Real impact through your teaching: a case study

25th May 2021

Author: Giles Alston, North America Analyst, Oxford Analytica

How do you teach for real-world impact through your students? One way is to bring the real world into the classroom and encourage students to apply their learning to unfolding events, just as they will need to in life after university.

Although not a full-time academic, I am fortunate to have the chance to run a course, largely for undergraduates, that looks at aspects of geopolitical analysis.  It is part of a programme that brings students from across the US and several other countries to New York for a term during which they intern during the day with organisations linked to some aspect of international relations (think tanks, media, NGOs, and foundations, as well as companies).  The courses that students take in the evenings are run largely by practitioners, so that one on human rights is taught by a practising human rights lawyer, or one on journalism by someone from the New York Times.  We may be inexperienced as teachers but what we lack in classroom skills we at least make up for in enthusiasm.

I work for an independent geopolitical analysis and advisory firm that specialises in political risk, and so my course reflects the work we do while suggesting some of the ways that it is possible to carry over an interest in international relations into a career path.  It attempts to combine three different strands into something of a coherent whole.  One is an introduction to open-source intelligence analysis; another uses a series of case studies to examine how intelligence analysis has played a role in foreign policy decision-making, looking particularly at how analysis is communicated to those who have to make decisions.  Finally, we consider how approaches to analysis might be changed by the nature of the organisation for which one works.

As a class, we try our hand at some of the approaches and techniques that we study.  One aspect is to ask students to work on countries of which they have no background or experience.  This involves putting together a research agenda (what do we need to know about the country and how do we find it?), a monitoring programme (how we can best assess what is going on in the areas that we judge to be important?), and choosing a format to best convey the analytic output to decision-makers.

All of these can be a challenge for a country you have never met before, but we are lucky in that we can draw one of the products put out by the company I work for, Oxford Analytica. Expert Briefings are modelled on the daily briefing that presidents receive each morning in the White House. The content taps into expertise from scholars and academics around the world, asking them to explain simply and clearly what is happening in a particular situation, looking at drivers and causes before considering implications.  Whether it is elections in Peru, the wheat harvest in Russia, or an insurgency in Mozambique, the aim is to provide clear analysis of what the trajectory may be and why it matters.

Access to Expert Briefings has proved a great help in the classroom.  With an emphasis on the countries that are rarely in the headlines and a search engine that allows intuitive requests, it can be easy to find articles that help with initial research and subsequent monitoring.  Each of the longer articles, around 1,200 words, is hyperlinked to others – either earlier ones so that you trace how an issue has developed, or ones that consider how that issue might affect neighbouring countries or an aspect of geopolitics.

But perhaps the most useful thing that Expert Briefings offer is a lesson in how to write for those with little time and full agendas.  Having to place an issue and its implications within a framework of 1,200 words helps with a key aspect of the class – helping students transition from showing what they know, which is how they have always been taught to write, to writing only what someone else needs to know in order to do their job. This is a difficult switch to make even as a professional, and particularly so as a student.

But it has been encouraging to see students take to this challenge. Using the latest information available in Expert Briefings provides a sense of working in the moment, looking at real-world problems in real-time.  It also helps students watch how the consequences of one country’s actions can ripple out to neighbours and beyond, producing reactions that feedback into a new round of changes.  In addition, Expert Briefings offers a perspective on how governments are reacting to non-traditional aspects of international relations, especially all the different issues associated with climate change.

Linking current news with underlying policy trends and drivers provides new ways for students to draw links with the theoretical aspects of studying international relations as a discipline, and to consider those theories alongside the current challenges with which governments are grappling.  Unsurprisingly, students enjoy the chance to see headlines in a deeper context, while seeing theories juxtaposed with current developments.

Courses taught by practitioners have their drawbacks, but sometimes they can bring something new to the classroom – a perspective, an outside speaker, and, in this case, a resource that can help to develop a skill for use beyond the course.