Teaching in an Era of Flux: Foreign policy has always been messy — the key is to stay critical

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

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April 29, 2019

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.

Also in the series

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.