Tips for Students on Writing Good Papers

Henry Farrell, who teaches political science at George Washington University, has posted an essay with tips for students writing political science papers. There are some important insights, such as “cut to the chase”, “organize, organize, organize”, and “avoid data dumps.” In my opinion, his most important tip (and this would also apply to examinations) is “read the requirements for the assignment.” If you’re unsure about the requirements, or there is something you don’t understand, seek clarification from your professor/instructor. The whole essay can be found here:

 

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Kenya, ethnic diversity, and fractionalization scores

Had you taken my Introduction to Comparative Politics class in the fall of 2007, you would have been faced with writing a paper in response to this:

There is much debate regarding the determinants of, and obstacles to, democratization. Are states that rely on natural resources for a large share of their GDP less likely to become and remain democratic? Does ethnic diversity present an obstacle to the democratization and democratic consolidation of a regime? Your term paper will answer one of these two questions either in the affirmative or the negative.

In addition to making the theoretical argument, students were asked to use Iraq and one other state to illustrate and support their argument(s). A few students chose to write on Kenya. I hope they go back and read their papers in light of the current situation in that multi-ethnic state.

Is Kenya ethnically diverse? How can we measure ethnic (or religious, or linguistic) diversity? There is a formula called the fractionalization index, which essentially gives us an idea of how diverse a state is. You can find a table–in Appendix A (which I have excerpted here) of over 100 states around the world with their corresponding fractionalization scores (in three categories), in this National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper by Alesina et al. here The higher the value the higher the level of diversity. Notice the relatively low diversity of states like Poland and Norway and the high amount of diversity of almost all African states. Which is the best way to measure “diversity”? Ethnically? Linguistically? By religion?


Country
Date (Ethnicity Data)
Ethnic
Language
Religion
Afghanistan
1995
0.7693
0.6141
0.2717
Canada
1991
0.7124
0.5772
0.6958
China
1990
0.1538
0.1327
0.6643
Croatia
1991
0.3690
0.0763
0.4447
Kenya
2001
0.8588
0.8860
0.7765
Malawi
1998
0.6744
0.6023
0.8192
Mozambique
1983
0.6932
0.8125
0.6759
Nigeria
1983
0.8505
0.8503
0.7421
Norway
1998
0.0586
0.0673
0.2048
Portugal
1998
0.0468
0.0198
0.1438
USA
2000
0.4901
0.2514
0.8241

What does an Intro to Comparative final exam at MIT look like?

Here are a couple of examples:

Final exam last semester

After three and a half years of occupation, U.S. attempts to build stable, democratic government in Iraq have utterly failed. Iraq is plagued by a weak state unable to guarantee public order, mounting ethnic conflict, pervasive corruption, anemic economic performance, and poor prospects for democracy. Drawing on the knowledge you have gained over the semester, think about the five issues mentioned above (state-building, ethnic conflict, corruption, economic growth, and democracy).

Then answer the following three questions:

1. What recommendations would you have made to Coalition authorities at the beginning of the occupation to maximize the odds of a successful outcome?
2. To the extent that they are different, what recommendations would you make now?
3. How effective or ineffective do you think these your recommendations would have been or would be?

At 1:30 p.m. on the day of the exam (Tuesday the 19th), we will ask you to address ONE of these topics only, and we will specify which one you should address. For instance, we might ask you to answer the three questions listed above as they apply to economic growth: (1) what policies should the Coalition have adopted to maximize economic growth, (2) what recommendations would you make now to increase economic growth, and (3) how effective or ineffective do you think these recommendations would have been or would be in stimulating economic growth? The exam topic will be emailed to the class and posted on the class website. You are encouraged to collaborate with your fellow students in working through possible responses between now and the 19th. However, you must write the exam entirely by yourself. We do NOT expect you to do additional reading for the exam beyond the materials covered in class and the papers on Iraq that is now posted on Rather, you should leverage the general knowledge you have obtained over the semester — and the rather limited information you have acquired on Iraq — to address the topic.

Submit your exams to me and Professor Lawson byemail as an MS Word attachment or hand in a hard copy to Professor Lawson’s office. The deadline is 7:30 p.m. December 19th. No extensions will be given, and you will be penalized for lateness in a draconian fashion. If you hand your exam in by email, you are responsible for ensuring that the attachment can be opened in MS Word.

Final exam topic two years ago
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My Intro to Comparative Politics Final Exam–Fall 2007

Here is my exam:

Final Exam–PLSC240–Intro to Comparative Politics

The final exam consists of three parts. Please read the instructions carefully! Please answer all questions in your blue book only!

Part I–Identification

Please define, and explain the significance of, 9 of these 11 terms in four or five sentences each.
1. Preferences & Beliefs
2. Capacity
3. Legitimacy
4. Comparative method
5. Concrete versus abstract (judicial) review
6. Export-oriented industrialization
7. Failed State
8. Hybrid regimes
9. jus sanguinus & jus soli
10. Prisoner’s Dilemma
11. Proportional Representation

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What Final Exams in Introductory Economics Courses at Berkeley look like

Here are two final exams from Professor DeLong at UC-Berkeley. Maybe I should make my final exams a little bit more difficult.

Political Economy 101, “Modern” Theories of Political Economy.
PART I: SHORT ANSWERS: Do 7 of 8. 1 hour–one-third of exam–10 min. per question:
  1. What facts about the way the world appeared to be working before 1914 made it reasonable for Norman Angell to hope that full-scale war between great powers had become a thing of the past?
  2. The dominant social-democratic consensus when Milton Friedman wrote was that the logic and working of the market needed to be curbed by an active, powerful, energetic government aggressively regulating in the public interest. What does Milton Friedman think is wrong with this? What does he think is wrong with the conventional “conservative” point of view?
  3. What does Karl Polanyi mean when he calls the commodities of land, labor, and finance “fictitious”?
  4. Does Paul Krugman believe the West should feel threatened by the fact that Asian countries have achieved “miraculous” growth under a different political ideology? Why or why not?
  5. What does Benedict Anderson mean by “imagined” when he calls nations “imagined communities”? What does Benedict Anderson think that “print capitalism” did in creating his imagined communities?
  6. What was the main point of each of the following three articles: i.) Stephen Holmes on the meaning of liberalism; ii.) Francis Fukuyama on the “end of history”; iii.) Benjamin Barber on “Jihad vs. McWorld”?
  7. What does Robert Reich mean by “symbolic analyst”? What does he want symbolic analysts to invest in and why?
  8. What are the differences between Dani Rodrik’s and Joe Stiglitz’s approaches to understanding economic development policy?
PART II: LONG ESSAYS: Do 2 of 3. 2 hours–two-thirds of exam–1 hr. per question:
  1. In what ways are thinkers like Milton Friedman and thinkers like James Scott close intellectual allies? In what ways are they mortal intellectual enemies? How have the pieces of twentieth century history that they have lived through and focus on led them to their respective conclusions? How does the thought of each differ from the ideological labels traditionally applied to them?
  2. One way to understand almost all of the thinkers read in this course is that they are all trying in various ways to escape from the box history placed us in when history turned out not to follow the “pre-WWI classical liberal” path of steadily increasing prosperity, democratization, globalization, and peace. Take at least six of the thinkers read in this course and put them in their proper place in this perspective: What things in twentieth-century history made them reject or try to fix classical liberalism? How did they think that humanity should get out of the traps and problems that history was presenting?
  3. A large number of the thinkers we have read are explicitly concerned not just with what is but with what ought to be–not just with the technocratic “what works” but with the moral questions of “what kind of people we are” and “who are we responsible toward.” Consider John Maynard Keynes, Karl Polanyi, Milton Friedman, and Joe Stiglitz. How are each of their arguments and points of view “moral” rather than “technocratic”? Does the moral element strengthen or weaken the cases they make, in your opinion.

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