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Student Instructor

Teaching Model Diplomacy at Middlebury College

Prof. Allison Stanger at Middlebury College. (© Middlebury College)
Prof. Allison Stanger at Middlebury College. - Middlebury College

Allison Stanger is a professor of international politics and economics at Middlebury College, where she has taught since 1991. She holds considerable expertise in Europe and Eurasia, but her scholarship spans a variety of topics, from the former Czechoslovakia to the use of contractors in U.S. foreign policy. In January, just as Model Diplomacy was being launched, she put the program to use in a new course called “Crisis Diplomacy” during Middlebury’s four-week winter term. The course was built around three Model Diplomacy cases, with students playing different roles on the National Security Council (NSC) each time. CFR Education’s Director of Content Charles Landow recently spoke with Stanger about her experience with Model Diplomacy and the opportunities for teaching about foreign policy and international affairs today. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What first attracted you to Model Diplomacy?

What first attracted me is the fact that it is related to the Council on Foreign Relations. I taught it in January, which was the perfect time to actually test drive some of the cases.

What in your experience makes for a particularly good January term course?

We have two thirteen-week semesters, and then after the Christmas break, we have a four-week winter term where students just take one course. Typically I would not be teaching in January, but it is an unusual vehicle for doing something interdisciplinary and for trying out new ideas. I see it as an opportunity: you can do things when you have students’ total attention that you couldn’t do in a regular semester course. So for me, with this course on crisis diplomacy, my thought was, you have their full, undivided attention for four weeks; it’s Vermont; it’s January—they should read War and Peace! For a simulation when you have a lot of opportunities for out-of-class collaboration, the January term is also very good because the scheduling conflicts are minimal.

More generally, in your experience, what is the value of simulation programs and blended learning programs, combining online tools with classroom experience?

I teach American foreign policy. It’s an ideal course in which to do a simulation, but I had never really done one before, largely because I didn’t have a model to show me how to do it effectively. What was great about Model Diplomacy was that the model was already there. It gave you a lot of opportunities to adapt [the model] to your particular needs and vary things. But the basic model of what the simulation should look like was there, and I found that hugely helpful. I was surprised by the quality of the materials early on. They were excellent right from the get-go, and that made for some fantastic learning in my class.

What also surprised me was the extent to which students, when you unleash them on playing particular roles, give extra effort to be sure they know those roles well and know the concepts and the issues and are prepared to argue and win. And that was something that I really learned from this that I wasn’t necessarily expecting. It gets them to give 110 percent. You can do things that encourage them to work together as well, and that also is valuable. It gives students something they wouldn’t get in a traditional class.

In your courses I imagine you have a mix of students, some majoring in political science, some not. As a general matter, how do you approach the challenge of trying to make foreign policy and international affairs compelling and accessible to everybody?

When you teach a course like “American Foreign Policy,” or even if I were to do another iteration of “Crisis Diplomacy,” you have a core of what you’re trying to convey, but then you very much want to adapt the materials to speak to students about what’s happening around them. A really attractive feature of Model Diplomacy is that the cases are developed in response to breaking issues, so you can work those into your class and make it speak to students right here and now. Because the biggest complaint of students in international affairs classes is that they want the classes to help them understand what they’re reading about in the papers, and a good course will do that. Simulations with cases on critical issues are a great way of really waking students up and engaging them. If you engage them on compelling questions, they’ll take off and explore things on their own and make the course their own, which is the ultimate goal.

In addition to specific knowledge, what skills do you try to develop in your students?

In all my courses I focus on writing, argument, analytical reasoning, developing critical thinking skills—all these things that a good liberal arts education will provide. But with the January term course and the simulations, students also learned public speaking skills, because in these simulations they’ve got to play national security advisors and moderate a discussion to reach a particular outcome. They get to state a position succinctly and learn how to be persuasive and have evidence to back up the claims that they’re making. They learn how to think on their feet and perhaps change their position as they hear other viewpoints. These are all skills that are vital in life, and in a simulation you can really bring that out. What is nice is that they are learning the analytical skills and the writing skills, but it’s this kind of public presentation piece that I think is extraordinarily useful and that makes me want to do it again. Many times we don’t focus enough attention on public speaking, but a simulation presents multiple challenges of public speaking in a group.

The writing of the memos is also important. They’ll have the template from the Model Diplomacy site and yet many students will still submit the memo the first time, and it won’t be in the same template. So it’s a great opportunity to tell them, “No, you’ve got decision-makers who are pressed for time. It’s very important that it is in exactly the right format because you want them to be able to read it quickly and digest what you have to say, and having it all be in the same format helps busy people do that.” And learning how to write a memo is a useful skill that you wouldn’t necessarily get in a regular course. So I’m pretty stoked on what simulations can add. Students commented in the evaluations on how the simulations develop skills that they didn’t necessarily develop in other courses without a simulation.

Are there other techniques in your toolbag that you use to get people psyched about foreign policy issues?

For me, a great course is a course that meets each student individually where they are and engages their imagination. And it’s really funny because if you read class evaluations, two people will say completely different things. You would think that they weren’t in the same course. It’s just that they have different learning styles. So you’ve got to devise a format that allows you to meet students where they are and engage them. So I’ll have a set of readings and I’ll often generate discussion questions and study questions that make people think about things in the readings. And then I have students write reaction papers on any aspect of the reading they want. They can use the study questions as a point of departure and the main thing is to engage the materials seriously. I don’t grade them or anything. I’ll just read them over before class to see what people are thinking about and devise what I do in the class based on where they’re at. This is extraordinarily useful because you know what they’re thinking, and sometimes you think they’re going to have difficulties with something and it’s actually something else. So you learn all kinds of things through just communicating with them this way. But also, it’s a great way to draw out more reticent students because you know what they have thought about before class. So you can call on them in class and say, “Hey, you made this great point about x. Could you share that with the group?” It tends to really spark exciting discussion. And it allows me to fine-tune the course so that it connects with students as individuals.

And I bet the first time, people were a little surprised because they thought you’d keep the reactions paper to yourself.

Yes. They see immediately that you are listening and that you care whether they are learning or not. And to me it’s useful to help them build good habits. If you’re reading a bunch of material and trying to integrate it and trying to think about it, writing is thinking. You might want to do this on your own to prepare for something in the future. So I try to structure courses in a way that the students develop good habits that can serve them well beyond the confines of the course. That has to do with writing, that has to do with how you prepare, that has to do with how you engage with your peers on difficult questions. I stress this a lot. We’re going to say what we’re thinking because that’s the only way we’re going to learn. And if we screw up and say something stupid, you might get called out on it and you learn from it and you move on. But the most important thing is creating a space for the free exchange of ideas where no one feels inhibited in saying what they’re thinking. Sometimes when students are worried that what they say might be misinterpreted, they can clam up and not engage, and I do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen. In a course on American foreign policy, you talk about very controversial issues. So you need a mechanism for making people feel comfortable, knowing that we’re all in this together and we’re going to have a conversation that’s going to hopefully advance everybody’s understanding in the end.

That actually crosses over pretty well to the NSC meeting.

Yes, the same sort of thing applies. You can have very different conclusions but you don’t want to slay the messenger who’s delivering something that you don’t want to hear. You want to try to understand why they see it so differently. In some instances, it may affect your thinking in valuable ways.

Which scenarios did you complete and how did you choose them? And what differences did you notice in your students as you were moving through the three weeks?

They got more and more comfortable with it as the course progressed. I tried to start with the simpler [case] and move to the more complex, which is a matter of interpretation, but I started with the Humanitarian Intervention in South Sudan. They were all arriving at similar policy conclusions so I spiced it up a little bit and threw in a curveball and made a change in the scenario to make it more interesting.

Professor Allison Stanger at Middlebury College. (© Middlebury College)
Professor Allison Stanger at Middlebury College. - Middlebury College

Do you remember what kind of curveball you introduced?

I had Sudan mobilize forces on the border of South Sudan. The students came back from a break and they were putting up things on the whiteboard and they were really getting ready to arrive at what the president was going to say. And I had this breaking news, which had the national security advisor say, “Scrap that because we’re not going to talk about this. We have to talk about this very different thing now.”


Then we moved on to Drones in Pakistan. We added to the mix a press conference with another course on journalism. And students wrote about that in the evaluations. They really liked the interactions with the other course and the idea of having to present things to the press in situations where you know more than you can actually say. That was a really useful exercise. A lot of policy issues dealing with intelligence obviously have that dimension to them.

The third case was Russia and NATO in the Baltics. That just had so many moving parts. That’s why I say it’s more complex. I thought it was good to do that one last, but I also did that because we were seguing the last week into a discussion of War and Peace, so I liked the Russia bridge. What might be more simple or more complex for other professors might be cases you know really well versus the cases you know less well. People might define that in different ways, but you want to start with something that seems less complicated and let students get the hang of it and then move on to more complex scenarios.

I think you’ve mentioned a couple, but which parts of the program did you and your students find valuable?

Using the course evaluations as evidence, I think they loved the whole thing. They also loved that they had left Middlebury in January having read War and Peace, this literary masterpiece that they’d be unlikely to tackle on their own. War and Peace was interesting in the context of the course, because it’s Leo Tolstoy challenging the assumptions that had prevailed in the previous three weeks. You have all these people playing national security advisors, secretaries of state, making crisis decisions that affect world events. They develop a sense of self-importance that they’re world historical figures shaping the outcome of history. And of course Tolstoy and War and Peace are basically saying, “No, you might think that’s how it is, but actually your influence over the course of events is much smaller than you believe for all sorts of reasons.” So most students could see immediately that we were blowing up the premises of the course in an interesting way and that resolving that tension was their individual challenge. It created an exciting and meaningful learning environment.

What learning goals did you set out to achieve through Model Diplomacy in particular, and how did it measure up?

I wanted them to develop their analytical writing skills and their public speaking skills and their sense of what it’s like to make decisions in a crisis situation. What the simulation drives home is that policymakers have to make decisions with incomplete information. You can’t ask for an extension. I think that’s a very useful experience because a lot of life is like that too. Not just in policy careers, but in a lot of jobs, you’re forced under time constraints to deliver something, and you have to know that the perfect is the enemy of the good. So they got some real-life skills that I think are useful.

I think my learning goals are pretty individualized. I want to see students improve and grow. So to me, it’s not that every student has to get an A. If a C student can get a B, then they’ve learned and grown through the course. Mastery of a set of ideas is important; I do want them to be fluent in talking about diplomacy by the course’s end, but you can arrive at that through a variety of different methods. People have different starting points, so I’m just hoping to have everyone fully engaged throughout and in the end feeling like they learned something that they couldn’t have learned anywhere else and certainly not on their own. I mean, that’s the great thing about a simulation, right? You’re learning stuff through interaction with others that you can’t learn on your own.

I think they enjoyed learning from their peers as well. I had a large course, twenty-three students, so that meant that there had to be two students per role who worked as a team. We did something sort of interesting in that we had one student play the principal’s role for half the time and then the other half they were the aide. We let the aides have access to the Internet. The principals couldn’t have a laptop but the aides on the perimeter could. And I allowed them to pass notes to the principals with new information as the discussion was developing. That worked well, because it kept the conversations really lively and factually accurate while keeping everybody engaged.

I actually really like that and I’ve mentioned it to other people who have asked how many people this is suitable for. I say that I saw this example where there are two students per role and people switch off, and it’s useful to have someone there who can look up facts and figures or who can respond to things.

Exactly. This made it really realistic. Students wrote about this in the evaluations and they said that they loved the collaborative aspect of sharing the role with a person. They would collaboratively write the policy review memo, and I think students enjoyed that. And of course I rotated students to make sure that they had different partners each time. That meant that students really got to know everybody in the class, and they felt this camaraderie as a result. It made the course really come alive.

Do you plan to use Model Diplomacy again in the future, or simulations more broadly, now that you’ve done this? And would you recommend it to others?

Yes, I do plan to use them in the future. I want to teach “Crisis Diplomacy” next January because I’ve enjoyed it so much. Having paid the start-up costs, I would like to reap the benefits of repeating it. I’m also going to look at the materials and see if I can figure out a way to weave the simulation into my American foreign policy class. I think I see a way to do it.

Is there anyone in particular that comes to mind as a type of instructor or a type of setting where you think Model Diplomacy would be particularly useful?

Because the different cases can be adapted to different circumstances, it can be useful in a variety of courses and settings. The obvious impediment is that when professors are faced with doing something new, it’s time-consuming for them to make it work for the first time. So the biggest hurdle is, you just have to take the plunge. But I’m here to say that it’s totally worth it—that if you do take the plunge, I don’t think you’ll regret it, because the materials are outstanding and the opportunities are unlimited. I obviously teach courses that I already know how to teach and it takes more time to develop something new. But sometimes when we do things that are new we get all kinds of new insights that extend beyond our teaching. I think that was the case for me with teaching this class.

How do you see the landscape of educational technology and blended learning evolving, especially when it comes to foreign policy and international relations?

I think what Model Diplomacy does so well is it harnesses the power of the Internet as a provider of information in really useful ways. I was quite impressed with how students were so interested that they read well beyond the materials that were provided to them. With the Internet, you can do that. You can find even more things if a question arises that the materials don’t address. In that sense, I think the opportunities are unlimited. But even in this time where people are finding distance learning so compelling, I just don’t think you can replace the classroom experience of sitting around a conference table, simulating what the actual discussions are like. So, on the one hand, the Internet can bring you all these wonderful things in terms of information. On the other hand, you can’t overestimate the value of having people in the same space having a face-to-face conversation. It’s the combination of the smart use of digital tools with good old-fashioned liberal learning that is the future as far as I’m concerned.

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