Developing Analytical Tools in Introductory International Politics Classes: Different Perspectives are not for Entertainment Purposes

Mark Sachleben • Shippensburg University


This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s December 2006 edition.  


As Scott Erb pointed out in a previous issue of this publication, students often become angry with themselves for being ignorant of international situations. I also have found that students are bemused and embarrassed by the lack of knowledge and understanding of most Americans about issues of international politics and foreign policy. As educators of a discipline in which many of our students have little background, we have a difficult but important task. Across the discipline, whether in international relations or other parts of political science, many of our students believe that all that constitutes politics is well-groomed people on television contradicting each other and trying to insert the best zinger. Whether we are teaching at a diverse or homogenous institution, getting students to seriously think about different perspectives is very difficult.

My goals in an introduction to international politics class are four-fold: I want the students to have a basic understanding of how international politics works, specifically who are the actors and how decisions are made; to practice their analytic skills; to consider alternative perspectives to complex problems facing the international community (in other words, critical thinking);2 and to practice professional writing. All four categories are crucial to the development of political science and social science majors. Even in general education classes, which is where the described assignment takes place, our duty is to provide an introduction and practice to each of these four areas. While the technique I describe was used in an international relations class, it can be modified for use in other political science courses.

After the introductory section of the course, in which basic terms, major theoretical schools and major historical events are introduced, students are asked to consider the future of the international system. Students are introduced to four articles that have been touted as important treatises on the future of international politics, particularly in the next ten to twenty-five years: a major neo-realist work3 (most recently Kenneth Waltz’s “Globalization and American Power”); Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History?”; Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations?”; and Benjamin Barber’s “Jihad vs. McWorld.”4 I explain to students that since they are better educated than the average American on issues related to international politics (even only four weeks into the semester) they are able to analyze these works and determine who has the better argument. This is particularly important because there is always a great deal of reluctance among first and second year college students to criticize important thinkers who have spent a lifetime studying politics. My statement is intended to build self-confidence, to encourage students to think about starting the process of analysis.

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

This section of the course begins with students reading the four articles, while I lecture (or provide information) on the world since the end of the Cold War. In my lectures, I focus on how many wars have occurred, that the vast majority of the wars have been intrastate conflicts, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the formation of the European Union and the associated introduction of the Euro, the economic advances of China, and the increase in the number of failed states. Meanwhile, the students are instructed to read the four articles over the course of two weeks.5 In the third week, I turn my lectures to a discussion of the four perspectives on the future of international politics. I urge students to discuss the main points of the articles, what the authors are predicting, and what the policy implications might be. I make sure that the students understand how the articles might interpret the current international system and how others have criticized the authors. In recent semesters, I have shown the film, Searching for the Roots of 9-11, in which Thomas Friedman chronicles his trips to the Middle East to try to discern causes of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Over the course of the final two weeks of the assignment, students read other accounts of international politics that help to provide more evidence for their papers. These articles, which I term “additional” readings, are all post-September 11 (in fact, I try to find articles that are as current as possible) and are related to different aspects of current international politics.

In the final week before the assignment is due, I set aside an hour of class time for students to meet in small groups, usually four to six students in each group. I provide a table for the group to fill out collectively. For each of the four articles the students are comparing, I ask the group to determine what the authors’ ideas might be. For example, I have students deliberate over the basic thesis, the author’s perspectives on the likelihood of conflict, the author’s view of globalization, and the role of poverty. Encouraging students to consider the evidence provided from the more recent articles, the in-class films and lectures, I ask the groups to identify significant evidence and counter-evidence for each of the authors as well. Finally, I ask students to consider what kind of policies could be derived from each of the perspectives. By giving students an opportunity to discuss each of the articles in small groups, they can help each other discern the major points of the articles, while at the same time consider alternative interpretations. This also allows me to visit each of the groups to have a chat and answer questions that students might be reluctant to voice in front of the entire class.

For the written assignment, I instruct students to identify the perspective that they think most closely resembles their own thoughts on the future of the international system. After they identify their preferred perspective, I asked them to explain why they are not choosing the other three perspectives. I stress the latter point as being the most important part of the assignment. This allows me to make sure students are reading all the material, instead of the just the perspective that sounds “best” to them. In my grading rubric, I make it clear that in order to receive an “A” on the assignment, students must incorporate a discussion of all of the articles, as well as at least some of the additional readings.

As students begin to delve into the assignment, their apprehensions grow. It is not uncommon for me to counsel students that they have the ability to complete the assignment. Students often worry that there is a “right” answer and that they are unable to discern it; they also are intimidated that they are offering criticisms about well-known, and important, political scientists. Another common concern is that each of the perspectives sounds very logical and they have difficulty choosing among the perspectives. I remind the class many times, that each of the authors is making an argument about the most important factors, not all of them. Thus, the question becomes who makes the most convincing argument. If it helps, I tell students, imagine that I am their boss; we have four very convincing proposals on how to direct our company. None of the proposals are perfect, yet all of them are very sound. The students, as analysts, are supposed to give me their recommendation about which makes the most sense. In doing so, they need to provide their audience with some evidence as to why they think it makes the most sense.

This assignment elicits a great deal of comment from students. Despite its brevity, no more than seven pages, students often say it is the hardest paper they have ever written. At the same time, despite it being only about one month into the semester, comments, usually positive, show up on evaluations. In my summation at the end of semester, I often provide a somewhat faux statement that I am considering altering or eliminating the assignment.6 Students respond by arguing that the assignment has helped them better understand how and why international politics work and how policymakers make decisions. Thus, I always add the assignment to my syllabus for the next semester.

In assessing the four areas I attempt to cover in an introduction to international politics class, the assignment creates the condition to accomplish these tasks. First, the assignment covers four major perspectives on current and future politics. By introducing terms and concepts in the first month, and then applying these concepts in the paper, students reinforce what they have learned. Second, the assignment also becomes a point of reference for the rest of the semester; for instance, if later in the semester there is a topic in which students are having a difficult time appreciating different approaches, I can say, “How would Huntington interpret this?” This allows students to consider an argument, which is not necessarily their own. Occasionally, I will receive an email from a former student telling me that they have seen an editorial or television appearance by one of the authors they have read for this assignment. Long after the assignment, the authors and their perspectives appear to remain in the minds of students.

Third, students practice dissecting arguments to help develop their analytical skills. As stated above, students often perceive television and radio talk shows as political debate and discourse. By delving into the background of arguments, and by considering analytical perspectives, students begin to see how different policy options emerge. I remind students that none of these scholars are “crazy”; their prioritization of information leads to differences among them. By breaking down arguments, students begin to analyze problems more. There is no doubt that students are reluctant to do this; but I have found this assignment helps to build self-confidence in their abilities. Students begin to understand that the course has helped to develop tools to help them interpret international politics.

Finally, as the old adage goes, “writers write.” If we are to produce graduates who have skills that are marketable, we must provide opportunities for students to write. It is daunting to assign a great deal of writing to an introductory-level class; however, there is good evidence to suggest a real need for college-level students to improve their writing.7 While all written assignments take time to grade and evaluate, this particular assignment has the advantage of having a structure that makes it easier to evaluate. Since there is no need for additional research, the instructor is familiar with the material, and the students know what is required, grading is often straightforward. It becomes very obvious which students have done the reading, and most of my comments are reserved for making their writing stronger rather than critiquing their arguments.8

I would suggest that this assignment could be used as a template for other areas of political science, not just international relations. In an era in which there are multiple pressures on instructors, the benefits of such an assignment are multifaceted. Administrators and employers want students who are well trained, especially in critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and writing. Increased class sizes sometimes mean that there is a temptation to dispense with writing assignments. Access to online paper-mills means that students are tempted to buy instead of write papers. Taking all of these factors into account, instructors need to develop assignments that accomplish our goals as well as address the concerns listed above. I, by no means, suggest that one should incorporate my assignment as written. In fact, I will change the articles I use from semester to semester. I tell students that I get bored reading the articles over and over again. In reality, this is to help prevent plagiarism; but there is a degree of truth to the point that I would like some diversity in what I read as well. Also, this gives me an out when on the day the assignment is due a curious student will ask which of the four articles I would have selected, I say that it would have been one of the articles I no longer assign.

ENDNOTES

1 Scott Erb, 2006. “Transformation and Assessment of the Introductory International Relations Course.” The Political Science Educator 11 (1): 10-12 (August 2006).

2 For background into the concept of critical thinking, see Diane F. Halpern, 2003. Thought and Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking. Fourth Edition. Mahwah, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum Associates, especially pages 2-5. Colleges and universities have begun to incorporate the term into their dialogues on better teaching practices; see for example, http://www.senate.psu.edu/curriculum_ resources/guide/glossary.html

3 In the past I have also used, John Mearsheimer’s “Why We Will Miss the Cold War” as a realist in this assignment. I often switch articles to provide different experiences and to counter the temptation for plagiarism, see below. A copy of the assignment for the fall semester 2006 can be downloaded at: http://webspace.ship.edu/MDSachleben/ ip-assignment.pdf

4 Depending on the size of the class, I have students write a paragraph summary of the article on the day it is assigned to force them to read and write about the article immediately. Usually, I return these assignments ungraded; the student either receives credit or not. Even without grading the short paragraphs, it can be burdensome to handle many of these paragraph summaries depending on the class size.

5 At the end of any semester, reducing one’s workload always seems like a good idea.

6 See, for example, Dillon, Sam, 2004. What Corporate America Cannot Build: A Sentence, New York Times, 7 December 2004; and, Henry, Julie, 2006. ‘Catastrophe’ of Undergraduates Who Cannot Write a Basic Sentence, The Sunday Telegraph, 12 March 2006, page 5.

7 The most common editorial comment I make is that some students have a tendency to engage in red herring or straw man arguments. Since students are directed to write to an audience familiar with the arguments of each of the authors, I usually point out that such arguments weaken, rather than strengthen, their own arguments.


 

Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List presents select PSE articles from the previous 15 years. APSA Educate is please to announce it will feature all future Political Science Educator‘s issues.

 

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