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Teaching International Relations through Academic Writing

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

How can lecturers teach international relations—or any other subject, for that matter—through academic writing? We set out to answer this question in our article, Teaching Academic Literacies in international relations: towards a pedagogy of practice, recently published in Teaching in Higher Education. In the article, we reflect on how we progressively embedded academic writing into an introductory course in international relations from 2010–2019, describing our most successful modules and the lessons we learned along the way. In this post, we provide a popular summary of our findings with the hope of inspiring other lecturers to teach course content through academic writing.

A Problematic Course

Our story began in 2010 when two of the article’s co-authors inherited an introductory, bachelor’s level course in international relations. The co-authors sought to improve the course by embedding academic writing with mixed results. Some students appreciated the effort; others believed that academic writing modules took time away from learning about international relations. The situation came to a head when the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÅ) reviewed the course in 2012. Ultimately, UKÄ gave the course a damning review, stating that the course “lacked quality” and that students demonstrated insufficient knowledge of concepts and theories in international relations in their essays. Something had to change.

An Unconventional Solution

Rather than abandon academic writing, we decided to double down on our efforts to make it work. Thus, we entered into a lengthy process of experimentation and discovery. When we began this journey, we did not know the academic writing literature, but we knew that we needed an approach that would help us recognize and build upon the unique strengths and skills that our students brought to the course. Hence, in the beginning, we developed the course through trial-and-error, literature searches, discussions with colleagues, and participation in workshops about academic writing. It wasn’t until late in our journey that we found the Academic Literacies framework that we write about in the text. Looking back now, we realize this we truly took a DIY approach to teaching through academic writing.

But there was a problem, at least when it came to the literature. Academic Literacies is a set of principles developed by education researchers and linguists at universities where English is the medium of instruction, not Swedish lecturers who teach international relations bilingually in both Swedish and English. We quickly realized that if we wanted to use Academic Literacies in our course, we needed to translate its principles into practice.

As we document in the article, we experimented with teaching Academic Literacies in various ways, ultimately landing on three successful modules, including 1) formative feedback (i.e. providing written comments on student drafts that students use to develop those drafts), 2) peer assessment (i.e. students giving each other comments on texts in order to improve their writing), 3) and reflective journaling (i.e. requiring students to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses as writers in a mandatory logbook assignment).

Without giving up the plot in this post—because we hope you’ll read the article—we used these modules to help students understand that writing is a skill continuously in development. We also use Academic Literacies to teach our students that they can learn a lot from their peers and that reflection is essential to learning. However, we did not find an easy road to success. When we first introduced and experimented with academic writing and peer review in the course—without backing it up with teacher resources and a well-thought pedagogy that was seriously communicated to the students—our students reacted strongly and course evaluations dipped. Looking back, we realize that if lectures want to take a student-centered perspective around academic writing, they must integrate it into a coherent course design that includes active teacher involvement.

Advice for Lecturers

We conclude the article with advice for fellow lecturers. Acknowledging that reading about and improving pedagogical skills takes a tremendous amount of (unpaid) time and effort, we offer a cheat sheet based on our experiences. At the top of our list is empathy. We encourage lecturers to tell their students about their struggles with academic writing and acknowledge the challenges students face in translating disciplinary knowledge into written texts. We also encourage lecturers to teach writing explicitly in their courses. For example, if students are required to write essays, lecturers should teach them how to do it, including all the skills that students need to develop in the process. From referencing to time management to critical engagement with the literature, we encourage lecturers to speak about and demonstrate not only what these skills are but also how they are developed. Finally, based on the related premises that reflection promotes learning and students won’t reflect unless required, we advise lecturers to incorporate mandatory moments of reflection into disciplinary courses. While reflective journaling worked in our course, we encourage lecturers to develop tailored approaches to inviting students to consider what they know, the knowledge and skills they still need to develop, and the next steps in their learning journeys.

Recommended Reading

If you would like to read more about the importance of teaching writing in the disciplines, Blogal Studies recommends:

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Elizabeth M. Olsson recently completed her Ph.D. at the School of Global Studies. Her research interests include academic writing, teaching and learning in higher education, and conflict resolution.

Andréas Litsegård is a Senior Lecturer in Peace and Development Research, devoting most teaching to International Relations. Besides a great interest in pedagogical issues, Andréas is engaged in research about climate-related migration.


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