Argument

How to Rethink the Teaching of International Relations

As universities struggle to respond to the ongoing pandemic, here’s what they should focus on.

The campus of Georgetown University is seen nearly empty as classes were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic in Washington May 7.
The campus of Georgetown University is seen nearly empty as classes were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic in Washington May 7. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Three decades ago, university public-policy and international-affairs programs shifted from teaching about the Cold War rivalry to engaging in discussions about the potential for democracy promotion, the impact of assistance programs in building mutual prosperity, and the onset of globalization (which in the 1990s had mostly positive connotations). Those graduating from such programs entered a world in which the disruptions caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union created numerous opportunities.

Today’s pandemic poses a similar chance for a reset, as universities explore the impact massive global disruptions will have on their students. Like their colleagues throughout higher education, those overseeing graduate programs in international affairs and public policy have a great deal of work to do to prepare for the coming academic year. In the midst of planning for the range of reopening scenarios being discussed—including a mix of on-campus and online formats—they should consider five key elements: curriculum, communication, costs, careers, and community.

First, curriculum: What are schools teaching and how are they teaching it? The Black Lives Matter protests that have erupted across the United States and around the world since the police murder of George Floyd are a reminder that race is central to studying international affairs. As political scientist Meredith Loken has argued, “Race is not a ‘perspective’ on IR to spend a week considering in class. Race is integral to the modern state system, to diplomacy, conflict, trade, global governance. Race is key to understanding how IR theory developed and consequent policy prescriptions.” Beyond race, climate change, rising economic inequalities, artificial intelligence, great-power competition, broken supply chains, future pandemics, and more will continue to reshape global affairs. Schools should address these coming disruptions by emphasizing risk management, ethics training, responses to inequality and racial injustice, teamwork, integrated problem solving, and program evaluation.

A major challenge in the midst of the pandemic, of course, is not just rethinking what schools teach but how to deliver that curriculum. Even in the most optimistic scenarios for the coming academic year, at least some of the teaching will continue online. Managing this shift will require departments to rethink the fundamental essence of the courses they teach. Long lectures will not work via Zoom. Intimate, fully in-person seminars may fail in an era of social distancing. Assignments will have to change. Schools must figure out how to accommodate differences in connectivity and accessibility. Posting large video files behind multiple firewalls will exclude some of the very students the hybrid models being discussed are designed to include. COVID-19 challenges schools to think through how teaching and learning occur in this environment and what they can reasonably deliver.

As these traditional methods of teaching change, schools must communicate their new tactics and involve students in the planning process. Programs need to find ways to collect student input and increase their sense of involvement in how they are taught in the coming year. Not knowing what is to come will be worse—for the students and for their continued engagement with the school—than disagreements about the plans ultimately chosen. If universities must depart from the traditional on-campus education many students had planned on, administrators need to explain they will continue to deliver high-quality education that will help the students achieve their goals. And for those still debating whether now is the right time to start their education, schools must communicate what can be distinctive about studying international affairs and policy now that cannot be done any other time—even if students must sacrifice the in-person element.

If students can’t attend class in person, universities will have to rethink their tuition prices. They have to demonstrate that administrators, faculty and staff are working hard with students to deliver quality education and services. They need to explain why the costs are the same, or why they are different. Schools will likely have different conversations about tuition and fees. Tuition remains an investment. Fees can range from extra costs for the library to charges for using the gym. The libraries will still play a critical role in teaching and research, given the online databases and availability of the research librarians. No one, of course, should be paying a gym fee if they can’t use the facility. Schools will have to demonstrate their value in taking students to the next level, which brings us to careers.

Students who pursue graduate degrees in international affairs range from those just starting their careers to those looking to enhance their careers to those seeking to change careers. So schools will need to continue to invest and expand access to career services. Career offices need to be prepared for both an influx of searchers—those who turned to graduate school without another option in a global economic downturn—as well as those whose best-laid plans went awry with the cancellation of internships and delays in hiring. While institutions may be experiencing hiring freezes and cutbacks, investment in these critical career services cannot stop. Career offices play an important role in recruitment and in fundraising, too. When selecting a graduate program, students regularly focus on career outcomes. Research shows that the level of graduate career services has a large impact on future alumni donor activity. Even in times of tight finances, investments in career services are critical for both the students and the institution.

Finally, there is the fifth C: community. Students who joined master’s programs in the fall of 2019 had one and a half semesters or two academic quarters together in person before the pandemic took everything remote. Come fall, many cohorts may start only online. Schools are talking about trying to do some on-campus learning, at least for those students already in the area. Focus first on short, in-person community-building events with proper social distancing or rotating small groups of students for those who can participate. Expand online office hours and virtual small group sessions, so that remote students have regular opportunities to connect with faculty and one another. The incoming class will always remember that they were part of the COVID-19 cohort. There is already that bond, so thinking creatively about ways to build on that will help the students, staff, and faculty maintain the exceptional learning environment that international-affairs schools have long provided. This will be particularly true for students who require visas to pursue their studies. International students make up an average of 40 percent of the student body in programs in the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs. In some cases, the percentage is much higher. For those international students who will not be able to return to campus in the fall, virtual community building activities and social spaces must be created to help them gather and connect.

Issues of international affairs and policy are on display in everyone’s lives during this global crisis. Students may flock to international-affairs schools because they want to make a difference in this new world. The choices schools make in their curriculum, communication, costs, career services, and community-building can help generate outcomes for students that will make them glad they pursued graduate education in this field—even during a pandemic.

James Goldgeier is a Robert Bosch senior visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former dean of American University’s School of International Service.

Carmen Iezzi Mezzera is executive director of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs.

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