I assigned Plato’s Theaetetus this semester in my foreign policy class. It was the very first thing we read in a course that included more standard text’s like Walter Russel Mead’s Special Providence, Tom Schelling’s Arms and Influence, and selections from Andrew Bacevich’s edited volume of primary sources, Ideas and American Foreign Policy. On first glance, reading a work of political philosophy—and one which is widely considered one of the more difficult texts in the Western canon—might seem like a poor fit. But, my experiment paid off and I may continue assigning the Theaetetus or similar texts in my courses on foreign policy in the future. Its theme is epistemology, knowledge, and specifically it challenges the idea that humans can actually know anything. I have plans to write something up for a journal, but in this piece, I want to explore how it might be used in the classroom should anyone feel ambitious enough to replicate.
Yesterday I avoided Twitter almost entirely. I went to bed early last, and am only now looking at the key results in the pre-dawn hours. But since it may have been a late night for most readers of the Duck, we’ll keep things short today.
I am heading off to the ISSS-IS conference at Purdue this weekend. If any readers are attending, feel free to contact me and maybe we can grab a coffee. You can Tweet at me (@lukemperez) either publicly, or privately (I will open direct messages on Thursday evening.).
In the meantime, I wanted to talk about writing in tenses. It turns out, writing about writing sometimes poses interesting challenges. Solvable, to be sure, but ones that do not normally arise during gradaute school.
I am at roadbloack in my book proposal. This is normal, insofar as most writing projects will hit roadblocks from time to time. But I wanted to take a quick moment and unpack what it is, and note that a roadblock is different than writer’s block. Writer’s block is a condition of not being able to think of what to write. We are all familiar with writer’s block, even the kind that is really just procrastination masquerading as writer’s block. But the genuine species occurs when the mind—because of fatigue, lack of preparation, distraction from life or politics—cannot focus on the immediate task of generating new words to write down. A roadblock is kind of the mirror opposite of a writer’s block. I know what needs to be written, but I do not have the materials, citations, and resources to get there. As it happens, solving a roadblock is a lot like crafting national security strategy. It begins first and foremost with a definition of objectives, and then proceeds to devise the means-end logic chain of tasks and smaller objectives which will advance toward the final objective.
Over the weekend IR Twitter was abuzz with both the Red Sox winning the world series and a multi-threaded discussion on liberal international order. Regarding the former I have very little to say except that I think Boston baseball might be overrepresented in academe (not just in political science), and that this over representation likely tracks with the clustering of elite schools in New England. But on the latter, there is much more still to be said about international order. Paul Post (@profpaulpoast) has the master summary for the twitter scholars. While I enjoyed reading up on the debate this weekend, I couldn’t help but notice something unsatisfying about too.
Many a postdoc are likely in my position this year, dissertation defense safely in the review mirror and settling into the groove of their research. Those who, like me, are fortunately enough to have the very civilized two-year appointment rather than the barbaric one-year, time and attention can be allocated more judiciously. Still, that does not mean the last few months has been easy. In many ways it is more difficult than before because the only guidance for my project comes from what I can discover and the only deadlines are those which I set. Writing a proposal is a protracted process, but worth doing sooner rather than later.
Scholarly work is often written to deadline—the contribution to an edited volume, the essay for a journal’s special issue, and the book review are all going to be fit into someone else’s bigger schedule. … Living with—thriving on—deadlines makes professionals professional.
During my early days in graduate school, I was often struck by the contrast in how academics thought about writing and how journalists do. Before starting my program, I worked at a non-profit and had spent 12 years in the Air National Guard, including stints on active duty. In both capacities, writing regular copy was a regular part of my duties. And yet, while in school, many of my classmates had or developed an aversion to writing. At least that is what we all told each other to avoid sharing our work.
It is true that writing scholarship is different. Working with data, archives, and formal models are time intensive processes, even for the best of us. Doing those well necessarily slows down the writing process.
Or does it? As Steven Pressfield as described it, writing is war against one’s self. According to him, writer’s block, even the most justified “I’m working on my data analysis” kind is nothing more than procrastination. Overcoming procrastination is as simple as building a habit to write regularly, perhaps even daily. Yes, simple does not mean easy.
As a new postdoc to the Kinder Insitute, I have the good fortune not to be teaching this semester. In addition to working on my book manuscript—more on that later—I have been spending a good deal of time thinking through my class on U.S. foreign policy. This has been a good experience even at this early stage because it has forced me to think about what students really need to know about foreign policy, and it has provided me the spurring I needed to begin distilling my graduate training into a systematic framework.
Writing a syllabus poses several challenges, not least of which are what the students should learn. Although it would be nice to have some aggregate data, at this time I am unaware of anything like the GRaduate Assignments Data Set (GRADS) on graduate readings in IR. And although it would be nice to have data on what approaches work best, I have a hunch that most of what we do does not actually train students to think about foreign policy in a serious way.
My own survey of syllabi, both from GRADS and my own smaller collection, suggest that the plurality of courses in foreign policy begin with a brief survey of the paradigms, maybe some introductory concepts like the agent-structure problem, research programs, some methods, and then finally about half way through a semester or later, finally get into the meat of specific issues and themes. And sure, maybe its an exaggeration to characterize foreign policy and IR courses this way. But my growing hunch is that a lot of the explanation for teaching foreign policy this way stems from the tension between foreign policy and IR. The former, I think, looks at international politics from the vantage point of the state or politician’s view of the international system; the later looking at states like the old familiar billiard ball. There are strengths to each, and there are great ways of teaching foreign policy without relying on IR approaches as the primary lens through we introduce students to foreign policy.
Can foreign policy be taught without reference to the paradigms of realism, liberalism, and constructivism? Can be taught without weeks of theoretical and conceptual throat clearing? If so, how so? Continue reading