Apocrypha Against Canon

My informal presentation to ISA-Northeast 2022 on pedagogy

Apocrypha Against Canon: Breaking Free of 1648 and All That in the IR and Foreign Policy Classroom

Abstract: Although International Relations is arguably becoming more diverse and less Eurocentric, the canonical timeline of pivotal events and important years remains: 1648, 1789, 1945, and so on. Even attempts to dethrone the timeline’s reign only reinforce its status as the default. To the extent that this dominance reinforces a potted historical understanding, it perpetuates a model of thinking about IR that continues to place Western Europe and its offshoots in the most flattering light at the center of world politics, rather than introducing students to the broad sweep of contestation and variation present in International Relations. One way to address this issue is to use what I term “apocryphal history”: cases that put the canonical timeline into a different light, either by showing “sidelights” of the main events, using cases other than the canonical ones to illustrate core phenomena, and by displaying fuller context of events. From using the U.S.-Mexican War to illustrate bargaining theory to discussing the cooperative roads half-taken at the end of the Cold War, this paper discusses how to reinvigorate historical examples in the classroom.

Introduction: What are we teaching when we teach “world politics”?

I teach large courses on world politics and U.S. foreign policy at a flagship public university. I like doing this, and the conditions are acceptable. Like all workers who aren’t terminally alienated from their labor, however, I want to have some meaning in what I do. Like all scholars who aren’t locked into the conventional paradigms transmitted from the past, I’m interested in finding ways to explore themes that will help illuminate students understand the world they will live in. And like everyone who fancies themself an intellectual, I’d like to put my own stamp on the material.

This leads to a dilemma of andragogy (really, we shouldn’t talk about “pedagogy” in higher ed). For all I want to shake things up and present my own arguments, we as scholars live in a society: a course called Introduction to World Politics can’t just be an Introduction to Things I, Paul Musgrave, Find Interesting. There has to be some way that my courses are inducting students into a larger field of study. And, because these are large lecture courses that form part of the (semi-)requirements of my department’s largest major and which also function as gen-ed courses, it’s really more about larger fields of study: political science, international relations, public policy, being conversant with scholarly knowledge production, and learning how to decipher articles in publications like The New Yorker and Foreign Affairs that may be foreign to my students’ experiences.

In other words, I recognize that there’s value in the conventional. I can’t just go rogue without betraying my (loose) obligations to others and my (more important) obligations to students who might reasonably assume that my courses are stepping-stones to other learning. There’s coercion, too, in the conventional. Those conventions encompass student assumptions about assessment, time to be spent on coursework, topics to be covered, and so on. It is already hard enough to dissuade students from the perception that political scientists like myself are politics super-fans or wannabe senators who have no obligations other than cheering for a team (and we all know what team they think we cheer for). Much of my classroom work is already set against this belief by proclaiming, and sometimes demonstrating, the value of theory and deep learning. That’s on top of some degree of individuation (difficult in courses whose enrollment numbers in the hundreds) and the ordinary effort involved in the maintenance of LMSs, TAs, GPAs, and other acronymical demons.

The particular set of conventions I want to discuss here, though, have more to do with the canons of what to include in a survey course. In substantive terms, those frequently include tropes like the prominence of historical markers bringing our story from the international relations of ancient Greece to the maneuverings of today’s great powers or deliberations about the Paradigms and what wisdom they have today. In formal terms (that is, literally the forms of what we convey), that often involves a reliance on textbooks, readers, and pop political science translations (that is, Monkey Cage and similar “explainer) pieces. And in disciplinary terms, it means enforcing boundaries about who counts as IR and what subjects matter.

I am not, particularly, an iconoclast. My syllabi are still pretty conventional and my courses use textbooks when good ones are available. But I have tried to strike out on my won in a couple of ways. One way, which I won’t go into here, is making sure that I have pieces that address the abstract and remote issues we discuss in our theories and cases in more humanistic ways. That includes making sure there’s some poetry or first-person essays or a short story in World Politics. Another way, which I also won’t go into here because I’m not doing a good enough job at it right now, is in trying to use examples in World Politics that, well, come from world politics–less Europe, more India; less USA, more Americas.

The way I want to talk about balancing these tensions, instead, has to do with how I try to choose cases that are before, after, or besides the conventional cases we use to illustrate key concepts–and, in one case, how I choose cases that conventional readings leave out of international relations altogether. In this way, I think of myself as trying to break out of the particularities of The Canon, or at least of the canonical cases, by using cases and topics that aren’t quite as easily available. Doing so, I think, can lead us to another way of rethinking the canon of IR: moving beyond the standard histories we know are wrong to less familiar territories that can provide useful encounters.

Making a Canon

Organized Christian and Jewish practices recognize some scriptural texts as belonging to a different status than others. For Christians, the practice of constructing a Biblical canon took, at a minimum, centuries–millennia, if we view Protestant reforms to Old Testament inclusion as a part of a process that began with the compilation of the Hebrew Bible. The process was not smooth and was not pre-ordained: Is 2 Thessalonians canonical? Well, maybe not, but probably so. The Apocalypse of Peter? Well, no, even if the contents of that apocryphal text seem pretty close to the vulgar beliefs of the demotic church.

The process of constructing a canon of international relations cases has been no less … divinely guided. Some cases (the Second World War, the First World War, the Cuban Missile Crisis) were born canonical; others (Fashoda, the Montreal Convention) have had canonicity thrust upon them. There is no one path to becoming part of the canon: objective importance or scholarly interest, for instance, can elevate a case to this point. Once chosen, the status is semi-permanent: at this point, everyone in the USA has their lecture notes on the Cuban Missile Crisis set, and no amount of change in the world (or, often, in the scholarship) is going to stop it being the focal point of a good many lectures in intro courses. The canonical cases can be short (“the Treaty of Westphalia heralded the modern states-system” is a statement nobody has ever written but which everyone will recognize and most, by now, will doubt) or they can be as lengthy as an assigned book, but they are in the main familiar to everyone who teaches the subject.

That common core of knowledge helps communicate some concepts well, not least because the cases are so well understood that they have been taught repeatedly and materials are readily available. Yet the construction of a canon has also created both non-canonical cases. The vast library of these cases include ones that are too messy, unfamiliar to students, or otherwise inaccessible for intro courses. Yet it’s likely that the set of cases that could have served as well as some of the other ones that have been elevated exceeds the number of cases that were included. And, in fact, given the (seemingly) enormous switching costs, it’s likely that there’s a lot of cases out there in the apocrypha–cases that are eligible to be included but haven’t been–that we could use to better effect.

Cases from the Apocrypha

What would those cases look like? Well, they’d explore topics and themes that are of theoretical interest and which display clear evidence of that mechanism or concept’s operation. Ideally, furthermore, they’d also stretch students just a little in terms of introducing them to something that’s superficially familiar but strange or something that’s in the “Extended Universe” of the standard K-12 American educational curriculum–something that, once you know it, makes the standard saga more comprehensible.

One of the cases I use in my U.S. foreign policy course is an excerpt from The Familiar Made Strange, an edited volume by historians, which deals with the 1965 immigration reform. Rather than slot the case into the conventional, retrospective reading of history, in which the bill opened up greater immigration to the U.S.A., Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof (a historian and specialist in Latinx studies) talks about how this outcome was inadvertent and rested in large part on the unexpected reach of the bill. Doing so allows me to talk about the continuities of today’s immigration debates with the debates that allowed many of my students’ families to come to the United States while simultaneously troubling notions of the USA as a “nation of immigrants.” (Astute readers will also note that this means my US Foreign Policy course treats immigration as a fundamental foreign policy issue, which it very much is.)

Another case I use in my World Politics course concerns U.S. territorial expansion during the 1830s and 1840s, in particular the parallel negotiations between the USA and the United Kingdom over the status of Oregon and the war with Mexico over (at least initially) the status of Texas. These are not particularly familiar cases to my (mainly Northeastern) audience. Indeed, for all the importance of the U.S. war with Mexico, it hardly registers in most K-12 curricula. A good many of my students may graduate college without otherwise hearing about this–even though it has been foundational to shaping the continent on which they live. These cases thus help me teach my students something about the processes that have concretely shaped their country and its relations with its neighbors. They also help me illustrate the bargaining model of war and different outcomes. Further, by portraying the Mexican war using a source that’s anchored in the Mexican perspective, I can talk about the domestic politics and identities involved on the Mexican side of the conflict, thus de-centering the U.S. perspective while also making clear how such processes can produce bargaining failures.

The apocryphal cases can also be useful for public-facing work and other forms of scholarship. In an article for Foreign Policy published last November, I investigated the case of one of those Internet facts that springs to life, zombie-like, every few months: the fact that Pepsi once “owned” the “fourth-largest navy in the world”. Well, in one particular sense, yes, but in any meaningful sense, no–but that case nevertheless proved an important and accessible road into thinking about the development (and eventual failure) of commercial ties as a way out of the Cold War without having the Soviet Union collapse. The piece explores the limits of commercial ties as a way to piece but also, more importantly, how difficult to predict the future is when you’re living history forward instead of recounting it backward. Even if I’m a staunch presentist (or even futurist) in my course design, I try to fight presentism in terms of the perspective we bring to the past when I’m teaching. (To be sure, other scholars have addressed these topics, and done so in more depth, although to be fair to me, not in as interesting a way and not in as short a length–assign this piece in your IPE, business and politics, or Russian foreign policy course!)

In my World Politics course, I’ve begun treating a case as central to IR that is marginal to the discipline: indigenous-settler relations. Although entire subfields of scholarship are centered on this issue, relations between settler countries and indigenous societies are not central to political science or international relations writ large. Indeed, from the habitual state-centric paradigm of many intro courses, Native politics really doesn’t exist. There is good work (and we need more) out there to be taught on this issue. In particular, intro American courses need to recognize that U.S. sovereignty is inextricably a multi-polity one, with not just states but also tribal governments existing as sovereign within the framework of the U.S. political order. (In the same way, my U.S. Foreign Policy course treats the mechanics of U.S. formal empire as part of its remit, since at a minimum imperial possessions condition U.S. interests and prove to be literal testing grounds for U.S. exercises of power, whether administrative or nuclear.) Studying indigenous politics not only entails the recognition of indigenous peoples and societies as a part of political systems. It entails discussions about what the extension of the “Westphalian state” actually meant, about the boundaries of “civilization”, and about the negotiated and unsettling ways that a good chunk of the currently sovereign countries in the world came to be. This is not the same as incorporating “race” into international relations–it is in many ways parallel, to be sure–and the topics that it raises allows for discussions of South American and antipodean politics in ways that often don’t come about.

In World Politics, we also talk about the distinctions that drive global politics. One unusual way I get at this is to teach an excerpt from Ashley Mears’s Very Important People, an ethnography of VIP rooms at exclusive clubs. It’s got everything: drugs, alcohol, the accumulation of capital, gender roles, immigration and migration politics, Bourdieu–and not much sex, because the point of being in the club is showing that you are in the club. There’s other ways to talk about how constructivism and social mechanisms influence the accumulation of certain types of capital and the dispensing of other types, but why not do it in style?

Finally, and again in World Politics, we don’t start with the Greeks. The ancient Greeks weren’t central to ancient international relations. We start with the Egyptians and the Amarna System. Others might be better placed to start with something in South Asia, in the Mayan world, or in the Warring States period, but I … happen to like the opera Akhenaten (which is not historically accurate). The Greeks can come back at some point, to be sure, but Thucydides wasn’t the start of the story–neither were the Amarna letters!–and starting off with yet another bad history of the Peloponnesian War seemed to me to be doing a disservice to everyone involved, including myself, while reinforcing some rather harmful stereotypes about the centrality of “the West” to many conversations.

The Case for the Canonical Cases

The case against doing all of this is that it might weaken my students’ ties to the rest of the discipline. It’s probably a good thing for folks studying a similar topic to have similar understandings of cases, after all. That could be the case even if the common understandings are wrong. A Schelling point isn’t the best point to meet in a city–it’s the one that you can get to with the greatest chance of seeing someone else. If our just-so stories about the Cuban Missile Crisis (or whatever) are wrong, well, at least they’re common.

Okay, that’s a strawmannirg of an argument. But it’s not entirely wrong. There really is a reason we get away with shorthands we all know are wrong, like “Westphalia” or “1918” or even “the end of the Cold War” (please give me a date). All theories are wrong, some theories are useful, etc.

Strawman or no, though, I do think that the case for the canon should be heard out. I’m just less inclined to defer to every part of it than I used to. Fortunately, at this point, there’s enough anti-paradigmatic extremism that I can avoid teaching the tedious paradigms in World Politics (or, rather, I can teach the isms that matter: racism, capitalism, imperialism…). Teaching less about cases that are overtaught in the world, like the Second World War, means I can use better cases to talk about things that take place in the world. Indeed, it often means choosing more representative cases or cases that look at more interesting topics than the rather closed-off and stale canon. Probably the most important example of this, of course, is the way that The Clash of Civilizations (in whatever form it takes) became a part of the canon. As I’ve written elsewhere, this (like the parallel canonization of eugenicist Garrett Hardin) was a mistake, and one that’s wasted a lot of time. Teach Ostrom instead of Hardin, and teach anything instead of Clash.

My point, then, is that we should realize that the canon of IR isn’t divinely inspired. The canon is what we make of it — and within a good deal of discretion, we can make of it something a lot better than we’ve been handed down.

Student Reading Presentations

From time to time, college instructors assign students to lead a discussion about readings in class. What do instructors want from this?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself. After a decade of assigning and grading these assignments, I have some clear expectations. This guide should be useful for students in political science, sociology, anthropology, history, literature (especially literature criticism), and any discipline in college in which professors ask students to take part in leading course discussions.

Your presentation is about the reading

One reason instructors assign presentations is to make sure that at least someone in the class has actually done the reading. It’s a terrible feeling (and a waste of a lot of money!) to try to run a class where only a couple of students know what’s going on. So the first principle is to make sure that you clearly summarize and explain the reading. That means, in particular, that you

  • identify the thesis or argument of the piece (in your own words, ideally)
  • describe the contours of the author’s argument
  • explain the supporting evidence the author provides
People meeting and talking
A representative, multiracial, gender-balanced group of people wearing earth tones and engaging in PMC banter

Your presentation is about the reading, but not just the reading

Yet the assignment is rarely that students should just offer a summary of the reading. Instead, you should seek to connect and to critique the reading.

The first way to succeed here is to connect the reading to the theme of the class and to what the class has done so far. How can you make clear the connections between this reading and the course? You could try to explain how the reading advances particular themes or arguments, and whether it offers illustrations of particular concepts or particularly compelling pieces of evidence. The piece could also be trying to rebut or refute the larger arguments of the class, and in that case you should make that clear. If you’re very lucky, then the piece directly takes on another reading, and in that case you should make that very clear.

The next way you can succeed is by offering a critique of whether the author has actually succeeded in their goal. Did they make a persuasive argument? Does their evidence actually support their theme? Could they have anticipated objections to their argument? Are there obvious rebuttals or flaws that they should have done more to guard against? Make these points clear — and then go on to consider whether there are subtle issues or arguments that could have been addressed.

I want to be clear that you’re not just looking for a knockout blow here. You’re also looking for the hundred-dollar-bills on the sidewalk–the points the author could have made but didn’t that would have strengthened their argument.

The next level is to address whether what the author couldn’t have known (such as subsequent events or more recent discoveries) have strengthened or undermined the author’s argument. A brilliant piece about how countries will never go to war because the costs of war are too high may be persuasive and airtight–but if an author wrote it in 1913, a year before the First World War, well, there may have been some holes in it.

The advanced move here is to show how a seemingly obvious refutation or contradiction wasn’t, by the way–for example, the costs of the First World War were inordinately high, and it was in some ways the belief of national leaders that the costs would be low (or lower the earlier war came) that shaped their behavior, which is a more complex point than just saying “hurr-durr world war”.

Your presentation is about the reading, but not just the reading, and really it’s about what it means for the class

The final big step you should try to accomplish is to bring both the author’s argument and your critique back to the goals of the class. This is the masterful move your professor most wants to see: what’s the bottom line for the class? What do you think that the piece brings to the discussion, either as a positive or negative example or both? Being able to display your ability to talk about the strengths and limitations of a reading, and to relate both sides of that balance sheet to the goals of the course, is the real mark of someone who has “done the reading”–and it’s a lot more than just offering a rote summary.

The real goal here, after all, is to spark a good class discussion that everyone can benefit from. You want an opportunity to open up discussion rather than closing it off, and offering your thoughts (especially your strong thoughts!) can be a great way to do that. Identifying clear areas in which there’s still room for debate can also help the course.

Organizing a 5-minute presentation

So how should you organize a five-minute presentation?

Ideally, 30 seconds or show should lay out your summary: X piece says this, it’s supported by that, and it relates to our discussions about the other thing. It has these strengths and flaws, and it means this big takeaway for us. Then spend about one or two minutes each on the summary and the connections/critique to build out your points. Finally, spend the remainder of the time (at least 30 seconds, but more ideally 60) making your original argument that you already previewed.

Thoughts on Teaching at the End of the World

Stock image of podcast technology

This past semester, I worked with 23 Honors students at UMASS Amherst on a course modestly entitled “The Politics of the End of the World.” In that course, students explored different ways in which the physical sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities had approached ends of the world caused or threatened by disease, nuclear warfare, environmental change, and cultural processes. The students concluded the term by working in groups to prepare podcasts on how various societies in Massachusetts had approached the same ends.

This class was an evolution of an earlier version of the course, which was a one-credit-hour special topics class offered two years ago. Reworking that readings and seminar course into the new, four-credit-hour version formed my project during a year as a Lilly teaching fellow. That UMASS program gave me a year’s worth of seminars, and a course buyout, during which I could refine my understanding of the end of the world and of how to teach at a college level. I want to reflect on why I structured the course as I did and how I would reform that structure in the future.

My vision for the course was a simple one: having students learn by creating. Given that the study of the end of the world as a theoretical concept remains in its infancy, I could not teach the students by having them become acolytes to some dead scribbler or even by introducing them to the work of a community of scholars. Rather, I knew that we would have to knit together disparate communities whose work touched on a common theme, but who did not yet know themselves to be participating in a common endeavor. Moreover, even had such a project existed, I would have still wanted to have the students engage with the subject by creating their own knowledge, rather than copying and repeating someone else’s theories or descriptions.

The choice of a podcast as a final project followed naturally from that vision. Requiring students to create a podcast combined all the advantages of an open canvas with the additional benefit that numerous examples exist showing how to structure such a work. Like a traditional research paper, it would allow students to pose and explore a new argument; unlike those dreary assignments, a podcast—simply by being novel—would spur students to work with more creative (but no less rigorous ways) of performing analyses.

The technical challenge of producing podcasts rather than entering text into a word processor also put the project in a sweet spot. Because podcasts can incorporate interviews, sound effects, music, and other editing, they reflect the mediated information environment in which people, including students, actually exist better than do purely textual assignments. Furthermore, the very complexity of creating such a document provided a structure that would encourage (and all but require) students to master project planning, a division of labor, and creative ways to deliver their message. Yet podcasts remain far less complex than visual media, like an online video or a television program. Every technical challenge inherent in a podcast remains in a visual project but compounded by more complex challenges of shot framing, lighting, and acting. Such challenges can overshadow the goal of creating an argument, rather than a spectacle. A podcast, then, would produce the right mix of complication and simplicity that would help students break out of the 8.5” x 11” box within which so much undergraduate education is crafted to fit.

Continue reading “Thoughts on Teaching at the End of the World”

How difficult should course readings be?

A friend about to teach his first course texted me the other day to ask, in essence, how hard course readings should be. In particular, when you’re teaching a political science course, should you be willing to assign best-of-breed articles to students who might not have the methodological or other technical skills to actually understand them?

There is no good answer to this question, and it depends crucially on two factors:

  • How big is the gulf between students preparedness (and willingness to work) and the difficulty of the reading material?
  • How much do you as an instructor plan to work to bridge that gap?

Instructors choosing course materials should be brutally honest with themselves about both questions, but especially the latter, if they care most about students ability to get something out of the classbesides, that is, the sheen of knowingness that good students are adept at performing.

Continue reading “How difficult should course readings be?”

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 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 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.


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.