Teaching Model Diplomacy at Eckerd College
Donna Oglesby is diplomat in residence in the international relations and global affairs program at Eckerd College. As a retired public diplomacy Foreign Service officer whose twenty-five-year career in the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) took her from Latin America to Thailand, Oglesby has brought a practitioner’s expertise to her second career at a teaching-oriented liberal arts college. Having used a variety of simulations and role-play exercises in her two decades of teaching, Oglesby added Model Diplomacy to her mix of classroom resources designed to link academic theory with practice. “I think in the play there is learning,” she muses in this conversation with CFR Outreach Deputy Director Myka Carroll. “That’s one of the reasons why I really do like simulations. Because they trigger the play.” This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you come to the Foreign Service as your first career?
Well, I was an army brat. My father was military assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, when I was in high school. And actually, I made Lent one year by walking down from our house, which was on a high hill in Ankara, to the Italian Embassy where the Catholic chapel was. I did this every morning for forty days and I walked past embassy row, the U.S. Embassy, and then past another building on the other side of the street which turned out to be the USIA library. And I don't know, early morning, by yourself, in kind of a liminal time at sixteen years old, I decided I wanted to work in the building that had books in the window and exhibits and a place for people to sit, and not in the building that looked a little bit like a mausoleum. It's still the same embassy—it's a very forbidding, formal white marble structure.
So I made the decision at that point. I went to Columbia for graduate school, to the School of International and Public Affairs. When the Foreign Service recruiters came, there were a pair of them, and the one from the State Department had a crew cut and a narrow tie and never smiled, and the one from USIA had side burns and a wide tie and bushy eyebrows, and I just said, "If there's room for him there's probably room for me." [laughs] I finished at Columbia in May and came into the Foreign Service in August 1970.
What led to your transition to education?
While I was in the Foreign Service in Bangkok, my husband, who was a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development, retired and treated himself as his retirement present to an MA in religion from Yale Divinity School and left me in Bangkok for my fourth and final year. When I was looking for an assignment to come out of Bangkok, I asked them to assign me as diplomat in residence at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where there was an opening, so that we were three hours apart instead of half a world. They did that, and as diplomat in residence at the Fletcher School, I taught a course on public diplomacy and I liked it. I found that my skills from being a Foreign Service public diplomacy officer really did translate pretty well to the classroom. That was reinforced by the students really thinking I did a good job teaching. They nominated me that year for the best teacher award. So that was a good vibe; it was a good feeling.
When I retired, we came to Florida, which is my home—my parents moved here when I was in college. I had no plans to teach. But we went to a Foreign Service retirees' luncheon, and they announced that Eckerd College was looking for a diplomat in residence. And I thought, "Well, I think I can do that." I threw my hat in the ring and went through the search procedure and was selected.
Describe Eckerd College as an institution and the student body that it educates.
It's an undergraduate institution, a small residential liberal arts college. It's fairly young, just short of sixty years old. It was begun as Florida Presbyterian College by a founding faculty that wanted a strong civil rights institution in the south—very liberal, very pro civil rights, and very teaching centered. And essentially, that is what the school still is. It's about 1,850 students, and the faculty are expected to do research and service, but the most important thing is teaching. The classes are small and the faculty-student ratios are very good. The work is both teaching in the classroom and being available as a mentor to students.
Are there any requirements related to global literacy at Eckerd?
There is a strong general education component. It's always had a strong global aspect to it, but it was updated about three years ago and is now called Human Experience. Eckerd has enunciated values, one of which is global, another one is environmental. The students are expected, no matter what their field, whatever their major, to spend some time abroad as well. This is a 4-1-4 college—four courses in the fall, one winter-term course, and four courses in the spring—and in winter term, most of the students go abroad for a month. Those of us who are teaching in international relations and global affairs encourage our students to spend another semester abroad.
Does the college have a requirement that students must also have a politics or foreign policy or government course?
No, it does not. They have to take distribution courses in all of the major areas of the liberal arts. But they don't have to study politics and they don't have to study government. And most of them don't.
So what have you found in terms of the students’ base of knowledge in foreign policy and government over your twenty years of teaching there?
Well, it's changed a lot. As the years go on, students have less and less background when they come in. It's just the way high school has changed. They have much less historic understanding. They have much less facility with political kinds of questions. They're not really literate in civics when they come. There certainly are students who are news junkies and are conversant with foreign policy, but there are not that many of them.
What are you teaching currently in your elective courses?
This semester I'm teaching media and foreign policy, which is quite exciting. And I'm teaching the national security policy course, which is a writing-intensive course, and it asks one question: Why did the United States invade Iraq in 2003? Last year I taught diplomacy and international relations, and I taught a course I call the globalization debate. So I have been rotating my courses.
Is that what brought you to Model Diplomacy as a program?
Yes. The course that I brought it into, diplomacy and international relations, is a course in which I use simulations and have always used simulations. So I was always interested in looking for more material.
Have the simulations you’ve done in the past been ones that you've created yourself or other prepared types?
Both. I have, for the last several years in the diplomacy and international relations course, worked with the StateCraft simulation online. But before that kind of material was available, I was doing my own case studies, as well as working with the paper case studies that come from the Harvard Kennedy School and from the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Diplomacy Case Study Program. So I've always been interested in a case study approach.
What does the case study or simulation approach bring to your classroom?
Well, I think practitioners are granular. They want to get down into the weeds in the real world and come out of the abstraction of the academic realm. Case studies give you that because they also play to your strength—you've been there, done that. You know how to write policy memos, and you know how policy decisions are made, and you know what the value is of understanding the history and the culture and the personalities of the political leaders in the countries you're assigned to. And you can bring that into the classroom.
Case studies make it real because they make you walk in the shoes of the decision-makers. They make you play roles, and I think that that's really important for student learning because they are too inclined to be opinionated. One of the jobs that we have is to get them to have their own voice in some way but have it be grounded in evidence. Case studies make that possible, because if you have to role-play, you have to walk in somebody else's shoes. So you're learning a set of skills about communicating positions. You yourself are not being judged, right? When the students are shy about speaking up, they become a little more willing to speak up if they're playing a role. And you can push them harder and they interact with one another a little more freely because they don't think they're stepping on somebody's personal toes. It's an odd sort of thing, but I think it's freeing for students to do that. I say to them, "You're not marrying the role, you're just dating it for a week." [laughs] "Get into it. You're not going to be stuck with it for the rest of your life."
So there's a little bit of play. I think in the play there is learning. Thai is one of my languages and the word in Thai for “play” and for “work” is exactly the same word. That’s a fascinating piece of insight that I got after four years in Thailand, that you can work and play at the same time, and I think that's true in the classroom. That's one of the reasons why I really do like simulations. Because they trigger the play.
Given your extensive experience not only as a practitioner but also as an instructor using simulations, how did Model Diplomacy work for you as an exercise in your diplomacy and international relations course?
It was really, really good in a lot of ways, and it fell a bit short in another way. We'll deal with the short first: diplomacy. There wasn't any because they are essentially foreign policy decision-making cases. So I had to adapt that to what I was trying to do in that course. It wouldn't need to be adapted at all if I were teaching the politics and process of U.S. foreign policy, or foreign policy decision-making, or any of that. But the fact that I was bringing it into a diplomacy course meant that I had to do some adaptation.
I staged it and I ran it as you have it for the first two weeks, and then for the final exam, I shifted it to an actual diplomacy simulation—I had to write that part myself. But the [Model Diplomacy] material was so good, both the visual and written material, that everything I needed to shift to the actual diplomatic simulation was available to pull the case together. Any of us can spend as much time as we want on the material. The links are constantly taking you deeper and deeper and deeper into the case. The first simulation that we did was the national security decision in the Dispute in the East China Sea case, meeting with the president and national security advisor and the discussion of what the policy should be. And then we did the simulation of a summit of East China Sea players for the final exam.
How did it come together?
Well, the first thing I need to say is that this course is completely team-based learning. I don't lecture—it's all active learning. We form teams strategically in the first week of the course and the students stay in teams the entire semester. I gave them the full list of the cases. I marked those that I thought would work in terms of the second step where we would have an international negotiation for the final exam. That meant Russia and NATO in the Baltics would work and Dispute in the East China Sea would work Drones in Pakistan not so much—although the students were really attracted to that case.
So I gave the students the responsibility of picking the case, and they made a team-based choice. Each of the five teams decided which case they wanted and which case they absolutely didn't want, and they had to choose a negotiator from their team to negotiate what the case would be. It took them a long time but they picked East China Sea. Then the teams had to decide what role they wanted to play. Because I had five teams, we only did five roles. I imported a president and I was the national security advisor, so they represented the State Department, the Chief of Staff, the intelligence community, the Defense Department, and the Justice Department. They did each role as a team in the sense that they decided who their best negotiator was, who their best presenter was, who their best counter-puncher was. Together, they produced the team memos, after they had already done the memos individually and the assessment exercises individually. They're critiquing one another's memos, and I think that reinforces what they're learning, by having to do it again as a group. So, "Who did the best job? Or "How do we modify this and field the best team?"
When we went into the simulation, I brought in Bob Rohatsch, a friend who's a retired U.S. Air Force general who has spent a lot of time abroad. He was in Turkey during the Gulf War. He was wonderfully intimidating. [laughs] He came in with his square shoulders and his crew cut and his suit. I had to work with him in advance. He was the president and he was great. I mean, the students were all dressed up—we didn't do it in the classroom, we went somewhere else that was a little more formal—and they had nameplates. We did an hour and a half National Security Council meeting. Afterward, he and I talked and we sent the president's decision memo back to them. In the following class period, I did the debriefing of the students about the experience.
What was your debrief like?
I think it was really good because it was two days later. We did the simulation on Tuesday, and on Thursday we did the debrief, and they were breathing again, which is always good. [laughs] Let me give you some background first. Because I'm working with undergraduates, in the run-up to the simulation—in addition to doing your assessments and doing your memos and working with your material—I also write my own assessments on the case substance. Then we work through several application exercises applying the theory we’ve studied to the case before us. The first one was on negotiating interests: What were the interests at stake? How would you think about that? The second application exercise was on the values and identities at stake for the players. Because I'm working with undergraduates, I spend more time. So that leads to my explanation of the debrief. The debrief is: How do you think now about institutional culture? How do you think now about the role of the personality? How do you think now about your interagency dynamic? What was going on there?
A lot of it was team based in the sense of, how did you look at the interpersonal dynamic? And then other parts of it were based on theory. What came to the fore? Was it the institutional cultures? Was it "where you sit is where you stand"? Was it the strength and weakness of the personality of the player? Did you expect that the Department of Defense would have had a stronger hand? Why didn't they? That kind of stuff. And they were ready for that. So I think that's really important because I've been teaching levels of analysis. I've been teaching negotiating strategy. And so they had an opportunity to apply what they had learned, and I would point out in the debriefing, "Remember when we read," or "Remember when we worked with, how did that play out here?"
We spent that hour and a half on the debrief because I was trying to take the threads back through the tapestry of the course. I think that was important. Also, I used that time to get them to begin to shift gears and say, "Well, only one of your teams is going to represent the United States in the next phase." The other teams are going to be China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. So you need to be able to shift gears and pick up and identify with another country in negotiation.
What was the student feedback like about this as an exercise?
They thought it was a lot of work. It seared in their memories, I have to say, because it's visceral, when you're bringing in a ringer to play the role of president. Some of them tell me, for example, they didn't believe the biography I had sent in advance of about Bob, the general [playing the president]. They thought I had made it up. When he walked in the room, they nearly died. [laughs] I brought him back after the simulation before we had broken for the day, and Bob told them what a great job he thought they had done and how prepared they were and how important it is to do this kind of thing. He flattered them, and it was great. They still talk about it. A number of those students from that course are taking both of the courses I'm teaching this semester because they had such a good experience. It makes them feel that they can see the application of what they're learning, and they can see how it connects to the real world.
And I have to say, for some of the students, Eckerd is a very liberal college. For some of the students who have a slightly more conservative bent, it is empowering for them to be able to work on these kinds of questions, which involve considerations of power and projection of power, and interests as well as values, and geopolitics as well as global niceness. I think it's an important ballast to the program in international relations, which is very heavily influenced—as it might well be—by human rights and international environmental law and all those global approaches. So, what I like about the cases is that you do ask ethical questions, that those considerations are not off the table. But you're bringing back into the consciousness of students the role of the state. I really think that's important, as we are now seeing in an age of rising nationalism—students have to learn how to think that way again. That's very valuable.
Are there recommendations that you would give to any other instructors considering Model Diplomacy?
I think that the instruction manuals are all exceedingly well done. I printed them all out and I read them carefully, and I think the role definitions are really well done. I made sure that the students paid attention to those. I sent Bob his role definition as president and studied mine [as national security advisor].
For me, the format for policy memo writing rang true, and that was all important to do. I would say, you know your students, and if you have to do some more work, other kinds of quizzes, or additional application exercises, then you should feel free to do it. I think [the cases] are as rich as you want to make them. I mean, I'm bothered by the idea that people try to rip through these things, frankly. There's just an awful lot of depth. Maybe you can do that in some graduate-level courses; I think that's fair. But undergraduate students simply don't have the background in a lot of these cases, and you have to really spend some time with it. You really have to connect it to the theory you've been teaching, whatever the course is, and that takes time. So for me, I introduced the fact that we were going to do it right before spring break, and then we really spent pretty much the last four weeks of the semester working through this, both the way you have it and then the modification.
So the final simulation—I used the whole exam period, it was three hours to do it. What I did there, which I also think is important, because I didn't have an opportunity to debrief, which I think is so important and works for me in the earlier NSC decision-making stage: I built into the requirement that twenty-four hours after the [final exam] simulation, each of them had to write an op-ed for the most important paper in the country that they represented, explaining to their domestic publics what was achieved or not achieved at the summit. That was a way of forcing them to reflect on it.
Wow. That's an amazing assignment.
Some of them were wonderful, because some of them really know how to write, and they would say, "We, China, managed to keep the Japanese from whatever." But they had to write it as if they were writing to the public from their country. What's so interesting about the Dispute in the East China Sea case—and what I mean about how it can be as rich as you want it to be—is how much of this is interest based, and how much is driven by values and identity? And a lot of that is really true with respect to, say, how China feels or how Taiwan feels. How much of it is rising nationalism? How much of it is the nature of the leaders? How much of it is driven by domestic economic problems in China, and they need to wag the dog and have a little war someplace—how much of it is that? And the students have to grapple with that. So you can spend as much or as little time on that as you want. And that's why I broke it up and did preparatory exercises on interests and values separately, negotiating interests first and then values. "How would you go about that? Can you do that?" And it was fun.
Your perspective, especially as somebody who has been a practitioner and who transitioned to the classroom, is valuable. This is what we wanted Model Diplomacy to do in terms of not only helping instructors fulfill learning outcomes related to specific knowledge, but also in terms of communication skills, critical thinking skills, problem-solving, empathy.
Understanding group dynamics. And understanding how to evaluate your teammates and where their strengths and weaknesses are. That's just real life. There are very few solo acts in the Foreign Service, or in any service for that matter. So being able to work in a team environment, but also when you think about it in terms of a country team or a state, a team of people representing the interests of different bureaucracies, it's really important.
I did a study of how practitioners and academics teach diplomacy, and I recognized through my study this very different approach. And so, consequently, I really would urge you to make aware to practitioners who are moving into academe to teach for even a short period of time—for a year as a diplomat in residence or whatever—the availability of these cases, because it's right up their alley. It's exactly the kind of thing they are looking for, and they need to know they're there, otherwise they are going to be inventing their own, as I spent a long time doing years ago. But these are so much better—the library of resources for students—the visual, audio, print—is so much better for them, and they have the facility to move through that stuff. It gives students with different kinds of learning abilities the opportunity to learn the way they learn best. Is it listening while they walk or ride around campus? Is it watching videos? Is it reading? How do they best process information? It gives them the opportunity to make those choices.
For me, the way I teach this course, it's about empowering them to choose and holding them accountable for the choices they make. Some of them would rather be spoon-fed; they'd rather the kitchen cut the meat and stick it in their mouth, and that's just not me, and that's just not the way this is set up. So, the value of it is that your best students can get all that they want out of it, and your worst students will at least get more than they bargained for. [laughs]