Teaching with Trump: A Challenge and an Invitation to Problem-Based Learning

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.

Talk to the hand.

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.

The main deliverable in the class is ordinarily a research design. This assignment does strengthen student skills in developing an empirical research question, but it is rather ill-suited for the challenge of the new administration, and it reinforces existing skills rather than adds new ones. The problem-based learning assignment that I developed was based on the works of Pacheco-Vega (2010) and Bardach (2011). I let the students choose a teammate, and working in teams of two, they were randomly assigned an international organization. Their task over the semester was the following:

  1. Identify a challenge that the international organization faces that is a barrier to its effectiveness
  2. Develop at least two alternative strategies to address this problem
  3. Outline the costs and benefits of each potential strategy
  4. Advocate one and discuss how it can best be implemented

They developed this project, which took the form of a 15 page paper, incrementally. Student teams initially submitted an initial annotated bibliography, which helped them identify the barrier that the organization faces. Following submission of the 15 page paper, they distilled their argument into an 800 word blog post, which they posted on a class WordPress site. To guard against free-riding, students submitted a written evaluation of each other’s contributions, at the close of the semester, which counted up to 5% of their final grade.

Overall, the new assignment was a real success. I asked two additional questions in my teaching evaluations to assess whether and how the new assignment made a difference. One asked if the policy analysis project helped students make better connections with the course material, and one asked if it helped students develop additional skills. Students answered both questions positively (Better Connections: 87% Yes; 13% No; Additional Skills: 82% Yes; 17% No). One of the student op-eds has already been published, and there are potentially more to follow over the Summer. Students felt that the contrast between our more theoretical readings and the ‘deep dive’ nature of this assignment meant that they had to use our readings as a toolkit to help unpack their organization. This is a fruitful development that helps students to better appreciate the value of IR Theory. Rather than being told that theory is important, students learned on a granular level how theory can matter. Students also referenced new skills such as collaborative writing, team building, op-ed writing, critical thinking, and exposure to policy analysis. Many of these skills would not have been strengthened with a research design assignment. The evidence suggests a real value-added from this problem-based learning assignment, and I’ll be looking to refine it in the coming year.

Links to the rest of the Teaching Trump series: