Tuning into Student Learning: The Music of IR Theories

Dictators’ Drinks at the Pub. A Role Play on the Strategic Use of Power and Violence

by Adnan Rasool, University of Tennessee at Martin

Intro level classes are notoriously hard in terms of getting complex concepts across to students. In most instances, such classes are listed as general education requirements and attract students who are mostly non – political science majors. This presents an extra layer of challenge for teachers trying to get the concepts across to non-majors. Based on experiences at a rural regional comprehensive university, in this paper we offer an innovative new approach that can assist in getting materials and concepts across to students irrespective of their major in an intro level international relations/world politics class. Our approach, the learning arc framework, synthesizes student learning into a four-step process; whereby students identify the concept, personalize it, relate to it in practical terms and justify it. This approach has shown promise in the classroom in the last few semesters that it has been deployed.

Our approach relies on using pop culture to help students relate to the concepts and personalize them. Specifically, in this paper we use music choices of our students to help them understand theories of international relations. Following the four-step process, we asked our students to first list the main theories of IR and then inquired what musicians in their opinions related most to which theory. We then asked our students why they made that choice and inquired what songs by the artists led them to this decision. Finally, we asked our students to justify their own choice of what theories relates most closely to their own worldview. By assigning an artist to a theory, we noticed students had better retention of what each theory did and how it applied in the real world.

For instance, Taylor Swift was consistently referred to as a constructivist given how she has evolved over time as an artist and how she interacts with others. Similarly, Kanye West was consistently presented as an example of someone who is a realist because students viewed him as someone looking out for his own interests with disregard to everyone around him. We acknowledge that this might not be the most accurate depiction of what constructivism and realism are in terms of academia but given that most of our students are non-majors looking to complete a general education requirement, this method at least ensured they had recall of what the theories are and what they refer to.

Our paper contends that the learning arc framework works and can be utilized in different manners, with music being just one approach. Additionally, we found this approach works best for freshmen and sophomores i.e., they score higher on assignments and quizzes related to the material after this approach is deployed in class. We hope this contributes to the growing pedagogical literature on improving classroom learning experiences in political science using pop culture.

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This Educate-JPSE collaboration brings together articles published in the Journal of Political Science Education that discuss classroom approaches related to teaching about race, racism, social justice and civic action. Our reading list offers a range of materials – from syllabi, reading lists to active learning assignments – that discuss classroom practices through the lens of identity, gender and power relations. It includes a model for professors who are interested in partnering with local community activists to design civically engaged courses, with specific examples covering research and organizing around affordable housing issues. 

The Journal of Political Science Education is an intellectually rigorous, path-breaking, agenda-setting journal that publishes the highest quality scholarship on teaching and pedagogical issues in political science. The journal aims to represent the full range of questions, issues and approaches regarding political science education, including teaching-related issues, methods and techniques, learning/teaching activities and devices, educational assessment in political science, graduate education, and curriculum development.