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.