The Duck of Minerva

Blogging the syllabus, international security edition: what is security?

22 August 2013

With all of the focus on APSA, there’s been little discussion of another Labor Day ritual—the Revising of the Syllabus. In truth, I should have begun this ritual a few weeks ago.  Now that the panic dreams have kicked in—you know, the ones where you show up to class on the first day without a syllabus and thus lose all authority over your students for the rest of the semester…you do get those too, right?—I know I must take action.

My first task is to revise my introductory-level course on security studies and, luckily, it’s in pretty good shape, thanks to some major overhauls I did over the last two years.  But although I’m only engaged in minor tinkering, I at least try to reflect upon the major assumptions that shape the syllabus.  First and foremost, there is the mother of all assumptions: what is security, and what do we mean by security studies?

Ultimately, my approach is to define security studies narrowly, as the study of the use of military force in international politics.  This obviously has serious implications for what I teach.  In my class, I will talk to my students about power transitions, the offense-defense balance, nuclear deterrence, coercive diplomacy, civil-military relations, and conquest.   I will not be teaching about incredibly important issues of human security, including the environment, economic development, disease, migration, refugees, and an infinite amount of other topics.    The content and implications of my definition of security studies is something I discuss openly with my students. But despite this dialogue, I recognize I am engaging in bit of policing of the discipline, defining certain topics as security and certain ones as not.  Moreover, while I do not think of myself as a Luddite—there is no discussion of the 3-1 debate, and I do use my section on terrorism to talk about securitization, for example–my narrow definition means I’m a bit of a traditionalist, the sort of dinosaur that David Baldwin said must evolve if security studies wants to survive (PDF).

So why the traditionalist definition?  Three major reasons drive my decision:

  1. Maximize my value added.  The first reason is really specific to context.  My traditional approach adds variety to my department. We have great IR folks teaching our students about food security, about the United Nations and economic development, about feminist theory and IR.  I don’t need to say what they are saying, as they will say it better than I can.  Which brings me to my second point:
  2. Students interested in any aspect of security need to learn the nuts and bolts of military force.  If you’re going to make an argument for intervention in, I don’t know, Syria, you need to have at least rudimentary knowledge about issues involved in projecting power, what air power can and cannot do, what it would mean to put special operations forces in to contain chemical weapon caches (and what chemical weapons are and what they are not). It amazes me that so many of our students think that the US is all powerful, that troops arrive in locations by way of apparition, that operations supply themselves, and that airpower is a magic wand that only kills the bad guys.  This leads naturally to my last reason:
  3. I think the ability to engage in conversations about the military makes us better citizens, and it brings women into critical conversations about foreign policy.  I was lucky enough to have professors at both the undergraduate and graduate level willing to teach me the foundations of military strategy, and I think it has made all of the difference in how I function, not only as an academic, but as a women interested in politics.  When colleagues hear that I teach security studies at a women’s college, they often ask how I’ve modified my approach to security studies.  I think the answer is that I’m even more of a traditionalist at Wellesley than I would be elsewhere.  Learning about military strategy, in essence, is learning a bit of a new language. I’m not going to teach my students all of it in one semester, but I can give them a start and, maybe more importantly, I can signal to them that they need not be intimidated by or excluded from this incredibly important conversation.   And then if they  want to go write a feminist critique of a “traditional” subject like nuclear warfighting, that’s awesome, but they’d better know the basics of counterforce targeting first.

So some of my reasons for the approach are specific to my situation, others are based on principle.  I’m not always comfortable with my definition, but as we all know very well, there are always tradeoffs in syllabus construction.  I’m curious to hear what others think.