Mathis Lohaus

International Relations & New Media

zib

In the current issue of Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen (ZIB), four authors discuss International Relations and New Media. To complement the series in ZIB, we’re running a so-called “blog carnival” that deals with the topic. Please head over to zoon politikon to check out what our colleagues have written [in German].

Here, I would like to address two of the four ZIB articles. The first was written by Ali, a former colleague in Berlin, who is a very experienced blogger (and Twitter power-user).

Under the heading “The Republic of Scholars 2.0” [PDF, in German], he argues that academic discourse in less formalized settings (such as social media and blogs) is the modern equivalent of the exchange of letters among scholars in the 17th century. Thus, German-speaking academics should overcome their shyness and catch up to their American and English colleagues, who seem to be more active users of new media. You can find a summary of Ali’s argument on his blog.

Based on conversations Ali and I had last year, I have argued in the same direction:

Does this lead to shared cultural understandings or at least mutual tolerance? Or does the web merely offer a cheap and anonymous way of reinforcing prejudices and being angry at each other? As any self-respecting political scientist will tell you: It depends…

Academic blogging is probably a “most likely” case of a positive effect. After all, we’re talking about a group of people who share similar ideas and practices, are used to cross-border exchange, and have a lot to gain from talking to each other. Yet I am also cautiously optimistic for non-academic political blogs that speak to a general audience. Whenever people are exposed to voices from outside of their well-established “filter bubble”, this is a great chance to learn and understand new perspectives. The internet certainly offers a huge potential in that direction.

The second article is called: “Teaching IR with New Media” [PDF, in English]. Kimo Quaintance (who has a blog, too) advocates the use of tools such as Wikis and blogs in teaching, but also cautions that not all optimistic assumptions about digital natives should be taken at face value:

While students may possess broad experience with e-mail, social networking and mobile devices, this doesn’t necessarily translate into the kind of information literacy or knowledge creation skills useful in academia.

Kimo has some very good, constructive points on how to foster information literacy, collaboration and outreach. I recommend you read the whole piece.

Here I just want to echo his words of caution. Take the following as me playing the devil’s advocate: Under some conditions, I think that the usage of “new media” in teaching can feel artificial or forced. Blog posts instead of essays, web sites instead of presentations? That might work, but we should be careful not to be too optimistic based on our own enthusiasm for the medium.

First, and most generally, if the core elements of the discipline are old-fashioned, teaching might not be the best venue to change things. If the #1 skill to master is writing formal papers, that should be what you (are forced to) practice. But of course this is subject to change and should not be used to kill all kinds of innovation, so I don’t want to over-stress this point.

Second, think about the value added. Model UN and other simulations are useful because they are inductive tools to experience dynamics that might be difficult to understand based on theory alone. Spending many hours to set up a mock NGO website might be interesting, but we have to be sure that it really adds something that could not be learned in a more efficient way. Also, depending on the class, the experience should not overshadow the contents: If after three days of mock conference / web design I only remember how much fun the negotiating / coding was, but nothing about policy issues, maybe that’s a problem…

Finally, how many people do you know that were born in the 1990s and maintain a blog (in the “traditional” sense)? It might be that blogging is completely passé by now and  we’re beating a dead horse. Maybe the easiest way out would be to ask people about their media habits and productivity tools first, see how much desire for change there is, and then make suggestions. Or let people experiment in groups?!

To wrap up: Ali and Kimo have made a number of very good points on the usefulness of new media in the exchange between scholars and for teaching, respectively. I highly recommend both pieces! Again, please consider looking at the other blog posts dealing with New Media and International Relations, and of course the rest of the ZIB issue.

8 comments

  1. Zoe

    I don’t know. Is there not a difference between what is academic (or what academia is) and what isn’t? I think it’s great I can follow Anne-Marie Slaughter on Twitter, but that is never going to be a replacement for reading one of her journal articles. I think it’s also great to get involved in blogging about IR, but writing a blog post does not require the same effort or skill set as writing an essay (without even putting a value judgement on that, not better or worse, just different). I don’t really understand what you get from having students write a blog post instead of an essay, other than trying to appear innovative. We’re awash with “content” but there is only so much depth that can be conveyed in a blog post and students need to learn how to do the hard, long (and yes sometimes boring) work that is involved in researching a full-length paper. I feel like this mostly serves students’ short-term interests “awesome, I only have to write 500 words and all my citations can be hyperlinks” but not the long-term project of developing academic skills. Or maybe I’m just being cranky.

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  4. Kimo

    Mathis – Thanks for the kind words and your thoughts on the subject. You bring up an excellent point when you caution against using technology for technology’s sake. We don’t need technology in the learning experience, we need solutions to problems that we and our students face in making sense of the world and producing knowledge. Sometimes technology can provide innovative solutions to those problems, or give us new ways of understanding the nature of the problems.

    To respond to Zoe’s comment, I certainly agree that blogs are no substitute for peer-reviewed articles or essays, but they shouldn’t be put in competition with each other. Blogs can be a great way of fleshing out ideas and arguments in a public forum that sharpens ideas that eventually make their way into more formal writing. Two advantages of having students writing blogs stand out in my mind. First, there is good evidence that students put more effort into work that will be seen by their peers or the public. Second, the feedback they get on their blogs can be helpful in giving them firsthand experience that the crafting of ideas and arguments is both a process, and part of a discourse, rather than a strictly isolated activity (something we try to help them understand about engaging with sources in their research papers). Blogs can never replace the value of more formal assessed or peer-reviewed writing, but they can help students (and academics) build up to that level of writing, and break down the myth that great work happens as a burst of creative effort in isolation. Helping our students realize that their best work will evolve over time as part of a discourse, and that their ideas should be shared with wider audiences can only help our cause as educators in the long run.

    • Mathis Lohaus
      Mathis Lohaus

      Good points. Thank you for the comment! I’ll keep looking for more reports on what seems to work well and what might be hyped. We should probably try to write some more on that issue in the future.

      • Kimo

        Absolutely! It’s not an issue that’s going away anytime soon, and there’s a lot to be said and debated about it. Looking forward to more on this.

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  6. Monica

    I am looking to write a research proposal and to my utter dismay, New Media is still not getting featured in any useful literature. I can visualize it playing a very important role in the future.

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