Paige Johnson Tan, Radford University
In graduate school one time, I drove up from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville with my faculty mentor to a Washington, DC think tank for an event on China. We were slowed by traffic, struggled to find parking, arrived a little late, and still had a grand time. The logistics made that a once-in-a-grad-school happening. Since the pandemic, however, from my perch in Southwest Virginia at Radford University, I can attend Washington, DC think tank events every week.
Through the pandemic, faculty have shared with each other their travails: fears of getting sick, student disengagement, and online tools that just won’t do what you want them to. As things evolved, we also shared those things that were positive for our teaching that we gained during the pandemic: better skill at fostering engagement online; new tools like Jamboard; synergies from mixing in-person and online, synchronous and asynchronous.
One thing I haven’t heard mentioned in the pandemic-plus category is virtual think tank events. For those in political science, international affairs, and almost any policy area, the conversion of those elite Washington, DC talk-fests into free sessions available to anyone with a web connection has been pretty revolutionary.
I still remember my first time signing up for a think tank web event last summer. I looked around the webpage and didn’t see a cost. I clicked through, filled in my information to register, and still expected an unaffordable charge to show up, but it never did. I eventually signed up for notifications of events at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Atlantic Council, the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, and Chatham House, among others. I found sessions at government-affiliated bodies like the US Institute of Peace and non-profits like Freedom House, as well as publishers like the Economist, Foreign Policy, and Columbia University Press too. As of now, I’ve found so many free events, I could easily fill most days in a week with one interesting seminar or another. As a curious person, this opportunity almost feels like it’s created an addiction.
The most obvious use for these think tank events is in our own professional development as scholars. My university, Radford, provides funds for about one in-person conference a year. The constant skills upgrade and timely connection with the best academics and practitioners in my subject areas through what I call “ThinkTank.edu” plugs an important gap for me. In one week, I can learn about the future of the Army, Sino-Russian relations, China’s soft-power projection in Africa, leadership in Eastern Africa, and the future of the Russian opposition.
I use what I learn in ThinkTank.edu events to upgrade my classes constantly. I have a favorite class on dictatorships. But I started from an Asia background. ThinkTank.edu events have helped me to bolster my class content on Russia, the Middle East, and Africa.
To this point, I haven’t shown a think tank event in class. I have started to offer the students extra-credit opportunities for attending suitable ThinkTank.edu events and writing one-to-two page reaction papers. For my most advanced students, I believe this opportunity can help them widen their horizons and see learning and career possibilities beyond our Appalachian region. Many aspire to join the foreign policy, intelligence, and defense communities, and ThinkTank.edu is one way to show them officials and former officials in action doing what they—and my best students—love.
On a personal level, I wonder if the regular think tank events I have been attending helped me to continue to feel interested, stimulated, and connected through the pandemic. I was continuously listening in on smart people having smart conversations and didn’t feel the absence of “normal life” as much as others seemed to. But I was pretty introverted to start with, so perhaps listening in on conversations was as social as I ever really wanted to be.
I would be remiss in talking about think tank events if I failed to mention their little sibling, the think tank podcast. Some existed before the pandemic (like Center for Strategic and International Studies’ China Power Project). Some just got their start in 2020 (like Pekingology, also from CSIS). But they do have some of the same benefits of ThinkTank.edu more broadly: high quality practitioners and academics speaking on timely issues in domestic and global affairs. I have used ThinkTank.edu podcasts in my teaching, assigning Council on Foreign Relations’ The President’s Inbox as a weekly required listen in my US Foreign Policy class. I also frequently add podcast episodes to my syllabus as recommended listening for those who want to know more on a given topic.
Some think tank events were online before the pandemic. They were often ponderous, unedited, and too long. When the pandemic hit, like employers all over the world, the think tanks had to figure out how to keep things humming. The online event that emerged from the pandemic is virtual, a manageable chunk of time (usually an hour), and most always free. It helps us plug into the latest thinking in our subject areas to enhance our teaching and scholarship. If you haven’t done so already, tune in to ThinkTank.edu.
Paige Johnson Tan is a guest contributor to APSA Educate. The views expressed in the articles featured on APSA Educate are those of the authors and do not represent APSA’s views.
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