You are here: Episode 15: Teaching Today's World

Teaching Today's World

International affairs education is changing. From teaching, learning, and administrative perspectives, the curriculum continues to evolve alongside a transforming world.

In this episode of Big World, SIS professor and Assistant Dean for Masters Education Mike Schroeder joins us to discuss the changing nature of international affairs education. He talks about how introductory world politics courses have changed since he took them (1:21) and how the ideas of interdependence and globalization affect international affairs education (6:18).

Professor Schroeder also relays how he works to make his SIS courses more inclusive (10:21) and the new emphasis on interdisciplinarity and experiential learning in international affairs education (15:47). Finally, he discusses how universities can best prepare undergraduate and masters students for careers in international affairs (19:54).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Schroeder lists the top global forces that should be included in every introductory international studies course (13:14).

0:07 Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters. Today we're talking about something near and dear to our hearts, namely, the changing nature of international affairs education.

0:22     KS: I'm Kay Summers and I'm joined by Mike Schroeder. Mike is a professor and assistant dean for master's programs here at the School of International Service. His teaching and research focus on the United Nations system, political leadership, and global governance and international organizations. Mike, thanks for joining Big World.

0:39 Mike Schroeder: Thank you so much. It's terrific to be here.

0:41     KS: Awesome. Mike, we're going to ask you to wear a couple of hats today. Figurative hats, I didn't bring literal hats, just hats. We're going to talk about teaching and also about the larger curriculum of international affairs and how it's impacted by the world around it. So you get to wear your academic administrator hat as well.

0:58     KS: First, from the teaching perspective, here at SIS, you teach an introductory course called World Politics. How has that course changed since you took it? And how long ago would you say it was that you took a course like that?

1:11     MS: So that's a great question. And I should start by saying that I thought I was promised a hat if I came down here, so to find out that it was metaphorical, I'm admittedly, slightly disappointed. But leaving that aside.

1:21     MS: So it's a really great question. I have been teaching the World Politics course here on again, off again, since 2012. The first time was 2012 and taught it at several other universities before that. And then I most recently had it the last four years, which has been a really large lecture class of about 250 students each semester. If you're an undergraduate student here at the School of International Service, chances are you've been in my class.

1:45     MS: To be as transparent as possible, I would tell you that it was in 1996. And not only did I take it more than two decades ago, I took it in Canada. Which admittedly, though we share a TV culture and the same continent, can also change a little bit the content. But really world politics, at least as my understanding of it then, was really considered back then, a subfield of political science.

2:08     MS: International relations and world politics were often considered synonymously. And in fact, I would argue even when I taught it here, at first in other schools, I think that was still true in the latter of 2010, 2011, 2012. And the purpose of the course for that period of time was, and even today in a lot of schools, is to introduce students to the foundational debates in an academic subfield, in a scholarly subfield. The kind of issues that were dominating the headlines and the journals in that subfield.

2:36     MS: And so what you saw a lot of was a really heavy emphasis on introducing students to what shapes the relationships between governments. To the extent that non state actors played into it, and increasingly they did, whether it was insurgents or multinational corporations, we were often teaching students at that introductory level, what did it mean for the nation state?

2:56     MS: What did it mean for the relationships between nation states? What did it mean for the national interest to have violent armed groups around the world? To have multinational corporations whose production facilities and consumer markets existed across national borders? But for a number of reasons, that doesn't make a lot of sense anymore.

3:15     MS: And the first thing that we really changed is bringing in a much wider set of ideas, a wider set of actors, a wider set of interests. So for example, we don't teach it as a political science course anymore. We teach it in a much more interdisciplinary way. And so we're trying to bring in ideas of economics, of sociology, of anthropology, of political science, of geography, of history. And so we're trying to introduce students to various ways of thinking about global issues and the way the different disciplines have tried to attack those issues and understand those issues. So that's one.

3:53     MS: I think the second really big shift is that the 1990s are not 2019. I grew up in Canada in the 1990s and the 1990s was the end of the Cold War. And while I don't think I bought into this idea that we were at the end of history, that democracy was inevitably going to take over the world. I do think that there was this period of optimism that the United States and the allies, which had been ascendent in this cold war could actually solve the world's problems. That they may not be the, they may not do it alone, they would have to mobilize other countries.

4:26     MS: But increasingly, if they were guided by their liberal values, if they were willing to put in their political, economic, and security muscle, diplomatic muscle, that we really could start solving some of these complex challenges. So there was this real period of optimism and we thought, at least I thought, that the 1990s was ushering in a longterm change in world politics. And I think that's somewhat naive on my part, but I think it fed into the way we taught IR whether we acknowledged it or not.

4:54     MS: And it turns out the 1990s might've been the unique moment in time. And the geopolitical situation has gotten more complicated, the global economy is more complicated, with more actors and power diffused in different ways. Just the way information technology has changed.

5:09     MS: And so I think we still certainly want to empower our students to think that they can be change makers, but, and I don't think we need, they need to be convinced of this, but that they need to take very seriously that there's actually a much more diffuse set of ideas, that the solutions may not come from the West. The solutions may come from other parts of the world.

5:26     KS: I mean it kind of makes sense that it was taught that way because for so long it was, you had these two poles, you had the polar opposites. You had the East and the West and there was a Cold War and when it ended there was a sense that, well the, West won. So that means that democracy will now just, everything will be sunshine and roses.

5:42     KS: And there was a moment like that when we thought that since there were two paths and now one has won, that that'll be the one. And we didn't see the way that everything was just going to change. That there were going to be different poles springing up all over the place. And I think at the time it was referred to under the term globalization.

6:04     KS: And that's a word that's come to mean so many things, that I almost sometimes, I wonder what it means anymore. But how would you say that globalization has impacted and continues to impact international affairs education? How does that word even, how has that evolved?

6:18     MS: Yeah, I mean, so globalization, I think for years we talked about interdependence, right? The idea that the interest of countries, interests of peoples were often interdependent. In order to achieve one group's goals, they needed to coordinate or cooperate with another.

6:30     MS: And I think we now use, we realize globalization I think, is a much, and it has a lot of definitions. And I go into some of them in the class. We tend to focus more in that class just on economic globalization, although there's lots of different facets that are equally important that I hope students take the time to learn more about as they work through the SIS curriculum.

6:49     MS: I think in terms of its impact on international affairs education, I think there's a couple of key points. Number one, I think it really focuses us or forces us, and I hinted at this earlier, to rethink the canon. Or even question if there is a canon in world politics or international affairs anymore.

7:04     MS: It was really nice having international relations theory as the baseline that everybody could operate on. And the assumption is that any student who graduated from an undergraduate or graduate program, as long as they had understood the theories of international relations, that they had a strong conceptual and analytical grounding in the field. That would shape their careers in policy and development and conflict resolution in national security and global security and so forth and economic relations.

7:30     MS: I think that that's probably not true anymore or I think it's a dangerous, or not dangerous, that's not fair. But I think, I'm not sure we're doing our students a real service by taking such a narrow view. I think we need to bring in more regional histories. We need to bring in, again, go back and think about, what are the big nonwestern ideas that are out there?

7:50     MS: For example, and just in world politics, we have to, I try to find a lot of Chinese authors who try to articulate how China sees the world. It's not clear that China has an alternative worldview that it's trying to impose on the world. That is a debate, one that I'm skeptical that they have this coherent view and that they have this global strategy, or coherent expansionist global strategy.

8:11     MS: But I do think that they, we have to take seriously what ideas they have for how they want to shape the international order. How liberal that order is going to be. What they want to keep and what they're going to try to undermine. And so I think these are all really important.

8:23     MS: The other thing is, I think we have to bring in the lived experience in students' education. There's been this real push for community-based learning. Getting our students out into the community to understand how populations not only view the world, but what the impacts have been on policies and programs. And so for international affairs, we really have to start taking that into the classroom as well and assigning more readings that give the experience.

8:47     MS: What is it like to live in a refugee camp? What is it like to live in an urban, informal, what we often call slum, an informal community or slum? And so I think that's really changing the kinds of readings and the kinds of, how students are thinking about who is participating. It's not just the people that are the decision makers at the top. The people being impacted who are sometimes contesting it, sometimes accommodating it, and sometimes resisting it. And so all that had to be brought in.

9:12     MS: I think also you got to teach intercultural skills these days. I think it's really hard to imagine in a globalized world, our graduates having to not navigate, not only national boundaries but cultural boundaries. And we want our students to be able to engage productively. And so this skill set of teaching intercultural skills is critical. And in fact, we don't just want our students to just get out there and be able to navigate them so they don't get themselves in trouble or say things that alienate people. I think we really want them to be able to leverage them.

9:40     MS: How do you bring diverse groups of people together? What skills do you need to make sure that they feel welcome participating? That they're bringing new ideas with the idea that, in the end, more ideas and better quality deliberation from people with different backgrounds is going to lead to better decisions, more novel solutions and so forth.

9:56     KS: And you're talking a little bit about, I think, one of the common criticisms of the typical international relations survey course is that it can be Eurocentric, or it's Western centric. And I think you've hit on some of the things that you might have done or that you think should be done to try and ameliorate that. So it isn't continuing to be the case. But I guess the simple question is right now, do you think that that is the case? Do you think that is a valid criticism?

10:21     MS: So, I mean, I won't speak for my colleagues teaching elsewhere, but I can say that certainly, that was true of my case. That looking back a few years ago, that I looked at my syllabus, I thought about how I taught the course and I think it's very fair that to say that it was a very Eurocentric view.

10:36     MS: Most of the authors, if you looked were almost always from the West, United States, Canada, Europe, they're typically male, typically white. And so I think that was certainly true in my case. I will say, I'd like to be able to say that that moment of self reflection or even self criticism was organic. But really, actually I have to give my colleagues credit here.

10:58     MS: One of my colleagues, Professor Betsy Cohn, runs a teaching cafe, so she brings all the faculty together and puts us into small groups and we discuss issues that arise in the classroom and share ideas. It's a really, it's a very meaningful experience I think, for all of us who participate. And I got a call from someone who's going to lead one of these small group discussions asking for the world politics syllabus.

11:19     MS: Not surprisingly, since this is the foundational course for the entire SIS undergraduate international studies curriculum, they wanted to see what was being taught to students. What was the baseline? And when you're a faculty member there's nothing that's scarier than getting a call from your colleagues, often who have very different perspectives on the field than you do. And they're going to scrutinize, as a group, your syllabus.

11:40     MS: And so with some trepidation, I sent this over. I think Professor Malini Ranganathan might've been the chair of it. And so she came back to me and handed me this paper of notes after and they were incredibly supportive. I mean, I knew there'd be areas that we would disagree and I, but I also knew that there were weaknesses and they were very good at pointing those out. But they did more than that.

12:00     MS: And they really worked with me. They brought a handful of faculty together and worked with me to think about what voices we could bring in that would engage more students. So our students aren't all national security. Some of them want to deal with issues of race and world politics or class and world politics and economic privilege and inequality. And so how do we bring in a set of readings, a set of topics that will engage all the students?

12:23     MS: And hopefully in such an engaging way that the students who came in only wanting to think about race, will take seriously issues of national security and vice versa. Students who came in thinking that national security was about military strategy and grand strategy and geopolitics and balancing and so forth, actually leave that class saying, "Oh, matters of economic inequality are actually, they're actually highly politically charged. They're very interesting to study. And at some point I'd like to take another course." I think that's what sort of is the gold standard.

12:58     KS: It's time for Take Five on Big World. Mike, we ask our guests to take a few minutes and daydream out loud. It's an if I ran the world type of question. So if you could right now, single-handedly institute five policies or practices that would change the world for the better, what would they be?

13:14     KS: One of the topics you cover in your course is the global forces that shape the lives of people and governments. So for you, in five years, what will be the five global forces that you think should be a part of every introductory international studies course?

13:30     MS: Oh, that's a great question. So because I only get to name five, I'm going to leave off things like the drivers of war and peace, but I think that gets standardized. I think-

13:38     KS: You cheated that in, by the way.

13:39     MS: I did, I absolutely did. So I'm going to say you cannot ignore five to 10 years, 15, 20 years, climate change will probably sit, not only as number one, but as number two on my list. I think a course that doesn't take really seriously climate change and its impact on every sphere of political, economic, and social life, I think is going to be a course that is going to be lacking.

13:59     MS: Economic inequality I think, is not going away and I think that's going to increasingly have effects across the global political spectrum. Technological change. I think everything from AI and its impact on the global economy, to things like drones and cyber attacks and their impact on national global security. I think technological change.

14:18     MS: And again, this is one that is very typically not in an IR course and even today people raise their eyebrows. I don't think we can ignore urbanization. I mean, again, in a world that is more than 50 percent urbanized, how people are concentrated across the world has such amazing dynamics for everything from political stability to economic opportunity to national security-

14:41     KS: To climate change.

14:41     MS: Yeah, to climate change and vulnerability, both resiliency, vulnerability and mitigation of climate change.

14:48     MS: And I am going to slip another one in because I also think that migration is just something. Migration has always been important. I think last I checked, there are 65 million people displaced from their homes. But on top of that, with climate coming with some of the recent wars and the changing patterns of how people are responding to violence and displacement. And plus what we're seeing on our own, on the southern border and how politicians are responding to that, I just think it's going to be crucial that migration is dealt with as a global force.

15:17     KS: Great. Thank you.

15:24     KS: So Mike, now it's time for that administrator hat, the metaphorical hat. Do shifts in higher education as a whole, change international affairs education? And shifts could be economic shifts, the funding model, types of students, where they're coming from, how prepared they are when they get here. Do these shifts also spill over into international affairs education?

15:47     MS: Yeah, I mean, the administrator hat, I could go on for hours talking about whether it's financing higher education and some of the challenges, both of the rising costs of education and the struggles to make sure that we have, not just financing. To make sure the school can offer rigorous curriculum, that we can provide full support for the range of issues students face. But also, making sure we can provide things like financial aid and figuring out where that money lies. And how we can bring it, mobilize it and make sure that it's getting to the right place.

16:18     MS: I mean, I do think from a faculty, administrative perspective, I think again, and I pointed this out earlier on, there's massive pedagogical shifts. It's crazy. I'm a PhD student, I gave TA training. I was lucky to be mentored by some amazing teachers throughout my career. But I was never trained as a teacher. The word pedagogy, I could probably make a decent effort at defining it. And I might accidentally stumble onto some trends because I happen to have some people around here who talk a lot about it and do a lot of reading.

16:45     MS: But we're not trained on it. But there's been a lot of work on it and how we, students learn. I think there's been a focus less on teaching, the presentation of material, and more on learning. How do students actually digest this information? And how can we make sure as they digest, often specialized information, they're also learning critical thinking, writing, presenting, presentation skills.

17:03     MS: And so there's been this move towards more experiential learning, of having students work with real world clients. And have faculty members use that experience to teach these fundamentals, liberal arts skills, community-based learning, problem solving, problem-based learning. And so part of that is a major shift away from the typical lecture course that I was used to, frankly, that I teach right now.

17:26     MS: You don't see many lectures like mine, and that's to my mind, a good thing. I understand why my class makes sense as a lecture. So all students have the same basic information delivered. And therefore when I do a great job, the faculty can then build on that. When I do a poor job, they know exactly what they need to fix.

17:43     MS: Two, I think interdisciplinary is the key. I mean, I think we as researchers are trained in our disciplines, a lot of journals are still disciplinarily focused. One of the great things about being an international affairs school is we were already leaning into multidisciplinarity. I mean at the very least, bringing in economists, geographers, anthropologists, sociologists.

18:01     MS: And while our research often speaks to each other on the major issues of the day, really it's where teaching is where we actually all can share. We're all teaching the same students, we're all supporting the same program, learning outcomes. And so there's a real opportunity at a school of international affairs to lead the way in bringing interdisciplinarity into the classroom itself.

18:20     MS: And of course just very quickly, I think there's a real, rightful demand for more inclusive classrooms. So yes, there's been a lot of talk about diversifying the student body, the faculty, and even the administration. And that's really important. But I think for the teachers, the hard work is we, once you bring in a diverse class, with different backgrounds, with different experiences, with different goals, how do you actually create an environment that they feel welcome to contribute? Where they can both feel it's a strong learning environment, but they're still being pushed to wrestle with uncomfortable ideas.

18:54     MS: And that inclusive classroom, I'll admit, I think that is a nut we're still trying to crack. I think some of my colleagues have done some really interesting work and been really trying to do that. And there's some workshops being done where they're just not just pie-eyed, blue sky thinking, but looking for techniques that they can then share with us.

19:12     MS: But I think that is a huge challenge, that I think is going to, that's where the great teachers I think, are going to be really leading the field in the future. And I think the nice thing is in international affairs, at SIS, I think we'll probably have some of those leaders.

19:25     KS: And you're trying, you're teaching students how to encounter difference. You're trying to teach students how to think, not what to think. You're trying to prepare them ultimately, to go out and be successful in the career path that they've chosen.

19:37     KS: So third hat, soothsayer. Didn't know you were going to do that, did you? As you look at the next 10 years in higher education, what changes do universities need to make to prepare students to work in the world of 2030, instead of 2020?

19:54     MS: So that's a really great question. As you may or may not know, we actually just launched this new program at the graduate level. Where we spent, frankly years, faculty got together with some people from career services and everywhere else to figure out what it was, exactly that question.

20:07     MS: At the master's level where really, they are professional or preprofessional education. I think that they need, they're always going to need critical thinking skills. There's always going to need communication skills. They're always going to need writing skills. I don't think that has changed and in fact, if my professional network in Washington, which includes my wife, is any indication, then these absolutely need to be put front and center, but they need more hard skills.

20:30     MS: They need to be able to, to sort of understand the basics of statistics, the logic of statistics, to present data, not necessarily to be statisticians. They need project management skills and leadership skills. They need other things like thinking about how things are financed. The nuts and bolts of how we finance projects.

20:49     MS: They need to be able to do really high quality analysis where they can think about how to ask, how to unsuit, unpack the assumptions of a policy. How to bring evidence to bear on what, in order to assess which of these policies is the best way forward. So I think these hard skills are increasingly important as well as specialized knowledge that I think has been more typical in past international affairs schools.

21:13     MS: The undergrad level, I'm still a firm believer that a good liberal arts education really needs to focus on the basics of critical thinking, analytical writing, good presentation. If we, if our students come out strong on those ones, the more they learn about, everything they learned about international affairs, to my mind, is a bonus.

21:33     MS: I think a lot of our students are passionate about international affairs and they are going to be changemakers in the international realm. And we really do prepare them well for that and they'll go onto the best grad schools, whether that's for PhD to be a scholar or whether that's for a more professionalized masters to go into the field, the practice itself.

21:49     MS: But I also just happen to think a lot of them won't. A lot of them will go into law school or a lot of them will be activists and working on the domestic scene or go into domestic policy or work in the private sector. And I think if we can give them those skills, then they will have a leg up when they get on the job. They'll be able to contribute early on and they can just build a more hard skill set as needed from there.

22:10     MS: I think we've really given them an advantage. So again, to my mind, the international affairs curriculum is really, it's what our students are passionate about. And if you're passionate about something, you're learning it and you're not noticing that you're learning critical thinking. You're willing to spend more time on your writing because you want to clearly articulate your thoughts, because you care about what you're saying on these topics.

22:29     MS: And so I really think it's a great lens. That's my own view. I'm certainly not speaking for the undergraduate program whom might have a very different view. But that's how I've always thought about really, what a top-notch international affairs undergraduate curriculum could achieve in terms of supporting students long term career growth.

22:45     MS: And of course we're in DC, so I'd be remiss not to add in, do some internships while you're here, gain some professional experience. But I think in terms of what they're doing in the classroom, that's how I see it.

22:56     KS: Awesome. Mike, thank you for joining Big World and speaking with me about international affairs education.

23:02     MS: It was wonderful to be here.

23:04     KS: Big World is a production at the School of International Service at American University. Our theme music is, It Was Just Cold by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Mike Schroeder,
assistant dean for masters education, and professor, SIS

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