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Teaching International Relations as a Liberal Art

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This is an advanced preview from Signature Pedagogies in International Relations, forthcoming (2021, E-International Relations).

Shulman’s original application of the signature pedagogy (SP) concept focused on professional education and the ways in which students develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to be accepted as a competent practitioner in their chosen field. Although Shulman did not address the relationship between SPs in professional training and those that might exist at the undergraduate or other pre-professional level, he confidently asserted that SPs ‘operate at all levels of education’ (2005, 53) and that ‘education in the liberal arts and sciences can profit from careful consideration of the pedagogies of the professions’ (2005, 58).

Two edited books — From Generic to Signature Pedagogies: Teaching Disciplinary Understandings (Haynie, Chick, and Gurung 2009) and Signature Pedagogies in Liberal Arts and Beyond (Haynie, Chick, and Gurung 2012) — build on Shulman’s foundation. In these volumes, the SP concept is considered in the context of undergraduate education. With the knowledge that undergraduates frequently do not become practitioners of their undergraduate major, liberal arts educators,

pride themselves in training their students to be critical thinkers, strong writers, and adept in quantitative skills, essential, but generic skills that aren’t unique to specific disciplines. Most [disciplines in the liberal arts and sciences (LAS)] … have core content areas they expect their students to master in addition to the aforementioned skills, so the primary focus of LAS programs is to convey such content and skills (Haynie, Chick, and Gurung 2009, 3).

This dual purpose — helping students develop disciplinary content knowledge and generalist skills of critical thinking and communication — has informed my approach to teaching International Relations at a small liberal arts college. I know that most of my students will not become diplomats or international civil servants, nor are they likely to join the next generation of International Relations scholars. The best service I can provide my students is to use their interest in International Relations to help them build the ‘liberal arts skills’ that, in the words of Jan Lüdert, ‘serve as stepping-stones … for a wide range of possible careers’ (Lüdert 2020).

The Liberal Arts

The debate over what constitutes the liberal arts, and what shouldconstitute the liberal arts, has ancient roots. What has remained largely consistent is the purpose of a liberal arts education. In the Western tradition, it emerged as a means of training free men to participate in public life as political and cultural leaders. Despite a shared general understanding of the purpose of education, there has always been some disagreement over the substantive content and skills that best produced this result (Kimball 2010). As the liberal arts have evolved, the skills of critical thinking, persuasive communication, and capacity for self-directed learning have remained at its core.

One aspect of the liberal arts education that is often under-appreciated is its moral ethic of civic engagement and active citizenship. The revitalization of the ethical core of the liberal arts education has allowed it to survive criticism that it was an elitist bastion for the Eurocentric study of the writings of dead, white men. As Martha Nussbaum argues, the critique of traditional sources of authority is at the core of the Socratic tradition that “insists on teaching students to think for themselves” (Nussbaum 2010, 16). Liberal education should be “committed to the activation of each student’s independent mind and to the production of a community that can genuinely reason together about a problem, not simply trade claims and counterclaims” (Nussbaum 2010, 19). Liberal arts education serves a larger social purpose; “[t]o unmask prejudice and to secure justice” (Nussbaum 2010, 533). The deep structure of a liberal arts education has never been the pursuit of knowledge solely for knowledge’s sake.

The skills and habits of mind, combined with the ethic of civic engagement, have allowed the liberal arts to survive the culture wars and continue as the touchstone for undergraduate education. It is not because the Ancient Greeks discovered ‘Truth.’ They embraced a process of questioning, thinking, and argumentation that was driven by a social purpose. Because it is not rooted in any particular set of ‘great books,’ a tradition that originated in one place and time has responded to criticism with new inputs. The call for greater representation of non-Western and non-male voices has contributed to the emergence of the global liberal arts. As students, faculty, and curricular content have become more diverse, the larger purpose of liberal arts education—its deep structure—has remained true to its roots. The creation of liberal arts programs throughout the world testifies to the broad appeal of Global Liberal Arts (“Liberal Arts Alliance” n.d.; “Alliance of Asian Liberal Arts Universities|AALAU” n.d.). Students are trained to become lifelong learners, independent and critical thinkers, and skilled communicators so that they can effectively participate in civic life. Contemporary liberal arts education—in the words of my own institution’s mission statement—is designed ‘to foster a steady stream of global citizens committed to living a contributive life’ (Soka University of America, Mission Statement). One cannot help but hear the echoes of Shulman’s view that signature pedagogies teach students ‘to think, to perform, and to act with integrity’ (2005, 52) and Reus-Smit’s and Snidal’s contention that International Relations (IR) is fundamentally about understanding ‘how we should act’ (2008, 7).

Teaching Introduction to International Relations to Aspiring Global Citizens

When deciding what content and skills to teach in my own ‘Introduction to International Relations’ course, I try to balance teaching content and liberal arts skills, particularly those that are likely to apply beyond an academic environment. A quick survey of the many available textbooks reveals the discipline’s surface structure with limited variation in content and organization. The real challenge of teaching International Relations as a liberal art has been deciding how to pare down content to ensure adequate opportunities to practice liberal arts skills. Nonetheless, I feel an obligation to students to cover a fair bit of the content shared across most introduction to International Relations textbooks so that they are well prepared for more advanced undergraduate International Relations courses and meet disciplinary expectations for those who pursue graduate education.

Decisions about pedagogical choices have been much less straightforward. This is one indication that International Relations does not yet have a signature pedagogy; at least not one that provides a widely shared learning experience across instructors and institutions. Rather, my experience as an undergraduate IR major and my early career teaching experience was with expedient pedagogy characterized by ‘one-way transmission of ideas and information … in which instructors race to cover the [discipline’s] “canon”’ (Maier, McGoldrick, and Simkins 2012, 100). Although both signature and expedient pedagogies can be characterized as the conventional mode of disciplinary teaching,........

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