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Teaching American Political Institutions Using Role-playing Simulations

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Political institutions are central to many courses on American politics and government. From the institutions of government – represented by legislatures, executive agencies, and courts at all levels – to the intermediary institutions that structure citizens’ interactions with their government (e.g., parties and interest groups), a thorough knowledge of political institutions is necessary to truly grasp the inner workings of the American political system. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for students to learn about the dynamic nature of these institutions from the pages of a textbook. For example, it is important to know the textbook description of Congress as a bicameral institution, with representatives elected every two years and senators every six years, but such information does little to explain how these constitutional differences between the House and Senate can create incentives for members to act in different ways. Congress is a complex institution with numerous rules governing the consideration of business and multiple incentives structuring the behavior of members. The best way to truly understand the effects of these rules and incentives, I argue, is to get inside the heads of the members themselves, and the most effective way to do so pedagogically is through the use of role-playing simulations.

Congress is not the only political institution with interesting internal dynamics that can be taught using simulations. Political parties are continually struggling to manage the diverse interests of their internal coalitions, while staking out policy positions that will give them an electoral advantage in the next election. Interest groups comprise nearly every conceivable interest, exhibit widely varying degrees of political sophistication, and interact with many different aspects of the political system (e.g., lobbying bureaucratic agencies during the rule-making process, testifying before committees, lobbying individual members of Congress, and engaging in electioneering to influence the results of elections). The bureaucracy and the courts, though underappreciated, are essential actors in the policy process from start to finish. The Executive Office of the President walks a fine line between serving the individual interests of the President and respecting the statutory mandates of Congress. And the President (and most governors) wear several institutional hats that are often in conflict with one another (e.g., head of state, party leader, and chief policy maker). Understanding the ways in which these institutions manage all of their internal conflicts is critical for understanding why the American political system works (or fails to work) as it does.

In this paper, I argue that role-playing simulations are an essential technique in any professor's repertoire for teaching American political institutions. I also discuss two case studies from my own teaching experience: (1) a congressional committee hearing designed to simulate the role of interest groups in the policy process, and (2) a Senate floor debate designed to simulate the interplay between Senate rules and the major interests that structure senators’ behaviors (i.e., committees, parties, and re-election). In both of these exercises, I argue that students came away with a better understanding of the complex and dynamic nature of each institution than had they simply been asked to memorize the textbook. Finally, I present results from a brief survey my former students to solicit their thoughts about the effectiveness of these simulations.

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Gonzales, Angelo. "Teaching American Political Institutions Using Role-playing Simulations" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference, San Jose Marriott, San Jose, California, Feb 22, 2008 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p245631_index.html>

APA Citation:

Gonzales, A. J. , 2008-02-22 "Teaching American Political Institutions Using Role-playing Simulations" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference, San Jose Marriott, San Jose, California Online <APPLICATION/PDF>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p245631_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: Political institutions are central to many courses on American politics and government. From the institutions of government – represented by legislatures, executive agencies, and courts at all levels – to the intermediary institutions that structure citizens’ interactions with their government (e.g., parties and interest groups), a thorough knowledge of political institutions is necessary to truly grasp the inner workings of the American political system. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for students to learn about the dynamic nature of these institutions from the pages of a textbook. For example, it is important to know the textbook description of Congress as a bicameral institution, with representatives elected every two years and senators every six years, but such information does little to explain how these constitutional differences between the House and Senate can create incentives for members to act in different ways. Congress is a complex institution with numerous rules governing the consideration of business and multiple incentives structuring the behavior of members. The best way to truly understand the effects of these rules and incentives, I argue, is to get inside the heads of the members themselves, and the most effective way to do so pedagogically is through the use of role-playing simulations.

Congress is not the only political institution with interesting internal dynamics that can be taught using simulations. Political parties are continually struggling to manage the diverse interests of their internal coalitions, while staking out policy positions that will give them an electoral advantage in the next election. Interest groups comprise nearly every conceivable interest, exhibit widely varying degrees of political sophistication, and interact with many different aspects of the political system (e.g., lobbying bureaucratic agencies during the rule-making process, testifying before committees, lobbying individual members of Congress, and engaging in electioneering to influence the results of elections). The bureaucracy and the courts, though underappreciated, are essential actors in the policy process from start to finish. The Executive Office of the President walks a fine line between serving the individual interests of the President and respecting the statutory mandates of Congress. And the President (and most governors) wear several institutional hats that are often in conflict with one another (e.g., head of state, party leader, and chief policy maker). Understanding the ways in which these institutions manage all of their internal conflicts is critical for understanding why the American political system works (or fails to work) as it does.

In this paper, I argue that role-playing simulations are an essential technique in any professor's repertoire for teaching American political institutions. I also discuss two case studies from my own teaching experience: (1) a congressional committee hearing designed to simulate the role of interest groups in the policy process, and (2) a Senate floor debate designed to simulate the interplay between Senate rules and the major interests that structure senators’ behaviors (i.e., committees, parties, and re-election). In both of these exercises, I argue that students came away with a better understanding of the complex and dynamic nature of each institution than had they simply been asked to memorize the textbook. Finally, I present results from a brief survey my former students to solicit their thoughts about the effectiveness of these simulations.

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