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Yu '11: The new IR - better but not good enough

As a senior about to graduate with a bachelor of arts in international relations, the current reflections and debate surrounding the new IR concentration requirements have definitely caught my attention.

I received an invitation to the Facebook group "IR students against the new IR program" last week. I took a considerable amount of time away from doing my homework to look through the comments and concerns about an issue that no longer concerns me. I was surprised at the number of negative comments students and parents alike had towards the new concentration requirements, to the extreme of proposing a rally. I understand that many sophomores are unhappy with the vast differences these changes make to their course selection choices, and I do believe that the IR program should have made more of an effort to announce these changes before the start of this semester. But the benefits of the new IR concentration do need to be appreciated.

The new concentration requirements are a vast improvement from the old. The program is now more structured and more rigorous, and the requirement courses are now more coherent and streamlined. I especially applaud the integration of language skills into the senior seminar or thesis projects. It does not make sense, after all, that IR concentrators spend six semesters studying a foreign language and do not use it anywhere else in their coursework. I also give a thumbs up to eliminating the multitude of classes that are too easy or too obscure and replacing them with a solid foundation in political theory and history.

While it is wonderful that the IR program is now a more structured, more focused concentration, I am not quite convinced that my main concerns as a concentrator have been addressed. I, too, have gone through several semesters of concentration requirement changes and bewilderment at the many unfocused options. In particular, my frustrations with the concentration arose mostly because of the lack of IR course requirements offered in any one semester.

The fundamental problem with the concentration requirements is that IR concentrators must fill almost their entire curriculum with courses not offered by the IR program. While I definitely appreciate the breadth and flexibility offered to IR students in taking courses in a multitude of disciplines and departments, the IR program essentially has no real control over whether these courses will be available to students at any given time. I am familiar with the shopping period confusion at not having any of my required courses offered that semester.

What the IR program needs is more permanent teaching faculty, guarantees that there are enough required courses for students to take each semester and a quality, relevant "homegrown" curriculum at the Watson Institute for International Studies, using Watson faculty and resources. This semester, there is only one lecture course offered under the international relations course code, and all other courses are capped senior seminars. For around 300 concentrators, there are only seven classes.

The new IR concentration requirements have not done anything to address this shortcoming — there are just as few IR classes, and the core requirements of the IR program are just as multidisciplinary as before. Most rising juniors who declare an IR concentration find themselves never having taken a course with Watson faculty, unfamiliar with the institute's building and with what IR is really about.

In the spirit of liberal arts and self-driven learning, it is extremely important for younger and potential concentrators in IR to become familiar with the faculty and their work to be able to think in advance about their own academic interests.

Younger students are not likely to approach faculty or visit office hours if they had not taken classes with these professors before, and many are unaware that the many accomplished scholars with offices in the Watson Institute are actually approachable. Watson and its faculty need to be more available and friendly to younger IR concentrators and potential concentrators and make it possible for all interested students to experience the full breadth of what the Watson Institute has to offer.

International relations has definitely taken a considerable step towards vast improvement in creating a more rigorous and cohesive curriculum, but all the improvements may be undermined by the fact that the vast majority of IR concentrators are taking classes in other departments.

 

 

Sarah Yu '11 also thinks that the IR program could seriously benefit from a core required course in world geography. She can be reached at

xia_yu@brown.edu.


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