Teaching Model Diplomacy at the University of Akron
Oghenetoja Okoh is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Akron. Her primary fields of research include twentieth-century African history and the social and political history of the Niger Delta. Having taught a range of courses, including world history courses with an emphasis on global systems, Okoh used Model Diplomacy as a fresh way to involve students in her semester-long Modern Africa seminar. CFR Outreach’s Deputy Director Myka Carroll spoke with Okoh as the fall term wound down. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you find Model Diplomacy?
I've been teaching for over a decade on Modern Africa, and my specialty, really, is West Africa, but mostly political history. And I've been teaching general Modern Africa courses for quite some time now and have been looking for ways to do it creatively. Model Diplomacy was a really wonderful way to explore a particular set of topics, but in a really deep way for students. I decided to experiment with it this semester. I was a bit skeptical at first, as a historian, looking at the Council on Foreign Relations—it tends to be current event-focused. But I found that there was a way for me to incorporate the program into my class as a historian that worked really well, especially in the context of Modern Africa.
You mentioned that you've been teaching for more than a decade. What types of student populations have you worked with primarily?
I started as a graduate student in a large private Research 1 [R1] university, and I've also taught at a large public R1 university. And now I'm at a medium-size state university, teaching mostly undergraduates. The University of Akron mostly caters to an interesting mix. I would say they range from first-generation college students to returning-to-college adults and a good mix of traditional undergraduate students.
What have been the trends that you've noticed in the learning styles and the way that you had to adjust or adapt your teaching methods?
Well, there's been a general arc, even from just comparing to my earlier teaching years, that students find it really difficult to do large quantities of readings, especially if they're in an undergraduate introductory-level course. So it's been a bit of a challenge to keep their focus and get them to read a lot, which is one of the reasons why Model Diplomacy was really appealing to me. It was a way for me to get them to really focus on a topic and do the reading around the activities that are required in the simulation.
I think, secondly, there's been a shift as well in terms of attention span. I think because we're in an environment where students are able to get information very, very quickly and from multiple places, it can be a challenge to get them to read through heavily academic text. And so I think that's another challenge, especially in a field that requires a large amount of reading—and often reading monographs. We don't do as much with article-length type of assignments and readings. So in terms of teaching, it's been a bit of a challenge to find excerpts or smaller chunks of reading that can still get students to cover the material that you need them to cover in order for them to walk away with a good understanding of the material.
With that in mind, how did you start with Model Diplomacy and how did you organize it to make it as engaging as possible for your students?
I think my biggest challenge with incorporating it into my curriculum was to figure out when in the semester it would be appropriate. They would have to have quite a bit of background and context to be able to carry out a simulation. Because it's Africa too and the simulations are based around a scenario that is very American, from the National Security Council perspective, I had to really think through how to equip the students with the Africa-related subject matter. We used the “Humanitarian Intervention in South Sudan” case study for the simulation. So giving them enough of the background on South Sudan and the historical context was where I had to do quite a bit of work preparing for the simulation. I decided to put it in the last third of the course. I gave them about a week to do a really focused historical analysis of South Sudan before we even started the simulation. And then once we started the simulation it was quite easy for them to fall into making decisions around the crisis in South Sudan. I did a bit of prepping in terms of providing historical context, providing outside reading, as well as giving them a formal lecture on South Sudan prior to the simulation.
How much time did you allow for them to make sure they understood the National Security Council structure?
I took the suggestions provided by the Model Diplomacy Instructor Guide. It was well done and so I went along with it. Once we started the simulation, I went along with the prescribed amount of time. There were options for a quick role-play, a medium-length role-play, and the semester-long simulation. I took the middle road. It's a Tuesday/Thursday course that meets for an hour and fifteen minutes on each day. Preparing for the case and preparing for the NSC role, I gave them about a day to do each piece of that. So we would have a class period and then they would have a day to work on it on their own and engage with the assessment questions that are provided. Then we did the actual role-play over a week-long period. We split the role-play over two class sessions.
How did you break the role-play?
We had teams of two playing each role and they were given three to five minutes to present their positions, and we had some time to ask questions. We spent the first day really presenting the case. We began the debate on the second day, when the roles would have to engage one another. That gave them some time [in between sessions] to actually think and synthesize what was presented from each of the other roles; I wanted them to really give it a good thought before they entered the debate. So I think it was good to split it up that way, and we spent an entire day on deliberation and trying to build consensus. For the president, there was only one person playing that role and it worked out pretty well. We had to have another half-class session to have the president return with his decision, then we spent the other half of that class period responding informally, and then they had to do the actual policy review memo after that on their own.
How did the students respond to each of these activities? The preparatory work, the role-play itself, and then the debrief at the end?
Well, the preparatory work, I think, they were a little skeptical. [laughs] They approached the whole thing with skepticism at first. It was just like, "What is this? We've never done anything like this." And so I really had to explain why we were doing it and just give them the rationale as to what they would get out of it, basically.
What was that rationale? What was the pitch that you gave them?
Well, it was, "Look, do you want to do a formal essay question as we typically do in a history course where you do your own research paper, or do you want to enter a simulation with real-life application? This is how people with history backgrounds in African history and/or other social science backgrounds might actually enter the world of work. Beyond being a professor, you can possibly take on any one of these types of roles or work for the State Department given the kinds of backgrounds that you're building through your education here." So, I basically made the pitch for this as an applied use of the knowledge that they’re gaining in this class, and I think they took it.
Interestingly enough, I think, after that first week, it was quite a bit of work preparing and I think they did feel like it was a lot of "homework" [laughs], which is generally a problem for college students . . . they're in college, so that's ironic. But beyond that, once they got into the actual role-play and preparing for the roles, that's when it started to shift and they became very serious. They took it on with quite a bit of enthusiasm. I think they were unaware of how enthusiastic they were, even. I was impressed by the shift in their own characters as they entered the roles. They were visibly stressed for the decisions that they had to make and the kinds of things they had to respond to. They took the questions and the scenarios very seriously and they weighed all the options, and I was very impressed that they covered all the bases in the various positions that they took. So, they really took on the role-play fully, and they were very immersed for that week. We did get interrupted by the election, which actually gave us a moment to pause and to consider real-world implications in terms of our representative government and how we actually vote in people who will then appoint people in these positions.
And the election happened between that first session when they presented their positions and the second session when they actually did the debate and the role-play?
Oh, interesting timing.
Yeah, very interesting. We actually took a class period to just debrief on the election and then we came back to the role-play. So the enthusiasm didn't flag. It felt more like an odyssey going into the simulation. And coming out of it, I think students were like, "Wait, can we just keep doing that?" [laughs] Because we had to get back to lecture and discussion and they were like, "Wait a minute, we've been very active." So, that's actually reshaped the way that I'm teaching the last piece of the course. Part of the course is really more discussion, less lecturing, and really getting students to roll up their sleeves and engage in the material.
And how was that for you as a professor, in terms of being able to shift your course from the emphasis on you delivering a lecture and hoping that they're receiving what you're saying to actually having an exchange in your classroom?
It's been wonderful. I think this has been one of the more meaningful courses that I've taught. I think because of the shift in dynamic, I have to do less work, in some ways, because the students are actually really interested in the questions. And I think they've made the connections between what they're learning in the class and real-world implications. Some of them actually wrote in their review memos how the simulation had made them rethink their career path and the kinds of things that they might be interested in. A lot of the students in my course are history majors. Most of them had planned or do plan to be teachers in middle school, high school, and I think some of them are now thinking, "Well, maybe there's a bigger world out there for this kind of degree." Which is great. That's huge. That's something that I don't necessarily aim for when I typically teach.
“Humanitarian Intervention in South Sudan” fit your course well. What aspects, pedagogically, do you think that particular case enabled you to highlight in your curriculum?
Well, I think a few things work really well for the history part of it. One is really looking at the legacies of colonialism. South Sudan is a very graphic example of how the colonial state and the authoritarian hold on central power has had an effect on the modern post-independent state—Sudan specifically, but then South Sudan in the wake of the referendum. So it really looks at the question of historical legacy on the modern African state, which is the central theme of the course. Another really important element was to really understand how power dynamics work in a postindependence context, with vacuums in power, a lack of economic infrastructure—all of these questions that we had been looking at really play out in the South Sudan crisis.
And then, the third thing—and this is a broader concern in almost all of my courses on Africa, especially given the fact that a lot of students enter these courses with very little to no background on Africa—is to get them to rethink a lot of the assumptions they have about Africa and African states. The common images of famine and deprivation and all of these things that are just thought to be endemic, really, this kind of case shows the elements that go into making and creating crises. These are not things that happen out of the blue. These are long-standing, structurally imposed problems that they can then trace back. And it also makes it more human. Looking at the South Sudan, the humanitarian crisis, for example, makes them understand the humanistic elements of the crisis, and it also makes them also rethink broader, current events. The problems in Syria, terrorism in Somalia, for example, and why the African arena becomes really important in the global context of terrorism. So those things did come up in the simulation, in terms of their justification for the kinds of actions that they would or wouldn't take in the humanitarian crisis, which I thought was very, very, very good. I didn't actually have to teach that. They made those connections on their own.
And looking forward, do you think you'll use Model Diplomacy again? And are there other cases that you would consider teaching for your course?
Absolutely. I actually was really bummed that the “Boko Haram in Nigeria” case came after I had already committed to South Sudan. So that's something I want to use in my next iteration of this course, in terms of Modern Africa. But I was actually considering using the “Israeli-Palestinian Impasse” as another case for my global history humanities course, in which we do look at the Middle East as an ongoing narrative. Several scenarios in the Model Diplomacy case library really looked good to me and plausible, in both of my classes—Modern Africa, which is geared toward fairly advanced undergraduates, and [global history] humanities, which is also geared toward undergraduates—but it's a broader range from freshman through sophomore, juniors.
What would you do differently?
If I were to do this in my Modern Africa course again, I think I would actually go even later in the semester, make it the final thing, so that there isn't this letdown that the students are experiencing now. [laughs]
“So we can't do more?”
Yeah. I did it a little bit sooner because I wasn't sure if I would need more time, and I wanted to give myself that flexibility. It went fairly smoothly. I didn't have a lot of hiccups in terms of timing, which is something I wasn't sure about in terms of teaching it. So I think I would do it much later in the semester and have it as the final project. Now I have to figure out what I'm going to do for a final exam, and it's strange to not have the simulation as part of that examination process. I may find a way to do it. It may end up being a take-home essay exam. But in terms of applying it to my humanities course, I think I would have to shorten it, to take a sort of quicker approach to the simulation. The format of that course is that I lecture for fifty minutes twice a week, and then they have discussion sessions for fifty minutes twice a week. For them to actually do the simulation, they would have to do it in their discussion sections and I would have to provide them with more historical context.
Did you have students who were particularly challenged and didn't like it?
I think the biggest thing that they were responding to and reacting to at first was the fact that everything was online and they weren't sure how to navigate the space. I think the first week or two, it was hard to corral people. Get people to get to the site, sign up, register, so that they could have access to certain things.
How did you overcome that?
I just had to be on top of them. I sent them several emails separately. And getting them to understand that they needed to get on to the site and go through the material in order to be able to answer the questions at the end of each section. So that was, I think, the biggest challenge. And, I think, as with any exercise, there are students who are hostile toward working in groups. Those students found it a little harder to get into the simulation, and they were a little nervous that the work wouldn't be shared equally. And then there were students who were typically introverted, who surprisingly, came out of their introversion and were able to really do the simulation well. A couple of them maintained their introversion.
Are there other blended learning strategies or role-plays that you've considered or would consider now having done this in your course?
There is one exercise that I've thought about adopting from another colleague of mine teaching a whole class exercise around how black markets work. I would introduce this in my humanities course as a way of teaching communism or communist Eastern Europe versus U.S. affluence in the context of the Cold War. I try to stay away from the staid approaches to teaching World War I, World War II, or the Cold War. I try to give the students a different angle on these same subjects that they've already had either through their high school or even college training. So doing this kind of simulation of making them actually act as traders on a black market, with fake money and these kinds of things, gets them to really think about what's at stake and how it works differently from a formalized market. So something like that is what I am considering doing in my Africa course because it's a thing in Africa—these parallel economies—but it also is something that I am considering for my humanities class as well.
So, overall, your experience with Model Diplomacy . . .
It was a very positive, engaged learning experience, definitely.
For you as a professor as well?
For me as a professor, and I could see it with the students. They really did grow through this semester, and it fostered a really intimate learning environment, so the classroom itself is now this intimate community. We were able to talk about the elections in an informed, very civil way that I don't think we would have been able to do if we hadn't fostered that intimacy. So this type of learning exercise, I think, was really, really critical for that. I gained a lot of out of it in terms of how I would approach pedagogy and thinking of ways to create this type of learning experience in other ways. Maybe not always with Model Diplomacy as the way of doing it, but I think it definitely demonstrated to me the value of role-play and using game theory, if you will, to apply to concepts.
And how do you think participating in this helped your students process the election and the result, regardless of whether they liked the outcome?
I think it gave them a really heightened appreciation for the kind of responsibilities that our elected and appointed officials have to make, and it really made them think about their own role in electing these types of officials, putting people in that position to make these types of decisions. Model Diplomacy also, I think, puts them in the position of representing the American people. So they had to make arguments from that position and that vantage point, and I think they really felt that they had more insight into and more appreciation for the political process.
And another thing: I think this exercise actually made a real connection for them. When we tried to sell or pitch to them why they need to be in a course like Modern Africa, for example, or a humanities course, we always say, "This is part of your training as a global citizen." I don't think that it means very much to them, typically. And I think this kind of exercise really did make that connection for them, made it real as to why they should care about people and places far, far away, and that was part of the conversation we did have in the context of the election, was how their vote actually does have repercussions for people far away and how things far away can actually come back around and affect them in terms of global economics and global processes.