Constitutional Crisis: Week 1

The delegates from the various post-zombie apocalypse states have convened. Now that the add/drop deadline has passed, it appears I have 14, which works well because I wrote up descriptions for exactly 14 states, so I don’t have to do a quickie write up of any more. Considering I had a student drop the class, another add, and another add then drop, it’s a pretty lucky outcome.

This being the first week, there was not a lot of action.

Day 1
On day one the delegates seemed eager, but uncertain. I stressed that this was unlike any other class they’d taken, in that I wasn’t going to be lecturing, and that there was no set schedule of tasks or an imposed structure.

The “text” for the class is the freely available “A Practical Guide to Constitution Building,” produced by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Accountability (International IDEA) The only required reading is that I asked them to read the first two chapters, which are backgrounders, for the second day of class. We’ll discuss those chapters, in the context of getting the delegates to start thinking about what they should think about. After that they can use the different chapters, which focus on different aspects of political structure, as their resource, because they’ll be entirely on their own.

OK, not entirely. I’ll be there as a consultant, but I made it clear that as a convention they can ignore any advice or information I give, with no grade consequence.

There were questions, some I had not anticipated, but probably should have. “Are the other countries in the world the same?” “Uhmmm, well, ahhhh, you see how western North America is a blank on the map, because you have no idea what’s going on out there? Yeah, you don’t know what’s going on in Europe, Asia, etc., either.”

Then there’s the pragmatic questions. “What if we don’t complete a Constitution by the end of class?” I pointed out that in the real world this takes a minimum of months with more meeting time than they’ll have, and can take years. The U.S. Constitution was a rush job, and in some ways it shows. The Egyptian Constitution was a rush job, and it failed quickly. So they very well may not complete a constitution, but what I’m interested in as the learning outcome in this class is the process, not the product.

That process includes setting up their own organization and rules of procedure, rather than me giving them a plug-n-play simulation with defined roles and rules. Some of my colleagues have warned me that this could come back to haunt me in my evaluations; that students will want more structure. And indeed they look nervous about this, a leap into the unknown. But I have two things in mind here. One is the work of scholars in the Ostrom tradition of institution-building, some of whom have worried at length about, to put it in the casual terms they use, how organized youth sports with formal rules put in place by adults have replaced sandlot baseball where the kids negotiated their own rules (the lilac bush in old man Hanley’s yard is the left field foul line, etc.). I think their concerns about the necessity of kids learning this early are probably overstated (the youth of today! Won’t someone please think of the children!), but there’s probably something to it.

The other thing is, as I’ve noted before, part of my on-going effort to shift liberal arts education toward a more self-aware and intentional linkage of our traditional educational foci and the skills employers are looking for in college students. If we don’t, we will be ever-more eclipsed by the pre-professional programs, some of which are actually as or more likely to result in underemployment than traditional liberal arts majors (note: Political Science did not make that top 10 list, thank god). And the reports I’ve seen say they want people who can work in teams, who can write, who can find and synthesize information, and who can figure out process, among other things.

Also, to shield myself, I emphasized—and will again—that if they find that part frustrating, it’s because it’s something they don’t know yet, and that frustration, and then working through it, will itself be evidence of what they are learning in the class.

Day 2
This was my last day of dominating the classroom. I had the delegates read the first two chapters of the Guide to Constitution-Building, and we discussed what the purpose of a constitution is, and what a constitution needs to include.

Among the purposes of a constitution, they agreed, was creating unity, setting up the structure of a government, creating processes for resolving political disagreements, and establishing legitimacy for the government. I pointed out that the first two are difficult, and don’t come automatically. Consider, for example, Egypt.

As to what they need to include, in addition to specifying the institutions of government, they also mentioned protections of people’s rights, specification of how power is distributed, and processes for ratification, amendment, and admission of new states.

Next Tuesday they take over and begin organizing themselves. I’ve already had one student ask me if she could recommend they follow the procedures of the Model UN, with which she’s familiar. I reminded her that this is up to the convention, and she could certainly make the proposal. I know another one who’s chomping at the bit to jump in and take the initiative as soon as I take the reins of. She’s very Machiavellian, and very good at it. (If you are familiar with the game Diplomacy, let me just say I’ve watched her play it, and I’d bet on her to beat you.)

I will be out of town next Thursday for a conference, so officially class is cancelled, but three of the students have already suggested they’d like to meet despite my absence. I simply noted that the convention set the rules, and if they could get the other delegates to agree to meet, I had no objection. This was the kind of enthusiasm I was looking for.

I should note that several of the students, although not all, have experience with diplomatic simulation. A few have done model UN, either in high school or in college, and for a number of years my department has run a Model Arab League program in which we’ve been successful participants in the National Model, which is a select, invitation-only, group. (I’ve had no role in that, so can claim naught but reflected glory from it.) I hadn’t really thought about that previously, but it means a number of them probably do have some pretty clear ideas about how to begin, so they may get up to speed with their organization and rules of procedure than I had anticipated. That’s fine, it’s still them having to create it on their own for the first time, since in these other diplomatic simulation they operated by pre-determined rules.

I’ll write again next Tuesday, if I have time and if anything interesting happens.

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14 thoughts on “Constitutional Crisis: Week 1

  1. At this point, what in your mind would be the defining characteristics of an “A” student, a “B” student, and a “C” student?

    I’m willing to bet that one of the defining characteristics of the “A” student will be actions that evidence an attitude congruent with the sentiment of “to hell with the grade, I want to win.”


    • As we like to say when we’re stalling for time, good question. Hmmm. I want to see them actively involved in the discussion, in trying to influence what ideas are enplaced in the document and the final shape of the language. That they are prepared, when they are doing so, instead of just spouting things off the cuff. And that their ideas/proposals indicate they are taking the project seriously. I’ve also indicated that their grade depends on pursuing their state’s goals, as I’ve specified them in their state brief. Outside those limited specifications they can pursue their own preferences, and their first assignment, for next Tuesday, is a 1-2 page single-spaced writeup of the goals–both state and personal–they want to pursue as a delegate.

      Honestly, I’d give high marks to someone who demonstrated a commitment to, and ability at, being a compromise maker; who kept things moving by getting conflicting sides to agree to something where each has to give a bit.

      But for some, no doubt active and serious participation will overlap with desire to win. I’ve made it clear that discussions and negotiations are not limited to in-class time, because I couldn’t police such a rule anyway, and I already know some–like the two guys who are best buds (one of whom is, by the way, an Interior Design student, and whom I encouraged to take the class because I’ve had him in a previous class) are planning to try to form a cabal–if the states I’ve given them make that workable. And I imagine those that want to win will use that out-of-class time to suggest proposals, make allies, and come in ready to either bulldoze or sweettalk the opposition, as seems most strategic to them.


      • Oh, I didn’t fully answer.

        A B student would be one who took it seriously, was involved, and contributed decently, but not as extensively or intelligently as the A student.

        A C student is there regularly, more quiet, less actively involved and so less influential, but not detracting from the process even if they’re not really contributing a lot to it.

        People who are disruptive, unserious, or miss a lot will miss that cut-off.


      • By the measure of an “A” student being the ones to make compromise as you put it, large portions of the original Constitutional Convention would’ve not passed your class.

        I mean, if the person who wrote the most consistent and best “plan” was also the most strident student, either on the left, right, or maybe even another weird political typology based on the scenario, could they still get an A if they refused to compromise and actually say, manuevered around the ‘moderates’ to get something more to their liking passed?


      • It strikes me that a win-at-all-costs when providing the template for future government is a short-sighted proposition. Ultimately, you want something people are going to be satisfied with. Otherwise, you’re setting up significant problems later on.

        A lot of this depends. It’s one thing to say “Rhode Island will give in eventually” and another to say “Our five states have more people and/or wealth than their nine states, so screw them.”


      • “By the measure of an “A” student being the ones to make compromise as you put it, large portions of the original Constitutional Convention would’ve not passed your class. ”

        Well, he’s already said that the original Constitutional Convention screwed up a lot of things. Hanley is not saying “what you should be going for is the original American Constitution and you should follow the same process its framers did”.


    • I’m willing to bet that one of the defining characteristics of the “A” student will be actions that evidence an attitude congruent with the sentiment of “to hell with the grade, I want to win.”

      So, I’m sitting here thinking (a) this sure looks like a prediction, and (b) how the hell will I ever manage to decide if it’s correct? Maybe another glass of wine will clarify things…


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  3. “organized youth sports with formal rules put in place by adults have replaced sandlot baseball where the kids negotiated their own rules (the lilac bush in old man Hanley’s yard is the left field foul line, etc.). ”

    On the one hand, that’s not “no rules”, that’s just adapting the basic rules to fit the situation. There still is a foul line (and a left field), they just aren’t part of a formal layout. (And if there were a baseball field available to play on then the kids wouldn’t have had to make up their own.)

    On the other hand, that’s kind of what you’re doing by having them read the “Guide to Constitution-Building”.


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