Mathematical Modeling and Undergraduate Research

Written by Justin Yeh, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Biology

In the Fall of 2014 I worked as a GRC for BIOL 452: Mathematical and Computational Models in Biology, a course about using mathematical models to answer biological questions. The course includes a group project for which students had to pick a question that they found to be of interest and build a mathematical model to answer it. My duty as a Graduate Research Consultant was to guide the students in selecting a workable question and provide support in building and analyzing the model.

Initially I was somewhat worried that the workload might be heavy, because I was also working as a TA in the same semester for another course. The worry turned out to be unnecessary. It was a really fun and rewarding experience.

As the course’s lectures focus more on how to solve models, the group project is where the students first learn how to build one. A common mistake I noticed in their endeavors is that many just threw in a lot of variables in order to get a complex model, without really knowing what they wanted to get out of it. I found myself asking “what is your hypothesis?” very often. Interestingly enough, this is also the question my advisor has asked me several times in the past regarding my own thesis project. It’s interesting how I failed to see the problem when I have it, but noticed it right away when my role changed.

Meeting the students and listening to their ideas is also an enjoyable process. With students interested in different areas, each project is drastically different from others, many of them pertaining to topics I know nothing about. Nonetheless I can provide assistant because math really is the universal language of science. Along the way they also taught me a few things I would never have known about otherwise.

Guiding people on their own research project is something I never done before. The GRC program provided me the experience, and the students also benefited from it. All in all, it was wonderful.

Russia, Research and Reflections

Written by Andrew Ringlee, GRC and graduate student in the Department of History

During the fall semester of 2014 I served as a Graduate Research Consultant for History 161, a survey course titled “Russia Becomes an Empire: 862-1861.” As a former teaching assistant of this course and a specialist in the history of tsarist Russia, I was well prepared to work with students on research assignments for this class. The instructor, Professor Louise McReynolds, assigned the undergraduates to write either a short research paper or a book review for the course. I met individually with the students who selected to write research papers and helped them narrow their interests into manageable projects and guided their searches for primary sources in the Davis Library at UNC. I asked each student if he or she possessed knowledge of foreign languages and, even though the undergraduates expressed reservations at first, I located published letters and memoirs in German and French that were pertinent for the research projects. In the end, the foreign-language texts proved less daunting than the students feared, and I was very pleased to see that the students made use of these primary sources in their papers. I read rough drafts of each of the research papers and made numerous suggestions for improving the content and analysis, and I pointed out minor mistakes with style, grammar, and citations.

For the book reviews, I helped craft a master list of important monographs and primary accounts that fell within the chronological and thematic frameworks of the course. More than a few students emailed me for help choosing a book, and I directed them toward works that appealed to their interests. The master list of possible books fell into three broad categories: historical monographs, primary sources, and literary works. Knowing that many of the students were not advanced students or history majors, I taught a special recitation section one week devoted exclusively to book reviews. At this special session, I went over the necessary components of a book review: historical problem, evidence, argument, and the historiographical contribution of the work. For the students that opted to write on primary sources, such as memoirs or works of Russian literature, I encouraged them to analyze how a historian might read these texts and to identify the authors’ biases and shortcomings in the sources. I allowed students to give me rough drafts of their essays, and about a third of the students in the course sent me copies in paper or by email. I read these essays with a stern critical eye and made dozens of suggestions, comments, and critiques before returning the drafts to the students. In my opinion the students crafted very good essays, especially because for many it was their first attempt at a college-level book review. Most of the suggestions I made involved clarifying or expanding specific sections of the reviews, ensuring that all of the components of a good book review were present, and cleaning up small grammar and stylistic mistakes.

In all, my work in this course ensured that the students gained the critical thinking skills needed to analyze an historical text or critique historians’ arguments, and the students gained valuable practice expressing their ideas in informed prose. I personally benefitted from serving as a Graduate Research Consultant because I learned how to assist undergraduates in interpreting evidence and analyzing arguments. When students expressed confusion about a work’s argument or an author’s intention, I had to confront my own attitude toward specific works and pose creative questions to guide the students to formulate answers independently. This process provided me with pedagogical skills necessary to teach undergraduates to critique evidence from primary sources and scholarly monographs, vital components of higher education that provide benefits well beyond an undergraduate survey course in history.

RELI/HIST 454: The Reformation and the GRC Experience

Written by Matthew W. Dougherty, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Religious Studies

As I write this, I have just completed the final meetings with students for my Graduate Research Consultant assignment in Professor Jessica Boon’s course, RELI/HIST 454 “The Reformation.” Every time I serve as a GRC, I emerge from the semester grateful for the experience and with new perspectives on teaching.

One of the most satisfying parts of teaching is watching students grow in their abilities over the course of the semester. But it can be difficult for me to see that growth when I’m in the thick of things, worrying about the next lesson plan or the next set of reading questions. As a GRC, my meetings with students were separated by weeks or months over the course of the semester, and so I was able to see their development as if in time-lapse. I saw students who entered the course without any background in constructing historical arguments craft final projects that made intelligent use of primary and secondary materials. I also saw students who entered the course with a quite narrow focus on the theological issues of the Reformation develop hypotheses for their final papers that acknowledged the rich social context of those issues.

For many students, meeting with me seemed to provide a low-risk environment for developing their ideas. I met with them to critique their midterm drafts, to help them develop a project proposal for their final research papers, and to respond to drafts of their finals. In each of these meetings, students were responsible for having already done some work, but not for having completed the assignments. This structure made the meetings opportunities for students to get feedback as they developed their arguments and ideas. It is rare for college courses to be structured in a way that allows students to make mistakes, take risks, and pick themselves up again when their work doesn’t go as they had planned. Providing a GRC for this course allowed students to do just that. Even students who seemed skeptical about the role of the GRC at the beginning of the semester—after all, they’re not used to encountering an instructor who has no role in grading them—took advantage of these meetings to test new ideas and revise old ones.

Working as a GRC was a pleasure, and it certainly benefitted the students, but I also found that it was helpful for my growth as a teacher. Most of my TA experiences have been with 100- or 200-level classes, which are usually too large for major research projects to be feasible. Every time I serve as a GRC, I get the opportunity to work with students enrolled in an upper-level humanities course, which to my mind is the ideal setting to learn how to teach research skills. The students are more motivated than average—even by Carolina’s high standards— but many are not humanities majors. Thus, although they are beginners when it comes to constructing arguments from primary-source documents, they are hard-working and willing to learn. As a teacher in training, I could not ask for a better group of students to work with as I experiment with ways to teach research in the humanities.

Emotion Research in PSYC 68

Written by Holly Shablack, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Psychology

With the semester wrapping up, I found myself looking back on my experience as a graduate research consultant for Dr. Kristen Lindquist’s PSYC 68 Psychology of Emotions courses with great joy.

I have come to admire the various ways one can teach and engage students, especially first year students. Being an IA for a large introductory course and GRC for a first year seminar has exposed me to a variety of teaching styles and methods. Dr. Lindquist doesn’t just hold “lectures” but class discussions and even debates that make the class and materials exciting and more applied. Emotions are so engrained in our daily life that it’s difficult to tease them apart and to explain them, as well as how they can be researched, in a way that is understandable and exciting. Through the material, readings, lecture and applied examples, Dr. Lindquist has made the students excited and interested, to the point that it is obvious in the class discussions, questions, and even when I meet with them; some students have even approached Dr. Lindquist and myself with an interest in pursuing research experience now. Dr. Lindquist’s ability to clearly tie in the required readings as well as facilitating great participation and critical thinking is amazing.

The psychology of emotions is an interesting topic as emotions exist in our daily lives, at every moment. As part of the course’s requirements, students must create and write an 8-10 page research proposal on emotions and present their proposed study to the class in a 5-7 minute presentation. I met with a number of the students throughout the semester (and still am meeting with a few) which has been an extremely rewarding experience. I think one of my favorite things about this project is that it not only lets me share my knowledge and excitement about emotions and emotion research, but it also re-opens my mind to other realms of emotion research as, oftentimes, one can become so engrained in one’s own line and forget many other questions that can be explored. Emotion research spans across multiple disciplines and theories and it is nice to take a step back from my current focus on language and emotions and remember how emotions can be researched in topics such as decision making, health, and morality. In addition, seeing and hearing students talk about what excites them or intrigues them about emotions has been very interesting. I’ve met with multiple students, and a handful consistently, to discuss their interests and helped them narrow their ideas down to a level that can be explored. I also attended some of the final presentations and it was great to see the final product of many of the students with whom I met. It was particularly rewarding seeing the students incorporate suggestions that I made, and take the questions I posed to them seriously. Something about seeing one of their final end products brings joy and a great feeling of accomplishment.

Another very exciting part of this course was the chance I had to present a guest lecture. As a first year graduate student you don’t get this opportunity too often. This was particularly exciting, as it gave me an opportunity to explore yet another realm of emotion research that is not my focus: gender and emotions. It also allowed me to present in front of students and share my knowledge to them as a whole rather than giving individual feedback on their research proposals – giving me exposure to yet another realm of teaching. Afterwards, I recall a few of my peers noting how euphoric I was – reassuring me that this is what excites me, research and having the opportunity to teach and share my knowledge.

One final thought and observation is that there are two different courses, and it is interesting to see the differences between each class and the personalities among students. Many of these students, if not all, are in their first semester of college and, for many of them, this is their first time being away from home. It reminded me of when I was in their shoes; being able to talk to them about their projects, interests and even their worries about being in college was refreshing. It puts things into perspective for not only you but them. Overall, my experience as a graduate research consultant has been extremely rewarding and I thank all who made this possible!

ENGL54: Undergraduate Research in a course on World War I

Written by John McGowan, Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature

The last day of classes.  How can it come as a shock every single semester, even after thirty years of teaching?  Still so much to do and learn–and our time is up.

So how did my first year seminar on World War I go?  OK, although I am still trying to get the hang of this research thing.  What I failed to do was figure out a good way to integrate the research the students were doing into our class meetings.  Since the research projects were individual and were not completed until late in the semester, the bulk of the course concentrated on works we read together, with the last two and a half weeks devoted to the reports on the research projects.

Help me!  There’s got to be a better way, a way to avoid this splitting of the course into what feels like two disconnected parts.  Any and all suggestions welcome.

On the plus side, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the research projects were the most valuable part of the course for the students.  The topics ranged from Lloyd George and T. E. Lawrence to the role of women in the war and the famous 1914 Christmas truce.  The way I structured the research project, with two sessions with librarian Tommy Nixon to learn research techniques, the production of an annotated bibliography that required the use of a variety of different primary and secondary sources, and the oral presentation of the work to the class prior to writing the final paper, worked well.

The students developed significant research skills and they explored their topics at a greater depth than anything we handled in the earlier portion of the class.  I do feel like they got their hands dirty–and got a sense of just how much information is out there and some of the ways to access that information.

I want to end by thanking my Graduate Research Consultant, Katie Walker, who gave invaluable help when students ran into problems as they pursued their various topics.

Note: Here is Dr. McGowan’s first post about this course.

A GRC Perspective on Facilitating Undergraduate Research

Written by Giuliano Migliori, Graduate Research Consultant and Graduate Student in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures (Italian Studies)

Working as a Graduate Research Consultant for Prof. Escolar in her Undergraduate Seminar ITAL398 “Italy 1943-1946: Love in the Contact Zone” has been an excellent opportunity to experience the variability of development that our students take to approach research projects and what kind of tools they require to make improvements. Approaching the end of the semester, I am convinced of the fruitfulness of this opportunity that has opened windows of discussions and important cultural exchanges as well as various angles to look at WWII in Italy. From the beginning, I have been working closely with students, walking them through the historical complexities and layers of representations on which the arrival of Allies and their encounter/fight with Italians have been shaped, explored and researched by writers and filmmakers. Readings and screenings addressed very important and also contemporary issues, such as race, gender, and identity in wartime and how historical narratives played a fundamental role in the representations of these events.

Students had to deal with complex aspects of research: understanding differences between genres of literature and sources, focusing on key questions and finding ways and methods to answer, even if partially, those premises, creating a structured, responsive voice in which they were able to argue and discuss their own viewpoints within traditional frameworks. All these steps were surrounded by two technical and methodological problems. At first, a lack of confidence about how start research projects (how to move within historical and literary works) and what kind of steps are required to make an effective argument, the difficulty of data retrieval and the distinctions of sources (primary-secondary: types of articles, genres, approaches) were problematic situations they needed to face at an early stage. Secondly, after having submitted their abstracts, students needed to receive help and support, guidance and motivation, to organize their thoughts and ideas in a well-mannered structure. By means of individual meetings throughout these weeks in a continuous dialogue with students, I sought to provide them with tools (to search for reliable sources at the libraries and online), methods and possible approaches (comparatist, sociological, psychological and others) in order to help them in finding their own track of analysis and realize what it means to do a research project. In addition, together with Prof. Escolar, we gave them the opportunity in class to do peer-review activities from which they found great benefits in terms of feedback and different eyes looking at their work.

A significant moment of being a GRC has been the necessity of creating trust-based relationships with students. Many students, who have never been in a research-based class with two instructors, expressed skepticism at first and they did not how to engage with my role in class and with their projects. Yet, I believe that after a little hesitation they felt more comfortable engaging with my position, finding a less formal listener and helper. I have been working as a research guide facilitator on whom they could rely when facing issues and obstacles they did not how to overcome. I have seen constructive progress and significant developments in their confidence and abilities to make choices in understanding the directions towards which a research project might head. Some students are still struggling in deciding how to use a media source, or an article from 1950s, or propaganda posters from WWII. At the same time, I think these are necessary steps for a unique comprehension of their interests and ways of communicating ideas, topics, and arguments.

So far, it has been a very interesting and formative academic experience and I strongly believe that a more involved and dynamic environment in class is giving them an essential grasp on how create and organize a research paper even for future courses.

Read Professor Escolar’s reflection on this course here.

ITAL 398: Building towards a research paper

Written by Dr. Marisa Escolar, Assistant Professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures

Three-quarters of the way through the semester, as my Graduate Research Consultant Giuliano Migliori and I eagerly await the first rough drafts from our students, I want to share with you all the way we have structured the research trajectory. The semester began with a fairly dense historiographical essay (our topic is the ‘Liberation’ of Italy by the Allies in WWII). Students met in groups and, using that essay as the basis, decided on a practice research “topic”: questions were intentionally broad, like “How did fascism rise in Italy?” or “How were Americans perceived by Italians?” By the next class, they had to bring in a physical book as well as an electronic resource and explain how that would help them answer the question. During that class we discussed how to “vet” a source and evaluate precisely what kind of source it was, paying attention to the index, table of contents, year of publication, etc., before even getting to the prose. In the students’ reflection diary, they commented that they appreciated being given class time to do this kind of work.

Soon after, I gave a “research presentation” where I introduced various methodologies, practical tips for searching, and, above all, emphasized the importance of formulating a research question.

The next step involved students putting together an abstract that suggested not just a topic but a question, as well as a short annotated bibliography. Here, they received written and in-person feedback from both Giuliano and myself. I also asked for a reflection diary, where students expressed frustration in being asked to formulate a question in advance and some anxieties about the ability to find appropriate sources (and having the time to read them!).

The most difficult jump so far has been between this initial abstract and the successive step, in which I asked them to read at least one primary source on their own and write a critical evaluation of it, along with an updated bibliography. Here, several students recognized they were headed in a new direction, so in further meetings we helped them reorganize their work plan. In order to make the feedback more concrete, I improvised a peer-editing session in which I asked groups of 3 to evaluate each other’s summaries, particularly to help their peers press themselves towards understanding whether they had found an original approach to the material.

Before the first drafts came in, we collectively “peer-edited” a paper of a former student, both to examine an excellent paper and to establish expectations for the editing process. This discussion generated a number of useful critiques and questions, especially about the most effective use of direct quotations. Next, using a set of guidelines I’ve give them, they will peer-edit their drafts before handing in a second draft for a grade—and, ultimately, the final paper and research presentation. My main priorities in this last part of the class are to push students towards an argumentative question and to help them find a voice from the midst of all the sources they have so painstakingly retrieved, vetted and digested. It is my hope that the scaffolding we provided will make this possible.

Read Giuliano Migliori’s reflection on the course here.

Undergraduate Research: Memory, Momuments, and Memorials

Written by Kevin Chovanec, GRC and graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature

This fall — and continuing into the spring — a few Writing Program Instructors and Graduate Research Consultants for ENGL105 courses have begun working with various campus organizations to develop courses focused on the complex history of the monuments and memorials on UNC’s campus. We’ve partnered with the Visitors’ Center and received support and direction from APPLES, the MRC, Wilson Library, and even the UNC Campus Historian. While fitting the normal ENGL 105 model, the class includes two units that focus on university history. Students in the class have therefore engaged with our past and interrogated what it means to be part of this university, and we hope that their projects (eventually) might supplement the growing collection of tours, articles, and information available about the monuments. A slight twist is that our students projects are narratives; as Missy Julian-Fox, the director of the VC recommended, our students have focused on telling stories about our past.

As with many of these projects, I imagine, we have encountered a few challenges. First-years often have enough trouble simply adapting to college writing; the rather ambitious research project – producing, we hoped, material that could actually be used — demanded from them a quality of work rarely required. They needed to write like professionals — and of course, at this point in their careers, not all students have that skill. Still, failing to produce publishable work can itself, I think, be a useful experience; students develop a sense of what professional writing should look like, and their ability to recognize the problems in their work demonstrates their potential as writers.

Students have used their research to tell the stories behind the monuments — stories of why and how they were built; of the controversy they have stirred; and of the groups and individuals honored. In the class focused on the Student Body Monument, for example, students have put together an account of the famous night of vandalism, when the statue had to be moved to a less conspicuous position; but they have also sought to uncover the true diversity of the “student body” that the stereotyped statues have — at least, according to some — failed to represent. One group developed an exhibit on the first female students to attend Carolina, including the autobiography of Sallie Walker Stockard, the first female student to graduate from UNC, and a manuscript diary of the first African-American woman enrolled at the university, Karen L. Parker.

A colleague and former GRC described the GRC experience as all the good parts of teaching with none of the bad. (By the bad parts, of course, he meant grading.) It has been exciting to talk about students’ work with them in groups, to hear their archival finds and to recommend possible directions for their projects. Despite certain challenges, many students have done impressive research, and I have enjoyed working with them to better understand the long, complex, sometimes ignoble but always fascinating, history of UNC.



The Art Question: Seeking Interdisciplinarity with the Ackland Art Museum

Written by Dr. Jan Koelb, Department of English and Comparative Literature, and Katherine Calvin, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Art

As the Graduate Research Consultant for Dr. Jan Koelb’s CMPL 260 course “Landscape: Reimagining the Natural World,” I have been working with students over the past few weeks as they begin to build the frameworks for their final projects, which pivot around a research question on some aspect of the intersections among nature, art, and society. Throughout the semester, we as a class have been using the Ackland Art Museum and its collection as a laboratory of sorts to investigate representations of landscape in Western art to accompany the literary texts related to landscape that the students have read for class, such as Virgil’s Eclogues, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romantic poetry by Wordsworth and Coleridge. With the continued support of Dr. Carolyn Allmendinger and Caroline Culbert at the Ackland, our class has been able to use one of the smaller study bays in the museum for the entire semester, and Dr. Koelb (using input from the students and myself) has curated three separate installations that will go up over the course of the semester. I have found this particular aspect of the course to be incredibly helpful for the students, as they can study the works in intricate detail, heightening their visual literacy as well as their textual analysis skills.

As a graduate student in Art History, working with a comparative literature course has been an interesting experience for me, as it has pushed me to reframe the way in which I introduce and explain art historical concepts and techniques to a widely diverse group of students. At this point in the semester, I have completed one set of tutorials, which are an hour-long meeting with a group of four students, and have begun the second tutorial meetings. I hold the tutorials in the class’ study bay at the Ackland, so if a student is unsure about his or her argument, we can look closely at the work of art in question in that moment and talk through the issues as a group. It has been fascinating to see the elements in these works that interest students. We have individuals working on everything from the re-contextualization of an Egyptian sphinx in modern London as photographed by Coburn in 1908 to the representation of nature as wondrous and its conflation with mythology in relation to Dürer’s Das Meerwunder (The Sea Monster) from 1498.Art for Lunch tweet 1

Because the course encourages students to engage a variety sources across traditional disciplinary boundaries, however, it has often been challenging to help students narrow their research focus to make their project tenable in a single semester. Some of their proposals challenge my own master’s thesis in breadth! My strategy for this issue, so far, has been to encourage students to continually return to the work of art that they are focusing on primarily and to ask them to think carefully and critically about the details visible in the art. What do they see that strikes them? What can be used as evidence for their argument? And, conversely, what do they not see, and how can this help or hinder their project’s thesis? In this second research tutorial, we are talking about evidence quite a bit, particularly the kind of evidence students think they need to find in order to complete their first drafts. Even in a room surrounded by art, I have continually reminded them to not forget about the art as evidence, as example, and, often, even as contradiction, as they bring together other historical and literary scholarship. I look forward to the next rounds of GRC tutorials as I am excited to see first drafts of these synthesizing projects.

Katherine Calvin

Art for Lunch tweet 2“Where will your curiosity lead you?” Our twenty landscape students have taken that motto to heart and are moving in twenty exciting directions with their research. Katherine’s tutorials make the critical difference between, as one student puts it, “the blind leading the blind” and making solid progress in a short time. The students’ feedback speaks for itself: “the concept of the tutorials with Katherine is excellent” . . . “very helpful, really allows ideas to form” . . . “great to be able to get help from Katherine in a small group setting” . . . “she’s knowledgeable and has great insights about art and how to write about art”. . . “a good balance of positive feedback and constructive criticism”. . . And as one frank student remarks: “It has been nice being forced to create a draft to present to her before submitting a final copy because normally I would probably end up waiting until the last minute to just create one potentially sloppy final draft.”

Jan Koelb

Undergraduate Research in POLI 130: Introduction to Comparative Politics

Written by Paula Mukherjee (Instructor) and Kevin Brondum (GRC), Department of Political Science

From Paula:

My “Introduction to Comparative Politics” class (POLI 130) is a course about democracy. I start off the course by looking at theories and typologies of regime type: democracies, dictatorships, and hybrid democracies and illiberal democracies that display characteristics of both democracies and dictatorships. I then move to an analysis of democratic transitions in the developing world. When, how, and why do dictatorships transition to democracies? We discuss how transitions are a time of great uncertainty and flux. Those in power may find themselves as outsiders in the new regime, while those previously blocked from power could end up as leaders of a new democracy.

I follow this theoretical discussion with two case studies. The first is a study of Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship and the installation of democracy in the early 80s. The second case study is of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to multiparty and multiethnic democracy in the early 90s. Along the way, I take a detailed look at the human rights abuses perpetrated by both regimes and the efforts at transitional justice taken up by the young democracies.

The class is currently in the fourth unit of the course, which focuses on democratic institutions. We’ve looked at how some democracies are designed to give the majority in society the right to make decisions for the rest of society (“majoritarian democracy”), while others are designed to encourage consensus and minority buy-in (“consensus democracy”). Here, I’ve used the case of the UK to illustrate how a classically majoritarian democracy has adopted several characteristics of consensus democracy in recent years.

Kevin Brondum, the GRC for this course, has been a great help for the research component of this course. Each of the students has selected a “partly-free” country from anywhere in the world that they will use for the whole research project. They must classify the regime as democratic or authoritarian and, identify current challenges to democracy (first paper), and design an appropriate democratic regime (second paper). The centerpiece of the project is a series of group presentations at the end of the semester. I have organized the students into groups by world region (Africa, Latin America, etc.) and their task will be to compare and contrast their cases and explain what lessons can be learned from their efforts at democratic design across the region. I’m excited to see the projects unfold!

From Kevin:

At this stage in the semester, students are completing and handing in their first papers. Paula and I shared the work of advising them as they wrote. The assignment for the first paper was to classify a country of the student’s choosing as authoritarian or democratic, majoritarian or consensual. Comparative Politics is concerned with domestic politics in all countries of the world, and students have chosen to write about countries on almost every continent. Of course, Paula and I aren’t experts on the politics of every country in every world region. Paula specializes in Subsaharan Africa, I specialize in Eurasia, and we have complementary background knowledge about different countries in the Americas. During the research process for this paper, Paula and I have shared the work of advising students on their research based on these specialties. If a student asked me for advice in writing a paper about Zambia or Chile, for example, I would help the student to the best of my ability but encourage her to talk to Paula as well.

To write this paper, the students have to identify problems preventing the establishment of a full, functioning liberal democracy in their chosen country. When they write about democracy, what students usually find most challenging is to assess whether the institutions that a country establishes on paper are actually working in practice. Many have difficulty understanding why legal provisions for elections, parties, and a system of checks and balances are not enough to guarantee a strong and lasting democracy. The most important task for Paula and me, therefore, has been to suggest sources that are more likely to show how open political participation, competition, and the recognition of civil liberties are failing in their countries despite constitutional guarantees. We usually start by referring them to reports by organizations whose goal is to assess democratic practices or observance of human rights, like Freedom House, Polity, or Human Rights Watch. However, to discourage them from simply regurgitating these organizations’ conclusions, we tell them to incorporate information from recent news, and require them to evaluate the quality of democracy in their country with reference to Arend Lijphart’s Patterns of Democracy and other theoretical readings from the syllabus.

Ultimately, as students start preparing their presentations in groups, our goal is to have them compare countries, synthesizing their knowledge with other students’ and applying the theories they have learned more broadly.