Conceptual Foundations Course Review #2

Illustration by Alessandra Felloni. Inspired by Will McPhail.

Note: The views in this article are purely those of the independent student author, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Morningside Post. This author requested to remain anonymous. After review of the piece, TMP's editorial staff deemed it genuine, honest, and respectful, making it acceptable for publication. 

This is separate from the first review of the same course

Conceptual Foundations (CF) is a Core course in the MIA curriculum, usually taken by first-year students their first semester. My first SIPA class was CF and was certainly not a class I had expected coming into SIPA.

Here, I will briefly discuss my less-than-positive experience with CF, the worst of which was the sections. The weekly lectures were stellar, bringing together brilliant minds into weekly conversations in Altschul Auditorium. Sections, however, are the more formative part of the class experience where students can more closely engage with the material and interact with their peers.

Here are two points why I’m not the biggest fan of CF:

CF is an Intro to IR course. SIPA attracts students from a wide variety of disciplines, work experiences, and talents. It is unsafe to presume all students have had basic exposure to political theories and systems before arriving to Morningside Heights. CF helps remedy any knowledge gap within an incoming class, giving neophytes a hearty dose of exposure into the political science realm.

For those with a political science background, this class is a throwback to your undergraduate intro course. Discussion sections will consist of a looping mantra of “realism, liberalism, constructivism…” ad nauseam.  The section could be a helpful refresher to get you back into the groove of academic thinking and discourse. For me, it was far from what I thought I would be learning, or reviewing, at SIPA. CF took up a valuable four points from my schedule, which could have been better spent on a more specific or technical class. SIPA is a school of, and for, practitioners. The other Core classes do a tremendous job showing the real-world applications of our classroom lessons. The theory-heavy CF left me vaguely unsatisfied in this regard.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. On a macro level, Conceptual Foundations falls victim to an inevitable reality faced by every large Core class here at Columbia: its sheer size forces students through one of many recitation sections, so each section provides a different student experience as determined by the teaching fellow. One student might thrive under the instruction of Teaching Fellow A, but struggle under Teaching Fellow B. Teaching Fellow C might be chill with the grading, while Teaching Fellow D is so strict, we need to talk to the instructor. In short, you’ll have good section leaders, you’ll have bad section leaders, and, if you get the latter, the experience could be ugly. In my case, I had an excellent leader, one with whom I got along well. Due to under-enrollment, however, I was suddenly moved to a new, larger section past the add/drop period. There, the teaching fellow did most of the talking during section, occasionally pausing to gauge classroom opinion, acknowledge how cute any remarks made were, and resume pushing forward with the class agenda. With all due respect, the classroom expectations my teacher set were not optimal for me to engage with the material. It may have been for others, but that just wasn’t me. And that’s fine.

My experience with CF was by no means emblematic of my overall SIPA experience. I’ve engaged with professors and classmates in classes other than CF. The reality is that this class is a measly four points out of the 54 needed to complete the MIA degree. Furthermore, characteristics of my section leader that I did not appreciate could be what another student needs to succeed in the course. At the very least, I accede to the fact that each and every CF section leader is incredibly knowledgeable and smart; they know their stuff. That said, I sincerely wish each of you the best of luck finding the right section leader.

If you do end up in a section like my weekly Festival of Fun, however, here are a few tips to maximize learning and optimize joy:

  • Do the readings, form opinions on them, and deliver talking points during class. The more you speak, the less the teacher speaks, and it invites the rest of the class to do discourse and affirm/rebut your own opinions. For extra fun, you can pretend you’re at the UN and speak well over your allotted time, making the time go faster for you and slower for everybody else. After all, you can’t spell “FUN” without the “UN.”
  • Bring current events into the discussion and try to relate them to the day’s discussion. Providing real-world examples can materialize class lessons. Besides, you can always count on North Korea or the United States to do something infinitely more interesting and crazy at any point this coming semester.
  • Invest in a water bottle, preferably not a transparent one. You need something to hide the regret and whiskey in.