Thursday, April 30, 2009

Flu and teaching

A former University of Malta student of mine asked if I would do more political commentary on this blog—or start a new blog. I’ve left this one mostly “friendly” and not too political, but maybe it would be OK for me to add a few more items, along with miscellaneous news and photos. I’d rather not have a lot of separate blogs. At my age just remembering the password would be a challenge.
I’m not too inspired, but here is a little thing on the flu, followed by a discussion of what I’ve been teaching.

Flu Blues?
People up here in my part of Lake Superior area seem to be taking the flu near-pandemic calmly yet seriously. We’re all hoping our flights around the world won’t be cancelled on account of this problem and that it mostly makes people sick, but doesn’t kill often. The rising number of cases adds a new level of unease and uncertainty about the future, but all one can do is hope for the best and wash one’s hands conscientiously. A colleague of mine in Biology, who taught human health, pointed out to me yesterday that around 35,000 people die every year around the globe of some version of the flu. So, it’s important to pay close attention, but it might make sense not to go crazy at this point. But, she also noted that there are special concerns with this one. Not only did it hop from animal to human, but now humans have infected other humans. As I understand it, these features, along with number of locations in which human-to-human spread happens, strongly influence guidance from the World Health Organization. Also, this one has features of flu from more than one animal, for example bird and swine. Another friend thought it was interesting to watch evolution in progress (now, there’s a word hard to use in the US). The virus changed into a new strain (it evolved) and, depending on how it interacts with humans , it can “select” us for particular characteristics, thus slightly shaping how we evolve. I’m no expert on evolution, but I suppose its effect on humans depends on whether it is fatal for some and not for others. But, that is confounded by access to health care and the like. The virus will continue to change as it operates in humans, too.

As a person in international relations I am quite interested in how the World Health Organization is managing this and how nations are updating plans. It seems a very good response, all in all, when you consider the enormity of the task. How do you balance panic against urging useful precaution; economic and social losses against the prospects for serious death and illness? We’ll see lots more of these and will need to think on the problem repeatedly.

Spring Teaching
For the first time in a number of years I taught Michigan Tech undergrads this spring (we are in exam week—I don’t have a final exam, but they have turned in their final projects, moot court memorials, etc). What a great pleasure! I’ve always enjoyed my students, but I was really impressed by how interested they are in world affairs. A number of them want careers in foreign affairs, some wanted to know how to prepare for becoming a diplomat. They are also getting really good at making presentations.

In foreign policy I used a small group project as the “main event” in the grade. The aim was to do a short policy paper on how to advance democratization efforts in other countries. The students developed a list of potential countries and we voted in the following: N. Korea, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Sudan. It was a very interesting mix of countries, from the very powerful China (who, as a measure of that power, showed up in each of the country cases one way or another). The big learning for me was that I was talking about China in a way I never, ever had in all my teaching years. I’m doing the foreign policy course again in the fall and will be doing more on China, though I’ve yet to add a book. It’s very cool to see this rising power, a power with millennia of experience in ruling itself and others. I was happy to see that, in the end, my students realized it was mighty darn difficult to find ways to help these radically different countries become more “democratic.”

International law, as always, was a blast. They write their brains out (and I do a whole lot of grading). Every single week there are problems. I even took pity on them and cut the second exam I was planning—they did so well on the first one that a second one would simply have been make-work. This group somehow knew how to be supportive of each other and competitive at the same time. They raised the bar for each other…and then helped each other get over that bar. I literally had an award winning class—lots of scholarship and award winners. I also had a very interesting graduate student doing a business/forestry degree. He has a very successful international business and wanted to get a different perspective on what he saw as he engaged in his international work. I mention this because the only other grad student I ever had in the class was one of my own Master’s students, who had a law degree from Israel. I now secretly (well, not so secret anymore if it is on this blog) hope to see more grad students. Any way, the mix of the engineering, psychology , computer science, social sciences, humanities, and business majors was great. I had been contacted in the fall by some of my former Maltese public international law students who were participating in the Telders Moot court. I liked the Telders case so well (a law of the sea problem) that I used that one, along with the Jessup case on a possible humanitarian intervention, for the moot court. My moot court is a very much shorter version of the one the Maltese students did. Anyway, we just had the best time with the oral arguments. We even had visitors sit in, including a man I met who was just visiting Tech because his son was considering coming here. Turned out he was an engineer/lawyer.

Summer Teaching
This summer I’m teaching two classes: American Govt and World Affairs. In both classes I want to talk about change and adaptation. In American I’m going to use Larry Sabato’s, A More Perfect Constitution; Ellis, Founding Brothers; and Kingdon’s Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policy. I’ve used Ellis a number of times. It’s about how the revolutionary generation (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, etc) moved from opposition to Britain and war, to writing our current constitution, to actually attempting to govern with that constitution. I find it helps American students understand that politics has always been with us and that creative problem solving is crucial to effective governing. Of course, some of the problems (example: what do with debt and growing the new American economy) are with us today, albeit in different guises. I read Sabato a few months ago. He says maybe the US needs a new constitutional convention to make a number of changes in the constitution. Now, if Americans have a secular religion, our Constitution, written by the Framers (really…capital letters and all), has to be it; it’s been adumbrated by the Supreme Court. As a good American, I am naturally reluctant to change much of anything in the document. But it’s still worth discussing and, as Sabato says, just attempting to talk about this over a decade or so would do wonders for civic knowledge. Kingdon’s book is pretty classic on how ideas get on the public agenda and sometimes turned into policy. We can always go that route rather than a constitutional one. With all the changes slowly coming on the American scene with the arrival of President Obama, I thought that might interest students. The main project for my students will be to build a dynamic model of one of the processes in the constitution—or a proposed change to a process. By dynamic I mean it has to move literally or on a computer way. They’ll have a couple of exams mid way and do a short paper explaining their model. I plan to have an “open to the public” presentation of the models. Maybe some of them will be good enough to use for our Constitution Day efforts around Sept 17.

The World Affairs course was almost removed from our books, but I decided to use the course number to explore the concepts of international flows and human adaptation to them. In this, my Malta experience plays a continuing role. It was so much easier in Malta to see money, trade, shipping, climate change, environmental change, political change via the EU, migration, multicultural student flows, and the like there. I’m not at all sure I have the right books, but I also have yet to complete my syllabus. I decided to use one fun book: Foer:, How Soccer [football] Explains the World. Serious football fans have noted factual errors in the book, but I like how it explores the global nature of the sport, how it moves people around, creates identities, touches organized crime sometimes, and so forth. We’ll see. The current flu situation will appear in the course, too—talk about flows of non-human and human entities at work. I hope to use the flows theme specifically to consider adaptation to serious changes in our environment. There’s another Malta connection. I went to a climate change conference where I heard Mr. Cutajar talk (who is chairing the post-Bali climate change talks). He said they had to spend more time on adaptation. I’ll have my students, in addition to a couple of exams, start a “flows notebook” where they keep asking questions , doing research and answering their questions. Sometimes this can lead students to remarkably sophisticated work.

Fall teaching will be US foreign policy again and our first year seminar, called Perspectives. Each section of Perspectives has a different topic, what connects them are the writing and speaking requirements. I’ve got an Honors section and my topic, as always, will be Thucydides. That “hobby” of mine was yet another reason I went to Malta. I got to visit two key places in Greece (Pylos and Sparta) and stare at the harbor and landscape of Syracuse, Sicily. Also, just observing some the winter storms in the Med was informative! I’ve assigned Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War; Kagan’s relatively new one-volume history, The Peloponnesian War; and Connor, Thucydides, which is a rhetorical analysis of what Thucydides wrote. I’m thinking of having a mock trial of Socrates to end that course. I did a mock trial of Socrates while on a Cornell Adult University trip to Greece and we had a really fun and deeply educational experience. I was active on the prosecution and we got him convicted again….better beware of an academic who can say that. We did not, however, request the death penalty for him. We asked for much worse: We chose to forbid him to talk to anyone under 25.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Yet more snow

Arggh. After a lovely 70F (22C) degree day on Friday we returned to 32F/0C. It is snowing, nasty wet snow at that.

I'm putting on an international law dinner for my public international law students. I need to pick up a few more items, but those roads look nasty. I hope my students come!

I'm looking forward to being back in Malta in late May. It will probably be too hot for me given the slow good-bye from this interminable winter.

My crocuses look very brave, even defiant, I must say. They are peeping out from under the snow and showing off their blues and yellows.