What students need to know and do
Students need to develop an appreciation of the breadth of Politics and International Relations (IR) (Ishiyama, Miller & Simon, 2015). Studies of Politics centre on the state and the activities of politicians, but they also involve non-state actors, and studies also surface in other arenas, including the family.
Another important understanding generated by studies of Politics and IR is an appreciation of academic political analysis, and an understanding of how it differs from partisan political argument. Political analysis involves combining theory, empirical evidence, an understanding of historical context and the way underlying structural forces shape political phenomena. Linked to this, students need to understand that the academic study of Politics and IR does not automatically entail a defence of the status quo: in fact, rigorous political analysis is often used to reach critical judgements about the state of existing structures and processes.
What are the student barriers to learning?
Disdain for politics
A significant number of Politics and IR students are highly critical of politicians and disenchanted with party politics. A recent report by Whitlam Institute recently highlighted a sense of distrust among young people in Australia, who are likely to disengage from formal politics in preference for community-based activities and associations (Arvanitakis and Marren, 2009). The barrier to learning here is a misconception that studies of Politics and IR is just about political parties and politicians – which many students disdain. A further barrier is the failure to understand the distinction between academic political argument and analysis, and the sort of arguments made by politicians, interest groups and political commentators.
Herd thinking: A distaste for partisan conflict and a default preference for majority views
Students sometimes overlook the important role that conflict plays in politics. As a result, students can assume that partisan conflict over issues reflects a failure in the political system rather than fundamental normative and empirical disagreements. When there is conflict over an issue, students can also express a simplistic preference for the majority view, automatically assuming that this must be correct, failing to adopt a critical perspective on the issue itself and on the often fleeting nature of majority opinion (Bernstein, 2013).
Our teaching strategies
Academic teachers of Politics and IR should endeavour to push the focus beyond a particular herd, whether parties, politicians or policies. This disruption to current herd expectations models non-partisan forms of analytical, critical and evidence-based inquiry.
Another way is to discuss how students’ disenchantment with the system is itself a political attitude. In these ways students are invited to consider how the study of politics is actually concerned with evaluating and critiquing existing political structures. A recent US based study finds that this student disdain can be overcome if academics model “a particular kind of conversation that is serious and authentic, involves diverse views, but is free of manipulation and ‘spin’” (Kiesa, Orlowski, Levine et al., 2007, 32). This could be combined with learning activities that confront explicitly students’ naïve faith in the given nature of current majorities.
Arvanitakis, J. (2009). Putting the politics back into Politics: Young people and democracy in Australia. Rydalmere, N.S.W: Whitlam Institute. Retrieved from http://www.whitlam.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/82776/whitlam_discussionpaper.pdf
Bernstein, J. (2013). Plowing through the bottlenecks in political science: Experts and novices at work. In K. McKinney (Ed.), The scholarship of teaching and learning in and across the disciplines (pp. 74-92). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Ishiyama, J., Miller, W.J., & Simon, E. (Eds.), (2015). Handbook on teaching and learning in politics and international relations. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Kiesa, A., Orlowski, A.P., Levine, P., Both, D., Kirby, E.H., Lopez, M.H., & Marcelo, K.B. (2007). Millennials talk politics: a study of college student political engagement. College Park, MD: Centre for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). Retrieved from http://www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/CSTP.pdf