Re-post: Thoughts on Teaching Intro to International Relations

I’m re-posting a short essay I wrote in 2013 on my experiences teaching introduction to IR as a graduate student/ABD at Georgetown. My thoughts on these matters have changed a little bit, but I wanted to bring some of my better posts back to this site.

When I was hired to teach the class for the first time, I had a clear vision: I wanted to teach theories that were relevant to helping undergraduates explain the world as it is and as it is likely to become. Instead of recounting the details of the First World War or expounding upon the design of the post-Second World War institutions, I would only invoke those events sparingly. Instead, I would focus on unipolarity and its consequences, structuring the course around the implicit question of what would happen once the current era was over.

First, I felt an emotional intuition that courses that took the Cold War and bipolarity as their baseline were missing the point for most students, for whom even the world before September 11, 2001, was distant. For students now, the 20th century is as remote intellectually and emotionally as the 19th century was for me as an undergraduate. Consequently, drawing on examples from before the fall of the Berlin Wall or even of the Twin Towers was leaving students cold and confused.

Moreover, I was motivated by an intellectual conviction that there was a staleness in undergrad IR teaching–especially as regards its lack of emphasis on topics in political economy–and that were too focused on the world of the past. And in any event I knew that I could no more teach a course that required me to be an expert on World War I historiography (or whatever) than I could teach a convincing course about democratization; the training and the background reading that I would have to undertake in order to feel like I was truly an expert in such matters vastly outpaced the budget of time that I had for course prep. I would go to lecture with the knowledge base I had, not the knowledge base I might want or wish to have at a later time.

Finally, I thought that the pedagogical content of most such courses was divorced from the empirical and theoretical content of real political science, and that we were doing a disservice to students by presenting many of these theories as faits accompli instead of showing how models could be applied to and derived from real-world situationsand also demonstrating the advantages and the drawbacks of thinking theoretically. A greater engagement with abstraction would, I believed, lead to better development in thinking critically not only about international relations but about the world (the philosophic world, in this case, not just the international system) more generally among my students.

Having taught my version of this course two and a half times (twice to classes in the 20 to 30 range with adequate prep time and once to an overflow session of 10 students on a weeks notice), its time to evaluate how well my intuitions described the reality I’ve faced, how realistic my vision was, and how well my strategies for implementing it have fared.

Assessing My Intuitions

History and Intro to IR

My first intuition was that students knew little and cared less about the past (defined for my purposes as the world before the end of the Cold War). Ill talk later about why I feel that political scientists should not see part of their mission as inciting a love of the past as such; right now, I only want to assess how well this intuition described reality.

The answer? It described reality almost perfectly. I have never had a student wish that we had spent more time talking about the Cold War. [Late update: This is no longer literally true, but its still basically accurate.] The Soviet Union is as remote as the Achaemenid Empire to todays undergrads (and I teach at a top-25 institution, so Im pretty sure that this generalizes very well). I should note, by the way, that this breaks my heart; about twice a week I wish that I could teach a course in the style I imagine that IR was taught in during the 1970s, where wed all get together, talk about Bismarck and Thucydides, and then, presumably, repair to the sitting room for brandy and cigars.

I want to forestall all misunderstandings: I don’t like this state of affairs and I wish that this werent so. I wish my students could reliably distinguish Gorbachev from Brezhnev, not to mention Walesa from Jaruzelski or Honecker from Hoxha. But they cant. Nor, in some sense, should they be expected to. Not only do students infamously never get beyond World War II in their high school history classes (which are usually hideously taught, anyway), but when I was an undergrad and high school student (the latter only five years past the fall of the USSR!) I didnt much care about American foreign policy before Pearl Harbor.

Political Economy and IR

My intellectual critique of the content of introductory courses was that they were too focused on theories applicable to a world of multipolarity and bipolarity, especially in their security concerns, while simultaneously giving short shrift to theories about trade and globalization. Teaching students about alliance politics is all well and good, but alliances between superordinate and subordinate states don’t work like alliances among relatively equal-status great powers. (Does NATO look like the Triple Alliance? In fact, do any international formations look like their nineteenth-century equivalents? If not, then why should we bother teaching about them?)

Similarly, there was a weird and unstated assumption that the world after the Second World War was simultaneously both a bipolar and a unipolar world. Bipolar, because of the Soviets, but unipolar, because the United States was held to be underwriting the liberal order among the free world. To my recollection, this basic tensionthe fact that the eras that we were studying were held to be explained by two extremely disjoint theories!was never recognized or addressed. (And lets not get into the somewhat tenuous notion that the USSR actually posed a threat to US hegemony after 1945, which increasingly seems like a relic of Cold War hysteria than an accurate description of the world system circa 1960 or even 1980.)

This critique also had a positive component: that an IR course should describe what states do now and that most of what great powers do nowadays is economic stuff. (I use stuff broadly because that includes more than trade or capital but also all of the knock-on effects, from migration and remittances to illicit smuggling to domestic grievances exacerbated by trade.) In other words, I would excise a lot of the guns-and-bombs (but by no means all!) and spend more time talking about dollars and cargo containers.

This intuition is hard to assess. The right amount of time to spend on any subject is, of course, a matter of professional discretion and, ultimately, taste. But have students responded well to this? The answer is much more mixed. Students are deeply confused about why we spend so much time on trade politics within states (especially rich countries). This might reflect on the structure of the course or my own failure in tying the content of domestic contestation to the content of international trading relations. (The shift from states-as-actors to actors-within-states is pretty analytically ambitious.)

But students are also more engaged with the spinoff topics of the international economics section than they are with any other part of the course. A section I introduced this year on the Mexican drug war and the dark side of globalization was so successful that I intend to rework and expand it next year. (Anyone know any good IR scholarship on nonstate actors who are normatively bad?) As a footnote: Given my deep skepticism of the influence of transnational activists and my belief that their influence is much more due to the liberal properties of the incumbent unipolar order than to any intrinsic property of transnational lobbying, my discussion on nonstate actors is much different than many instructors; to put it another way, the fundamental text for the NGO lecture is more Cooley and Ron than Keck and Sikkink (which is discussed and assigned, of course).

In other words: sexycool crime and NGOs? Awesome! Meat-and-potatoes trade stuff? Not so much! But that might be a consequence of poor exposition. And in any case, given my expectations about the way in which the world is likely to develop, I am not yet ready to fundamentally rethink my weighting of the course, even though (as I discuss further below) I am rethinking how I present the course material.

Teaching Critical Thinking Via International Relations

I think about a number of models when I teach and think about pedagogypeople who Id like to lecture like, or write exams like, or choose readings like, or, most of all, educate students like. Some of themDan Nexon, PTJ, Tim Burke (at a distance)are well known in the blogosphere; others are not. But rarely (ever?) do I teach a section or evaluate a reading without thinking about how one or many of these people would approach the same issue or problem.

One principle that all of these folks agree on is the importance of using the classroom to inculcate critical thinking. The paradoxical point is that science classes in undergrad may be the least critically-aware courses I know of (you may have to think logically but there is almost always a textbook answer. By contrast, my beau idealthe (very) idealized versions of computer science classes that I carry around in my headis of something like an extremely rigorous poetry workshop, in which creating is melded with logical rigor. (Thinking about it explicitly, this is pretty well the model that Paul Graham espouses in Hackers and Painters.)

Theres no way to duplicate that kind of Nirvana in my courses. Cant be done (given any feasible investment of time and effort): Even a student-to-teacher ratio of 25 to 1 exceeds the amount of time that I could devote to sitting with each student to craft a useful, rigorous final project. Especially, I should add, for beginners: I don’t know how to convey a relatively fixed amount of knowledge to students while also allowing them seminar-style freedom to pursue an independent project. (For upper-division courses, Im much happier conveying some skills but spending more time helping students acquire the skills their ambitions suggest.)

With that said, theres still a lot of ways to begin to get students to think theoretically. The easiest way to do this is to begin with increasing the writing content in the course. In this, Im inspired by a lot of folks, but principally Derek Bok in Our Underachieving Colleges, which makes the argument inter alia that students don’t write enough, that they should write a lot more, and that the core of developing good writing habits is having your composition exposed to editing. In response to that, I added four 2-4 page papers to this semesters class; four was too many (due to a last-minute and unavoidable rescheduling of the midterm, we ended up with a paper due on the same day as a midterm). On the other hand, the students got much, much better in writing over the course of the term, especially the high schoolers (the contemporary university summer course seems much more full of high schoolers than they were when I was taking them). Moreover, they began to make more connections across the readingsand, I suspect, to do more of the readingsthan students had in previous years.

But I didnt just want to introduce more critical writing in the abstract. I wanted to present political science as she is done, which means understanding some theoretical model in at least some detail. (I stole this idea from Phil Arenas blog posts breaking down popular models and building them back up again.) Again, this was very much a strategy I adopted based on what I could teach; if I could teach feminist or critical IR, then I would do so, but that wasnt in the cards. Hence, my lectures on Fearons bargaining model of war.

The bargaining model of war! You do not know how inaptly named this model is until you have watched undergraduateswho have been exposed to the model via the original article (edited, but lightly, by Mingst and Snyder), the course textbook (Frieden, Lake, and Schultz), and a lecture (by me)completely fail to understand it. If something is named a model of somethinglet us say the Bargaining Model of Parcheesithen it should involve that something as a natural outcome of the model. Yet in this case the bargaining model of Parcheesi should always end with the parties never playing parcheesi. Partly, this is due to language difficultiesever consider that the English phrase prefers X to war might be confusing to someone who is reading [[to war]] as an infinitive verb and not a comparison?but partly it is because the only way war emerges from the Fearon model is via a violation of the model! It is actually a bargaining model of not-war, and I have finally figured out why this is so counterintuitive to undergraduates after only three progressively more frustrating attempts.

It is hard to get to critical thinking when you are stuck trying to explain the basics of spatial modeling. (This isnt limited to IR, either; I once watched a brilliant Americanist explain the Hotelling model of voting to advanced undergrads, in a smaller class, and then watched those students mostly fail to get it as well. They got it, eventually, but I should have learned from the incredible investment of time and creativity that this required.) The concepts of the ideal point and a utility function increasing in negative distances are no more intuitive than the IS-LM model was when I learned it as an undergrad myself. After three attempts, I think I have finally hit on a good way to get this acrossit involves a fake war between Colorado and Missouri for the (nicely rectangular) state of Kansas and a whole lot of transparent overlaysbut I will have to wait until the next time I teach (that is, if there is a next time) to see if it works better. (We also roll through the typical game-theory topics, the security dilemma, basic collective action, H-O and R-V models, and so on, but rationalist explanations for war is the signature model we discuss.)

In general, students are resistant to theoretical explanations. Recall that this is not a course for majorsthe majors or proto-majors or coulda-been-majors are always pretty able to roll with the punches. My concern is with students at the 75th or 80th percentile of interest, who are interested enough to show up and take notes but not so interested that they will teach themselves what I fail to convey. By the end of the class, when we roll back into questions about what the future will look like, they have normally come around to the point that distinguishing realist or liberal perspectives is pretty well second-nature, but for the first few weeks it is hard to explain why they should care about ideas like the security dilemma.

Of course, the whole reason that I wanted to teach them modelling and the basics of working through theory is that thinking in abstract terms is not natural. It is not easy. And it demands a kind of engagement with the actual logic of arguments that many of them have never had to develop before. (This is why I think that crits could do as well as formalists on this dimension; anything that requires axioms, corollaries, and conclusions clearly stated would serve the pedagogical task well.) But this is, I’ve found, an uphill battle.

Implementing the Vision

Lecturing

Lecturing is hard.

Oddly, graduate school doesnt teach you much about lecturing. I mean lecturing as distinct from pedagogy; frankly, nobody in academia seems to know much about pedagogical research, but having skimmed that research I am not sure there is much to learn. (What seems to matter, from the longitudinal studies I’ve read, are having good teachers and adequate prep time, but the good in good teacher seems to spring forth fully formed, like Athena, from the brows of wise deans.) No, I mean specifically lecturingthat thing that we do in class.

This is a puzzling gap. Were trained on how to give conference talks, which well give perhaps four times a year (and the median performance there is still pretty bad), and extensively workshopped in giving job talks, which my generation will probably give (at the median) about three times. But lecturing, which is our most common vehicle for expressing scholarship, is never clearly discussed. What makes a good lecture? What is an appropriate amount of time to write a lecture about a subject you know wellor, as happens to us all, about which you know almost nothing?

In part, this is because the apprenticeship model of graduate schoolthe legal fictions that mean that schools like mine can get away with often irritating and occasionally abhorrent treatment of grad students (I hasten to add, entirely by midlevel administrators)is terribly designed. Theres no true apprenticeship here, in the sense that would be recognizable to a silversmith or even a contemporary doctor. I’ve only ever twice had a faculty member observe my teaching (once in my classroom and once as a guest lecturer) in the course of having taught four solo courses and TAd (with sections) another three. I’ve had lots of discussions with faculty, of course, and those have helped immensely. Nevertheless, thats pretty far from the immersive engagement that apprenticeship suggests. Again, I don’t blame my institution for thisthe structural conditions of graduate school are pretty well the same most places, so why single out an individual institution? Yet we shouldnt let the structural conditions off the hook, either; there really is no good reason why (for instance) job postings outside of the research-only universe shouldnt require a teaching evaluation from a tenured or at least tenure-line professor (perhaps even from a different institution?).

Ive learned a lot about lecturing. Mostly, I’ve learned that they are pretty awful, but that they can sometimes be good. Charisma doesnt matter, thankfullyexcept for student evaluations, which is another way to say that charisma matters a great deal. Similarly,lecture may actually be easier on students than sleeping (humorous and serious links embedded).

With that said, Id still like to become a better lecturer. I find myself looking at other peoples lecture noteseveryone from Simon Jackman and Cosma Shalizi down to more local luminarieswith envy: how do they do so much in 60 or 90 minutes? And Id like for my lectures to be the same model of erudition, serving both the students by surveying vast areas of human inquiry and boiling them down to the most important principles, a couple of good illustrative cases, maybe a data visualization or two, and then the remaining areas of contestationand myself, by serving as lit reviews for the articles Id like to publish. But that takes so much work that I find myself in even greater awe of how deep the comprehension of the field that my elders possess actually is. The gap between my learning and theirs makes me feel like my junking of the First World War, however justifiable (and I think it is!), is just laziness. (It isnt. It really isnt.) And I wonder just how much of my time I should be assuming will be devoted to lecture prep when/if I get a job.

With all that nerve-wracking, though, I do know that I can move about three or four lectures a year into a much higher state of revision; I now have three or four lectures Im pretty proud of and would be happy to give to an audience more or less anywhere. And I also know that many lectures are rarely updated once written. But for all that

Assessment

Assessment is a critical part of any course. Indeed, in some classes, you can solve the lecture dilemmathey are expected but rarely effectiveby basing a course on problem sets (essentially, the flipped classroom. Problem sets are great. The literature I’ve skimmed from science pedagogy suggests that they are basically the only way to actually teach anybody anything. I am not sure if essays are the precise equivalent of problem sets or not; I incline toward no, but I’ve never seen a problem-set based intro poli sci course. Thats no reason why there shouldnt be one, of course, except that when I tried to do one in a quant methods course I received nothing but complaints from the students. (That the students in question learned rather more in their semester of stats than I did in my first year of graduate stats seemed beside the point, as did the fact that the only section of the class for which they were not assigned a problem set was exactly the one that they learned least satisfactorily.) Humanities and social science students are, in my experience, comparatively adverse to a model of pedagogy and assessment that requires a constant stream of work, preferring instead to binge before exams.

Ideally, Id actually like to do something like Tyler Cowens final exam. (The aforementioned stats class, with most of its grade based on a final project, came close to thisa harder project executed to a higher level of skill received a better grade than a safer project executed competently, without any need for me to design a final project for the students.) In fact, Im still not quite sure why its not done to simply hand out some bluebooks with two questions:

  1. What is the most important unsolved issue in this subject?
  2. How could we solve it?

OK, thats not true. I do know why its not done. Thirty to forty percent of the class would spontaneously combust and the remainder would mark heavily against the instructor on the Was the grading fair? feedback form.

As a body, students hate assessment, and they will hate any form that is minimally stringent. Perhaps that is too much of my post-exam-writing stress being released, but it really is the case that I’ve found it difficult to write tests. For convenience (and to keep the fair-grading numbers up), in the summer I use multiple-choice exams, but they are not nicemultiple choice examsthe form Which of the following is the BEST explanation of X or Which of the following is NOT an explanation of Y seem to lend themselves very easily to discriminating between mastery and mere competence. Similarly, my Eric Mazur-style free-response questionsemploying word problems or transpositions that are isomorphic or nearly so to examples to class, but without textbook-style key phrasesare unpopular with a large mass of students, because they think it is unfair to ask questions that are not explicitly covered in the text. The clever students, by contrast, seem to greatly enjoy those questions, but the circularity of applying clever to the successful students in that last phrase is, of course, fairly obvious and perhaps self-congratulatory. With that said, though, the Mazur questions have been great so far for me, in showing more precisely where students understandings are breaking down and, gradually, helping me change my presentation.

Overall

I like to think Im a good teacher. Of course, all of us do, and the lack of any sort of long-term evaluations of our actual effectiveness in the classroom allows us all to persist in our happyand tactfully privatedelusion that were better than our colleagues. (Ah, yes, she gets higher rankings than I do, but do her students really understand the Fashoda crisis?) Regardless of my comparative ability, however, it seems pretty clear that my Intro to IR course needs a bit of an overhaul.

What will that look like? Well, Im unwilling to let go of my core philosophical and pedagogical wagers. In fact, I have been confirmed in some of themI think that there is an even greater need to get students writing, thinking, and through that independently engaging with the course material. In others, I am less sure; one of my original strategies was to try to use as much original political science material as possible, but the intersection of quality political science and material 18 year olds can understand is pretty slim. This might, in fact, require developing some of my own materials (e.g.) because a lot of what is out there, even in compiled form, is pretty bad. Rogowski, for instance, is great on IPE and distributive politicsbut Im deeply unsatisfied with having my principal text on trade politics, even in edited form, rely so heavily on comparative nineteenth-century history, or, for that matter, on a comparatively difficult application of the Stolper-Samuelson model. Land-labor ratioyes, thats really intuitive in a two-good, two-factor world! And every year, I create a lot of offensive realists simply because John Mearsheimer is a better (= more persuasive, more accessible) reader than either Doyle on liberalism or Wendt on constructivism. So it is time to go hunting for newer, better readings. As always, it is also time to consider dropping the textbookbut the text is so good at conveying background information that doing so would quite possibly cause more harm than good. (The Drezner Zombies text is safe indefinitely.)

I made a bad choice this year in dropping the Nexon and Musgrave (and Motyl and ) lecture on empire and imperialism in favor of keeping the Christensen-and-Snyder reading on alliance dynamics. The latter is a great piece of theory (especially for undergrads) but if I don’t think that the alliance conditions of the pre-war period are likely to return, then why am I teaching it? Thats all the more true if I do believe that the structure and conduct of unipolarity does matter. Thats also a strong argument for doubling-down on power transition theory (at least in an expositional sense).

As I mentioned before, the section on political economy needs to be reframed, at least to reinforce the division between why state-centric theories should lead to free trade (or for realists protection) as an unproblematic outcome and why the current liberal order is in some sense puzzling. Students greatly enjoy learning about the Third World, especially the dark side of globalization; more attention to this, and to the scholarship in this area, would be a good idea. Similarly, I need to have better explanations about the degree to which any given economic ill really is attributable to globalization. And my globalization story needs to truly integrate discussion of capital flows and labor migration instead of leaning so heavily on the textbook; perhaps using the Frieden, Lake, and Broz reader as a required text would assist better.

I do poorly on international law, but that is unlikely to change without a brain transplant. I could do much better at presenting descriptions of rising powers foreign policies from the rising powers point of view; doing so, in fact, could make the foreign-policy lecture less of a throwaway and more of an integral part of the course. (Perhaps Goddard on Prussia and Zakaria on the United States? At least everyone is equally ignorant about those cases.) And I could do better at re-introducing constructivism via a discussion of AIJ and similar works.

Women Also Know Stuff About Resource Politics

I’m leaving this post as a live marker of citations as (1) a public good for other researchers on resource politics and (2) a private good for me.

Many prominent researchers on the role of resources in political development and institutions are men, such as Michael L. Ross, Victor Menaldo, Jeff Colgan, and Jeffrey Sachs. But many more are women. This post stands as a statement about why researchers cant say that women don’t do resource politics. Its not meant to be exhaustive (for one, it focuses on the political science side of resource politics) but I am interested in keeping it up-to-date.

Big Theory

Rentier State

Democratization

Institutions

Conflict

Womens Rights

Leader/Regime Survival

Measurement

Economic Development

Health/Nontraditional debates

Get an International Relations Ph.D. in 5 Minutes

At Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt lists the five things a B.A. graduate in International Relations will actually remember five years after graduating. I think his list is (a) right and (b) horrifying because its right, because it largely recapitulates some lessons that IR scholars confidently but wrongly impart to their undergraduates, even though we know better.

Taken together, Walt’s list is an excellent summary of the kind of international relations you should understand if you were trying to become the next Otto von Bismarck. The focus is almost entirely on great powers and their employee-officials–the admirals, generals, diplomats, and merchants who want certain things from their governments and societies. It well describes the sort of status games and international relations that defined intra-European relations between roughly 1865 and 1945.

Yet for those of us trying to understand worlds beyond that–not only the world of 2016, but how international relations functioned in East Asia or ancient Assyria–Walt’s toolkit offers almost no purchase. Are you interested in how to explain TTIP or TPP? The only thing that Walt offers to you is comparative advantage, which hardly suffices to explain why rich-world governments are trying to export protections for intellectual property. Curious about why Russian and American nuclear stockpiles have been diminishing in quantity for decades? Good luck–the only tool Walt offers is balance of threat, which cant tell you why Washington viewed Moscow as so much less of a threat in 1989 compared with 1981. And if you want to craft an effective strategy for dealing with global climate change, well, once again you only have one tool: Walt suggests that something called social construction explains why attitudes toward global warming are shifting. Of course, without a lot more work, you cant explain why those shifting attitudes are only weakly (at best) influencing global coordination on the issue, or why its proven so much harder to fix carbon emissions than CFC emissions, or why national opinion polls reveal so much variation between (say) the US and other wealthy countries. And if you think that peoples identification as members of a nation, race, or gender matters for international society, you’re similarly relegated into this vague laundry list of social construction–not the real issues of war, trade, and bureaucratic politics.
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