Prospect Magazine: Cool Classes

War Comes to the Classroom

A foreign policy class examines current events.

Sit in on a class session in Political Science 307—“American Foreign Policy”—and you’ll catch references to many of the sacred texts of United States political history: everything from the Federalist Papers to the farewell address of General Eisenhower, about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.”

But when the class is offered during a period of intense fighting in Iraq, the required reading also includes more contemporary sources, like today’s Tribune.

The scope of Political Science 307 extends over the full 227-year history of U.S. foreign policy. During a recent Spring Term, however, the day’s events time and again took center stage. That was perfectly fine with Assistant Professor Jennifer Boyle. The war in Iraq, after all, offered a tailor-made case study in the complexities of a superpower’s foreign policy in a time of crisis.

“I work the war in Iraq into my lectures all the time, and if I don’t, someone else brings it up,” Boyle said after a class about halfway through the eventful term. “I do try to follow the syllabus, but I’ve given over a class or two to discussing the crisis. It’s everywhere—it can’t be avoided—and the students are passionate about it.”

Throughout that spring, Boyle’s class met twice weekly in an Internet-ready “smart” classroom on the lower level of Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel. The professor sometimes used the room’s online connections to take her students on searches for the wealth of information to be discovered on the Web sites of the U.N., the World Bank, and other international organizations.

More typically, she would lecture for the first half of the 90-minute session. Then the 13 students in the class (most political science majors) would rearrange the furniture to form a circle for a discussion of assigned readings. These discussions took the form of Socratic exchanges led by Boyle. It was here that attention inevitably turned to Iraq.

On one of the first balmy days of spring, while a few peers tossed Frisbees on the College Mall, Boyle’s students discussed an essay by Michael Roskin: “From Pearl Harbor to Vietnam: Shifting Generational Paradigms and Foreign Policy.” The essay traces the ideological swings—from isolationism to interventionism and back again—in American political life during the 20th century. Where on Roskin’s continuum, Boyle asked her class, was the United States right now?

“We’re in a proactive mode. We’re not just reacting to things,” one student volunteered. “The idea now is that we have to act beyond our borders to stay secure,” another agreed.

Boyle is becoming expert at provoking thoughts and evoking opinions. She also taught Political Science 307 in the Fall Term 2002, her first term on the political science faculty. (She’s a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and earned her Ph.D. at Loyola University Chicago.) In the Fall Term, the national and international debate over American intervention in Iraq was just getting started. Boyle recalls that the discussions in her class sometimes grew heated. By spring they tended to be more measured, even as the fighting began. Opinions in the class seemed to extend along the political spectrum: some opposed the U.S. intervention; some favored it; some saw it as a “necessary evil.”

Boyle herself works to remain above the fray. “I try to take myself out of the debate and be objective,” she says. “I’m a political scientist. My goal is to encourage the students to think.”

Toward that end, she asks her students to write. Besides the big end-of-term research paper, she assigns occasional brief “position papers,” in which students argue their views on a given policy issue. The papers then become the basis for class discussions. On those occasions when debate falters, Boyle is ready to jump-start the class by peppering her students with challenging questions. “What about the idea of generational paradigms in foreign policy?” Boyle asked at mid-term. “I’m supposed to be part of Generation X. Do you feel part of a distinct generation?”

The question seemed to stump the group, and Boyle began to move on. But even as she did, a student spoke up. “I guess we’re the generation that moves on to the next question when we don’t have the answers.”

The notion seemed to satisfy just about everyone in the circle.

Jennifer Boyle teaches American foreign policy with a focus on current events.
Photo by: Tom Lindfors

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