Staff Rides as Pedagogical Practice in International Relations

18 March 2024, 0900 EDT

Over the past few decades, Political Science has seen an increasing institutionalization of Scholarship on Teaching and Learning (SoTL) through journals, book series, and professional associations. Over at PS: Political Science and Politics, we add to this body of literature by making the case for a pedagogical practice borrowed from Professional Military Education (PME)—the staff ride.

A staff ride combines the study of historical campaigns with structured visits to relevant sites and after-action analysis, offering a unique and immersive learning experience. While staff rides originate in military training, they have come to be used for everything from private-sector leadership exercises to civilian Political Science education.

Our experiences with staff rides in Duke University’s American Grand Strategy Program and the Notre Dame International Security Center’s Hans J. Morgenthau Fellowship that prompted our inquiry—what exactly are the pedagogical benefits of the staff ride for civilian students of Political Science?

Drawing on the 1991 Wahlke report, we argue that a well-designed staff ride can fulfill many of the goals of a Political Science education. Among other things, a staff ride is a useful opportunity to gain “general knowledge” of political processes, to sharpen “analytic skills,” to acquire “knowledge about the behavior of citizens, politicians, states persons, and bureaucrats that affects governmental actions and their consequences,” and to consider the “[e]thical dimensions of government and politics”.

What differentiates staff rides from other active learning activities, we argue, is the vividness of in-person experience. While in Vietnam to study the 1968 Tet Offensive, for example, one of us (Lee) was able to realize through experience why U.S. troops had such a hard time navigating through the Vietnamese jungles during the Vietnam War. Slashing through an unfamiliar jungle in hot, humid weather in unsuitable clothing and equipment seemed unimaginable when I barely managed to stand outside for ten minutes without melting.

This on-site engagement can take different forms. Some staff rides programs require participants to assume roles of historical figures operating at the strategical, tactical, and operational levels of war, debating decisions and exploring the context behind them. Through such a pedagogical exercise, students gain not only historical knowledge but also develop analytical skills in thinking through pivotal political events and their implications for contemporary governance and decision-making.

This sort of study makes the weighty nature of political-military decision-making especially stark. As one Duke University student participant in that same Tet Offensive staff ride noted, the series of presentations and discussions amid physical experience of the terrain “helped facilitate complex intellectual and emotional understanding [of war] that no classroom history lecture could replicate” and “reminded [us] of war’s terrible potential and the immense importance of judiciousness when using force.”

In addition to the various pedagogical benefits that a staff ride in itself can promote (on which our full article offers more detail), having student leaders plan the majority of the trip can help them build leadership and organizational skills outside the classroom. Moreover, students who participate in international staff rides can benefit from a sort of abbreviated study abroad experience and enhance their intercultural competency.

When resources and logistics prevent a traditional staff ride, some alternatives might approximate its pedagogical benefits. Adapting the staff ride framework to other relevant sites can provide a similarly immersive experience without the need for extensive travel. Virtual staff rides that simulate historical environments in a classroom can offer an accessible and flexible option even if the vividness of on-site study is lacking. Other active learning techniques such as simulations or policy debates may allow students to achieve some similar learning outcomes.

The staff ride is already being taken up by civilian Political Science programs, and it is worth considering whether its pedagogical benefits are worth the considerable resources required to make a well-designed staff ride happen. We think they are, and we look forward to seeing continued exploration of the place this pedagogical practice might have in undergraduate and graduate student education in Political Science.