Ok, students think race and climate change matter. Now what?

19 December 2022, 0922 EST

When I first started teaching intro to IR, I closed the semester with lectures on climate change and the second Congo war (or “Africa’s world war”). This was part of my effort to include current and overlooked aspects of international relations. As time went on, and discussions spread about how IR should deal with racial and environmental issues, I expanded these lectures. The former now looks at whether IR is up to the task of addressing current crises like climate change. And the latter looks at whether ethnocentrism in IR can be fixed.

This is connected to my general approach to IR, which falls between the mainstream and the critical. I think it’s important for students to learn the foundational theories and thinkers. But I also think they need to learn an IR that represents current research and issues. This is why, for example, I don’t spend too much time on the paradigms. And it’s why I include a critical take on most topics; for example, I discuss critiques of balance of power theory as Western-centric and attempts to change this.

Over time, however, I’ve noticed an issue. These topics, despite being incredibly relevant, generate the least debate of any each semester. And essays on these topics tend to involve the least critical engagement with the issues. Some may think this is ok, that it means students have learned what they need to know on race and climate change. But I would argue it represents an issue with how we teach these topics.

What issues arise in discussions on race and climate change in IR?

My intro to IR classes tend to be lively. I often have to cut material from the lecture to leave room for everyone to speak. Even when the material is new to students–i.e. they’ve never encountered work on international law before–they develop strong and well-reasoned thoughts. Moreover, there’s a diversity of views in the classroom, with differing views on, for example, whether international law can affect state behavior.

The essays are equally interesting. They’re not all A’s, much to students’ chagrin. But students tend to come up with interesting ideas.

For some reaason students are very interested in climate change and race, but have little to say on these topics.

The big exception, however, is when we discuss race and climate change. We tend to not have much debate. This isn’t a case of students being disengaged as classes end or having nothing to say. Instead, they just each kind of say the same thing then go quiet. I often have to really push and play devil’s advocate to get any sort of dialogue going.

There’s also an issue with essays on these topics. They are a lot more likely to summarize classroom readings than essays on other topics. That is, instead of presenting a new idea or synthesizing various views, the essays take the form of “as so-and-so said, X.” They aren’t F’s, or even C’s. But they lack the original argument and critical engagement with the topic that push an essay into the A range for my classes. Again, this isn’t a case of burnout, as final essays on other topics are more diverse and pointed.

So for some reason students are very interested in climate change and race, but have little to say on these topics.

Why is this a problem?

Before I get into why I think this is happening, I first want to acknowledge some may not see this as a problem. For too long IR has ignored race or failed to challenge its ethnocentric assumptions. If students are now taking it for granted that this has to change, how is that an issue? Likewise, climate change is one of the biggest threats facing humanity. Why should there be any debate on that?

There are three issues with the state of classroom debate on these topics.

First, students’ views may be wrong. I don’t think it’s enough to merely point out racist foundations of IR or colonial legacies; we need to demonstrate the impacts it’s having on current scholarship. Yes, Woodrow Wilson was racist and many existing IR theories are based on 19th century Europe. But that doesn’t automatically mean existing IR is suspect or complicit in oppression. We need specific examples of how modern studies contribute to oppression or are radically flawed before we should accept that IR needs to be transformed. I’ve encountered, and pushed back, on similar empirics-less claims when it comes to terrorism studies.

Second, even if the apparent consensus is accurate, we need to help students come up with solutions instead of anger. This is most apparent on climate change. Any reasonable person would agree there is clear evidence of climate change, and increasing evidence of the catastrophic effects it will bring. It’s less clear how to address that. Do we spread new norms? Design better international treaties? Implement solar radiation management technologies? Without a good debate and critical engagement on these issues, we’ll never move beyond awareness raising.

Third, students need to learn how to persuade others both inside and outside the classroom.

I always suspect some students are skeptical on the role of race in IR or climate change. But these students are afraid to speak up because of the (likely well-founded) fear they will be shouted down. Even if you think they are wrong, they’re not going to change their behavior on climate change or racial issues once they leave the classroom. If students (and their professors) really want to effect change, they need to find a way to get skeptics to speak up and have a real conversation on their beliefs.

Whether or not there are skeptical students, there are definitely skeptical adults. What will these students do when they spend their college career surrounded by people who openly agree with them and then enter a world where most people do not? If they try to convince their boss to take racial justice into account, and the boss questions why, do they have the tools to answer? If a client gets annoyed at extra charges for environmental protections, will they be able to explain the importance of these steps? If we don’t have these debates in the classroom–or encourage critical thinking through assignments–we are doing our students a disservice when they graduate.

Why is this happening?

So it is a problem when we see a relative lack of engagement on these topics. But why is it happening? I have a few ideas.

They could be telling us what they think we want to hear. Students, at least at my University, get trainings on DEI and sustainability from college staff and have to take courses on these topics. This may lead them to think there is a “right answer” they need to provide us, rather than critically engage with the materials.

Ideally we can move discussions of issues like race and climate change forward and ensure our students have the tools necessary to make positive change in the world.

They may assume the answer is obvious, so don’t see the need to make a strong case for it. The apparent uniformity may be sincere. Students have absorbed lessons in DEI and sustainability, and thus don’t see anything to debate. As a result, they may see me asking about racism in IR as the equivalent of Ben Stein in Ferris Buehler’s Day Off; a teacher asking a question just to fill the time.

Or they may assume they are innocent of the problems caused by climate change and racism, and thus don’t need to really explore these issues. I often think of my undergrad intro to American course, specifically the session on gender issues. The Professor tried several times to get a discussion going, but it kept fizzling. Finally, irritated, he suggested that we think we play no part in sexism because we’re at a liberal school. He assured us we were not innocent. Then he abruptly cancelled class and told us to leave. I’m not quite that dramatic, but it is possible students see racism and environmental destruction as problems caused by other people, and thus don’t feel compelled to explore them that deeply.

What can we do about it?

I’m honestly not sure what is causing this situation, but I hope professors can explore this further. And whatever the reason, there are a few things we can do to change it:

  • Move classroom discussions from “is this an issue?” to “what can we do about it?” This is what I do on climate change. I have a brief discussion of the state of the warming planet and its impacts. But most of the lecture has to do with IR research on the issue, such as climate change negotiations and resource conflicts. We then discuss what IR research can tell us about how to control emissions and mitigate climate change effects.
  • Give both sides of argument. I don’t mean entertain climate change skeptics or defend Woodrow Wilson. But there is a valid debate over whether international emissions reductions will work, or whether we should focus more on mitigation. Likewise, one can make the case that while IR’s foundations’ are racist and ethnocentrism persists, mainstream IR theories and methods are not complicit in this situation. If students realize there is something to debate, they are more likely to critically engage with the materials.
  • Focus discussion on what IR is trying to do. I initially emphasized what IR is missing in these lectures, and students’ takeaway was that IR is flawed. So I’ve shifted to discussion and readings on the ways IR is studying climate change or broadening beyond ethnocentric assumptions. This should be the model for teaching these subjects. As one of my colleagues suggested when I raised these issues with her, instead of asking “does IR have racist foundations” ask “are efforts to address racism in IR sufficient?” This still prompts students to confront racism, but does not suggest to them that there is a clear “right” answer.
  • Distinguish between IR scholarship and state behavior. I know this may be controversial to some from a critical perspective, but I think it’s important students realize that oppressive or environmentally destructive behavior by states is not necessarily the fault of IR scholarship. IR scholars rarely have direct control over what states do. One could take a Saidian approach, and argue scholarship serves state interests or reflects social biases. But this is a point they need to demonstrate with clear evidence, not a self-evident truth.

Ideally, with these and other techniques, we can move discussions of issues like race and climate change forward and ensure our students have the tools necessary to make positive change in the world.