Day: August 18, 2011

Best exam question EVER!



I know it is hard to believe, but while most of the academic world is enjoying the last few weeks of university break, down under in Kiwi-land we’re in the thick of the academic year. This year I tried out some new essay questions for my Gender and Post-Conflict Development and Feminist International Relations courses and I have to say- I created the best essay question ever. The suspense is killing you right? Here it is:

You’ve been asked to help create a realistic video game that illustrates women’s experiences of war and insecurity. Referring to readings covered in class, what types of activities, challenges, and events would you include in the game? How do you think the public would respond to your game?

The best part about this question has been the incredible debates and discussions it created in class and the amazing answers students came up with. I had to share a couple.

One student designed the game to follow a family forced to flee their village. The family faces numerous challenges at each level of the game, including finding food and daily necessities through the black market, hiding from rebel attacks, and eventually joining and adapting to life in a refugee camp.

Another student created a female soldier character that survives war by joining in atrocities such as amputations. In the last phase of the game the player has to find a way to get included in the disarmament process- at the disarmament camps the female soldier character has to avoid sexual abuse and physical violence. Another student gives the player the option to choose from the following characters: a woman caught in a civil war in East Africa and a Western woman fighting within a peacekeeping unit. Both women face different sets of obstacles- including the threat of sexual violence from their comrades.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. The question was meant to be thought provoking (and quite frankly was a last ditch effort to create an exam that I thought might be more interesting to grade!). There were no limits to the ideas on how to create a game, but when it came to thinking about how audiences would respond to such a ‘realistic’ video games students were less enthusiastic. I guess it is worth asking: Would a truly realistic war video game, one that represented men and women’s experiences of war- complete with sexual violence, food scarcity, amputations, and refugee flows- flop? No answers here, but would love to start a discussion. Or to hear what your video game would look like.

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Syllabus Bleg: Science Fiction (Updated)

I could use some help. As I did in the spring, I’m teaching a seminar on “Science Fiction and Politics.” I’m working on some significant changes to the syllabus. The class will now meet twice a week, which has implications for its flow, and I want to teach some different works. But I’m flailing a bit about some aspects of the syllabus, particularly with respect to (1) short readings to pair with books and (2) some specific assignments. A rough outline follows, including some notes about the kinds of pieces I’m looking for. A major issue concerning the latter is that I generally want supplemental readings that are short.

1. No Class.
2. SF, Popular Culture and Politics: Jutta Weldes, “Popular Culture, Science Fiction, and World Politics: Exploring Intertextual Relations,” in Weldes, ed. To Seek Out New Worlds: Exploring Links between Science Fiction and World Politics, pp. 1-27; Iver B. Neumann and Daniel H. Nexon, “Introduction: Harry Potter and the Study of World Politics,” in Nexon and Neumann, eds. Harry Potter and International Relations, pp. 1-25. Recommended for non-genre fans: Edward James, Science Fiction in the 20th Century, pp. 12-53.
3. Collins, Hunger Games I: paired with something on the structure and organization of empires, preferably with examples drawn from Rome.
4. Collins, Hunger Games II: paired with something on social roles, role theory, and/or performativity.
5. Banks, Player of Games I: K.M. Fierke, “Links Across the Abyss: Language and Logic in International Relations,” International Studies Quarterly 46 (2002): 331-354.
6. Banks, Player of Games II: paired with something about ritual and social order, or perhaps gender and social order.
7. Stross, Halting State I: Vernor Vingee, “Technological Singularity”
8. Stross, Halting State II: Plato, The Republic (selections)
9. Schmitt, Political Theology: paired with a short piece on securitization theory?
10. Moore, Watchmen I
11. Moore, Watchmen II
12. Heinlein, Starship Troopers I: Harold D. Lasswell, “The Garrison State,” The American Journal of Sociology 14,4 (December 1943): 627-650.
13. Heinlein, Starship Troopers II
14. Ender’s Game I
15. Ender’s Game II
16. Todorov, Conquest of America [might be moved before Ender’s Game]
17. Wolfe, Fifth Head of Cerberus I [Parts 1-2]
18. Wolfe, Fifth Head of Cerberus II [Part 3]
19. No Class: Film. Perhaps Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell: SAC (the compilation of the “Laughing Man” episodes), or Ghost in the Shell 2.0?
20. Le Guin, The Dispossessed I
21. Le Guin, The Dispossessed II
22. Herbert, Dune I
23. Herbert, Dune II: paired with a piece on jihad and/or religious warfare and/or religion and politics
24. Film.

As should be clear, I have one moveable film slot and I’m not sure what to do with it. I’m also curious about other suggestions for pairings (but keep in mind that I am not sadistic enough to pair Fifth Head of Cerberus with anything, as they’ll have enough trouble making sense of the narrative as it is).

One option that I’m considering is to open with some kind of cliched genre SF, e.g., Foundation (or at least the first novella or two). My current inclination is to keep the readings for session 2 but assign something to watch, such as an episode of ST:TNG (Darmok?) or Farscape. What I’m looking for should be (1) accessible on its own and (2) complete with all the “bells and whistles” of stereotyped SF: spaceships, strange aliens, energy weapons, etc.

Last year our readers provides excellent feedback. Let’s make that a trend!

UPDATE: Trend underway! I should clarify some things about the course and comment on some of the excellent suggestions. I’ve benefitted from PTJ’s extensive experience teaching a similar (and better) version of the class; as I’ve had one semester under my belt, I’ve also learned a bit.

Providing related nonfiction helps ground the students in terms of discussing and analyzing SF. Works we might think of as “meh” or of dubious quality can provoke terrific discussions. Even some of the students who consume science fiction lack contextual knowledge that our readership unwittingly assumes.  Standalone SF episodes are much more difficult to follow than people who’ve watched the series realize.

For example, I showed “33” last year as a means for talking about the notion of “the exception” — although we also discussed jus in bello issues and compared “33” to Watchmen. I may put it back on, but the students were really, really confused about the characters and the setting. For some of them, that overshadowed the whole experience. Similarly, Bank’s Culture universe is pretty difficult to feel comfortable in if one begins with Look to Windward. Despite the fact that it doesn’t tackle the kind of broad thematics of that book, Player of Games provides a much better introduction to the Culture.

I should also note some of the meta-themes in the course, although one nice aspect of teaching this kind of class is that the students take it in unexpected directions.

  1. The relationship between politics, roles, and games. This carries across a wide variety of the literature and bridges works that deal with different themes.
  2.  Sovereignty and the exception. Although this also cuts across a number of works, Watchmen, Starship Troopers, and Enders Game constitute the “core” of this discussion. Related, of course, is “guardianship.”
  3. The status of the “Other” in politics in general, and imperial relations in particular. 
  4. Technological shifts and politics, particularly around the idea of the “singularity” but extended out much more broadly to issues of political change. 

I eliminated a number of works that were in the previous semester.  The most difficult one to cut was Julian Comstock. I am close to pulling the trigger on a CJ Cherryh — likely Downbelow Station or Cyteen, both of which would integrate nicely. Due to their length, though, I need to think hard about how to make it work. Either gets at core themes of the syllabus, and it would allow me to add another female author.

Thoughts? Keep the ideas coming, please!

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Crunching Drone Death Numbers

The Monkey Cage has published a detailed guest post by Christine Fair on the drone casualty debate. Fair takes leading drone-casualty-counters (Bergen and Tiedeman’s New America Foundation database and new numbers out from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism) to task for their methodology, in particular focusing on their sourcing:

While these methodologies at first blush appear robust, they don’t account for a simple fact that non-Pakistani reports are all drawing from the same sources: Pakistani media accunts. How can they not when journalists, especially foreign journalists, cannot enter Pakistan’s tribal areas? Unfortunately, Pakistani media reports are not likely to be accurate in any measure and subject to manipulation and outright planting of accounts by the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence agency) and the Pakistani Taliban and affiliated militant outfits.

Pakistani journalists have readily conceded to this author that perhaps as many as one in three journalists are on the payroll of the ISI. In fact, the ISI has a Media Management Wing which manages domestic media and monitors foreign media coverage of Pakistan. Even a prominent establishment journalist,Ejaz Haider, has questioned “What right does this wing have to invite journalists for ‘tea’ or ask anyone to file a story or file a retraction? The inquiry commission [to investigate the death of slain journalist Shehzad Saleem] should also look into the mandate of this wing and put it out to pasture.”

Pakistani journalists have explained to this author that, with respect to drone strikes, either the Pakistani Taliban call in the “victim count” or the ISI plants the stories with compliant media in print and television—or some combination of both. In turn, the western media outlets pick up these varied accounts. Of course the victim counts vary to give the illusion of authenticity, but they generally include exaggerated counts of innocents, including women and children. Of course as recent suicide bombings by females suggest, women should not be assumed innocent by virtue of their gender.

Thus, these reports mobilized by NAF and BIJ, despite the claims of both teams of investigators, cannot be independently verified. At best, their efforts reflect circular reporting of Pakistani counts of dubious veracity.

I think this is a really important analysis and share Fair’s concerns about the reliability and validity of these methods. I haven’t looked closely at BIJ’s dataset, but I’ve written previously about not only the sourcing problem, but also coding anomalies and conceptual problems with the NAF methods. The Jamestown Foundation, which has another drone-casualty dataset that Fair doesn’t address, has its own problems.

All that said, having made a clear case that we can’t really verify the numbers, I think it’s very strange that Fair arrives at the conclusion, by the end of her article, that drones must therefore be a pro-civilian technology:

U.S. officials interviewed as well as Pakistani military and civilian officials have confirmed to this author that drones kill very few “innocent civilians.” Indeed, it was these interviews that led me to revise my opinion about the drone program: I had been a drone opponent until 2008. I now believe that they are best option.

It’s hard to argue with her claims that drones might be more discriminate than ‘regular airstrikes,’ an argument that largely resets on her observation that the drone program is more highly regulated and this would be obvious to the public if the CIA didn’t have a variety of incentives to keep mum about the details. But in the absence of good data comparing the kill ratios – which we really don’t have for non-drone-strikes either – it’s hard to make this case definitively. Also, relative to what? A law-enforcement approach that involved capturing and trying terrorists rather than obliterating them might or might not be more ‘pro-civilian’ – though it would certainly be more costly in terms of military life and assets. We simply don’t know.

Regarding how we might know, I also don’t buy Fair’s argument that attempts to verify the civilian status of victims through interviews would be fallacious. This view is based on the assumption that the important question is whether a victim was actually a terrorist. But since extrajudicial executions of suspected criminals without due process is a violation of human rights law, that’s not the right question to ask. From a war law perspective, the right question is whether the individual was directly engaged in hostilities at the time of the attack.

Now, Stephanie may well jump in with some more nuance on percolating developments in war law, the notion that direct participation is being expanded in some ways to include off-duty terror leaders, etc; I agree this is a complex grey area in the law but it’s beyond the scope of this post. My point here is that the messiness of this debate is directly related to the conceptual muddiness introduced by the shift toward thinking about the combatant/civilian divide in terms suspects/non-suspects rather than participation/non-participation. Fair’s analysis is only another example of that.

I am not anti-drone. As I wrote earlier this year, I think there’s a fair amount of unwarranted hype about them, and that the real problems are how they’re used, not the nature of the weapons itself. But this tendency to use the drone discussion to legitimize a reconceptualizing of the very definition of ‘legitimate target’ is extremely problematic. And while I support Fair’s argument that some independent mechanism should be established for determining casualty counts and disaggregating the civilian from the combatant dead, I do not share her belief that this is impossible or that it hinges on the distinction between ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’ – concepts that require due process to determine. If such fact-finding were done – and they should be, as the Oxford Research Group argues – I would support a coding method that reflects actual humanitarian law, not current US policy.

Here is another perspective for those following the issue. The Wall Street Journal also has a piece out today on the topic.

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