Melissa Brown was taking part in an intercollegiate roundtable a few years ago when the discussion came around to classroom approaches to world politics.
“I realized that teaching world politics at BMCC is a richer experience than it might be elsewhere,” says Brown, an Associate Professor of Political Science. “At other schools, issues of privilege can make it difficult for students to go beyond a U.S.-centric point of view. Not so at BMCC, with its large contingent of international students as well as veterans who have served overseas. They tend to have a broader perspective.”
Viewing the world through multiple prisms
Now in her fourth year at BMCC, Brown teaches World Politics—Poli Sci 210. In contrast to a prerequisite course in American Government offered by the Social Sciences Department, “World Politics views the world through different theoretical approaches, such as realism, liberalism and constructivism,” she explains. Realism is the dominant approach and the first one Brown covers—albeit with a frank acknowledgment of its limitations.
“Realists tend to see governments as unitary, rational actors,” she explained to a recent Monday morning World Politics class. “But decision-making is rarely as rational as we might hope. Biases, fears, emotions, stress, wishful thinking and misperceptions can often impact critical decisions.” She cited two twentieth century examples: the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and the 1986 Iran-Contra affair, in which the U.S. government illegally sold weapons to Iran with the intent of using the proceeds to fund anti-government rebels in Nicaragua.
“Neither of these was a rational undertaking,” Brown said to the class. “In fact, you could consider them insane decisions. Can anyone suggest a more recent example?”
“Well, many people believe that the most recent President Bush went into Iraq only to finish the job he felt his father had begun,” volunteered one student. “That’s true,” Brown said. “The situation seemed to play into George W. Bush’s personal biases and his relationship with his father—especially since Saddam Hussein had threatened to kill his father.”
Making it personal
Brown’s favorite parts of World Politics “are our discussions about less traditional approaches, such as social constructivism, which question basic assumptions that the other approaches take for granted.” She also takes pains to illustrate the personal relevance of World Politics to her students.
“We each play a direct role in international affairs every time we purchase something,” she says. “For example, what factors do we consider when we buy a pair of sneakers? Do we care where they were made, who made them and how much the workers were paid? Are we concerned about the willingness of manufacturers to shift manufacturing operations across borders and the impact of those decisions on labor and living conditions there?”
Not surprisingly, students are often inclined to view world politics “as something distant from their lives,” Brown says. “So it is gratifying to be able to show them how international events and trends—such as China’s decision on how to value their currency—can directly have an impact on the U.S. economy, unemployment and thus their own future.”
It is Brown’s goal not only to demystify world politics, but to make it more meaningful to her students. Ideally, she says, “students will see the interconnectedness of the world in a new way—and begin noticing things that weren’t initially on their radar.”