Creating community: Prof. Taw revamps IR course for Zoom learning

February 2, 2021

Across the CMC curriculum, members of our faculty are meeting the challenge of these unprecedented and historic times, delivering exceptional coursework in a fully online modality for the spring semester. In our Academic Innovations series of faculty Q&As, professors share their curricular highlights, best practices, and how students are helping to shape virtual learning for a memorable, collaborative academic experience.

Jennifer Taw, associate professor of government, is teaching "Honors Introduction to International Relations" this spring.

How have you reimagined your “Introduction to International Relations” course to accommodate Zoom teaching and learning?

I have offered this course each spring since arriving at CMC in 2006 and have had a similar format since the beginning with just a few adjustments to testing protocols and writing assignments. Last spring, however, it became clear that the course did not work as well online as in person, so I decided to revamp it for a Zoom semester. I took the opportunity to completely revise the class in ways that I think are very exciting and that are responsive to issues and events affecting global and domestic politics today. 

Whereas the course used to begin with the systematic introduction of IR theories—from the mainstream paradigms to the more critical approaches, before segueing into applying those lenses to contemporary global political challenges—it is now built around a single topic: The Commons. By examining how countries navigate the many challenges of space, the seas, the Internet, and the Arctic, as well as basic shared resources such as water, air, and minerals, the course can show the connectedness of domains that are too often stove-piped (security, economics, and politics/diplomacy), as well as the utility of a broad range of theoretical perspectives.

This approach allows the reintroduction into IR discourse of entities often left out of mainstream theories, including indigenous populations, peripheral states, and civil society. This, in turn, allows the introduction of more contemporary and varied research and literature, bringing in more female academics' voices, as well as scholarship by Black, indigenous, and other diverse authors and researchers from all over the world. Students will still be exposed to the classical IR theorists, but now within this broader context. 

How did you broaden or change your assignments?

To accommodate the COVID-19 semester, I made some big assignment changes. Students now post bi-weekly journal entries to a shared GoogleSheets document on Slack, in which they define terms introduced in the readings and discussions, identify the assumptions underpinning different theoretical perspectives, and ask follow-up questions.

By bringing this process out of the classroom and into this shared online space, we can save our time together for more in-depth discussions of the readings. This also gives me a way to gauge, steadily and over the course of the semester, what students are understanding and what is proving to be more challenging. I’m planning to keep these changes even when we’re meeting in person.

How are you using guest speakers in the course?

As in past semesters, several CMC IR faculty members come to the class in the second half of the semester as guest speakers, as will two of my current thesis students whose work is directly related to topics we're discussing in class. This offers our first-year students interested in IR the opportunity to hear our professors and seniors talk about their particular expertise or current research. This part of the course is always students' favorite.

What challenges are you and your students dealing with by being apart? How are you overcoming them together?

It’s hard to create those senses of community when we’re not in person—we can’t go sit on the Quad or talk before class; I can’t bring students to the house for a film or a meal; the students who don’t already know each other have a harder time connecting. And Zoom itself is tiring and weird; you never know who’s looking at what, you know you’re dozens or thousands of miles apart from each other, and people are in whole different time zones experiencing different days and places. Ironically, one imperfect way to overcome that is MORE Zoom, but making it one-on-one. Last semester, I invited students to schedule sessions just to shoot the breeze. For me, at least, it was awesome to talk with the students who signed up. They are just so smart and interesting.

—Gilien Silsby

Gilien Silsby


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