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Uhrick '11: IR disposes of the culture buffet

So the new international relations requirements have been announced. Mark Blyth, professor of political science and director of undergraduate studies for international relations and development studies, sent out a letter that was, as promised after all the uproar last semester, completely devoid of humor. And if you are wondering why it took me so long to opine on the subject, it is because I was waiting for the e-mail from IR to confirm that I am, indeed, officially and semi-irrevocably on the graduation list.

For what I think the IR program is trying to do, this was a pretty respectable way of going about it. For those of you wondering why all the typical whining about IR requirements has increased lately, IR just upped its requirements by three courses and eliminated a major track — politics, culture and identity, the only culture-focused option. Now, 14 basic courses and the equivalent of three years of language study are required to graduate with an IR degree.

Naturally enough, the IR concentrators are upset, except for students like me, who due to seniority are graduating under the old program. The class of 2013 definitely had cause to complain, and I am glad they did.

But for first-years, it is worth noting that the requirements are only 20 courses if you enter Brown with no foreign language study, which basically no one does, or want to start over with a new language, which admittedly some people do. But the language requirement of six semesters is based on proficiency, not actual time spent taking language courses. By studying abroad or taking a placement exam, a student could fulfill this requirement without taking all six semesters of language.

It would not really be IR if you graduated with proficiency just in English.

Regional focus is another staple of the field in general, and increasing it from one course was probably a good call. I believe my regional focus is nominally the Caribbean, all because I took one fantastic course on Caribbean philosophy. I actually have not taken any other courses on the Caribbean. My language is German.

So, in other words, the changes could help keep some miscreants from scamming the system.

That said, if you received the e-mail and thought, "This is IR trying to get rid of me!" then you're probably right. This is an overburdened program — the largest concentration without a department and one of the largest concentrations, period — trying to shed excess concentrators, especially those making IR a secondary priority. The committee report itself, which recommended the changes, laments the difficulties of being an interdepartmental concentration with no resources and far too many concentrators for several pages then immediately launches into their suggestions for a more rigorous curriculum.

So who is being hit by these changes? Aside from the class of 2013, of course, which immediately and admirably recognized the extent to which the new requirements screwed them over, it is the late-declarers and those who would have taken the culture track that have lost out the most.

This is actually pretty fair. It makes sense to force out those who were the least serious about IR, given the program's sparse resources. The extra requirements, especially for some courses offered only once a year, make it harder than ever to double-concentrate or jump into the concentration late. With the elimination of the culture track, IR has narrowed down its options to either global security or economics, pushing all students who really wanted to learn about culture into either regional departments or anthropology. It never really made sense to have a track that was basically a three-course culture buffet with no real focus.

If anything, the changes encourage students who picked IR for the wrong reasons to have a healthier relationship with the true object of their interest. If the elimination of the culture track is enough to force you from IR, you probably belonged in anthropology, Africana studies, Hispanic studies or another regional department to begin with. Pushing these students away may also pump more life blood into the departments that the oversized IR program draws upon to keep itself alive, including political science and history. In some ways, the new changes are actually surprisingly healthy for pretty much everyone involved.

As far as sloughing off extra concentrators goes, this was actually a pretty decent way of doing it. It forces out those who were the least interested in the subject to begin with, and those who belonged in other departments, while focusing IR more exclusively on political and economic global policies. The changes were still almost certainly more spurred by considerations of having too many concentrators and not enough money rather than by an actual need to strengthen the program. I have always been firmly of the opinion that funding for the program should be increased. But if we accept that this view is too simplistic, then I believe the announced changes make sense.

 

Michelle Uhrick '11 is an international relations and economics concentrator from Connecticut. She can be reached at michelle_uhrick@brown.edu


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