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Our Daily Bleg: Keep Your Hands Off My Ghana!

A reader named Karisa Cloward, a school teacher, needs your help. Her dilemma calls to mind earlier blegs about roommates/rent and dividing up a loved one’s earthly goods.

This fall I will be teaching a class on African politics. For the class, each student will be responsible for being the class expert on one African country. There will be about 30 students, and there are more than 50 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, so there are enough countries to go around. I want each student to represent a different country, and I also want to make sure that certain “important” countries will definitely have a representative.
In allocating countries to students, I would like to balance fairness, choice, and speed. The fairest and fastest approach would be for me to just randomly assign my preferred countries to the students, but I want to give them some choice in the matter. I think that students will be more engaged if they are representing a country they already have an interest in. Unfortunately, by introducing choice, I also introduce the possibility that multiple students will want to be the expert for the same country, and there is probably some trade-off between fairness and time in determining which student will actually get that country and which countries the losing students will get. The fairer the process – perhaps something involving multiple rounds of bidding – the more class time will be eaten up.
Does anybody have ideas for a fair and relatively fast way of allocating countries that still gives the students some choice in the matter?