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Doren '14: In defense of the IR changes

Mutiny! With last week's announcement of sweeping changes to the international relations curriculum, first-year and sophomore disciples of Brown's second-most popular concentration were up in arms against the administration of the Watson Institute for International Studies for what they deemed to be the untimely and undemocratic implementation of stringent new concentration requirements.

Even for a first-year, it is easy to see that things are changing here. Just look around at the ubiquity of on-campus construction projects, or check your inbox for the latest policies coming out of the Office of the President. It seems logical then that the new developments at the Watson Institute are only symptomatic of this greater pattern of change at Brown.

And, though one could certainly object to the validity of changes in other arenas of Brown life, the restructuring of the IR program was ultimately the right thing to do.

IR has a unique reputation on campus. As a first-semester first-year vacillating between concentrations, it was not at all rare to see an eyebrow raise or an abrasive look whenever I threw around the letters "IR" in discussing possible academic paths. At least in my early impression, it seems that, for some, IR has the reputation — though probably undeserved — of being a sort of cop-out — a last-minute, intellectually-incurious double major for those seeking a more marketable supplement to a liberal arts degree.

Though this assertion probably applies only to a very small portion of IR concentrators, these changes should nonetheless dispel that reputation completely. The latest requirements would, in fact, make IR one of the more course-heavy concentrations.

Consider, for example, the prospects facing an incoming first-year beginning on a 100-level foreign language. They will have to take, at the very least, 20 courses to complete the full distribution requirements. That is more than pre-med and almost twice as many as economics. Even more, their foreign language of choice will have to match their regional focus, which means that, unless they are focusing on Western Europe or Latin America, they will need to attain advanced proficiency in an immensely difficult language such as Mandarin, Arabic, Hindi or Russian.

But this is not to say that these changes were implemented masterfully. Deciding to heap on a set of stringent requirements in the middle of the year — let alone in the middle of the semester — was a decision I do not think I will ever understand. Why not announce the changes over winter break or over the summer, when sophomores who have to declare in March would know not to register for classes that no longer count? I'm looking at you, ANTH 0100: "Introduction to Cultural Anthropology." Now, I am not one who believes in taking classes solely to fulfill requirements — a profound intellectual curiosity should always accompany any selection of classes. But for second-semester sophomores who may be looking to study abroad — which, by the way, is "strongly recommended" according to the website — they may not have the luxury of passing up a class that is only offered once a year.

So in the midst of this logistical nightmare, what were the future international relaters of this country to do? Maybe they were doing their best to emulate the objects of their studies — Egyptian citizens — when they formed a Facebook group two weeks ago to protest the changes to the curriculum. Bizarrely, it seems to have worked. In last week's "town-hall meeting" at the Joukowsky Forum, the department heads at the Watson Institute retracted previous demands for the class of 2013, possibly making the transition much easier for sophomores who are approaching the concentration deadline.

The responsiveness and accountability demonstrated by the Watson Institute in this matter seems to contrast sharply with the image that has been conjured of the administration — especially by this newspaper — as a faceless, monolithic bureaucracy that ruthlessly commands some sort of evil University-industrial complex. It seems as if we often get too caught up in our trance-like hippie righteousness to realize that, as far as corporate institutions go, Brown is really quite benign and does demonstrate at least a modicum of interest in helping out its students.

But I digress. These changes, above all, are about more than cosmetically increasing the difficulty or exclusivity of the concentration — they are about restoring intellectual rigor to the study of international issues at Brown. I am not someone who judges the worth of a school by its ranking in U.S. News and World Report or other places. But if we want to put the Watson Institute on the map, if we want to keep bringing in world-class scholars to study and teach here, then we need to let the world know that IR at Brown means business. Though it is too early to tell how effective these changes will be, at this early stage they seem to represent a step in the right direction.

Oliver Doren '14 is a (tentative) Math-Econ and Development Studies concentrator from Miami, Fla.


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