Faculty Voices
01 October 2014

Interdisciplinary focus, open structure

By David Sylvan, Professor of International Relations/Political Science


Our professors share their thoughts and opinions on their own experience of teaching at the Institute.

"I came to the Institute over 20 years ago, after having spent most of my academic career up to then in the United States. Even in those days – before we had become nearly as large, as specialised, and as professionalised as now – the graduate students stood out from their US counterparts both because of their greater geographical diversity and because of their assumption that international organisations were a potentially vital component of international relations. Those differences made for particular challenges in teaching: I could neither assume that students had the same background knowledge in history (or for that matter, in maths and science, or in art and literature) as graduate students in the US, nor that they would be willing just to ignore phenomena such as multilateralism and international law. I thus found myself, in the first few years, continually making a series of adjustments in my ways of thinking and interacting with students. Some of those adjustments were liberating (for example, I could in good conscience skip over the Cuban Missile Crisis); others more vexsome (for example, if I wanted to teach about “naming and shaming”, I couldn’t assume they’d all read The Scarlet Letter).

Nonetheless, many of the challenges confronting any teacher were the same here as in the United States. Three in particular stand out even after years of trying to perfect my craft. First, and perhaps most obviously, how to persuade students to write well, and seriously. In most scholarly fields, the way we think is by writing. We may come up with ideas in every conceivable setting and at any time of the day or night, but the ideas are only real if we can put them into words (or, if we put them into equations, how we present those equations in writing). Part of what good writing involves is technical, the kind of things one is supposed to have learned in secondary school. But part of good writing is conceptual: one has to have an overall point to make in a document, one has to proceed logically, one has to mix explanation and evidence, and so forth. This is a skill that requires practice, lots of it; but it also requires extensive feedback from the teacher. I thus found myself, ironically, giving the same kind of multiple, short paper assignments I had as an undergraduate at a liberal arts college in the US and as an exchange student, in tutorials, in the UK.

The second task involves persuading students to put forward arguments about material they’ve read and to react to those arguments made by other students. Political science, as a particularly corrosive and cynical discipline, is useful in this regard as it furnishes a nearly inexhaustible supply of straw men ripe for the burning; but the critiques should come not only during class but during office hours, during colloquia, and above all, when talking with other students. Some years ago, I stumbled into the idea of forming students into teams and assigning them jointly written papers. Up to now, none of those teams has imploded or led to permanent walkouts, and the natural exasperation students feel for their less-than-logical peers is a good inducement for them to learn how to refine and clarify their own thinking.

Finally, and perhaps of greatest difficulty, is the challenge of convincing students to read widely and to think of themselves as participants in a general intellectual community. This is a problem specific to graduate school; because of rampant specialisation and of (understandable) concerns over career prospects, it has got much worse over the last few decades. Students need to realise that there are intellectually, politically, and morally important debates going on throughout the disciplines, and that a part of being a graduate student is the privilege of keeping up with some of those debates. To some degree, teachers can try to foster this sense of involvement by deliberately broadening their course syllabi, but much of the effort comes in one-on-one discussions with students, either when giving feedback on writing or when talking with advisees.

I certainly have not succeeded in these challenges, except episodically, with many starts and stops. But the effort is itself worthwhile; I have learned enormously in the process; and the Institute’s small size, interdisciplinary focus, and open structure make it easy, and rewarding, to keep trying."

This article originally appeared in Globe No. 14, Autumn 2014.