Columns, Opinions

Miller ’19: ‘Global studies’ proposal bites off more than it can chew

By
Opinions Editor
Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Editor’s Note: Due a technical error, a draft version of this column was posted at 11:34 p.m., Oct. 31, 2018 and appeared in the Nov. 1 print edition. The final version was posted at 9:44 a.m., Nov. 1, 2018. The Herald regrets the error. 

The Dean of the College recently released a report that synthesized the work of a committee created last semester to review the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and its three undergraduate concentrations — development studies, international relations and public policy. The report provided a detailed analysis of the structures, curricula, faculty advising and overall “strengths and opportunities” across the three concentrations. The report concluded, somewhat abruptly, that the three concentrations should be merged into a single “global studies” concentration with two tracks — governance, focused on comparative policy, and development, based on the current development studies program.

To start, this specific committee was comprised of students who graduated with degrees in development studies, public policy and history, according to their respective LinkedIn profiles. No student on the committee graduated with a degree in international relations. At the very least, the study was not conducted with a fair representation of the international relations concentration from the perspective of someone who had completed the requirements. In the class of 2018 alone, there were 62 possible such candidates to join the committee.

The report specifically criticizes the term international relations for being somewhat outdated, mentioning that several schools, including Yale, the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley, have moved away from “international relations, with its roots in the Cold War-era.” Yes, Watson was founded in 1979, at the height of the Cold War. But it is a naive assertion that interactions between nations were born out of the 1970s ideological battle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Furthermore, why should Brown have to follow the pied piper of its academic peer institutions and consolidate its concentrations when it can chart its own path that caters to the needs of its student body? These other universities do not have the same commitment to an open curriculum, wherein students may tailor their paths to their individual likings. Choice is a hallmark of Brown, mentioned over and over again by administration, faculty and students in admission materials.

Unlike some of its peers, Watson is not an institute lacking funding in its coffers, searching for economic consolidation. UC Berkeley, by contrast, combined development studies and peace and conflict studies into a nebulous “global studies” in order to increase the resources these majors would receive once incorporated into a larger framework — despite student protest. Watson has received a $50 million gift with the express purpose of constructing a new building and hiring new faculty, which proves it is in no way short of money — yet it is the students who will be shortchanged.

Most importantly, this Watson merger will flatten the nuances of politically and diplomatically relevant areas of study, homogenize an incoming group of students and strip each concentration of its scholastic distinction. The report bemoans the lack of international perspective in the public policy concentration, particularly the fact that the concentration has no language requirement at present. Their proposed remedy: Students would now be required to take the equivalent of six semesters of a language and four regional classes corresponding to the language. (The report includes a throwaway line — “Further discuss language requirement for students focusing on ‘U.S.’ region”— that might limit the regional or language requirements for students looking to focus on U.S. policy. This has not yet been fleshed out, so I will avoid discussing its vague implications for such students.) A facility for language can be helpful in any major, but language learning should not compromise public policy’s focus on the policymaking and implementation process. And what about students who really just want to focus on the nitty-gritty, statelevel of U.S. politics? Will fluency in French or Russian give further insight into Iowa politics? Why would a student policy wonk looking for further insight into the workings of our government at the state or federal legislative level gain depth via 10 mandated courses of, for example, Italian or Italian history?  The addition of a language requirement takes the place of six other classes that could facilitate exploration of other interests. Plus, imagine applying to a job in domestic politics as a self-contradictory  “global studies concentrator with a focus on the U.S.”

Development studies remains mainly unchanged in the global studies development track; the report waxes lyrical about the concentration’s distinct atmosphere. This boutique major, usually of 15 concentrators, would most likely receive a new influx of students as a result of the proposal. But with this growth, its spirit may be lost, as the number of new concentrators could disrupt the tightknit community established between students and faculty.

International relations —  by far the largest concentration of the three — suffers the most from these proposed changes. While the core five classes and language requirements are retained with slight modifications, both tracks of the existing concentration have been folded into the global studies concentration, which focuses on either development studies or public policy. International relations currently offers two tracks — political economy and society and security and society — each of which offer five courses, with many different options available each semester. These broad opportunities will be confined to the margins, and students will have to either focus on development or public policy. Students looking to specialize as international diplomacy and governance experts, or political economy whizzes, will almost completely lose an opportunity for in-depth study in their chosen field. It is almost unfathomable to me that Brown, a school committed to academic exploration and nuance, is considering stripping students of valued and popular options.

The open curriculum already provides students an opportunity to further their concentration with electives in any department, including language and language-related coursework. As a public policy major, you may take classes in international relations or pick up a new language if you are looking for a global perspective. As an international relations concentrator, you are welcome to take development classes or public policy courses in order to get a better understanding of the ways in which we govern ourselves and the impact governance has on others. By design, the University already affords students these opportunities for exploration, making these mandates unnecessary. Isn’t the purpose of Brown’s open curriculum to enrich student academic options both within and outside a single concentration?

There are opportunities for increased synergies and cross-pollinization among the Watson concentrations — a major concern of the committee — but stripping them down and mandating only two paths is not the proper solution if the desire is to foster creative scholarship in a field.

This report should not be treated as gospel. It can be changed, and the leaders of Watson, including Director Edward Steinfeld and Associate Director Steven Bloomfield, have dutifully listened to students in three town hall meetings in order to gauge responses to such a drastic change. This is yet another opinion and suggestion. I respectfully urge the assembled Watson faculty committee to view the concentration consolidation suggestion from the Dean of the College report as a tarnish on the Brown open curriculum model. Doing otherwise would strip nuance from three popular and distinct concentrations and severely limit students who came to Brown specifically to find their own niche. While there is room for improvement within all three concentrations, this does not mean Watson should melt down their essences and sculpt Frankenstein’s monster with bits and pieces from each. Watson has the funds to continue to grow all three concentrations while leaving them substantively intact and recognizing their distinct purposes on campus. Brown should be creating more opportunities for students to craft their concentrations and chart their own paths rather than leaving them with fewer options to pursue their goals. It is the quintessence of what makes Brown the Brown to which we came.

Emily Miller ’19 is an international relations concentrator and can be reached at emily_miller@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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