I have convened courses on International Relations Theory, World Politics, Writing International Relations and Southeast Asian Security. Below are a couple of pieces of writing, one a foreword for a student edited collection of essays, the other the outline for my International Relations Theory course. I have also provided a short extract from the closing of a course I convened on critical thinking, and together these three things illustrate my approach to teaching. I have been lucky enough to be nominated for numerous teaching awards by my students. I am also a keen advocate of technology in the classroom and have pioneered the use of online learning environments, electronic grading systems and the use of Socrative as an in-class learning aide to develop student-centric and interactive seminars.
Course Synopsis for International Relations Theory
In this course you will encounter different types of realism and liberalism, as well as the English school, marxism, critical theories, constructivism and post modernism. Not only does this mean there is more for you to learn, but it raises some significant questions. Why are there so many different theories? Why do they look so different from each other? How do they relate to each other, and to the broader trends in the social sciences that continue to shape the discipline of International Relations? Most pressingly for the time pressed student, which of these many theories is right, which one should I choose? To isolate how this course approaches these questions we need to step back, and consider what the utility of knowing about theories when studying International Relations might be.
There are many reasons why you should study theories, but let me outline the three that I think most important, and that as a result shape this course.
The first reason is that theorising is something both inescapable and ever present. When stripped of the complexity that does sometimes surround it, theory is simply the effort of scholars to generate arguments about the nature of the world, what the most important aspects and patterns of that world might be and why they interact in the way that they do. In this way theory is something we all do all the time, albeit perhaps unconsciously, because we all have assumptions about these issues. When we agree or disagree with the actions of a country, whether we want to help distant strangers or whether we want our governments to concentrate on domestic politics, we are really making arguments about what is important and what is not, about what should be done and what should be avoided.
The second leading contemporary argument about the value of theorising is that theories are “practical”. What this means is that all theories offer an argument about “what should you do?” They are, in other words, statements of ethical intent. If you are a politician or political advisor, if you do, or want to, work in government, or if you even just want to have an informed understanding of what is happening “out there”, theories can help you with that. Theories tell you who is in the world, what they will do and how you should relate to them. They might be explicit or implicit in this. You might like, or dislike, what they have to say. You might find some sensible and some morally outrageous, but each of them serves as a way to bring into sharper focus particular aspects, processes and issues in the world.
I think this is certainly true, but when I think about why I appreciate theory it is not quite right. Whereas the argument I just mentioned can be understood as realising the value of individual theories, I think there is something bigger and more valuable, and that is the value of theorising itself, and this is the third argument about the value of theorising. Theories, as we shall see, emerge from fundamentally incommensurate accounts of the world. Each has a long intellectual pedigree that, in one form or another, reaches back thousands of years. These positions have been promoted, articulated, defended and developed by some of the leading minds in philosophy, political science and history. How can we judge one theory against another in any objective sense? We might have very strong personal beliefs about how to view and think about politics, but on what basis can we establish, beyond all doubt, that such a personal belief is, in fact, the only correct belief? Because theories are the product of pure intellect, because they are so varied and yet each, in their own way, so compelling and simultaneously so flawed, and because I think those limitations are inherent, inescapable and, indeed valuable, we can never choose “The Right Answer”. We can only choose the answer that is right for us. This is why there are so many different theories, and why theories never really die. Here then we find not the ethics of any particular theory, but the ethics of theorising. To know the limitations and nature of your own argument. To defend strongly beliefs but to never mistake that defence as anything other than personal and contingent. Knowing about International Relations Theories tells us about critical, reflexive and mature thought. Above and beyond telling us what to think it can illustrate to us how to think and how to argue in meaningful ways.
This course then is designed to share with you how, where, when and why thinking about international politics has evolved over time. In the first three weeks we examine pre-twentieth century arguments about conflict, cooperation and transformation. From there we examine how these arguments came to be molded into the increasingly rigid theoretical position that we call classical realism and its liberal counterpart. We then examine how radical scholarship, the ideas of Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos, reshaped what it meant to be a scientific discipline, powering the innovations of Kenneth Waltz in the 1970s. We will also see that becoming scientific diverted attention away from the traditional concern about justice and human wellbeing that had previously been at the heart of scholarly attention. Having established the nature, and cost, of the situation in the 1980s we will step back in time and examine a very different approach to thinking about politics, one informed not so much by particularly narrow understandings of science but by the lessons of history and the importance of a social dimension, looking explicitly at the work of Hedley Bull. From there ever more radical frameworks emerge, frameworks driven by people who are angry and who want to overthrow the mainstream, Critical Theory and Post Modernism. As the course nears its end we reach constructivism, and we will see how constructivism emerges from previous scholarship but, in its attempt to address the controversy that surrounded those approaches, how it perhaps is the most dangerous of all the theoretical positions we discuss. Our final discussions step outside the story of theories to think more holistically about IRT as an enterprise. We will focus on the relationship between theorists, theorising and politics and then, finally, on the twin futures for theorising. In this discussion we will try and understand why theory is so often assumed to be dying and yet why so many want to be theorists, linking this to the original aims of the discipline and the shifting geopolitical realities of the 21st Century.
This collection brings together a wide range of essays united by their concern with questions about international politics. Ranging across theory, humanitarianism, foreign policy and economics the essays provide multiple opinions, sometimes complementary but also sometimes in tension, about some of the most pressing of contemporary issues that face the world today. The diversity of these opinions testifies to the vibrancy of debate that characterizes graduate studies in international affairs at the ANU. The quality of the works testifies to the pedigree of the students who wrote them.
The collection is, as I have just noted, made up of essays set by academics to students, and as a member of the former, but not so long departed the latter as to forget, I think the opportunity this foreword presents to defend essay writing should not be passed up.
Is there anything good to say about the writing of essays? There is certainly a long list of negatives, usually unfurled in the grumblings of students when the assessment structure of a course is explained; they are too long, they are too hard, they are irrelevant to how the real world works. Surely, the exasperated student claims, there must be a better way to assess understand and learning. I assure you that a similar sentiment is shared by those who have to mark essays on long weekends in front of a pile of papers.
So why is it that essays are such a large part of the student experience? Essays serve a number of educational purposes. At the simplest they are opportunities for students to display that they simply ‘learnt more facts’ than previously was the case. Slightly more complex is the positioning not of facts but of the arguments and opinions of experts, and students are expected to be able to consider the strengths and weaknesses of these rival opinions. Beyond that is the move from critiquing others to building your own argument, highlighting were it agrees and diverges from established scholarship and what evidence makes this opinion plausible. Finally there is the acceptance, and management, of the inevitable realization that your own opinion is just as partial and incomplete as those you are critiquing, and that you can be persuasive whilst never being definitive.
Essays are thus rarely just about the subject that the question introduces. Essays are about the construction of more or less coherent argument and an effort to persuade the reader that this argument has merit. In this way they are the direct descendants of the logic and rhetoric components of the trivium, the core educational syllabus of the classical world; what is the correct flow of ideas and how do you articulate that insight to a wider audience.
This commonality, the creation, organization and articulation of ideas, is what unites all written work, whether that is at the undergraduate, graduate or academic level. It is then also the common thread that unites the five themes of work contained in this collection of essays above and beyond the simply fact they deal with international political issues. Whether discussing abstract points of theorizing or concrete examples of debt rescheduling, the past or the future, these essays are all attempts to engage with the bewildering welter of facts and opinions that studying any issue reveals. In the ordering, prioritizing and critiquing of these facts and opinions new arguments and perspectives emerge, and so new knowledge is created. In this creation, and so through the thinking about, preparation, and completion of essays, students join with thousands of years of previous students and scholars who have constantly picked over old ground to shed new light. This collection represents a single year, a certain cohort of students, and a particular subject matter, yet it is also an example of a timeless process of using education to order the world to provide insight into its opaque workings. Some of the authors may go on to further study, others will move into government or the broader non-profit sector and yet more will find careers in the private sector. Whatever the destination I hope they, and indeed those whose essays could not be included in this volume, do not forget that at least for a time they looked upon the world with intellectual curiosity and a desire to understand it.
Dr. Mathew Davies | Canberra, 2014.