Culture and Human Rights

Simulating in the classroom (Part II)

This is a followup post to “Simulating in the classroom (Part I)” which can be accessed here.

A second simulation, called Ba Fa’ Ba Fa’ I have found to be particularly effective. This one was also created by Gary Shirts and has been used by the Peace Corps for decades to teach new corps members the dangers of seeing the world through one’s own cultural lens. To set up the simulation, a brief introduction of two cultural groups is provided. The groups, named Alphas and Betas, separately learn the rules of their new culture in different rooms—two facilitators and two rooms near each other are required for this simulation to work. The Alpha culture is a touchy-feely relationship-oriented culture, with high context, and strong ingroup outgroup mentality. The Beta culture is a highly comp

etitive trading culture which speaks a “foreign language.” Once participants learn the rules of their culture observers and visitors are exchanged. In the words of the creators: “The resulting stereotyping, misperception and misunderstanding becomes the grist for the debriefing.” In the debrief instructors can start by having students explain their perceptions of the “other” culture, which typically focus on the negative such as describing Betans as “cold,” “greedy,” and “weird” or describing Alphans as “lazy,” “mean,” and “unfriendly to outsiders.” What is fascinating is that students describe the “other” culture in contrast to their newly acquired Alpha/Betan culture, which they learned only at the start of the simulation. If this is the case in this simulation imagine what years of living in your own culture does to one’s lens? It is a great starting point for a varied discussion on the impact of culture on beliefs, stereotypes, and communication.   

Students engaging with Ba Fa Ba Fa and enjoying the nuances of the new language and the trading. University of Connecticut October 2018

Briefly described here, a third simulation, created by Dr. Peter Diplock, Assistant Vice Provost at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Connecticut, puts students into groups representing two railroad companies, who the instructor notes at the start are non-competitor companies, tasked with negotiating about use of a shared rail line. The negotiations take place across multiple rounds (one for each pair of students) and allows students to practice negotiation skills individually in front of the class. Yet what typically happens is that the groups get competitive, despite knowing that one of the companies is larger and will make more profit. Instead elements of human nature focused on competition rather than cooperation emerge, leaving a lot of profit on the table and setting up strong discussion on why the competitive side won out in the simulation—which always occurs. *More details on this simulation is available upon request as it does not have an official website. 

Overall, students get emotional, spirited, and keep conversations going about these simulations throughout the semester. I have found such simulations are powerful for exposing students to ideas of implicit bias, power, and to the strong cultural lenses that reside in all of us as socialized human beings. When they see these ideas taking shape through their own actions in the simulations it makes the concepts come to life in ways simply reading about them often does not. Of course, simulations also help break up long lectures—why simply tell someone about a concept when you can make them enact it through their own actions? Experiencebased learning endures as I’vhad students remember these powerful lessons many years later—certainly more so than my Power Point lectures.

Simulating in the Classroom (Part I)

Educational studies show that the human mind needs a change of pace after 10-20 minutes of lecture when academic attention/performance starts to wane (see Burke and Ray 2008). This makes for a challenge in the college classroom where teachers are often required to fill 50-minute, 75-minute, or 150-minute time slots. Traditional approaches to breaking up lecture typically include group work, films, and varied discussion formats. Our Teaching Human Rights blog is filled with innovative alternatives such as experiential learningonline hybrid learning, and service learning. In this post, I introduce in-class simulations as another approach I have found successful which applies directly to human rights courses and to many other courses tackling power, cultural difference, or human nature/relationships. 

Specifically, three types of simulations have proven effective each time I have facilitated them and can easily be integrated into one’s teaching style. In fact, all have a debrief component that can be melded into multiple parts of one’s course. They all take about 2 hours to run, but can easily be split up into two 50-minute classes.  

The simulation I find to be the most interesting and effective was developed by Gary Shirts and is unfortunately called StarPower, a name which gives away what it is really about: an exercise of power. On my syllabi, I rename the simulation “Circles, Tringles, and Squares” and tell the students it is a game “to get to know each other” rather than saying anything about how it will expose the way they handle power. As a way of setting up the simulation, the instructor announces that the 3 people with the highest scores at the end will win the game. Students are broken up into three separate groups (I prefer about 8 students or less per group, but this could be adjusted for a larger class) and during the first two trading rounds it becomes clear that there are three separate groups in terms of scores—the instructor can move some students around to make sure this happens. In fact, the instructor should move one student from the lowest scoring group to the highest across the two roundsThis effectively tells the false story, illustrated during the debrief, that “anyone can make it” although the structure of the system makes that highly unlikely. The students do not know that their scores were essentially baked into the cake when they received their chips, which are worth different amounts. In fact, it is similar to birth lottery wealth outcomes seen in the “real world.” Where the simulation gets really intriguing is when it is announced that “the squares group clearly has proven to be superior negotiators, thus to shake things up for the final round of trading they will make up the new rules of the game.” 

I then take the “squares” group out of the room and instruct them that they can make up new rules for trading. Students often ask what the point of the game is and I tell them again that the 3 people with the highest scores win. The “squares” typically make the new rules of the game, which can include secret rules only to be announced to the whole class at the end of the game, to not hurt their scoresand usually are extremely beneficial to them. Utopian ideas get crushed quickly if they emerge at all. Meanwhile, the other two groups experience what it is like to not have any power as they are told they can only write down suggestions for the “squares” group that, as facilitator, I provide for them to “consider” from time to time. The lower-class groups get bored and frustrated quicklylooking forward to the simulation being over. When the “squares” have decided on their new rules they come back into the room, yet I hold them at the door to build tension for the “squares” re-entering the room for the final round of trading. Often when they enter they act awkward, typically prideful or sheepish, and frequently receive some taunts from the other groups such as “here come the richy rich.” After this last round is completed, the instructor tells the class: “We actually are not going to tally the final scores. Instead let’s discuss what was this game really about?” The debrief discussion can be quite engaging with students thinking about why they acted the way they did while wielding power and what it felt like being powerless. 

Students actively participating in “Circles, Triangles, and Squares” University of Connecticut Spring 2018

This simulation teaches many things. The creators of it note: “Each of us may be more vulnerable to the temptation to abuse power than we realize. Power can be amazingly seductive.” To relieve tension/animosity that can develop between those in different groups I tell them that no matter who was in the “squares” group that their behavior would very likely be the same—in fact this is a “strong situation” where human nature is very predictable (see Project Implicit 2018)—sort of like following the rules of going through security at the airport. Furthermore, the creators note the following lessons: “To change behavior, it may be necessary to change the system in which that behavior occurs. Few people are likely to participate in an endeavor if they feel powerless. What seems fair to those in power is not likely to seem fair to those who are out of power. Persons who are promoted rarely remember those they leave behind. In any system, there needs to be checks on power. If there are no checks, power will almost certainly be abused.” I have found these points to be true in the multiple times I have run this simulation. 

The website of StarPower suggests the activities are useful with “Groups concerned about the ethical use of power. This generally includes peace groups, classes on racism, diversity, ethics, and almost any other course or activity concerned with making the world a better place to live. Teachers of business, sociology, psychology, political science, economics, or history, who believe that it is important for their students to experience and understand power as a concept.” Of course, there are multiple lessons that can be derived from this that could be incorporated into a variety of human rights-focused courses, especially around the tendency of power to corrupt, or why the human rights for those without power always seem to be under threat, and the general tendency felt by those with power to hold onto their power/wealth. Lastly, if cost is an issue you can create your own version of the simulation—all it takes is different colored chips, envelopes, pins, and an understanding of the basic rules 

Look for Part II of this post with other simulations.

Author. Jack J. Barry, Ph.D. Political Science


Burke, L.A., Ray, R. (2008). Re-setting the concentration levels of students in higher education: an exploratory study. Teaching in Higher Ed. 13(5), 571–582.

Project Implicit Website (2018) Project Implicit Website, Visited December 8th, 2018. 

Does a Little Bit of Satire Go a Long Way? : A Potential Teaching Reprieve to the Assault on Human Rights.

Continuing our series in this blog on teaching human rights in Trump’s first 100 days in office this post explores the potential of using satire as a teaching and intellectual tool.

There is often a sad running joke made from teachers of human rights to their students: “this class might be interesting, but it will be downright depressing.” The gravity of the subject matter of rights violations along with stories of savagery, and despicable behavior by the powerful, often make for a suffocating and serious classroom environment. It is very easy to get caught in a dark tide of emotions from human rights content which is typically steeped in human suffering. This is compounded by the inability of the powerless to enforce rights laws globally, or the existence of effective legal mechanisms to consistently hold leaders accountable for abuses they perpetrate.

The problem of powerful elites/politicians ignoring rights law is as old as the laws themselves. Our response as teachers, and as students of human rights, to the lack of enforcement, at least for me, can range from frustration, anger, trepidation, sorrow, to even feeling a sense of hopelessness for the whole rights endeavor. Maybe there are alternative responses to teaching about how the powerful seem to always get away with abuses? Perhaps poking fun at those who violate rights can allow for some space to vent, express frustration/dissatisfaction, and promote a creative learning environment for our students? Could satire even prove effective at garnering the public and media’s attention to demand better government response to rights abuses?

Photo from anti-Trump rally in Northampton, MA following the election: Orange is the New Wack. Photo credit: the author of this blog.


In an experiment, I taught a mid-semester class that was slated on the syllabus to be devoted to freedom of expression/press yet instead of simply focusing on rights laws, enforcement or the lack thereof, I conceptualized the lesson through the lens of satire. Before describing my approach I should mention that this class was titled “Human Rights Through Film” (it was and upper level course but I think a lesson like this could work with an intro course as well). The class took place in the middle of the semester when we already knew each other, and as happenstance would have it, was just about two-months into Trump’s reign as President.

The Trump Administration assault on rights has been well documented—including on our blog. As seen in the first 100 days of his administration his record on rights leaves defenders of rights not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Clearly, humorous satire/parody has come hot and heavy aimed at Trump, from the personal parody portrayed by Alec Baldwin on SNL, to information driven takedowns by John Oliver, to the devastating satire aired nightly by Stephen Colbert on the Late Show. Determining any actual impact of comedic approaches is beyond the scope of this blog post (see this article for an exploration of its potential), yet investigating comedic approaches, limited to film, proves an interesting way to expose students to various abuses of rights, and especially freedom of expression, as comedians seem to always be pushing the limits and dodging defamation law.

In my lesson I had students watch at home, what is perhaps the preeminent political satire film of our time, Dr. Stranglove by Stanley Kubrick. I also had them read work by Lisa Colletta (full citation below) and during class we analyzed clips from SNL, Colbert, Egypt’s Bassem Youssef, and discussed Dr. Strangelove. Conceptually, I divided comedic approaches into four general categories: (1) Parody; (2) Satire; (3) Irony (including postmodern irony); and (4) Comedic actions (basically forms of unconventional political participation with humor at their core). Of these the least oriented towards political change/critique is parody—which is a type of satire that strictly involves mimicry. Many parodies involve poking fun at politicians. For example, recently inspired by the viral response to Melissa McCarthy’s hilarious impression of Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, Rollingstone put together a strong list of the greatest political parodies on SNL. Parody though, is meant to mock, not necessarily focused on changing much in society.

McCarthy and Baldwin as Spicer and Trump in parody on SNL. Photo credit: Will Heath/NBC.


Satire provides a more serious critique. In our class discussion we defined it as the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and it comes with a bit more of a biting response than parody. Satire often tries to change society or politics, using laughter as a weapon, not as an end goal, and yet its efficacy depends on the audience recognizing irony. When the audience does not recognize the irony its impact is lost, such as the classic example of the reading public, or at least some of them, not understanding that Jonathan Swift’s essay, A Modest Proposal, which proposed the Irish poor sell their children to the English as food for the rich, was actually meant as an ironic insight into English policies at the time that had devastating effects on poor Irish families.

Irony, in many ways has become the dominant strand of satire in today’s postmodern, even post truth, world. It is exemplified by John Stewart’s approach on the Daily Show, and taken to an even more ironic level by Stephen Colbert. Irony, often misunderstood, is defined by Merriam-Webster’s as “a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other’s false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning —called also Socratic irony…[or] incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.”

However, Lisa Colletta, in a 2009 essay digs deeper into the concept of irony, exposing a variant “postmodern irony” of which she says it “denies a difference b/t what is real and what is appearance and even embraces incoherence and lack of meaning.” She claims that postmodern irony is characterized by (A) self-referentiality and (B) cynical knowingness. Yet “a postmodern audience is made conscious of constructed nature of meaning and of it own participation in the appearance of things, which results in the self-referential irony that characterizes most of our cultural output today.” Perhaps the most classic example is Colbert roasting of President Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents dinner, which in the words of Nelson from The Simpsons deserves a hearty: “Ha Ha.”

Stephen Colbert roasting President Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006. Bush does not look very happy. Photo Credit: REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang – RTR1CXOV.


All is not a laughing matter though as Colletta points out that any efficacy of irony in today’s media landscape may not be very effective because the audience may not “get it” or it might lead people towards less engagement with politics. In fact, postmodern politics says that it does not matter who is in power as “choice is really between fakes.” The ironic, sophisticated voter is encouraged to let the powerful rule or “appear gullible” (Colletta 2009, p. 858). In our class we further discussed these issues, focusing on whether or not millennial voters lack of turnout has something to do with postmodernity and a feeling of a lack of efficacy even when engaging in the political process.

Again cause and effect is difficult to disentangle here, yet in the end Colletta, and also yours truly, believe that satire can be an important intellectual endeavor that can lead to political action. Colletta summarizes, from satire “we may be forced to see things in a new way and to acknowledge alternative possibilities. This, in turn, could make viewers more tolerant of those who approach things differently, and thus inspire them to action they have not yet considered” (p. 872). Perhaps we can even see evidence of people wanting to see things in a “new way” and to be inspired as many viewers of late night TV switched from Jimmy Fallon over to Stephen Colbert since Fallon infamously “humanized” Trump while Colbert kept pushing the political envelope in a time of national political upheaval.

Towards the end of the lesson I pointed out that unconventional political participation, in the form of comedic actions against rights abuses, actually has a long history. There have been many evocative actions taken that have exposed the irony of rights denying. For instance, the website New Tactics in Human Rights collects info on many cases from around the world of comedic actions. Another NGO, Information Activism, points out 10 approaches to “Exposing the Ridiculous” that can help promote change. One of my favorite examples was the Dole Army hoax in Melbourne Australia, where young people tricked the local TV stations to air segments about a made up army of unemployed people living under the city, on the dole (i.e. welfare in the U.S.), who planned on never working. This action easily, and hilariously, exposed the gullibility of the mainstream media to fall for a literally trumped up narrative against providing economic rights. Closing my lesson from today’s milieu surrounding comedy was Michael Moore’s 10 point call to action against Trump’s policies in the Huffington Post (2/24/17) which concludes with asking people to “JOIN THE ARMY OF COMEDY: Trump’s Achilles heel is his massively thin skin. He can’t take mockery. So we all need to MOCK HIM UP! Not just the brilliant people at SNL or Colbert, Seth Meyers or Samantha Bee ― but YOU. Use your sense of humor and share it with people. Get them to do the same.” And Moore is right, there is little doubt this is the thinnest-skinned U.S. president of all time.

Surely, it is hard to quantify if meaningful impacts will or have occurred from naming and shaming rights abusers through comedic actions and satire. However, what is clear is that turning to satire in times of darkness speaks to the depth, and resilience of the human spirit, and also underscores our ability to critique the powerful in innovative ways. In fact, I would argue that various comedic actions are an intriguing response with more intellectual, teaching, and real world power than one would initially suppose. At the end of the semester I asked students what topics should be kept in the class for next semester and they made it clear I better keep the satire class. Although some claimed Dr. Stranglove was a bit dated, and I kind of agree, yet it was irresistible to show such an innovative film. If anyone is aware of potential modern replacement films with an equally satirical bite feel free to send recommendations my way. In the meantime, who knows what will happen with modern U.S. politics and our rights, yet I urge the watching/support of media that allows us to laugh at events as it might be better for us psychologically than crying in the corner. And you never know it might lead one to participate in some “comedic actions” in the name of human rights.


Jack J. Barry, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow, Global Training and Development Institute, University of Connecticut, email:

PS: I welcome comments on experiences, the good the bad, and the ugly, on using humor in the classroom—no dad jokes allowed though.


Sources not hyperlinked above: Colletta, Lisa (2009). Political Satire and Postmodern Irony in the Age of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 42, No. 5.