What does the ideal Politics/International Relations degree look like?

Today we have a guest post by Dr Stephen Thornton from Cardiff University asking for input from our community on what the ‘ideal’ Politics/International Relations degree looks like. Please do give us your thoughts, ideas, recommended readings and so on in the comments. We would love to publish any guest posts in response to Stephen’s questions – just get in touch if you’re interested. We also had the idea of holding a event to have a conversation about this question in partnership with the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics: let us know if this would be useful to you and if you’d like to take part.

Having shown interest in pedagogic matters, it had to happened. The knock on the door from the head of department, the usual pleasantries, and then the inevitable question/plea: ‘Stephen, you know that the various Politics and International Relations undergraduate degrees are coming up for revalidation next year. So, well, erm, I just wonder if …?’.

All universities will have a similar process, whether it’s called revalidation or major programme/curriculum review or whatever. The general idea is to pick over existing degree programmes to determine that their structure, content and delivery reach an acceptable level of academic quality. The process also calls for evidence that there is some kind of strategy behind the constellation of modules that constitute each degree for which the department is responsible, and that this strategy aligns sufficiently with the published principles of the wider university. There is also expectation that things will change in ways that ensure alignment with the university’s strategic direction and likely improve student experience.  

And so, a challenging bureaucratic adventure awaits the poor soul foolish enough to agree to lead any revalidation process. Yet, for all the inevitable woe that awaits, at least part of me is excited. It will provide an opportunity to reflect on our various degrees and work out whether they can be reconfigured to provide an even better experience for the students.

These are just some of the issues with which I anticipate we’ll be wrestling:

  • No department can teach everything but Politics/International Relations (IR) is a discipline that spreads far and wide, so what is the best balance between general coverage and more specialist focus?
  • What is the best mix of core/optional modules? (Which prompts an extra question about whether there are aspects of the discipline that are fundamental)
  • Where do study skills fit within the curriculum?
  • How best do we incorporate employability (loosely-defined) effectively into the curriculum?
  • What is the best mix of team-taught and sole-taught modules? 
  • Are modules best taught in short, fairly intense bursts, say over just one semester (or shorter), or at a more leisurely pace over the entire academic year?
  • Is there an optimum balance of learning experiences that can arranged in a framework based around the traditional lecture/seminar model?
  • What role should technology play?
  • Is there an ideal mix of assessments (particularly in the age of ChatGPT)?
  • Should an end of degree independent research project and/or capstone project be compulsory?
  • Whither joint honours degrees?

To help with the task of answering these (and other) questions, by providing something to aim for, I’m trying to imagine what the ideal Politics/IR degree would look like. From a UK perspective, the excellent Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) subject benchmark statements for Politics and International Relations provide a useful background sketch for this idealised portrait, and I have some ideas of my own (as will the rest of the revalidation team), but I would welcome opinions, suggestions, ideas and examples from the informed and experienced readers of this fine blog series to help flesh out the picture – and insight about any likely Rumsfeldian ‘unknown unknowns’ about this revalidation process would be handy too.

I am aware, in the brutal boxing match of real life, that any ideal degree programme abstractly constructed will be punched hard and repeatedly in the imaginary face by the constraints that exist within the university environment, but some initial vision – no matter how disfigured by reality it comes to be – is better than none at all.

3 Replies to “What does the ideal Politics/International Relations degree look like?”

  1. Two disclaimers, or why you might want to ignore me: first, I’m on the other side of the pond and unfamiliar with your revalidation process; second, my wife has a Ph.D. in English rhetoric and composition, which probably makes me biased.

    As academics we tend to fixate on subject knowledge. Ability to communicate that knowledge often gets short shrift. So I would look at how the program trains students to be proficient in written communication, which is very different from assigning the end of term research essay that has an audience of one (the instructor or external marker).

    I offer this recent editorial as an example of what I think students should strive for — because it elegantly communicates a huge amount of politics/IR subject knowledge: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/09/opinion/nagorno-karabakh-russia-turkey.html.

  2. Coming in on this to say that I very much agree with Chad’s point that we should focus much more on what we want students to be able to •do• at the end of their degree, rather than content and subject knowledge. It’s also worth thinking about what the students themselves would like to be able to do and maybe work in partnership with them to figure out what skills, dispositions and practices they would like to get better at. This might point to a partnership approach to your curriculum review exercise even?

    On a slightly different, but related, note, I did some work with my students about what ideas and authors they would like to see on the curriculum, following student campaigns for the diversification and decolonisation of the university. Although the ultimate aim of the project was to advocate for a different kind of *content* in the curriculum, what the students also really wanted from this was the ability to challenge discrimination and hold space for difficult conversations. They also learned how to advocate for change using data, evidence and persuasion through the process of running the project and communicating the findings, using data visualisation and storytelling to explain why it mattered to them. If you’re interested, you can read more here: https://uclpress.scienceopen.com/hosted-document?doi=10.14324/LRE.19.1.19. I think this process of working together with a broad range of students to think through the curriculum is really valuable.

  3. A further comment from Simon Lightfoot: ‘I read the email that accompanied Stephen’s excellent blog. Be interesting to find a way to continue that conversation as clearly something many places thinking about. Are there plans to organise a workshop or something similar? Be good to have an opportunity to discuss.

    We have curriculum redefined which you might have heard about. https://www.leeds.ac.uk/curriculum-redefined. And Liverpool have something similar: https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/media/livacuk/centre-for-innovation-in-education/liverpool-curriculum-framework/liverpool-curriculum-framework-booklet.pdf

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