Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I am in the middle of teaching an American government simulation course, or Simgov.  Every student is portraying a current member of the House of Representatives, with the exception of three students who comprise the executive branch.  We're about halfway through the quarter, but so far this is proving to be one of the most fascinating and useful courses I've ever taught.

The first few weeks were a bit of a slog, in which I lectured extensively on parliamentary procedure and a few basics of executive/legislation relations.  But as of last week, they've been meeting in committees.  Each student is required to author six pieces of legislation during the course, and the first bills have been working their way through the different committees.  I have never seen such buy-in from such a large percentage of students before.  I've observed several committee hearings and so far every student has been engaged in the work, participating in the discussions, and learning the material.  I only needed to assign reading material for the first few weeks -- a few classics like Mayhew's The Electoral Connection and Sinclair's Unorthodox Lawmaking.  The students are generating reading requirements on their own now by doing research on bills.

I've heard of several professors doing American politics courses that incorporate a week or two of congressional simulation (see this article by Sands and Shelton), but doing it for an entire course strikes me as novel.  Not that it was my invention.  I inherited this course from my former colleague Tom Knecht, who helped develop it in grad school based on the work of other professors going back to the early 80s.  I've been relying heavily on this earlier work.  One of the newer updates to the Simgov course is the addition of Blackboard, which allows students to post bills and communicate electronically.  I'm also using clickers to electronically record roll call votes.  If I get enough votes, I might try to calculate ideal points for the students.  (If I feel really geeky, I'll compare students' ideal points to those of the members they're portraying, and then deduct points if there's too big a difference.)

Anyway, one obviously can't teach every course this way.  It's a deeply atheoretical class.  Students are focused on very pragmatic issues, such as how to put a bill together, how to assemble a winning coalition, how to speed up or slow down legislative procedures, how to run a hearing, etc.  But the learning is dramatic and incredibly widespread.  I'd certainly make my course materials available to anyone who wants to adopt this class.

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