Last week I attended the first APSA Centennial Center Teaching Workshop in Washington, DC, an event organized by APSA staff (thanks Julia!), Joyce Kaufman of Whittier College, and Victor Asal of the University of Albany-SUNY. The subject of the workshop? Teaching international relations.
A few thoughts about the event:
The participants came from institutions with wildly different enrollments and missions, but teaching was primary to their professional life. They approached the praxis of teaching with intentionality and an interest in continuous improvement, despite changing student demographics, declining resources, and organizational inertia. Several of us felt that a stark difference exists between the notion of political science as a community of scholars and the realities of the workplace. For more on this topic, see Jennifer Hochschild’s recent letter to the editors of PS — the “Mismatch between (Some of ) APSA and (Some) Political Scientists.”
Many undergraduate students could benefit from basic training in epistemology. They often ignorant of the difference between cause and effect, the explanatory and predictive functions of theory, and the role of the scientific method in evaluating truth claims. Students typically don’t know what questions are the right questions to ask or how to understand the answers they get.
People use a variety of course frameworks to expose students to international relations theories and methods. Some employ a critical issues focus, in which topics like climate change and human rights function as springboards for analysis. Others build their courses around case studies or simulations. This diversity in approach points to the dis-utility of a one-size-fits-all canonically-oriented textbook.
International relations can help students better understand human behavior and become more adept at social interactions. Traditionally-aged undergraduates want to perceive themselves as unbiased adults capable of thinking strategically, yet games can easily elicit quite a different response. Placing students in situations where the system is rigged against them can make them more fully grasp the individual effects of discrimination and structural inequality as well as the importance of civil discourse in a democratic society.
The workshop gave me some insight into what other people consider to be best practices in the teaching of international relations. The conversations were productive and enjoyable. I hope APSA continues to organize this type of workshop.
I like to start my semesters the way I intend to continue them, with an active learning activity on the first day of class. But what do you do when you don’t have any content yet? You let the students develop the content themselves. My last several (regular) posts for this group will focus on activities for the first day of class that don’t require any student background knowledge yet get them used to the idea that they’ll be out of their seats and interacting regularly in this course.
In Introduction to World Politics/International Relations, students are frequently unsure what exactly they’ve signed up to study. A significant minority think they’re studying the politics of other countries, others think they’re doing global current events, and others think it’s foreign policies of great powers. Over the years I’ve built a collection of textbook samples that vary widely in their approaches to the field. I give pairs of students a worksheet that asks them to compare two textbooks to the textbook we’re using in the class. What topics are included in all of the books? Can you find a topic that is in one book but not the other two? For fun, I throw a couple ambiguously titled comparative politics textbooks into the box. The point of the exercise is for them to define the central core of topics in the field of IR, and then we identify some of the contested or less-central issues that appear in a minority of books.
When I have a 75-minute class, I then ask them to compare two different editions of the same book, at least two editions apart. (This part of the activity is only possible because I’ve been collecting textbooks for 15 years and raided some retiring faculty members’ stashes as well; your campus library may have old titles that were previously in use at your school.) We compare topics that were prominent in immediate-post-Cold War titles to those that appear in post-9/11 titles, and in a few cases, we can even compare Cold War books too (I’ve got two Morgenthaus that I’ll sometimes entrust to students and a couple early Russett and Starrs). Students are usually quick to notice that the central core topics haven’t changed that much but that a lot more has been added to the scope of the field since the end of the Cold War. We talk about the implications of that for what we teach and study, and how.
The APSA Centennial Center for Political Science and Public Affairs will host a two-day, teaching-oriented workshop for faculty in the field of international relations. The workshop is scheduled for October 20-21 and will be led by Joyce Kaufman (Whittier College) and Victor Asal (University at Albany – SUNY). A full description of the workshop and link to submit a proposal is here.
Please note that the deadline for submitting a proposal is August 6.
Today we have another guest post by Gigi Gokcek of the Dominican University of California.
Students are often surprised to learn how little the average person knows about politics, or even current events. In response, I encourage my students to ask their friends and neighbors how much they know about government in the United States or elsewhere. Occasionally a student reports back to me about his or her conversation in the dining hall with a few friends. I decided to create an assignment to demonstrate to students how much they knew about world events relative to their peers. Continue reading →
One last post about the South China Sea simulation that I used in my Asia course last semester. Previous posts are here and here.
Students found it much easier to accomplish different objectives than I thought they would, and as a result I set the rewards too high. Several students managed to earn 200 points in a course with a 1,500-point grading scale.
The most beneficial aspect of the simulation for me, the instructor, was using the debriefing as an iterative design tool. I asked, both in class and in a writing assignment, how well the simulation reflected contemporary relations between countries with competing claims to the South China Sea. Students provided me with a lot of excellent feedback about how to improve the simulation for the future:
Clarification about which country had claims to what islands. A table would suffice for this.
Students write something about the country to which they are assigned and in the process research the history behind the territorial claims. This would be an easy preparatory assignment to develop — each student writes some sort of memo or position paper, then each team collaborates on a single version, which is circulated among the other teams or presented to the class orally.
Account for the relative military and economic strength of each country, and include rewards for trade agreements rather than just for treaties about territorial claims. More difficult to pull off, but possible.
Create a more formal environment and employ a moderator for discussion among participants.
Better incorporate nationalistic sentiments of the actors — something I mentioned in my last post. Don’t really know how to do this, but . . .
Students thought the simulation ought to last the entire semester, with roles assigned at the beginning of the course. This would enable me to replace the Visualizing Cultures presentations, which suffered from a small class size and students’ inability to deliver interactive presentations, with a sequence of preparatory assignments, negotiation sessions, or both. Engagement with the topic over a longer period of time might result in greater learning. It might also cause students to develop an affiliation and identify more strongly with the actors they are playing.
Our series on “teaching Trump” continues today with a guest post by Martin S. Edwards, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University. He can be reached at Martin [dot] Edwards [at] shu [dot] edu.
Teaching in a professional international affairs program offers some unique challenges. The focus at the graduate level is on professional skill development rather than preparing students for comprehensive examinations, and our students come from a wide variety of disciplines rather than as political science undergraduates. The election brought a unique challenge for those of us that teach International Organizations. It made clear that we need to better train students to speak up in defense of multilateralism, especially at a time in which the White House is suspicious of it. So, given the current climate, in which the White House is openly dismissive of the value of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Financial Institutions, and NATO, how can one rethink an established course so as to demonstrate its relevance? My approach to “Teaching with Trump” during the Spring semester was to refocus my graduate course on problem-based learning. Continue reading →
As promised in my last post, I’m going to talk about the mechanics of my South China Sea simulation, but I’m also going to go in a different direction because of the bombing in Manchester and Simon’s subsequent post.
As I’ve done in the past with some of my other classroom simulations, I created a set of objectives for each actor — in this case Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, the United States, and Vietnam. Each objective was associated with a number of points that contributed to a player’s final grade, but players’ objectives often conflicted with one another — a feature deliberately intended to reflect competing interests and force negotiation. All of the objectives involved which Asian nation-state would be granted sovereignty over which territories. Although I gave actors the option to engage in military action, I specified probabilities that such actions would be successful. For example, an attack by the Philippines against a specific target had a 1:6 chance of succeeding, while acting in concert with U.S. forces had increase the chances of success to 2:3. However, an attack risked involving the Philippines in a regional war, the probability and costs of which I left completely vague. This uncertainty seemed to have beneficially made students reluctant to use military force, unlike my experience with some other simulations.
Given the number of contested islands and overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, the entire set of objectives and payoffs was rather complicated to create, but the complexity forced students to become much more familiar with the area’s geography, which I think was also plus.
I will discuss what went wrong with the simulation in the near future, but I will mention here — and this is what relates to Simon’s post — what I see as a failure that I often witness in my geographically-situated simulations: because of the point rewards, students very quickly become rationally-acting deal-makers. Nationalist and ethnic identities that the simulations are supposed to model quickly get tossed out the window. In the language of simulations, players find it easy to abandon their roles. In the real world, Vietnamese and Chinese policies reflect a strong sense of nationalism, and the two states would never agree so easily on who owns the Paracels. If they did, there would not be a conflict to simulate. Continue reading →