Teaching in a New World

Steve Saideman reflects on career changes and the intersection of academia and policy.
By: /
June 28, 2012

Roland Paris’s recent post on the worlds of policy and academia was well timed for me, as this week I am moving to Ottawa to take a position at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA). This means I am going from a school very much focused on producing professors and scholarly research to a place situated at the intersection of policy and academia. Indeed, to be in such a locale was one of the major drivers of my decision. Now that I am in transit (literally, this is moving week), I am a bit intimidated – though excited – by the challenges that lie ahead.  One of new neighbors encouraged me to think aloud about the opportunities ahead of me and then look back in a year or two to see if I had any idea of what I am getting myself into.

The first difference between my old job and my new one is the students. In my old position, I had two primary foci: undergrads and PhD students. For the former, the focus was on introducing students to thinking theoretically and analytically, and teaching them how to apply theories to develop general understandings. For the latter, the focus was on helping students figure out a puzzle – something that genuinely interested them in how the world worked – and trying to answer it, to push forward our understandings of international politics.


In my new position, most of my focus will be on students seeking to gain a master’s degree that will improve their employment prospects with the government and those that work with the government (think tanks, lobby groups, non-governmental organizations, corporations, etc.).

Instead of encouraging these students to think broadly, I think my focus will be on teaching them to take the general ideas and distill them into specific policy prescriptions. Instead of requiring them to write seemingly endless chunks of research, the assignments will probably focus on policy memos and papers that are short, less laden with literature review, and more focused on addressing the question, “How can I get someone to buy this policy recommendation?”

The challenge, for me, is that I have never really been an expert on any one place or thing. My work is always comparative: comparing how countries react to a secessionist conflict; comparing countries that were irredentist (seeking to enlarge their country at the expense of others to unite “lost” kin) with those that could have been; and, most recently, comparing countries in how they managed their militaries in Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere. So, my expertise, if it exists, is mostly on thinking about causes and consequences, which obviously matter for aspiring and actual policy makers, but I am not a policy wonk who knows the details of a weapons system or legal statute (or even what the Crown is). I am hoping (wishful thinking) that my key strength (honed from years of ultimate Frisbee) is that I know my limitations.

Another difference is that my PhD students will be cross-trained and more inter-disciplinary than my previous PhD students, since NPSIA is a multi-discipline school. This means they will be far greater experts on how to think about things with different tools and perspectives than the PhD students I know well. More importantly, it means they will have mixed aspirations – to be scholars/practitioners. I know how to advise a PhD student on how to become a professor, having done it myself, and also having trained enough of these folks. But getting the right mix of theoretical and practical knowledge is hard – especially since, while everybody talks a good game of wanting interdisciplinary, multi-disciplinary, trans-disciplinary scholars, most hiring is done by disciplines (political science, economics, sociology, etc.). The trick will be to try to get students to produce work that is policy relevant and provides some advance in our theories.

The second difference between my old job and my new job is the new context: Ottawa. I think the challenge here will be to figure out the right mix of experienced folks to bring to the classroom. Teaching in a national capital should provide many opportunities, but getting the right level of integration is going to be tricky. Not every policy wonk is articulate. Many are incredibly articulate, but want to present a particular point of view that might not be that helpful, like why policy x is successful but not why policy x came into effect.

My first two classes will be at opposite ends of the Ottawa-advantaged spectrum: Civil-Military Relations and U.S. Foreign and Defence Policy. I think over time the first one will be quite improved by the availability of both civilians and military folks who work in Canada’s capital to serve as guest speakers.  On the other hand, the latter class might just be a bit harder since Ottawa is not quite as chock full of American foreign policy practitioners.

Teaching aside, Ottawa will also provide another challenge for me. While I know more people in this city than in any other place I have moved to, that is not saying much. I am going to have to figure out some new tricks for this middle-aged dog, as I learn how to network in the policy world. I did a bit of that in D.C. in 2001-02 during a fellowship that put me in the Pentagon and the Washington policy community. I got so comfortable with the military folk that at receptions, I gravitated towards the people in uniform. While my work on Afghanistan has given me reasonably decent contacts in the Canadian Forces, there is a whole eco-system in Ottawa that I do not know. Figuring out how not to step on fragile plants or antagonize some of the more mercurial beasts will be challenging indeed.

The joy of my career has been change – that every class ends after a set period of time, that the material I cover changes as the world gives me new examples, and that my research agenda is my own. I have lived in places I never expected to (West Texas, Montreal, Ottawa), and I have engaged in research on topics that I had not anticipated I would. Change can still be scary, but this move to a different kind of academic environment is exhilarating precisely because it is a bit unnerving.

I look forward to CIC’s members, readers, and participants helping me navigate this world that is new to me. I have already been challenged to post again in a year to see if my expectations here have any basis in reality.

Photo courtesy of Flickr