Shouldn’t you just teach them ‘the basics’?

The theme of this year’s International Studies Association convention was ‘Global IR and Regional Worlds’.  It was an attempt to address concerns about the anglo-centric nature of IR that sits in stark contrast to the diversity that exits within the world and the changing nature (centres?) of power that we are witnessing. My personal reflection is that both in terms of the topics and methodological approaches addressed at the ISA this year, there was indeed a greater diversity than previous years.  However, I doubt anyone would seriously suggest that there was a fundamental shift this in terms of truly altering how we study politics, what is seen as ‘genuine’ political science and whose knowledge is seen a legitimate.  The controversy over the ‘Sapphire Series’ brought this home.  I too was left with a concern that the same debates over power, knowledge and diversity could remain if we don’t start training our undergraduates differently.    Will ISA 2025 look pretty much the same if we continue to train our future scholars in pretty much the same way?  In this third post on my lesson plan, I reflect on this problem and ask if real change must come from mixing up our undergrad curriculum.

Is the politics ‘canon’ a problem?

Whilst not groundbreaking, I feel that the session described in my previous two blog posts, specifically, and the way I taught the course more generally, did reflect my belief that we need to move away from primarily focusing on the ‘political science canon’ at the intro level . In my courses I try to give equal billing to the traditional and ‘alternative/critical’ voices. I haven’t got the balance perfect yet, but I do try!  I also (try) to regularly have open and honest discussions about the orthodox– how it came to be,  how and why it will likely dominate the(ir) study of politics.  Sometimes this includes asking students to critically deconstruct readings from the textbook to identify western bias (though for me this has happened more in office hours than in class time).

My totally non-scientific reflection is that this approach is not the norm.  I feel there is sometimes an assumption that we need to ‘get them to learn the basics first’ (ie the canon—in IR this being liberalism and realism with maybe a small dose of constructivism or Marxism)—and then they can explore ‘alternatives’ later on in their studies, should they chose to. This is kind of a ‘give them the foundations of knowledge first before you challenge them with critical theory’  approach.   I think there are at least three problems with this.  First,  it plants a seed in their minds that these are the foundations of political knowledge and that all other approaches  need to be understood in relation to the these foundations (which are often liberal/anglo-centric).  It sets up almost a ‘hierarchy’ of ideas in the minds of students—which I think is both problematic in terms of the politics of knowledge but also in terms of doing a great disservice to our students.

I wonder if it is possible that this then has a knock on effect on the types of courses students take or demand in the future (my second, unproven concern).  With a comfort level in the dominant discourses of political science, will all but the most curious of students even consider or demand courses on auto-ethnographic methods, post-colonial studies, post-structuralism?  Will they seek out courses in related disciplines or sub-disciplines that don’t seem linked to their ‘core courses’ and therefore suggest a steep and difficult learning curve?  Does how we teach our introductory courses lead students to ‘play it safe’ in future years—and if so isn’t this a huge disservice to them and the purpose of higher education more generally?

This is linked to my final concern.  The focus on the orthodoxy and belief that they can ‘explore other ideas later’ is, to my mind, wishful thinking.  It is not that students do not develop a curiosity about the alternatives, but if they have to wait for their 3rd or 4th year classes at which point they can work with scholars who use alternative approaches—they are often unable to do so at an advanced level.  I witnessed this time and again in my 4th year session on critical peace studies.  Students had a passion for and deep interest in what I taught, but with every topic, every discussion, the analysis and policy responses kept coming back to the liberal-realist mindsets and frames with which they were most familiar and most competent utilizing.  They often could not imagine anything else working.  This did not go unnoticed by the students who often highlighted this on their own.  We of course turned these into teaching moments, discussing how our analysis and policy prescriptions always seemed to end up really integrating the theories of liberalism or realism rather than the more critical alternatives that were at the centre of the weeks’ readings.    For me, this is the real problem—the limitations we might be placing on our students intellectual promise by feeling that we need to teach them the ‘basics’ with a very brief discussion of ‘alternatives’  tagged on as an afterthought, but not regularly or rigorously integrated in the formative first and second years of undergraduate education.

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