Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Resistance is Futile

If I had to list my greatest weaknesses, they would be: chocolate chip cookies (fresh), cinnamon buns, apple pie and troll bait.  I have a hard time resisting any of these.  Why mention this?  Because Stephen Walt posted something today that was tasty bait--a  five minute B.A. in IR.  His premise is cute, relying on an old Saturday Night Live bit to inspire the post, which is fine.

One can criticize the post for omitting all kinds of stuff that we might teach someone in a four year BA, and many will or have already done so.  My problem is that his effort is simply ill-conceived.  He says that students may remember five things from four years of undergraduate work on IR:
  • Anarchy
  • Balance of Power/Threat
  • Comparative Advantage
  • Misperception/Miscalculation
  • Social Construction.
One reason why I say this is ill conceived is that I would expect my students from Intro to IR to remember this much and more: collective action, tit for tat, prisoners' dilemma, and logics of comparison (apples/oranges/frisbees), and maybe something about nuclear weapons (entirely omitted by Walt) such as mutual assured destruction.

Remember, Walt promised a four year B.A. in five minutes, but Walt's post seem to be focused on just the first class.  So, I might not mind his selective post if it were his take on the five minutes to cover Intro to IR but not an entire four years.  Indeed, he has argued frequently of late about the need for policy-makers to have some history background.  So, wouldn't a five minute BA on IR also have some history nuggets as well as some big IR concepts to remember, like Napoleon was short, that Bismarck (and other faves of realists) was really smart, that bipolarity was really sweet, and so on. 

I also find this post to be problematic because I find it a bit of a betrayal.  How so?  Well, it betrays the students who might actually remember more than five things after four years of classes and heaps of debt.  It betrays the faculty who work really hard not just to get the concepts of Intro to IR across but lots more than that (see below).  Given the attacks universities are facing these days, why give ammunition to the folks who think we can just MOOC it up?  To those who think the political science we do is not worthy of federal funding?

The biggest reason why this post is problematic is that it completely undersells what the four years are supposed to be about.  The four years is not just about dropping concepts into students' heads but encouraging their ability to think analytically so that they know which concept they should apply and how to apply it critically.  When I introduced my Intro to IR class, I told the students that my hope was to confuse them with a variety of ways to look at the world.  That no one approach (theory/paradigm/model/perspective) will always be correct and that it is up to them to figure it out.  That by the end of the course they would have multiple frameworks that they could apply as the world around them changes.

When I taught the students in the senior classes, in seminars and lectures, the focus was on getting them to apply what they learned over four years.  And damn, they knocked my socks off.  They would integrate their IR, their Comparative, their Political Theory, their econ, their Sociology, their History, their Psych courses and work into analyses of important, interesting stuff.  I learned a lot especially from the senior seminars.  Why?  Because these folks could think.  I would like to believe that the four years of courses from the profs and learning from each other had something to do with it. 

To be fair, Walt was trying to be snarky and glib (sins I commit on a regular basis).  But it was also troll bait, and, as always, I fell for it.

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