disproportionate to the health risks involved. See this piece for an elaboration on how destructive a border closure would have been. If it can't be sustained for a pandemic of that level of seriousness, I can't see how it could be sustained for other matters of health either.

Some would say that the concern is that migrants will burden the health care system. If that is so, a better solution would be to keep the borders open but say that immigrants who are not citizens do not get access to health care. That way, the immigrants would have a few rough first years, but eventually, would become naturalized. If I have to choose between closing the borders and keeping the borders open while deny newcomers health care services, I would go with the latter. Personally, I think that solution is excessive.  There will there be some immigrants who need health services, but there will also be many who a) contribute with tax dollars to fund health services as they work and b) who either arrive with professional health care expertise and thus can work in the sector, or choose to become doctors or nurses after arrival.

"Illegal immigrants should be deported because they entered the country unlawfully"

It is technically true that people who enter the country outside the auspices of the official channels do so unlawfully. Notice, however, how the remedy to this, for those who raise "the issue of illegal immigration" is always to deport people and close down borders. A more straightforward solution would be to change what is, ultimately, an expensive and inhumane law for everyone.

Let us probe a good example: Prohibition. That law was formulated with the best of intentions: to save people from the evils of alcohol abuse. The method chosen, banning alcohol, probed incredibly costly and inhumane. Governments had to spend incredible resources enforcing the law, the alcohol that was produced was less safe precisely because it was done on the black market, with little to no accountability, and organized crime flourished. The sensible solution was to repeal prohibition.

Notice the many parallels to closed borders: smugglers can line their pockets, migrants have to constantly worry about government law enforcement (which gives scrupulous employers ample opportunity to exploit them) and risk injury and death as they travel across borders in dangerous and remote areas. Alan Kurdi's fate is a case in point; the migrants dying on the Mediterranean do so because European governments have put up fences and closed the borders where it is safe to travel.

If the borders were, instead, open, travel would be without risk. Exploiting smugglers or employers would no longer be able to threaten migrants without documents with deportation, so they could get proper jobs, with proper labour protection and thus be as productive as anyone else in society. The migrants could send their children to school without fear of government persecution. Governments could save all that money that is currently plowed into control measures that create more problems than they solve.

Next time a politician suggests building walls to "protect the border", some should ask why that is a good idea when it would be so much easier and more beneficial to everyone to just re-write the law an open the borders. Today, we consider the prohibition of coffee in Sweden enacted periodically during the 18th and 19th century) outlandish and absurd. The ban on movement across borders is much more destructive.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Immigration myths: Economic arguments for closed borders

This post deals with common economic arguments people use to defend the "we need to close our borders for immigration"-position. I should say that economics is not my research focus, but the overview will show that there is not much evidence from findings in that discipline, as far as I know, that would substantiate an economic rationale for closing the borders. If politics was genuinely driven by an ambition to do what benefits the economy, borders would be opened up, not closed down.

Economic arguments

"Refugees don't need help, because they have cellphones so clearly they are well off"

Is that a reason to close the border? If they don't need our help, they won't use government services and can support themselves, so what is the problem with keeping the border open?

"We should take care of our own people before we let new people in"

This seems straight forward: "The pie in our country is limited. If more people get in, we all get a little less to get by." The problem with this line of thinking is that it doesn't take time into account. The pie actually grows over time. Most countries have experienced population growth over the past century, but in most cases, that did not result in lowered standards of living, but rather the opposite. Most of us are much better of today than our ancestors were a century ago. The number of jobs in modern democracies has increased together with population growth . It doesn't really matter if that growth is from fertility or immigration. As the population grows, so does the economy.

"We need to protect our jobs so that outsiders don't take them away from us"

This is related to the above argument and also frames the labour market as a zero-sum game, which means that it has the same weakness as the above. People who argue this apparently have such low confidence in the skills and productivity of your own compatriots that they want to use force to keep people out of the country. In fact, research shows that most immigrants a) do not compete for the same types of jobs as the native born do, because skill sets only partially match up and b) immigrants often create jobs over time that can end up employing the native born. See this overview, for example:

When South Africa was desegregated, a massive migration from remote areas to metropolitan centres started. If large numbers of migrants really do have negative effects on the economy, it should have happened. It didn't. Instead, average incomes rose by more than 50 %. White South Africans were not disadvantaged, their incomes rose by even more than average; 275 %.

Over time, immigrants contribute staggering numbers to the economy of their host countries, as well as to the public coffers. This has been consistently showed by the OECD and is a general consensus among economists, even economists who like closed borders.

"We need to stop poor countries from losing their best and brightest to brain drain, and should therefore close the borders to help them develop"

The brain drain issue arose as a concern in the 1980s and 90s and was given attention in the scholarship. It turns out that, over time, it wasn't much of an issue. Two things generally happened, sometimes both. 1) The migrants would send money to their relatives. This is known as remittances. These help the local economies in poor countries substantially, even more, some claim, than foreign aid.  2) The migrant gets professional expertise and education/training in the new country and then returns to the country of origin, bringing valuable experiences to benefit these economies. Closing the borders would hurt the economies of poor countries considerably.

It's quite cynical to say that armed guards should stop people from crossing the border "for their own good". One of the best policies any democratic government could adopt today to combat global poverty would be to open the borders for immigration to both refugees and others.

"There are too many refugees, the system can't handle them/it will cost too much to let them all in"

The problem with this assertion is that a) it is always made, regardless of how many refugees there actually are, and b) even when refugee streams peak, time is not taken into account (which seems like a theme for this category of concerns). Europe has confronted many periods when greater numbers of refugees emerged for one reason or another. One was in the aftermath of World War II, when millions of people were on the move, either going back home, or fleeing because they had been displaced by the changed borders. Another moment when refugee numbers rose was during the wars that developed as Yugoslavia collapsed.

Did these events create situations that were challenging to address for existing systems? Most likely. What happened over time? Answer: the refugees settled in, found work and became residents of those countries, many of them as naturalized citizens. It might have taken some months and sometimes even some years, but over time, problems dissipated. Twenty years later, nobody talks about Bosnian refugees as a problem group. The same thing happened to the Vietnamese refugees in the mid-70s, and the same will happen for the Syrians fleeing the war today if they are let in. They will form new communities, find work, start companies and settle in,

Also, refugee numbers have only limited effect on how well the post-migration situation develops. Instead, I propose paying more attention to the settlement bureaucracy. In my dissertation, I find that Sweden's poor integration outcomes are a result of a highly centralized bureaucracy that disempowers immigrants and pacifies them, effectively channeling them into permanent unemployment. But that is the system's fault, not the immigrants', and it is solved by less micro-management and by supporting decentralized services designed by immigrant communities, much as is being done in Canada and the United States. Thus, the greatest challenge for the successful integration of Syrian refugees, I would argue, will likely be government bureaucracies that make it difficult for them to settle.

Thus, most of the problems we are seeing now are created by the attempts of governments to close borders, not by people trying to move from one place to another. If the borders to Europe (and elsewhere) were open, people would be able to move and settle in new places without the tragic loss of life we currently see and with much lower economic costs to governments (those border policing and rescue efforts are not for free) and migrants. That lower cost would be translated into a quicker settlement and integration process. Everybody would win with less micro-management of borders.

"They are abusing the system and enriching themselves on arrival"

This is the "social tourism"-argument. "Immigrants", it says "are only out to become welfare moochers and come to live on the tax dollars of hard working native born people". Again, no. The argument has been used by politicians in many countries to close borders. When the EU expanded to include the Eastern European countries in 2005, the Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson wanted to close the Swedish borders to migrants from the new EU countries using this argument as a rationale. He was defeated by parliament. Did the "mass invasion of welfare moochers" materialize? No. One reason is that access to social welfare occurs through a fairly complex regulatory framework which can be difficult enough for the native born to learn if they don't have to use it themselves, and even harder for migrants to learn about before arrival. Another is, simply, that migrants come to work. When they don't work, it's because governments have put regulations in place that prevent them from working. The primary outcome of Persson's play was to damage the government's relation to the Polish and other Easter European governments, whose citizens had just been stereotyped as lazy moochers. Meanwhile, the Poles went to the U.K. and Ireland, where there was work.

"Accepting too many refugees/immigrants will destroy the welfare state"

This argument, like many above, also builds on the "the pie isn't big enough to open the borders"-argument. Unlike some of those above, this argument can be construed to have some support from Milton Friedman in the sense that he is on record saying that a state with a welfare state cannot have open borders. His argument is that the social entitlements and programs will become too costly when too many immigrants arrive. He concludes that new arrivals should not have access to social programs for an open border policy to work.

I believe Friedman is wrong in this case. Most immigrants are of a working age and in good health. They will thus work and pay taxes, and since they've already gone through education somewhere else, the host society has to pay lower costs for schooling the new arrivals than it has to for those who are native born.

That is, if they are allowed to work. Friedman does have an important point with his critique of the welfare state - the programs that are supposed to do good actually end up doing a lot of bad. A perfect case in point is social welfare, which locks people into poverty through humiliating means-testing. There's a comprehensive literature showing how paternalist and disempowering the programs are (but that topic deserves a separate blog post). If the bureaucratic systems channel immigrants to social welfare, then they will be blocked from the labour market. Like I mentioned above, my dissertation argues that this is a problem in Sweden. That problem, however, is one that is best remedied by reforming the welfare system for everyone, not by closing the borders for immigrants.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Immigration myths: introducing an overview of arguments for closed borders

By now, the ongoing refugee crisis has been making headlines for quite a while. Political leaders in both Europe and North America have to address it. It has affected the Canadian election campaign as the Harper government is being challenged on its response to the developing situation.

A lot of people, both political leaders, pundits and citizens in general, have opinions about this. Alas, a lot of those opinions seem deeply misinformed about how migration (refugee and otherwise) and immigrant integration actually works. I will address a (somewhat random) selection of common statements that I have seen across the Internet over the past few weeks in three coming blog posts. They will be based on theme, the economic, law and order, and cultural rationales that people often use to defend the "we need to close our borders for immigration"-position. I originally planned to deal with them in just one blog post, sort of grew a bit.

These "closed borders"-arguments are represented in just about all democracies. The most obvious such come from nationalist politicians, in Europe represented by parties like UKIP in the UK, Front National in France or the Sweden Democrats in Sweden, so the anti-immigration stance is often associated with the right-wing politics. However, it exists on the left, too. The US presents a good example of this, where Democrats want to close borders to "protect American jobs" and Republicans (the most glaring example being Trump) want to build a wall to Mexico "to keep the criminals out". The short reply to these politicians is that they are wrong. The scientific consensus is that immigration does not hurt the economy and that immigrants are not more criminal than the native born population.

Instead of thinking that the norm should be closed borders and asking how many immigrants can we accept, the norm should be to ask: What rights do governments have to set up barriers for the free movement of all humans?

Recommended sources

There is a quite an extensive body of scientific literature on this topic which I'm not going to cite here. The list would simply be too long (and some of the material is behind the pay walls of academic journals). The below are accessible reads/videos that succinctly summarizes the state of the art in research:

The Case for Open Borders
Myths about Immigration
Let the people go - a review of Paul Collier's argument for closing the borders

Oh, and:

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Some notes on course design and assignments

Since adopting 3dgamelab as a teaching tool, I have had the opportunity to think about assignment design. Below are some that turned out to be quite engaging for students:

Design a midterm

This was inspired from a brainstorming session about student self-assessment. Only a person who has a strong grasp about the course material can design appropriately calibrated midterm questions. Such questions have to address core concepts and do so in a way that compels the test taker to use them. So I figured, why not give the students the task of designing a few midterm questions? I instruct them to do fourish multiple choice questions and two short answer questions. The assignment works really well - not a few students design better questions than I would have, and the exercise quickly reveals which students are still struggling with the material.

Swapping papers

One of the problems of academic paper writing exercises for students is to get the needed feedback to improve. One of the problems for instructors is to get papers with relatively elementary issues, like grammar, punctuation and the like - writing issues that are really on the secondary level of schooling. At post-secondary, instructors (in my experience) would prefer to deal with the structure of the paper, or the strength of the argument and research. 

This assignment is designed to address both of the above problems. It has students switch papers with each other before handing in the draft to the instructor. They read a peer's paper and comment on it constructively - what was strong, what can be improved? For the student, it has the benefit of having them reflect on the writing process as a reader, so when they go back to their own paper they can use that perspective more effectively during editing. Also, they get some feedback from a peer who can hopefully catch the most glaring grammar issues. The instructor on average gets papers of higher quality.

Flip the classroom

First, I decided to remove the planned lecture series from the course design. Since I was using a webtool to deliver the course assignments anyway, I felt that any material that would have been presented through a traditional lecture series could just as well be done through YouTube-videos. Thus I started my channel. I upload all the lecture material there. In my experience, the material presented through the traditional 50 minute lecture can be presented through a 10-15 minute video just as well. The shorter time frame requires being more concentrated with the information and the fact that students can re-watch the video an infinite number of times effectively avoids the problem of wondering whether students will remember what you said in a lecture six weeks ago.

These videos become mini-assignments for students to watch and then I use the classroom time for exercises that compel the students to use the concepts introduced in the videos. The time saved through this method cannot be overestimated.

The role-plays

And that's where the role-plays come in. These are design to provide a simulation of the institutions and political contexts the students are studying in the readings and are inspired by edu-larps (educational live action role-playing) and Model UN. In short, this is game-based learning. Students take the roles of politicians, journalists, civil servants or clients and act within the incentive structure of the institution in question. The debriefs they have to do after each simulation shows how effective the tool is. These are some of the models designed (there is more):

Introduction to Comparative politics

  • US Congress - pass a budget
  • UK House of Commons - Question Period
  • German Parliament - build a government coalition post-elections
  • French Unitary State - build a budget in the contest between regional, departmental and municipal governments who all want state funding

Introduction to Canadian politics

  • First Minister Conference - interaction between federal and provincial governments re: Senate reform
  • The Newsroom - an exercise in media news triage
  • An election campaign - pitch your platform and then win the televised debate. Next time I do this one, I would like to broadcast the debate live through my YouTube-channel to give the students a group of voters, too.
In my last incarnations of this, I took a cue from Sheldon's The Multiplayer Classroom, and made the role-playing continuous. That is, students took the roles that they played through the entire term, from five different "character classes", like in computer games. For Comparative Politics, these were Politician, Civil Servant, Journalist, Activist, and Academic. The idea is for each of these to have their own motivations and goals, and together, the students create a story line that probes the concepts at hand. I will be exploring this model further in the future.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Race and demography in Sweden

A debate about racial demography is developing in Sweden. This is the background - recently, the Swedish government decided to create a national institute against racism and extremist violence. This task has been assigned to Gothenburg University. It has drawn a range of criticism from scholars exploring racism.

Among other issues, critics have pointed out that all the working group that has been appointed to develop the centre are all white and none of them have specialized in the study of racism. The critics argue the omission of non-whites and racism scholars is rather remarkable given the group's mission. They describe the appointment process as columbusing, i.e. where a group of power-holders "discover" something that was already known outside their own circle.  The obvious comparison is, what would the reaction be if a centre was set up for the study of gender equality, but the working group to develop this centre were all males without any experience of gender studies?

There was an immediate reaction to this critique, particularly from professor Rothstein. For context, he is one of the most luminary Swedish political scientists, with a highly distinguished publishing record. It's not possible to get an undergraduate degree in political science in Sweden without reading some of his work. He considers the critics' attention to the racial background of the appointees deeply troubling. He then turns to the time in the 1930s when the Swedish government asked the government of Nazi Germany to introduce the stamp "J" in the passports of its Jewish citizens. He argues that the attention anti-racists give to the racial or ethnic background of applicants or employees amounts to copying the Nazi German model.

Shortly afterwards, an influential editorial by Teodorescu (on the political right - these issues often become politically polarized quickly) came out essentially repeating Rothstein's position. Her development of the argument essentially lands in the conclusion that we should stop speaking about racial or ethnic categories all together, because doing so reinforces racism and exclusion.

The argument is bizarre for anyone who has worked in the field of combating ethnic discrimination for any period of time. One of the primary tools for tracking processes of discrimination is to chart the demography of employees in the workforce. This is routinely being done in both private and public organizations in several countries, notably the United States and Canada.

A typical example of how such tools are implemented is diversity management (yes, it is loaded with controversy, but that goes beyond this post). A classic problem is that recruitment processes can be unintentionally discriminatory, when a homogeneous group sets up standards or criteria for recruitment, they might "rig the game" in a way that ends up excluding relevant competencies and experiences in such a way that the homogeneity is maintained. When that happens, there is a risk that the organization becomes characterized by group-think and develop blind-spots where important perspectives are missed. To prevent this, human resource departments can do internal surveys of applicants and employees to make sure that the demography of these groups is not too homogeneous. If it is, there is likely something wrong in the recruitment procedure. This is an example of such a survey, which is now a regular tool in the appointment of academic positions in the United States:

There is then a question for those who argue that all discussions on the charting of racial or ethnic demographics are problematic: How could anyone develop practical tools for preventing discrimination without being able to measure the outcomes of human resource practices? Is the survey above really racist, or an equivalent to Nazi German practices? I find that position difficult to sustain, and it becomes really troublesome when the logic leads to the position that talking about racism is racist.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Barriers to teaching innovation in post-secondary education

I recently went to the CPSA (Canadian Political Science Association) annual conference in Ottawa to present the paper "Gamifying Political Science", which describes my experiences of using game design tools to improve the learning experiences of my students. The method shows great promise and a mounting body of evidence suggests that it is a highly effective pedagogical tool. The paper ends with a discussion on the likelihood of game design tools being adopted in political science teaching more widely and identifies a series of barriers on both individual and institutional level that gives us little reason to expect its adoption any time soon.

Some of those barriers include a lack of familiarity with pedagogical techniques or technological tools among individual professors, as well as a shortage of time which prevents instructors from learning about how to use new pedagogical approaches. On the institutional level, departments rarely invest in structures to support teaching development, since they prioritize production - i.e. research - instead.

Importantly, the paper notes that teaching is not incentivized as part of the career path (indeed, one CPSA-panelist who remarked that devoting time to become a good teacher can be 'career suicide', which is quite revealing). I discuss some of the mechanisms in the paper and would like to add a couple of reflections here. These notes are based on experiences and observations from working in this field and should be seen as points of departure for further discussion.

The first concerns the lack of career incentives for good instructors in the academic world, or at least in my field - political science. Universities are, in the public debate, often said to have two core tasks, research and teaching. However, in my experience, teaching seems to be treated as a core task in name only. For example, as a graduate student, the most prestigious research awards (there is more than one) are set at about CAD  40 000. There was only one award for teaching excellence available to us, set at CAD  1 000, so the career infrastructure is made already at that stage. Tenure is, of course, a research position. Those who are passionate about teaching are confined to sessional positions, which pay much less and have no job security. There is no way to advance from there as an instructor. Also, institutions generally have few tools for evaluating teaching quality. The only one I've seen is the student course evaluations, which have been much criticized, but no one seems to be interested in using that critique to develop better tools. An institution that doesn't pay its instructors stable and sufficient salaries and doesn't even bother to evaluate whether the activity holds a high quality should hardly claim that activity as part of its core mission. The situation calls to mind Brunsson's piece (2003) Organized hypocrisy, where he describes how it is rational for organizations to say one thing and then do another to satisfy contradictory demands.

This institutional structure is reflected on the individual level. In my experience, academics seem oddly defensive about teaching methods. Common reactions have included comments like "...but I like lecturing". That is all well and good, but instructors are entering the classroom for the undergraduate students, and to do their duty by them. Instructors should thus do what research shows is effective and efficient to facilitate student learning. I have yet to find any study showing that the lecture series is the most optimal teaching tools. On the contrary, there is a growing body of evidence showing that other techniques are more effective, but that evidence seems to have little effect on practices.

Of note, the physicist Eric Mazur famously remarked on how tenured Harvard professors, who certainly know everything about the scientific method when it comes to their research, for some reason discards that same scientific method entirely when it comes to teaching. As Donald Clark notes in his keynote address, "hardly anybody who teaches in a university believes in the application of the scientific method to teaching and learning". The situation is thus like this: the same profession that a) continuously and routinely exposes itself to critique through peer review and b) keeps emphasizing the importance of the scientific method to students, suddenly lets go of these principles entirely when it comes to how to design and deliver a course. That is quite problematic.

All is not doom and gloom, though. There are interesting initiatives out there. Quest University was literally built from scratch with the intention of providing undergraduate students with the best possible learning experience. It has small classes - max. 25 students and the very interesting block system for how courses as structured: students study one subject at a time, instead of several courses in parallel, which allows instructors more liberty in terms of how to dispose of their time. Also, no departments. Professor Helfand presents it here. The Teaching Professor network in the US is also interesting. It organizes a conference for disseminating best teaching practices.

Such initiatives are important, but more is needed to institutionalize substantive incentives for teaching excellence in the academic career track. I would argue that universities owe their undergraduates to commit to and make that change.