Content currency

Not like it used to be

A couple of months ago, I had to update some materials on one of our courses. Written in 2015, it dealt with the UK’s relationship with the EU.

We can leave the extent of the rewrite by noting that I was just happy to have something material to contribute.

Obviously, this is an extreme example – a function of our distance learning model and material revision cycle – but it highlights a long-standing challenge of how to address the ever-changing landscape of politics and international relations in our classes.

This has been brought home once again by this weekend’s election of a new Australian government.

Normally, it’s not somewhere that much crosses my path, but I’ve been working on a climate policy negotiation for our new IR programme and have spent some time of late working up country information sheets for the various roles. Including, well, you get the idea.

The demands of my production schedule mean I have to submit final versions of these information sheets in the next couple of months, but I’m still stuck with what to do. While there will be a new administration in Canberra, it isn’t yet in place and nor do we know quite how it will change tack on climate policy, especially in the applied terms needed for the negotiation.

My solution for this – and for all the other countries represented – is that we have to give students a set of starting points, rather than closed-off positions. That means giving them some medium-term context of political and economic situations, but also getting them to find out what’s happening at the time they might be actually playing the exercise.

Changes of government are an obvious example of the need for this, but so has been the invasion of Ukraine. Russia is another role in the exercise, but quite how both Russian diffidence and international opprobrium play out in the context of setting climate policy isn’t clear right now (and probably won’t be for some time).

The generic rule that seems most helpful here is one I’ve discussed before: we should give students the tools to make sense of the world as it is (and will be), rather than simply trying to understand what’s happening now. The Now is passing, but the tools will endure (hopefully).

As much as the invasion of Ukraine has required my colleagues and me to do some reworking of various materials, our structural approach to IR means it’s been a lot less change than might be expected.

The take-home point should be that while there’s plenty to look at now, we are trying to enable our students to make their own way in the world once they leave, as self-reflexive and critical learners, who can deal with novel situations by themselves.

If we accept that, then our job is about giving them the tools for that work and setting up learning environments that encourage those skills.

To circle back to my case, I’m less interested in what any particular Australian government does on climate policy, and much more interested in helping students to make sense of (and take action in) a dynamic situation, so I work my materials towards that.

Whether students find that works for them is still to be seen.