How the Real World Shows Up in the IR Classroom

A gender and generational divide influences how professors teach about history-making events.

By , an assistant professor of government at the College of William & Mary and founder and director of the International Justice Lab.
A crowd of protesters walk from the U.S. Capitol building to the White House.
A crowd of protesters walk from the U.S. Capitol building to the White House.
A crowd of protesters walk from the U.S. Capitol building to the White House during a peaceful protest against police brutality and racism in Washington on June 6, 2020. ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

Last June, I asked whether the United States’ “racial awakening” in 2020 had reached international relations (IR) scholars at U.S. colleges and universities. I drew on a survey from the Teaching, Research, and International Policy Project (TRIP) at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute and found that the answer was yes. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 and the summer of mass protests that followed, almost half of those surveyed reported spending more teaching time on issues like race and racial justice.

Given that professors tend to change their courses slowly, the reported shifts in teaching were striking. There were also noteworthy demographic differences: Women, Democrats, and constructivist scholars were far more likely to dedicate additional class time to race and racial justice than men, Republicans, and realist scholars. The results suggested that personal and scholarly backgrounds influence classroom responses to world events.

The results of the survey made me wonder which events have most influenced IR professors’ teaching in recent decades and whether demographic differences exist there as well. In collaboration with TRIP and the Sié Chéou-Kang Center at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, I asked U.S.-based IR professors these questions directly.

Last June, I asked whether the United States’ “racial awakening” in 2020 had reached international relations (IR) scholars at U.S. colleges and universities. I drew on a survey from the Teaching, Research, and International Policy Project (TRIP) at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute and found that the answer was yes. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 and the summer of mass protests that followed, almost half of those surveyed reported spending more teaching time on issues like race and racial justice.

Given that professors tend to change their courses slowly, the reported shifts in teaching were striking. There were also noteworthy demographic differences: Women, Democrats, and constructivist scholars were far more likely to dedicate additional class time to race and racial justice than men, Republicans, and realist scholars. The results suggested that personal and scholarly backgrounds influence classroom responses to world events.

The results of the survey made me wonder which events have most influenced IR professors’ teaching in recent decades and whether demographic differences exist there as well. In collaboration with TRIP and the Sié Chéou-Kang Center at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, I asked U.S.-based IR professors these questions directly.

Between Dec. 16, 2021, and Jan. 31, 760 scholars completed the survey. Of these respondents, 28 percent identified as women, 19 percent identified as people of color, and 70 percent identified as Democrats. The average age of respondents was 53. Lastly, 89 percent of respondents held tenured or tenure-track positions at their colleges and universities. Overall, the sample was representative of the population of IR scholars in the TRIP database.

The TRIP survey’s results indicate that gender and age shape how IR professors address world events in their teaching more than race and partisanship do. The timing of a world event in a scholar’s life likely influences its salience. Meanwhile, experiences of the profession are gendered, with women professors often performing more teaching labor than men. Although race and partisanship may influence world views, they do not seem to significantly affect how IR scholars process and teach world events.

Survey respondents were asked three questions about the relationship between real world events or issues and their teaching. First, they answered an open question about events or issues that significantly influenced the way they teach introductory IR classes. Scholars highlighted the U.S. war on terror, the 2008 global financial crisis, the rise of China, climate change, the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the COVID-19 pandemic, to name a few. Many respondents also marked the end of the Cold War; the 9/11 attacks; the 2011 Arab Spring; racial justice protest movements in the United States; and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol as influential.

Second, respondents addressed how much five events—the end of the Cold War, the 9/11 attacks, the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, the 2020 U.S. racial justice protests, and the Jan. 6 insurrection—influenced how they teach IR in general. Scholars were asked if each event influenced their teaching significantly, somewhat, or not at all. Most respondents reported each event as significantly or somewhat influential, with the end of the Cold War topping the list: 68 percent of respondents reported the end of the Cold War as significantly influencing their teaching. The 9/11 attacks were a close second at 65 percent.

Third, respondents ranked the relative influence of the five world events on their teaching, with responses ranging from one (most influential) to five (least influential). Although the professors were only asked about their teaching, prior work by TRIP collaborator Matthew Ribar found that these types of benchmark events influence not only IR scholars’ teaching but also their research and theoretical approaches. Around 57 percent of respondents said the end of the Cold War was most influential to their teaching, 24 percent said 9/11, 10 percent said the 2020 protests, 5 percent said the Arab Spring, and 5 percent said Jan. 6.

There were also some important demographic differences in the responses. With respect to race, there were no statistically significant differences in terms of which events scholars ranked as most influential—with the notable exception of the Jan. 6 insurrection. IR scholars of color were more likely to say the insurrection was most influential on their teaching than white IR scholars (9 percent versus 4 percent, respectively). Speaking personally, the events of Jan. 6 inspired me to rethink my transitional justice seminar for the spring 2021 semester. I discussed the United States as a country where truth, justice, reparations, and institutional reforms are needed to redress historical and contemporary political violence.

Women were more likely than men to rank as most influential the Sept. 11 attacks (28 percent versus 20 percent, respectively), the Arab Spring uprisings (6 percent versus 3 percent), and the 2020 racial justice protests (14 percent versus 6 percent). By contrast, women were less likely than men to say the end of the Cold War was the most influential on their teaching (41 percent versus 56 percent, respectively).

Younger scholars were less likely than older scholars to select the end of the Cold War as most influential on their teaching, and they were more likely to say 9/11 and the 2020 racial justice protests were most influential. These findings make sense: Some of the youngest professors surveyed were born after the Cold War. Sept. 11 punctuated their formative years as children and teenagers, and they were also comparatively early in their teaching careers during the 2020 summer protests—accentuating these events’ potential impact on their teaching. Interestingly, age had no notable impact on assessments of the Arab Spring uprisings or the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack.

Democrats were less likely than Republicans to select the end of the Cold War as most influential on their teaching (52 percent versus 77 percent, respectively) but more likely than Republicans to say that the 2020 protests were most influential (10 percent versus 0 percent). There were no statistically significant differences for 9/11, the Arab Spring uprisings, or Jan. 6. The last of these is surprising, given that the insurrection was intended to obstruct the certification of electing U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat.

There was only one statistically significant difference between faculty in tenured or tenure-track positions and faculty in nontenure-track positions: again, the 2020 racial justice protests. Tenured and tenure-track faculty were more likely to say the protests were most influential for their teaching than nontenure-track faculty (9 percent versus 2 percent, respectively). Tenured and tenure-track faculty have more flexibility and institutional security to adjust their courses, likely explaining this difference.

Race and racism are deeply embedded in the international system, often determining who is empowered and whose interests are prioritized and served in various economic, security, and diplomatic arrangements. As political scientist Meredith Loken and I wrote in 2020, racism has significantly influenced the field of IR, limiting the discipline’s understanding of world politics and undermining the recruitment, training, and retention of scholars from historically excluded groups, particularly scholars of color.

Given this, the finding that the 2020 protests influenced most U.S.-based IR scholars’ teaching—and that 10 percent of respondents said the protests were the most influential of the five major events—is remarkable. Viewed in context, the racial justice protests were as influential as the Arab Spring uprisings and Jan. 6 combined. These findings are encouraging: IR scholars seem open to thinking and teaching about the world differently, especially as it relates to the organizing role race and racism play in global politics. To paraphrase my colleague Robbie Shilliam, race and racism are not only issues in domestic politics in the United States or elsewhere. They are issues in all politics.

The survey data here also reflects a gender and generational divide in IR when it comes to the events considered most important and how they are taught. This is something scholars must discuss openly and candidly among ourselves. IR professors need to be reflexive, recognizing how identity shapes their perspectives and work. Of note, the survey findings raise concerns about unequal labor in the IR profession. If younger faculty and female faculty are most influenced by contemporary versus historical events and adapt their courses to meet the times at a greater rate than older faculty and men, then they are doing more work—often behind the scenes and without proper recognition and compensation. Students may also turn to younger faculty and women to discuss emerging issues, leading to an unequal distribution of advising and mentorship labor. None of these issues are new, but the latest TRIP and Sié Chéou-Kang Center survey data offers additional evidence from the IR field.

Finally, why weren’t there consistent differences between scholars of color and white scholars, especially with respect to the 2020 racial justice protests? Due to their lived experiences, IR scholars of color in the United States likely did not need yet another incident of racialized violence to shift their thinking and praxis. For their part, white scholars who practice allyship with people of color and other marginalized populations may have shifted their approach, whereas those who do not were immovable, resulting in a wash for the group overall.

The survey data reflects what I often say when speaking about issues of race and racism in the IR field and academia writ large: We are making progress, but we have yet more progress to make. I hope we are up to the task.

Irene Entringer García Blanes and Nathaly Perez Rojas contributed research.

Kelebogile Zvobgo is an assistant professor of government at the College of William & Mary and founder and director of the International Justice Lab. Her research engages questions in human rights, transitional justice, and international law and courts, and has been published in journals including International Studies Quarterly and the Journal of Human Rights. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and the Washington Post, among others. Twitter: @kelly_zvobgo

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