Updating the Introduction to International Relations Syllabus to 2.0

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I am about to begin my fifth semester teaching introduction to international relations and it will be my third such offering at Boise State.  We are elevating the course to serve more advanced political science students and we now offer it at the 300 level instead of the 200.  Given this elevation in designation, prerequisites, and a new year of teaching the course, I am working to revamp my syllabus as well as make it more friendly to the modern college student.

Specifically, the recommended reading sections of my previous syllabi have somewhat languished with a few article or book recommendations.   The biggest effort in my revamp is not to just merely recommend a few books that my students are unlikely to read but, instead, to provide material that is easily within their reach and may prove more engaging than what they already have to read for class.  As my consumption of material has become more digital, I am trying to now pass on that material to my students. More specifically, in addition to the occasional book recommendation, connecting students to podcast episodes, online lectures/course, blog episodes tv episodes, youtube videos, webcomics,  and songs* may give them other avenues to explore international relations.

One of the more difficult topics for students has been our discussions on game theory.  The syllabus now offers a few additional avenues the students may wish to explore if they are either struggling with the topic or they are enjoying the topic so much they want additional material:

For the above portion of the syllabus, I have embedded links into each suggestion so students can easily click the link in the .pdf to be taken to an online source, the library’s copy of the item, or a place they can purchase the item if they are compelled to pick up their own copy.  Additionally, if the students would rather access the material through Blackboard, all the persistent links are there as well: 

One of my goals in crafting the syllabus in this manner is to provide other digital areas the students can check out besides what they may simply find on Wikipedia.  I do not actively discourage my students from using Wikipedia (it is not allowed as a source on written assignments) as I think it is a good resource to begin researching a topic or to find additional information on a topic.  However, as an encyclopedia, it engages students in a similar way that a textbook does and still may not offer material in a format that a student may find palatable.  We all have different tastes and preferences, so offering additional avenues to engage those tastes may offer additional insight into the classroom.

Challenges:

The investment in finding content appropriate for the syllabus and providing it for students comes with a few challenges as well:

1) Students will ignore it: For the vast majority of recommended books in my and other syllabi, I expect this to be the norm as the task of actually sitting down and reading a book that may or may not be interesting to you is daunting.  Why read a lengthy book if I can go to Google or Wikipedia and find a condensed summary of the argument?  I hope to help this process along to some degree by providing easy links to materials that may further pique a student’s interest.  Of course, I will not ever get 100% of my students to look at recommended material (that number is nearly impossible to achieve with required material alone), but providing additional, easy avenues to help some portion of students understanding seems valuable.

2) Incomplete Coverage: What I offer on the syllabus will inevitably be incomplete on a few different metrics. First, it will not have every topic covered equally across all types of material.  Second, it will also lack appeal to every type of student.  Both of these are issues I find easy to stomach. In some respects, this will be an evolving process as I come across new material, I will add them to the syllabus while removing items that are not withstanding the test of student interest.

3) Too much information: The opposite problem of number 2 is over-saturation. With each topic, there is an ever-expanding catalogue of digital items I can add to the syllabus.  However, each additional link or line on the syllabus has the possibility of obscuring the topic we discuss or seem too overwhelming for a student to really explore. Over-saturation of information runs the risk of an Huxleyian effect of rendering useful information inert.   For example, my week on game theory is already quite large and I would rather not add additional items to list. Being selective is the answer to this.

A few other approaches:

I do link to specific blog posts in the syllabus and will be adding additional posts when they crop up. I have toyed with the idea of requiring a subscription to a national newspaper and have quizzes occasionally on major IR news items, but that seemed a bit too artificial. Instead, I am actively encouraging my students to either add blogs to their normal reading habits or, if they use reddit, then to subscribe to the subreddits that deal with what we study. Specifically, the four subreddits include: /r/IRstudies, /r/PoliticalScience, /r/Comparative, and /r/ForeignPolicyAnalysis.  I do not offer a grade incentive for this, so students will employ this sporadically. However, if they already use an RSS service or Reddit, the simple addition of blogs/subreddits is trivial and could help them in the class.

Also, for the first time this semester, I am attempting to use Blackboard’s wiki as an effort for collective note taking. I had collective note-taking last semester organized through Google Drive. This project had some success with a handful of students participating, but the addition of a third party software made verification/grade incentives more difficult than I initially imagined.  As such, the wiki can serve a similar purpose and I offer a weak incentive of adjusting grades favorably for students that are on the precipice of a higher grade.

Final Thoughts:

1) This link provides the current version of my syllabus.  There are a few items that are still in flux and I need to back-fill several some of the later topics with obvious choices that I am currently neglecting. Specifically, the sections on Human Rights and the Environment are undeveloped; I likely need to ask my co-bloggers for suggestions since they know those areas better than I do.

If you have any obvious suggestions please post them here or message me on one of the various social networks I visit.  If you have any suggestions, please do post them here or forward them to me.

2)This will be an ongoing project and will hopefully have all of my syllabi, eventually, in a similar state. I think this type of cross-referential material will be useful for all types of subjects/disciplines, the challenge is to continual building the catalogue to match. Doing this all in one sitting is much more challenging than doing it as you go along. As I am teaching Comparative Foreign Policy for the first time, I will be slowly updating the syllabus as I go along with new content. For example, /r/ForeignPolicyAnalysis is doing a series of posts on the major theories of foreign policy that my students may find useful.

 

*I have just started this part of the project and I am not sure if music is a solid addition or not.  Going through my personal collection is somewhat limited and there are a few other sources for how music relates to international relations/political science that I still need to draw from/peruse.

 

Michael A. Allen

About Michael A. Allen

Michael is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Boise State University with a focus in International Relations, Comparative Politics, and Methodology (quantitative and formal). His work includes issues related to military basing abroad, asymmetric relations, cooperation, and conflict. He received his Ph.D from Binghamton University in 2011.

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