As excited as I am about teaching International Security this semester, it’s never easy putting together a graduate syllabus. My own fetish for brevity comes into tension with my enthusiasm for the topic and the ever-present temptation to cover everything, and, in case you’re interested, here’s my latest attempt at striking that balance.
Inevitably, syllabi are statements about what we view as important, whether or not we intend for them to send such a signal. We may assign some things to make it more difficult to weasel out of reading them, but I don’t get the sense that students put a lot of effort into figuring out which is which. So in putting this course together, I tried to think hard about what’s “important” in the study of war and peace, not in terms of big outstanding questions or trendy topics (though they’re covered) or what I consider “good” or exemplary work (that’s also represented in spots), but in terms of what someone who wants to start a research agenda in this subfield really needs to know. And I’ve come down on something that will, perhaps, be totally unsurprising: theory, both its development and its use.
First, the development of theories. We’re getting better as a subfield about trying hard to produce logically valid arguments, the kind that imply their own evidence (and can thus be falsified), but we’ve got a long way to go (which is good news for anyone getting started in IR). A senior colleague of mine has said (though I’m paraphrasing) that IR is characterized by a lot of sloppy answers to a lot of important questions, and I’ve decided that I want to push my grad students in the direction of developing good answers to those big, pressing questions about why large groups of people get together and kill each other and things they value in large numbers. I don’t want to set them on a particular topic, nor do I want them to adopt a specific tool, but I want them to be able to evaluate and develop logically valid arguments about, i.e. useful models of, the political world. As my students will see throughout the semester, it’s hard coming up with valid arguments that can then be used to add empirical content to the subfield. It’s hard, but it’s eminently worth it.
Second, the use of theories. Too often, some of our most useful and insightful theories, especially formal ones, elude empirical testing, and while it’s understandable—because, yes, it’s difficult—I want my students to get to the point of engaging the best arguments we have on the level of designing an appropriate research design, using the right sample, etc. in light of what the underlying assumptions of the model tell them to. When we engage theories only on the level of their hypotheses, it’s too easy to miss what the structure of the argument itself is telling us about the proper domain in which the argument applies, the error structure we should expect, and the functional forms of our variables. In short, using theories well (and responsibly) requires being able to identify and understand the critical nuts and bolts of the logical structure that produces their implications, and that’s what this course is aimed at: understanding what the arguments out there really say, what they imply, and what that means for testing them.
So what’s “important” for an IR course? It’s not just moving from one “image” to another (or reversing them), changing units of analysis, or blending the study of interstate and civil war—it’s learning how to those things effectively and responsibly. And as my poor students are about to find out, that ain’t easy.
But it sure is rewarding. I can’t wait to get into that classroom.