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IR concentration changes on tap for spring

International relations, one of the largest concentrations at Brown, has begun the process of re-evaluating its advising and curriculum.

After a survey conducted by the IR Department Undergraduate Group last spring, some changes were instituted to address complaints of insufficient advising and limited senior course offerings. Now, a semester later, the implementation has been slow, but Michael Boyce '08, a member of the IR DUG's executive board, said more changes are on the horizon.

The biggest shift, Boyce said, has been the increased student input into discussions about changes to the IR program.

"If nothing else, the student voice in the IR program now garners a lot more respect and attention than it did before," Boyce said. "It's a variety of reasons, but at least partly due to the fact that the IR DUG has really been active and attentive in trying to monitor what goes on (in) the program and trying to be a stakeholder. We're invited to the table, and we get to participate in these decisions."

Peter Andreas, associate professor of political science with a joint appointment at the Watson Institute for International Studies, is now the director of the program, replacing Assistant Professor of Political Science Melani Cammett '91, who served as interim director for one year and is currently pursuing a fellowship at Harvard University. Andreas said the DUG has been instrumental in conversations about how to improve the program.

"In general, the IR DUG has been wonderfully active and engaged in the program, probably in a way that is kind of a model for other programs and other departments," Andreas said. "Yes, there are criticisms in that report, but I think their engagement reflects a certain enthusiasm for the IR concentration."

The advising system for IR concentrators was one of the main concerns of the report issued last spring. Claudia Elliott MA'91 PhD'99, the only general concentration adviser for the several hundred IR concentrators, now serves as a full-time faculty lecturer and assistant director of the undergraduate program.

According to the Office of Institutional Research, 122 students in the class of 2007 completed the IR concentration.

Andreas said he thinks Elliott becoming a full-time staffer has been the most important change in terms of advising IR concentrators. Among other things, her position allows her to hold more office hours, especially open office hours for students. Elliott wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that she is now able to hold 12 hours of office hours per week, with nine of them open and the other three by appointment.

There are six advisers in the program - five track advisers and Elliott as the sole concentration adviser.

"The needs of a large, interdisciplinary program require a centralized system where someone monitors courses and initiatives across campus and is the primary linkage to the dean of the College and the registrar," Elliott wrote in her e-mail. "In our two-tiered advising system, students have plenty of options and office hours for seeking advice."

Elliott wrote that she thinks the DUG should hold another survey to assess the changes in the program, since the previous one targeted juniors and seniors who don't often seek advice from advisers.

"It might be useful to hold a survey that includes the recent experience of sophomores filing the concentration," Elliott wrote. "My understanding is that advising is challenged across the campus and that this is being examined by the administration."

Other aspects of advising in the program have remained relatively the same, Andreas said.

"The track advising system is pretty much the same. There has been more interaction between the IR DUG and individual track advisers," Andreas said.

Boyce said he hopes to create a more personal advising system by matching students with professors who have similar research interests.

"If students are going to use their professors regularly, they need to be sure that they can get something out of it," Boyce said. "We're still trying to adjust the track-advising system so students can get more personalized advice, and so advisers can feel that their role is more important, and that students are really interested in getting quality advising and quality guidance, not just a signature on paper."

But the major issue with advising is the large number of students in the IR concentration. "It looks like IR is going to be even bigger than last year - it's probably a record-breaking year, probably making it the largest concentration on campus," Andreas said. "Those numbers will fluctuate, but basically we're looking at maybe a 20 percent increase in graduates this year over last year."

"The program is partly a victim of its own success," Andreas said. "Due to its popularity, its sheer size has made it a challenge to run effectively."

Boyce said more changes to the program are on the way but haven't been disclosed yet. He said those could include changes in the diversity of options in course requirements, at least relating to one of the program's core requirements, HIST 0020: "Europe since the French Revoluton."

Andreas said he thinks that new changes will help to make IR even more interdisciplinary. "For example, starting next year, we're hoping to add sociology and anthropology options to the core. And (we) also hope students will be able to choose from more than just one history course in the core," he said. "We've made the keystone course offerings in each track more interdisciplinary, by bringing anthropology course offerings into each keystone track."

Andreas said the program hopes to make several improvements in the future, including obtaining more funding for IR seminars taught by visitors at the Watson Institute, which would address the dearth of small senior seminars.

"We have the greatest demand for smaller classes, and senior seminars in particular. ... We need smaller classes, and there simply are not enough IR faculty for this," Andreas said. Senior seminars are "extremely popular (and) often very hard to get into," he added.

"At the top of our wish list would be funding for more senior seminars," Elliott wrote. "All IR students are required to have a capstone experience - an IR seminar where students are expected to write a major term paper and have feedback along the way from the instructor in that process. There is nothing more frustrating than to hear students tell me their seminar - their only seminar at Brown - was really a lecture course."

Changes to the concentration program will be presented to the College Curriculum Council, which must approve any changes, in the spring, Elliott wrote.

"The number of requirements would stay the same, but there would be a slight redistribution of requirements aimed at broadening the core requirements from economics, history and political science, to include sociology and anthropology," she wrote, noting that changes would take effect for the 2008-2009 academic year. She added that new options for the HIST 0020 requirement would be included in those changes.

Boyce, of the IR DUG, also said the creation of "study groups" at Watson - which include opportunities to sit down in a group setting with figures like Ricardo Lagos Escobar, the former president of Chile and a professor-at-large at the Watson Institute, and senior UN peacekeeping officials - create learning opportunities for students outside of the classrooms. Boyce said students have responded positively and said he hopes that more funding will become available to continue these sessions.

Despite the changes on tap, Boyce said he thinks the structure of the IR program is the most important issue to be addressed.

"Based on the conversations I've had, people are acknowledging that the relationship between the Watson Institute (and) the University needs to be more specifically defined," Boyce said. "We have this great interdisciplinary program, but we have these structural problems in the administration of the program, which is preventing the program from moving forward and really shining as a great example of an interdisciplinary program."


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