Eight mistakes teaching International and Global Studies

Geo Globe by Christian Fischer. Taken from Wikicommons.
Geo Globe by Christian Fischer. Taken from Wikicommons.

Every year I teach the “Introduction to International Studies” course at Portland State, and refine it based on what I’ve learned from previous classes. After nearly 20 years I’ve come to believe that there are a number of possible traps to be avoided in this course:

  1. Global Problems: It is tempting to teach the course by organizing it around major global “issues.” The challenge with this is that this approach emphasizes problems, which can lead to a depressing class for students. It’s hard to inspire students to study abroad, or to learn about global affairs, if they view the world as a dangerous and problematic place. Unless you want to have a bowl of antidepressants up at the front of the class, it’s important to focus as much on solutions as on problems. If you talk about language loss, also talk about language genesis, such as the creation of Sheng, or other urban languages in Africa. If you talk about global warming and sea level rise, also talk about the falling cost of solar energy. Of course, this approach can be ridiculous if taken too far. But without some balance, the class can become too bleak.
  2. Fear of Theory: Because we want to engage our students, it’s tempting to try to not dive deeply into theory. But I think that freshman are ready for discussions of poscolonialism, political economy, global feminism, etc. One useful approach at this level is to focus on major theorists. If you tell the life story of Franz Fanon, it’s far easier to understand post-colonialism than if you first focus on key precepts. I also like to try to use a case-study to try to illustrate one or two key principles.
  3. Careers: When the external reviewers read the draft of the first edition of our textbook, they loved the work, but hated the final chapter on career choices. They thought that it made the text too vocational. Kim Brown and I kept it in anyway. Many times I have heard my colleagues at conferences say that their task is to help create citizens, not employees. But of course there is not a contradiction between the two. The most common advising question that I hear during my first meeting with freshman is “What careers does this lead to?” And this is a perfectly reasonable question, as if you are to pursue some careers you need to make certain decisions early in your college experience. How are students to know this if we don’t tell them? I always end the course by focusing on career choices (and how to travel abroad), using the final chapter of the textbook.
  4. Include International Relations Theory: Because ours is an interdisciplinary program, we have faculty teaching the introductory classes from many different disciplinary backgrounds, from English to Sociology. There can be a temptation to demonstrate our distance from political science by not covering classical IR theory, but I think that’s a mistake. Our students should know realism, human security, liberalism and other important or classic paradigms. So should we.
  5. Cultural and Political Globalization: When people think of globalization, they inevitably think of economic globalization. Yet political globalization and economic globalization are two sides of a coin. You can’t discuss one without the other. For this reason, if there is one topic that I would like every student to know when finishing the introductory class, it is the nature of Bretton Woods. This is foundational for every aspect of modern global affairs. And cultural globalization deserves equal attention, as it impacts some of our students’ lives deeply.
  6. Course Packs and Videos in the classroom: Some of our students have issues with food security; they literally have to go to pick up boxed meals at non-profits. Yet some faculty continue to use expensive course packs, in part because of discomfort with electronic resources. Yet all the material that the students likely need to read is probably available for free in the electronic databases at the library. Or if it’s not, it should be possible to find a good alternative. And it’s easier for students to access. But faculty have to learn how to make a permanent URL, and insert a link in the learning management system. It’s easy to fall behind with technology. I enjoy teaching online. Still, my new resolution is to spend two hours a month taking part in the free technology trainings that my university offers on everything from Google Drive to Excel. Keeping up with technology helps to make me a more effective teacher. I plan to have extra office hours by Google Chat before my next exam, because my grad assistant has told me that far more people take part in that than they would in a face to face sessions in an office. Oh- and please don’t show full length films in the classroom. OK-  sometimes my colleagues say that they have to show an obscure video that can’t be found in streaming video through the library. But in general it’s always better to show the video before class, through a link in the learning management system. Then you can have the class discussion at greater length during the course time. I still use brief clips from TED talks our Youtube (5-10 minutes) to start discussion. Anything else generally is not a good use of class time, and doesn’t encourage an active learning environment.
  7. Omit a Map Test: I always include a map test in the course, I have had students complain that this is too “high school.” But during mock tests the number of students who could find Kazakhstan on a map was small. If you don’t know which nations border Iraq, it’s hard to have an informed discussion of regional politics. The first day of class I break students into groups of three to five, and ask them to draw a map of the world as a group. Then I project the resulting maps onto the screen and we talk about them. This is a way to get them to start thinking about what they know and need to learn. I then have them memorize the location of sixty countries from a list that I give them. 15 of those countries will be on a map quiz. Almost everyone scores perfectly on the test, but I don’t mind. If nothing else, students leave my class knowing where some major nations are.
  8. Think on-line or hybrid courses are less rigorous. OK, I’ve already blogged about this before. But I’ve been thinking about this as I teach the introductory class this quarter. If students have had a quiz on the documentaries before they come to class, I not only know that they’ve covered the content, I also know what they’re thinking. It’s much easier to get a good class discussion going in this situation than if a third the class has not watched the video, and is counting on their classmates to cover for them. In many ways, these online and hybrid formats create more active learning environments than a traditional format class.

Want to see more teaching ideas for an Introduction to International or Global Studies? Click here. Need rubrics? Click here. And our second edition of the textbook should be out next January with extension revisions.

Shawn Smallman

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