Tag Archives: class activities

Pedagogy: Using Film to Teach International Relations

Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove

For today’s millennial students, film can provide a powerful way to illustrate key themes in global politics. By getting students to apply the theories and ideas discussed in the classroom to fictional cases, students are encouraged to engage with the material in new ways. We move up Bloom’s taxonomy, away from simple remembering and understanding to higher order applying, analyzing, and evaluating. And importantly, using film can often bring a topic to life in a way that a traditional lecture might never achieve.

Alexander Spencer outlines four ways in which faculty can use film in the classroom: (1) to portray historical events; (2) to debate controversial issues in global politics, like terrorism and genocide; (3) to examine cultural narratives; and (4) to explain and critique IR theories. Each use has value.

The Battle of Algiers

The Battle of Algiers

Selecting the right film is obviously important. There are countless documentaries, but here I’m really interesting in thinking about fictional works. Blogging at Foreign Policy, both Stephen Walt and Daniel Drezner each offer their top ten films on foreign policy. Interestingly, the two scholars share just two films on their top ten lists: Cassablanca, which provides outstanding insights into resistance and colonialism, and Dr. Strangelove, the classic parody of cold war nuclear strategy. Fred Kaplan at Slate Magazine provides a longer list that covers some surprising oversights from Walt and Drezner—films like The Godfather, Burn!, Goodbye Lenin!, and High Noon. And Although somewhat dated now, Robert Gregg’s text International Relations on Film (Lynne Rienner Press, 1998), provides and extensive bibliography of films with IR themes. Collectively, the three lists provide a veritable who’s who of films on IR.

However, knowing which film to show is different from knowing how to show a film. Simply walking into the classroom and starting the movie is rarely an effective way to ensure student engagement. Students may enjoy the movie, but are they learning what you want them to learn? Are they engaging? Are they merely watching, or are they thinking?

Before selecting the film, think about what you are hoping to achieve. Which concepts or ideas are you hoping to illustrate? What learning outcomes are you hoping to achieve? You should also start thinking now about how you will measure those outcomes. How will you know if your students have learned what you hoped they would learn? What activity will you use to measure their understanding and engagement? And how will you integrate the film into the rest of your course content? You should also think about whether or not you need to show the film in its entirety. Can you achieve your goal by selectively utilizing shorter clips from the film(s)?

Before you show the film to your students, you should prepare them. Simply turning the movie on will ensure your students merely watch the movie without engaging with it. Ask your students what they already know about the film, if anything. Explain why you are showing the film. Tell them about the ideas or concepts that will be illustrated in the film. For some films, you may also need to provide some historical background to the events portrayed in the film. The Battle of Algiers is much more engaging (not to mention understandable) if students have some context for French colonialism and the anticolonial movement in Algeria.
You may consider providing a handout to your students, giving them a specific task to complete while watching the film. Perhaps you ask them to follow a specific character, look for examples of a specific theme or theory, or identify a specific event. Providing a handout to your students also signals that this will not merely be a time away from teaching, but that they are expected to follow and engage with the film.

After the film, be sure to have some kind of debriefing. You may want to provide the students with an opportunity to come to terms with their own ideas and understandings before moving to a more general class discussion (think-pair-share is useful for this). Alternatively, if you lack the time to have a debriefing immediately after the film, you could ask them to provide a written reaction to the film by the start of the next class, and then hold a short discussion to start your next class period. If you ask students for a reflection paper, it is important that you provide a response prompt that focuses the paper on the course material you hope to explore. Failing to do so, you will likely receive many papers in which students discuss whether or not they liked the movie.

How do you use films in the IR classroom? What films have you found effective? Please share your experience.

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Pedagogy: The First Day of Class

As the summer days draw shorter, our thought inevitably turn to the start of a new term. We spend time perfecting our syllabi, selecting readings and assignments, and developing or revising lectures. But often we neglect to think about our first day of class—until the first day of class! It’s important to remember that the first day of class will set the tone for the entire term. Too often, we waste the first day of the new term (and set the wrong tone for the rest of the course) by simply handing out and reviewing the syllabus, and then sending students on their way.

Consider instead including a discussion or activity that gets your students involved from the very beginning of the course. Research suggests that students who participate in class discussion early in the semester are more likely to continue participation throughout the semester. Conversely, students who do not participate in the course within the first two weeks of the semester are unlikely to ever participate in class discussion. Possible activities could include:

Important Events: Dividing students into small groups and asking them to identity the ten most important historical events related to your course. For example, in an introduction to international relations course, you might ask for the ten most important events in global politics, while in a course on the European Union you might ask for the ten most important events in modern European political history. Once each group has identified and ranked their ten events, you could also have class discussion where the class comes to agreement on the rankings.

Survey: Conduct an opinion survey related to the course content. I regularly use a survey I developed based on the global futures survey to get a sense of preconceptions held by the class. This way, I know if the course is comprised primarily of realists or liberals, optimists or pessimists. I also get a sense of their general interests, whether they are more interested in the economic or security side of global politics, what they think are the most pressing issues in global politics, and so on. I share the general results in the next class period, and I am able to refer back to the survey regularly throughout the course.

Break It Down: Select a recent news story and ask students in small groups to explain the driving forces behind the event. For example, you might provide students with a copy of a recent BBC story on Syria, and ask them to try and figure out why the British government is providing aid to Syrian opposition forces. Give them time to piece it together, then ask each group to offer their explanation. As they present their ideas, you can explain how the various themes they are raising (though likely without the specific knowledge and vocabulary) will be explored later in the course.

No matter what you decide to do with your first day, be sure to provide an opportunity for students to ask questions of you. And remember that the most important thing is to generate the excitement and high level of expectations that will carry throughout the semester. As elsewhere in life, you only get one opportunity to make a first impression. Make your first day count!