Weber -- with whom I agree on most things, as most of you already know -- suggests in Science as a Vocation that inspiration comes when we least expect it: "while smoking a cigar on the sofa . . . or during a walk up a gently rising street." We are all familiar with the odd habits of the Idea Fairy, who seems to take perverse delight in bringing inspiration just when there is not a computer (or even a pen and paper) in sight. But Weber goes on to point out that even though "ideas come when they are least expected, rather than while you are racking your brains at your desk," those ideas "would not have made their appearance if we had not spent many hours pondering at our desks or brooding passionately over the problems facing us."

I mention this because I often say that I don't prepare for class, that I much prefer to improvise with whatever is ready-to-hand in the form of student interest and sheer random happenstance (veterans of my World Politics course might remember the infamous "Louis Black" discussion). I don't want to be misunderstood as saying that I don't think about class when outside of class. I do think about it, quite a lot. But what I have learned over the years is that my major temptation is to overprepare, to over-think the situation, and so it is almost always better for me to spend time working on other things while waiting for inspiration to strike -- which it invariably does just in time.

Case in point: this morning's "Debates" course. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do -- get people talking about structural realism, the topic du jour. When I left the house around 9am I had no idea more specific than that in my head. So I started pondering, somewhat aimlessly, while driving, thinking about how to get the discussion going . . . maybe a news story to start things off, maybe some historical case -- no, wait, make the students find historical cases. In fact, make them find lots of them. How about a game where they had to look for cases of large powers beating up on small ones, taking advantage of the distribution of capabilities to get what they wanted? Things started to fall into place: they're already divided into teams, so set up a competition (loosely modeled on those games where one is rewarded for coming up with something that no one else came up with), a few simple rules, and hey, if the rules are vague enough maybe some of the teams will start acting like realists, balancing against one another, taking advantage of weakness, and so on.

Poof: a plan for the day. And it worked pretty well, I thought (even though I suddenly changed one rule, and didn't reward teams with more points for taking out other teams' cases; that was my original design, but I forgot to mention that when spelling out the rules -- oops). I think it made the point both in its content and in its form, and you can't ask for much more than that.

The moral of the story, though, is that the idea wouldn't have come purely on its own. The background pondering and thinking and musing feeds into that inspiration, whenever it chooses to manifest itself. Improvising is hard, since it demands so much behind-the-scenes effort -- even though if done properly, almost none of that effort will ever been seen publicly. [Unless someone blogs about it, obviously, and then all bets are off.]

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