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What English Language Teachers Can Teach IR about Pedagogy

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This is a excerpt from Signature Pedagogies in International Relations. Get your free download of the book from E-International Relations.

The discipline of International Relations (IR) is frequently one where a professor—often treated as a “master” or “virtuoso”—lectures and students listen. The teacher-centeredness of the IR classroom is often taken for granted. After all, the professor is the “star performer” who has mastered the nuances of the subject matter. When teachers do utilize active learning techniques, the activities are too often limited by class size or the teacher’s inexperience using them. For this reason, the opportunities for students to find their voice within the discipline of IR are usually stunted. In contrast, the discipline of English language teaching has developed teaching approaches to limit “teacher talk time” and enhance the role of the student. An English language classroom “lecture” is more likely to feature elicitation, brainstorming, and speculation than an IR classroom. An English language classroom is a place where students are more likely to be moving, interacting, and speaking. The teacher’s role is more likely to be a conductor than a performer, and if he or she performs this role well, increasingly the students may even begin to take over the role of conducting the class. Thus, the ultimate aim of an English language teacher is to have an ever-diminishing voice. Both the idea that a teacher’s role should be limited and that English language teaching can “teach IR a thing or two” will be explored in this chapter. In addition to the staples of active learning (role-plays, games, presentations, student polling, and debates), English language teaching offers an even deeper challenge to IR’s pedagogical tenets. Should IR make sure the voice with the most authority and wisdom is heard? Or, should it maximize the opportunities for each student to find the version of their voice that has the most authority and wisdom?

The IR Teacher as Professional Talker

For those who imagine the classroom as a collaborative space full of rich conversation, experience, and activity, the IR classroom can sometimes be a depressing place. I speak as someone with an early background in the humanities. As an undergraduate major in English literature, my typical classrooms were places where class discussions and Socrative methods were taken for granted. After my undergraduate degree, I went to Japan as an English teacher. During my four years in this role, I progressively learned how to quiet my own voice so that students might find theirs. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that when I started as a graduate student in International Relations, in classrooms and in conferences, I often found myself in noisy cacophonous spaces. What may have seemed normal for students with social science backgrounds seemed to me places full of the obnoxious posturing, ego-driven monologues, and discussion monopolists. In short, it was a place full of teacher talk—and students practicing their own version of teacher talk.

Perhaps this is an oversimplification, a caricature of IR at its worst (or, perhaps its best). But even in its exaggerated form, it represents my experience of the classroom coming from a place of quiet students (Japan) in a profession where teachers are encouraged to be quiet and listen (English language teaching). Is the teacher-centered classroom a necessity in IR? Should one of its signature pedagogies continue to be the teacher-focused lecture? Or, perhaps, English language teachers can teach IR teachers how to embrace a better model, one that includes a greater role for simulations, debates, interactive lectures, and the negotiated curriculum. Little by little, the classroom can become a place where students speak more and the IR teacher speaks less. Perhaps English language teachers can teach IR how to destroy the teacher.

Teacher Talk: Modeling an Essential Professional Skill?

Shulman (2005) writes, “We all intuitively know what signature pedagogies are. These are the forms of instruction that leap to mind when we first think about the preparation of members of particular professions” (Shulman 2005, 52). The signature pedagogy I will explore has many names. I have heard it referred to as “pontificating,” “punditry,” and “expounding.” In my own frustrated moments, I have referred to the culprit as the “discussion monopolist”—a label that could apply to assertive students as well as teachers. Positive labels might include “the maestro,” “the master,” or “the expert at his/her best.” A generic label would simply be “lecture” or “talk.” Because of my experiences prior to IR—both as an English major and as an English language teacher—and because this essay is sympathetic to the perspective of English language teachers, I will refer to this signature pedagogy as “teacher talk.”

In defense of IR teacher talk, I would like to state that there are real-world implications involved in using and promoting this technique. Shulman writes that a signature pedagogy has three dimensions, “a surface structure, which consists of concrete, operational acts of teaching and learning… a deep structure, a set of assumptions about how best to impart a certain body of knowledge and know-how. And it has an implicit structure, a moral dimension that comprises a set of beliefs about professional attitudes, values, and dispositions” (Shulman 2005, 54-55). Focusing just for the moment on the “teacher talk” approach to IR, I think we would find a deep structure that takes the effectiveness of lectures for granted and an implicit structure that values expertise and authority. Thus, we may say that IR scholars, in their will to dominate a conversation, are actually performing an important function. They demonstrate how to marshal expertise and knowledge to make authoritative presentations. And in the places where IR scholars might function in the real world, these authoritative presentations are greatly valued.

In the real world, IR experts are often called on to give authoritative talks on important issues to decision-makers, some of whom might not be sympathetic to the message of the speaker (usually for political, bureaucratic, or ideological reasons). These arenas of talk can be highly competitive. Some might be negotiations over the allocation of scarce resources, such as money or attention. If a practitioner were to demonstrate excessive empathy—the kind that is often found in the humanities and arts—that empathy might be used against the speaker and his or her interests. Thus, turn-sharing, empathetic listening, or actively empowering other speakers might be the wrong model for students who will need to function in debates, budget and policy meetings, briefings, and other competitive settings where important and often contentious decisions are made. As Shulman (2005, 16) writes, “pedagogies must measure up to the standards not just of the academy, but also of the particular professions.” Therefore, there may be good professional reasons why IR classrooms lack the kind of pedagogical approaches that are found in the humanities. There may also be good reasons why regard for hierarchy based on expertise needs to be protected. Perhaps in IR, as in the real world, one must earn the right to speak.

English Language Teaching: The Fine Art of Destroying a Teacher

And yet, one need not look far to find vehemence for the narrating teacher. The deep moral challenge to teacher talk is represented by such classics of education philosophy as Paulo Freire’s (2005, 72) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which challenges the “banking” system of education, where students are seen as empty vessels ready to collect the gifts bestowed on them by narrating teachers. In a similar vein, the education classic by David Kolb (1984), Experiential Learning, places student experience at the center of a cycle of learning. The “Kolb’s Learning Cycle,” as it is known, has students make sense of their experiences, form their theories, and actively experiment with them (Kolb 1984; Brock and Cameron 1999). In both of these classics of education, the student is treated as the center of the learning experience. The teacher acts as a partner, an assistant, or even a consultant, rather than as a boss or lead performer.

Though elements of IR share this aversion (especially outside the mainstream of IR), the revulsion is reflected even more in the realm of English language teaching. In English language teaching, when it comes to teacher talk, less is more. One should avoid essentializing English teaching techniques too much. The body of research and theory that informs English language teaching has gone through many changes. From the largely passive techniques of the early days (grammar-translation and audio-lingual approaches) to more experimental approaches (such as the silent way,........

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