Things were ticking along nicely during my Monday morning lecture. Short reading quiz—tick. Get up to Slide 5 in powerpoint-lecture on IR Theory by the first break—tick. Start prepping TAs on logistics of running the post-break simulation on sovereignty during the break—ti…. Interrupted by lingering student who clearly had a question to ask.
The question of course was about what happened in France over the weekend. The attacks that killed over 100 (mostly young) people doing things that my students do on a regular basis without any fear—drinking at a bar, eating at a café, going to a concert, attending a football match. As I talked about the different ways we could address his question and noticed the other students who had begun to linger as we talked, I realized this was a conversation I should be having with the whole group, not just the four or so who were now stood around me.
I looked at my remaining slides, I looked at the simulation on sovereignty/humanitarian intervention I had so carefully crafted and printed for them. I realized that as much as I needed to ‘teach them the basics’, there was a potential for them to learn a lot more about the world today by have a totally unscripted conversation. So, in both my classes that day I ditched the last half of my lesson plan and my TAs and I simply answered questions the students had about what was going on in the world.
I have to say, I was a bit nervous. The attacks, terrorism, religion, military interventions, immigration—if my Facebook page and the conversations (nay I say, fights) that were happening there were anything to go by, this could get messy, and fast. But it didn’t. My students asked incredible questions focused on understanding the situation not simply reacting to it. My TAs responded with honesty (some things we just don’t know) and a recognition of the deep divides that exist in our field and in the public domain about many of the questions the students had (often noting things were ‘just their opinion’ and pointing to a range of ideas and arguments that exist, without judgement of those ideas).
But it was more than just a QnA. Reflecting on this after classes were done for the day, I realized how much students had learned about the social sciences more generally—the kinds and types of debates we have that they are now participating in. They came to realize how global problems require a multi-disciplinary approach, how evidence for ‘competing truths’ can be found. In terms of learning about politics, they came face to face with so many of the issues we’ve been talking about this term—power in all its guises, authority, freedom, sovereignty, civil society.
It has made me question the whole way I have approached teaching this course. I teach it thematically, Week One: Power, Week Two: The State and so on and so forth. Would it possibly make more sense to teach politics through real political events? The ‘themes’ would likely expose themselves regardless—though it would take more time and care on my part to really draw these out each week and to ensure students were not only learning about the event, but also the crucial ‘political science canon’ that I am supposed to be providing them with. It would mean a rewrite of my course and an acceptance that these unscripted conversations might take us to places my powerpoint slides are not ready to take us to!
Below is just a small glimpse of the questions asked along with some bullet points on political themes and debates that we were able to have because of those questions. I’ll be looking back on this experience to consider how I might bring in more current events to my teaching in a way that is meaningful and doesn’t take away from the other ‘content’ that they also need to learn. While the timeframe didn’t allow me to go into great detail on any of the below— it did allow me to introduce new concepts and debates and make links to a wide range of concepts we’ve already covered during the term. For me, it really taught me the value of unscripted conversations with students.
- Is there going to be another World War? This question allowed us to talk about who has the power to define and label political events; the criteria used to classify wars; the shift in thinking about war as something between states as opposed to something that also involves non-state actors; the difficulties political scientists have in making predictions
- Why did they (ISIS or the extremists) do this? What do they want? This question allowed us to talk about religion/identity and politics (what different theories tell us about the role of religion and identity in relation to war); the heterogeneity found within all religions; Islamophobia; the central role that power has in political science and the understanding of different ways of acquiring it—both legitimate and illegitimate; the politics of fear.
- Why are we seeing so much about France!? What about what happened in Turkey last month, Lebanon the night before etc etc etc? Why don’t people care about these other cases? Probably one of the most difficult questions, this discussion helped students recognize the importance of being specific in our questions—the reasons individuals vs the media vs states ‘care’ about a political issue is quite varied. It also allowed us to raise issues of power, wealth (and the connection between the two), the salience of our different identities as well as difficult questions regarding stereotyping, racism and ‘othering’.
- What will we can we do to stop ISIS? This question was probably most clearly linked to our topic of the day and we tried to answer it by bringing in theories liberalism and realism in IR. It also allowed us to again think about the nature of state vs non-state actors (and the relationship between them); I was also able to introduce ideas found in strategic studies—(air campaigns vs ground campaigns, counterinsurgency) as well as my own research interests of peacebuilding and pacifism.
- What can we do to stop Islamophobia? My students are rightly disgusted by the recent and ongoing attacks they are seeing around the globe but at the same time many voiced fear over the Islamophobia that is also emerging (there is nothing contradictory in holding these two positions at the same time). This was one of the harder ones for me to talk about for personal reasons—and was actually a great opportunity to frame my own thinking on the problem rationally, conceptually, without flying into a blind range. My TAs took the lead and handled it like stars—linking it to conversations around domestic politics, elections, ‘othering’ and civil society movements.