A look back on exam day (WWI in Real Time, Exam 1)

As this post goes live, my class is taking the first (of three) exams in World War I in Real Time, which is as good a time as any to take stock of what ground we’ve covered so far, though mostly from a teaching perspective; this might be a little too “inside baseball” if you’re usually here for the WWI stuff.

Thus far, we’ve had 8 lectures—certainly feels like there’ve been more—covering

  1. The Puzzle(s) of the Great War – a syllabus day, but one that allowed me to set up why the war itself is (still) so puzzling, so surprisingly modern, and so worthy of study for all it can teach us not just about war, but about politics more generally.
  2. Strategy, Equilibrium, and Tragedy – a tool-building day, introducing some of the building blocks of game theory, developing the students’ sense of thinking strategically (and why games are good for helping us do just that), and addressing a historical puzzle—the occurrence of the Anglo-German Naval Race—that helped set up our broader discussion of the causes of the war.
  3. Europe Before the Great War – a day devoted to the logic of inference, emphasizing the need to compare a crisis that does escalate to war (the July Crisis) to similar great power crises that didn’t in the years before the war; also a great chance to learn about costly signaling, where some states would intentionally limit military power to make their claims of peaceful intentions more credible.
  4. Battle Plans, Strategy, and Equilibrium – a day of jumping into the heads of military planners before the war (Schlieffen and Moltke, as well as others in each of the great powers), trying to understand their dilemmas (and general lack of anything resembling a good option) through the Colonel Blotto game, which also brought home how difficult it is to judge the wisdom of a course of action ex post when its success depends on the actions of the other side.
  5. Germans Aims in the July Crisis – the first day where we dug into the decisions that would turn an Austro-Serbian crisis into a world war, focused in particular on what Germany wanted out of the crisis; in terms of explaining the war, we tried to suss out Germany’s preference ordering, showing how several actions would be linked to Russian choices in response. In essence, we wrote down part of a game-theoretic model of the July Crisis.
  6. Russian Goals in the July Crisis – day two of building a model as a class, figuring out Russian goals and how they’d relate to German choices outlined in the previous class, before “solving” the game and showing that, while Germany got its second-best outcome, Russia got its third best. Generally, we came to understand the war as the result of a series of interlocking prisoner’s dilemma-style commitment problems that pushed the powers into preventive war.
  7. Public Opinion and the Outbreak of War – a puzzle-solving day, where I led the class through solving a mystery: if Russia and France were so committed to the offensive, why did both take steps to hamper their own offensive capabilities once war was imminent? The answer was the need to secure public support for a mass war, but getting there required working out tradeoffs and a pretty tough strategic problem; where I walked the class through his in pieces in lectures 3-6, we did it all at once in this lecture. (Might’ve been my favorite thus far.)
  8. Belgium and British Intervention – another puzzle-solving day, trying to figure out why an attack on France might not’ve sufficient to bring the British into the war but an attack on small, less powerful Belgium was. the answer has to do with the informative and coordinating effects of international law, particularly what it told the British about German goals in the war. also got to spend time talking about coordination problems in general, and assigned one of my own papers—turned out to be a good chance to refine my own argumentation.

Looking back at this, I’m encouraged, though as slow as it might’ve felt to the class that we didn’t get to the outbreak of the war until late September, I was nervous that I was going too quickly in terms of building up the intuition of game theory. I’ve also never tried to use so many diverse strategic models in a class with so little actual formality and math, but I’m guardedly optimistic about the approach—and using it again. I guess the exam, though, will be the arbiter of how well the pedagogical plan has worked.

As for me, I’ve already gotten a few research ideas out of the course—wheels are spinning about the public mobilization stuff, and I’ve pulled some great examples for a few different papers from the readings—so in that respect, this course is already paying dividends.

Until Thursday, when we spend some time on the battlefield..

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One thought on “A look back on exam day (WWI in Real Time, Exam 1)

  1. Pingback: Comparing the Eastern and Western Fronts (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 20) | The Wolf Den

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