Full Disclosure Course Review: Conceptual Foundations

Disclaimer: The views in this article are purely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Morningside Post.

Of all the courses I've taken at SIPA, the core course for the Masters of International Affairs Program is probably the most highly structured. No nonsense, every week is a different topic to cover (below)

  • Introduction
  • Week 1: Realism
  • Week 2: Liberalism
  • Week 3: Constructivism
  • Week 4: Economic Development
  • Week 5: Humanitarian Intervention
  • Week 6: Democracy
  • Week 7: China
  • Week 8: Globalization
  • Week 9: Colonial Legacies
  • Week 10: Populism in Latin America
  • Week 11: Political Institutions and Economic Crisis
  • Week 12: American Primacy

Each week is structured the same way:

  1. Ton of reading
  2. A Expert Guest lecturer or panel discusses the topic to the whole ~200-person class
  3. Break up and get into discussion groups of ~15 people

You are learning though repetition. It is not enough for you to just do a bunch of reading and hope it sticks. Instead, you read and are introduced to the concepts, then you have a lecturer fortify that knowledge, then you have a discussion to test yourself on it.

Well, at least some people read.

They assigned this to be 4-credits for a reason: lots of reading. If you don’t read, then it is just one lecture a week (in which attendance is not taken), a discussion session, two papers, lead a group discussion, and a debate. If you laze it out, then you could turn the workload from 4-hardcore credits, to a breezy 2-credit course equivalent. That method is not advised, however, since the essay questions are designed to cover at least several weeks of material. Besides, if you don’t read, the following formulas apply during the discussion class:

  • Don’t read + talk = everyone knows you did not read
  • Don’t read + don’t talk = everyone assumes you did not read
  • Read + Talk = Discussion leader likes you
  • Read + Don’t talk = everyone assumes you did not read

Since it is better to have people assume you did not read, the discussion groups are usually dominated by just a few students that will do most of the talking. I would suspect that, besides getting good marks on participation, talking also affect how your papers are graded since it is the discussion leader which reads your paper, and she/he knows if you’ve been lazing off. This is just speculation, of course, but paper grading can be subjective. 

Regardless, the reading can be quite dense, particularly at the beginning of the semester, when you reading 18th century run-on sentences, with multiple grammatical layers deep that, despite your best efforts, strain your retention skills as you wonder: “wait, how did this sentence start?” and “is that how you spell ‘curmudgeon’?”; additionally, do your best not to forget about semi-colons, they used semi-colons more back then, too.

The papers are intended to test how much of the reading you did. Which also means the grader really do not care what you think. They are designed to test: (a) do you have a firm understanding of the concepts taught and (b) can you organize and write a (dense) analytical paper. Note that they do NOT test: can you think creatively for yourself and answer the question in a unique, clever way. Because, to them, that just means you have been lazing off in the class.

The debate is worth a surprisingly large portion of your grade, about 20%. For some, this equals three minutes of a prepared statement being worth the same as all active participation. There are three topics in the debate, with each team preparing for one topic. Each topic will have 2 teams of three assigned to it (so, six teams x 3 per team = class size of about 18 people). Although you know the topic beforehand, you do not know if you are debating for or against until minutes before the debate commences! That means you have to take notes and make preparations on both when you prepare.

Overall, since it is the ONLY course which defines the MIA degree, it should be a really solid course. And it is.