What Does It Mean to Be Educated in International Studies
in Our Global Century?: A Perspective About Intentionality
from American University

On 1 July I became Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education of one of the world’s largest schools of international affairs: the School of International Service (SIS) at American University in Washington, DC. Since then, I’ve been largely engaged in a process of rethinking, along with the SIS faculty as a whole, just what it is we are doing when we educate our undergraduate students. We have almost 2,000 of them, so this is a pressing concern, made all the more so by the fact that it had been decades since we really examined the degree as a whole, and not just as an agglomeration of interesting topical classes and a vague emphasis on breadth. Precisely what do we think it means to be educated in international studies? I’m happy to report that we at SIS are busily fleshing out the answer to that question both conceptually and institutionally.

Since I know that many colleges—and programs within them—also are thinking more intentionally about undergraduate learning outcomes, I plan to share in this and future posts just one example of reflective and collaborative practice as a potential model from which others might learn.  Over the next few months I will post status updates as we put our plans into action, but for this first post I want to simply present the broad consensus we came up with about what our undergraduate degree is supposed to be all about.

As our website says, SIS’s overall goal is “to educate graduates of a special type: individuals whose personal and societal principles offer the promise of success in the rigorous conditions of an increasingly interconnected and complex world.” We are giving our students at whatever level the skills, knowledge, and critical intellectual capacity to work on ways of addressing the world’s most pressing challenges. But accomplishing this at the undergraduate level is not a simple matter of translating our MA curriculum into undergraduate courses—it involves a comprehensive and integrated curriculum that aims to bring students from their educational experiences in high school into a wider world of learning focused on world politics broadly understood. This is distinct from the kind of professional training and certification that is the hallmark of a terminal MA in any of the fields in which we offer graduate degrees; it is equally distinct from the kind of professional socialization into the world of international relations scholarship that is the hallmark of our PhD program.

Our undergraduate degree is a bachelor of arts in international studies, which is a liberal arts degree. Our program should therefore be firmly rooted in the liberal arts and sciences, interdisciplinary to the core, and aimed at helping students become better intellectually equipped to think critically and clearly about the most pressing global challenges that we face. It should also be an opportunity for students to find their truest vocations, to discover their passions and to become who they are: citizens of a planet characterized by overlapping worlds composed of a myriad of complex relations that defy simple or simplistic summaries. Our primary job as educators of undergraduates is to help inculcate in our students the critical intellectual dispositions and expanded moral imaginations that will help them, to put it bluntly, shape the global future. The greatest service we can provide for our undergraduate students is to provide them the occasion to develop their ability to think critically, creatively, and independently about important global issues, all the while confronting what Max Weber called the “uncomfortable facts” that raise difficulties for partisan, naively utopian, or otherwise unsustainably narrow points of view.

This mission animates the learning outcomes for the BA in international studies that were approved by the SIS faculty this year:

  1. Demonstrate critical thinking as evidenced through both written work and oral presentation
  2. Interpret issues from multiple cultural and philosophical perspectives
  3. Demonstrate an understanding of the role of values, ethics, and justice in international affairs
  4. Understand and apply theories and models drawn from appropriate disciplines such as political science, history, and economics to international affairs
  5. Display in-depth knowledge of one or more global or regional challenges
  6. Demonstrate competency in articulating a research question and designing and executing a research project
  7. Demonstrate at least four-semester proficiency in a foreign language

Of course, having learning outcomes— even good ones, rooted in a lot of contemporary thinking about the purpose of undergraduate education— is only the opening salvo in the battle to produce high-quality education. But at least we have goals for the program as a whole now, and we can use those goals as points of reference as we engage in the hard but necessary work of realigning the curriculum and our specific courses so as to most effectively meet these goals. Stay tuned!


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