Listen Now

How to teach international affairs in an era of flux

Six Canadian academics reflect on the challenges of teaching in a world of fast-paced news and distrust of sources.

By: /
14 January, 2019
The University of Toronto campus. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

In the fall of 2018, University of Northern British Columbia professor Heather Smith brought together a panel of international relations scholars at the annual meeting of the Prairie Political Science Association.

One of her requests to the five panel participants was that they share how they are teaching “Canada in the world,” particularly in the Trump era, which is perceived by many to be a time of considerable flux. A lively conversation ensued — one that she says was made richer by the academics’ different theoretical orientations, areas of expertise and lived experiences.

Following the event, Smith and the panellists reflected on teaching in general, and teaching about Canada in the world in an era of flux more specifically, for Here are their thoughts — and advice for their colleagues.

Accept the idea that teaching is political, not neutral.

Nicole Wegner, professional affiliate, Department of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan

Teaching politics is political. Teaching politics in the Trump era presents challenges: many established practices and norms of international politics are in flux. In addition to the effect these changes may have on course content and focus, rhetorical strategies of the Trump administration can seep into classroom conversations about politics in Canada and the world. I have noticed increased student demand for “both sides” of topical issues to be “presented equally” in the classroom. While instructors should cover various ideological perspectives on issues, the content we present is hardly neutral and the ways we teach and facilitate is inherently political. The ways that teachers facilitate discussions is as important as the content we include in the syllabus.

Topics in the contemporary classroom are not only informed by textbook readings, but also increasingly by digital media information on current events in foreign policy. Classroom conversations must navigate what are, and are not, legitimate information sources. Consider the recent Munk Debate on the “rise of populism” that featured Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist and the former executive chairman of Brietbart News, the darling of many alt-right groups. Bannon’s presence at the Munk Debates cast him as an authoritative political expert, and by extension, legitimized ideas and rhetoric used by Bannon and others that condones bigotry, racism and white supremacy. When discussing these concepts in a classroom, how are instructors to navigate this? Are far-right ideas simply “one side” in a debate by which “all sides” have inherent value and therefore should be respected equally?

While instructors hold a position of power and must exercise caution in abruptly shutting down students wishing to engage in fruitful debate, instructors must also recognize that dynamics between students contain power relations. The challenge, therefore, is creating a space for dialogue and discussion that is equitable. Instructors must consider how the presentation of “all sides” may be digested by various classroom participants.

While instructors should pay attention to their own biases when teaching material, instructors must also be aware of the ways that divisive and potentially isolating points of view have real-life, personal effects on our students with high risk of structural inequality.

While these challenges are not new, they appear more pronounced with the rise of Trumpian rhetoric. Teaching Canada in the world, therefore, must not only consider the sources we put on our syllabi, but also consider the ways that perspectives in classroom discussions are negotiated.

Back to top

Students must be able to question the status quo.

Kristi Heather Kenyon, assistant professor, Human Rights, University of Winnipeg’s Global College

Since 2016 I’ve taught human rights in an interdisciplinary human rights program. My approach to teaching about Canada in the world is to find ways to unsettle expectations and allow students to look at the country we live in with fresh eyes. It can be easy when studying Canada in Canada to take too much as given, to assume that historical events were inevitable, or that current policy approaches are the only option. I try to find ways to make the familiar strange and, in doing so, enable students to question dominant narratives and the status quo.

One way I do this is by providing opportunities for students to apply academic tools of analysis to unexpected materials. What can we learn about power and representation by analyzing statues in the city, museum exhibits, or even children’s books? Applying analytical tools to materials with which students already have an existing relationship can be particularly powerful. Examining landmarks in the city, for example, can overlay new understandings on a familiar landscape and on places that they will continue to revisit.

Another strategy is to contextualize Canadian examples with international ones. If students are, for example, exposed to constitutional human rights provisions from around the world before analyzing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they are able to critically examine the charter not only for what it contains but also for what it omits (for example: environmental rights, healthcare, housing). I incorporate both expected and unexpected comparisons through experiential learning. What can we learn about Canadian perspectives on human rights by also studying American perspectives alongside American students? What can we learn about Canadian healthcare by studying healthcare in Botswana? Why are some comparisons comfortable, or even flattering, and others uncomfortable? What do those feelings tell us about how we see Canada in the world?

The rise of Trump is reflected in three ways in my classroom: fear, decreased clarity on “facts,” and exposure to a narrow, self-congratulatory narrative of comparison between Canada and the US. In partnership with my students I aim to dispel complacency, encourage critical reflection and enable them to see themselves as agents of change. Continually inspired by my students, my objective is that we leave the room with a sense of possibility and an informed desire to improve the country and world we live in.

Back to top

Canada may be a critical global actor, but other perspectives remain just as important.

Rebecca Tiessen, professor, School of International Development and Global Studies, and University Chair in Teaching at the University of Ottawa

For me, teaching about Canada and the world pertains to the role and impact of Canada and Canadians in promoting equality, opportunity and justice in relation to issues of international development.

One course I offer (a fourth-year course on global studies, citizenship and development) focuses on the role of Canadian youth abroad and the impact of their experiential learning, internships, and volunteer placements as forms of diplomacy and civic engagement. Students consider the impacts and contributions of international aid workers/volunteers to international development outcomes, drawing heavily on critical scholarship outlining privilege and inequality of opportunity as well as literature from the perspective of receiving organizations in the Global South. Subaltern perspectives — those from marginalized individuals or groups — are essential for moving the conversations from ‘Canadians reflecting on what Canadians do’ to hearing from those with whom Canadians are interacting to learn what value and contributions are made through Canada’s international efforts.

Through this course, students consider the distinctive challenges and opportunities for working with communities in situations of vulnerability. Our focus on a world in flux is at the heart of this analysis because Canadian responses to international crises require immediate, humanitarian interventions as well as long-term, sustainable and preventative development strategies.

Canadians have an important role to play in these responses but we face many challenges, including Canada’s low aid spending allocations relative to other

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, shifting priorities and changing countries of focus, and the growing number of international crises, disasters and conflicts.

Back to top

International norms and institutions, once a given, are now on shaky ground.

Wilfrid Greaves, assistant professor of International Relations, University of Victoria

I’ve been teaching undergraduate courses on Canadian foreign policy since 2012, and it’s getting harder. It has long been the case that teaching introductory Canadian foreign policy requires engaging with scholarship from across political science, international relations, political economy, history, sociology and law. The scope of Canadian foreign policy was broad but the highlights were fairly clear: Confederation, empire, the world wars, the Cold War, free trade, the post-Cold War 1990s, 9/11, Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terror. How Canada pursued its national interests was structured around its involvement in key global and continental institutions: the United Nations, NATO, NORAD, the G7, NAFTA, the WTO, and the bedrock of the Canada-US bilateral relationship. Even though global politics has, in retrospect, been on a turbulent path since the start of the twenty-first century, we could still identify patterns of continuity around Canada’s role in the world because these institutions were durable and the major issues underpinning Canadian foreign policy appeared relatively constant.

Today, many of these supposedly durable institutions are sagging under multiple strains and the unprecedented capriciousness of the Trump presidency towards allies, partners and enemies alike. Just in the last year, the Trump administration has forced Canadians (and many others) to seriously contemplate: an overt lack of US commitment to NATO, driving renewed discussions of how Europeans cannot trust America as a reliable partner in their defence; the threatened end of the World Trade Organization and of the North American free trade area, including on-going steel and aluminum tariffs imposed against Canada on the grounds of national security; US acquiescence to Russia’s violations of international law and Ukrainian sovereignty through the annexation of Crimea; a determination to undermine the Iran nuclear deal that America negotiated; and, even more recently, American implicit support for the murder of a US-based dissident journalist on the orders of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

Each of these issues affects Canada’s national interests and influences its foreign policy, which is always sensitive to developments in Washington. Yet unlike past episodes of executive misguidedness, America’s current bout of irrational foreign policymaking is set against a more ominous backdrop: the decline of democratic norms and rise of illiberal democracies in Europe, Asia and Latin America; the disastrous fallout from the invasion of Iraq and the Syrian civil war that continues to unfold across the Middle East; deep divisions within America itself over racism, wealth inequality, rule of law, and violence characterized as ‘populism’; and the ongoing, largely unmitigated crisis of climate change and global environmental devastation.

In this harsh new light, the apparent reliability of many of the structures that have mediated Canada’s role in the world while insulating it from some of its greatest challenges seems a distant memory. In an emerging global order characterized by willful American insularity, and the weakening of liberal and internationalist norms at precisely the moment that global threats most require cooperative solutions, the future is dim, if not grim. And while these effects ripple out and touch our lives in many ways, they are central to how we research, teach and learn about Canada’s place in the world. A country whose engagement with the world has too-often been complacent is unlikely to be well prepared for the challenges that lie ahead, and students of Canadian foreign policy can no longer take for granted some of the cornerstones which, in the past, seemed as certain as the future was bright.

Back to top

Foreign policy has always been messy — the key is to stay critical of all-encompassing theoretical models.

Jean-Christophe Boucher, assistant professor, Political Science, MacEwan University

I have been teaching Canadian foreign policy consistently since 2010, when I was still a PhD candidate, in four different institutions (two in French and two in English). I would say my position is mostly positivist with little actual interest for theoretically entrenched debate. Theories are there to construct a plausible narrative around empirical data and highlight causal or process mechanism that are important relative to other explanations. I am skeptical of all-encompassing grand theoretical models (from either the critical or positivist fields). I find myself more comfortable surrounded by mid-range theories focused on understanding the impact of domestic (and I guess intermestic) factors on states’ behaviour in the world. From this perspective, I am a prototypical foreign policy scholar.

I want my students to start from a position of inquiry (or, in other words, problem-solving) and then rampage the theoretical field to find interesting arguments of why we would assume things are the way they are. American political scientist James Rosenau wrote in The Study of World Politics in 2006 that research endeavours, which I don’t think is quite different from creating a learning environment for my students, should be informed by asking a few fundamental questions: “What is this an instance of”? How is this subject, area, issue, different from other academic research questions? Why does Canada behave the way it does instead of implementing other policies? I see these questions as central and enduring to the field of foreign policy analysis in general, which Canada is only but one “instance of.”

From this standpoint, the evolving nature of Canadian domestic and global politics does not “overhaul” how I approach learning and teaching about Canadian foreign policy. Progress in Canadian foreign policy stems from accumulating empirical data that allows us to adjust or qualify further which causal mechanism have more or less impact on decision-making. Furthermore, development in mid-range theoretical models enables us to appreciate why these factors influence a state’s behaviour in the world.

Each week seeks to understand the influence (or lack thereof) of different Canadian actors such as the prime minister, the legislative assembly, bureaucracy, public opinion, news and social media, provinces, etc. From there, I can fill these topics with different content that gives voice to a diverse mosaic of perspectives and represents a wide array of classical, feminist, Indigenous, Francophone positions. I try to convey the notion that a critical, reflexive, approach to Canada’s place in the world should grow from a genuine, deep understanding of Canada’s institutions, societies and political system. In the end, I hope that my students have a better appreciation for the necessary “messiness” of Canadian foreign policy decision-making.

Back to top

The classroom is now the Twitter antidote — a space for deeper learning.

Heather A. Smith, professor, Global and International Studies, University of Northern British Columbia and visiting scholar at Dalhousie University

I’m teaching Canadian foreign policy for the first time since 2014 this winter term. As I’ve been reacquainting myself with Canadian foreign policy I’ve been struck by the pace of international diplomacy that often seems to take place via Twitter. It also appears that institutions and practices we often took for granted are under siege. How will I teach Canadian foreign policy given all this flux?

Ultimately, I’ve drawn three interrelated conclusions. First, it’s ok to have questions of my own about the field and about the world in which we live. Surely we want to encourage an openness to ideas in our students and so I’m fine with modelling that through my own questions. My questions include: are we in a period of flux that is fundamentally different from other perceived times of rapid change, such as the end of WWII or the end of the Cold War? Are we living in particularly dangerous times and if so, how does that shape our understanding of Canada in the world? I also want to know: where is the hope? I understand that it is our job as political scientists to engage in critical thinking, but where in the critique is the hope?

Second, content is only part of the equation. Content matters because it signals to our students what we believe to be the important issues and voices of our field. I want to ensure the course outline includes a range of scholars including feminists, critical and Indigenous scholars and I will present those voices alongside more mainstream scholarship.

Third, just as important as content is the way we design our assignments and the way we conduct our classes. What learning experiences do we want to create for our students? For me, I want to encourage my students to look beyond a tweet, to see the ways in which issues have histories and depth. I want to encourage my students to think carefully and respectfully about their own perspectives and the perspectives of others. My hope is that my classroom is a space for dialogue and discourse, a place for questions and reflection. These pedagogical objectives are not new. They are consistent throughout my years of teaching.

And so how will I be teaching Canadian foreign policy in a time of flux? I’ll teach with an openness to questions, an inclusive set of readings and a space for dialogue.

Back to top

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Open Canada is published by the Canadian International Council, but that’s only the beginning of what the CIC does. Through its research and live events hosted by its 18 branches across the country, the CIC is dedicated to engaging Canadians from all walks of life in an ongoing conversation about Canada’s place in the world.

By becoming a member, you’ll be joining a community of Canadians who seek to shape Canada’s role in the world, and you’ll help Open Canada continue to publish thoughtful and provocative reporting and analysis.

Join us