Making international politics relevant to our students presents an interesting challenge for political science instructors. While those teaching American politics face a similar dilemma in fostering student engagement, instructors in the IR and Comparative classrooms have the additional burden of “relevance.” Students intuitively feel that American politics is at least tangentially relevant to their lives. They understand that the taxes they pay support particular programs which reflect the priorities of the current and previous administrations and the ability of particular groups to mobilize in support of them. Getting American students to understanding how the United Nations, the European Union, or the International Monetary Fund relates to their lives, or why they should care about the political structures of Iran, India, Brazil, or Nigeria creates additional challenges.
This challenge is frequently compounded by the lack of international experience. While we teach diverse student bodies, our students have no real frame of reference within which to situate their understanding and analysis of international politics. Consequently, they often have difficulty drawing connections between the abstract theories and cases they are exploring in classroom and the real world of global politics. For the vast majority of our students, the European Union is an abstract political institution they’ve read about in class, not something they’ve experienced in person. The same is true of development, global inequality, war, international trade, and nearly all the other topics considered in the typical introductory course in international and comparative politics.
So how do we make our courses more relevant?
Perhaps the easiest way is by drawing out the connections for your students. Try starting with everyday items or experiences, then connect them to the world of global politics. When I teach the international trade and the WTO, I start with a T-Shirt, working backwards through the global trade system to explain how tariffs, nontariff barriers, relative currency values and exchange rates, and agricultural subsidies all influence global textile productions. (Pietra Rivoli’s Travels of a Global T-Shirt is an outstanding resource for this discussion). For homework, I often ask students to keep track of where the clothing they wear every day for a week is produced. I then have them map their findings and write a short paper reflecting on how the patterns they see reflect dynamics of globalization and international trade. You could do the same thing with just about anything your students come into contact with in their daily lives: their food choices, their electronics, and so on.
Do you have an effective assignment or way of approaching the topics that connects students’ experiences with the abstract theories of global politics? Leave a comment and share your ideas below.