Notes from the Field: International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Convention 2014

Katarzyna Kacsmarska

Originally published in July 2014

[Note from the Editor: This is an addition to a new series of posts made by PhD students called “Notes from the Field”, chronicling: academic conferences, field work, inter-institutional exchanges, etc. See below a report on the experience of Aberystwyth University’s International Politics Department, PhD Candidate, Katarzyna Kacsmarska at the 2014 ISA Annual Convention. The ISA is an organization made up of a network of scholars around the globe specializing in the International Relations discipline. An extended profile of Katarzyna can be found here ]

photo credit: Katarzyna Kaczmarska

Congesting the ISA Annual Convention ‘experience’ into a single post is a challenge especially that this year’s conference, dedicated to ‘Spaces and Places’, hosted over 1100 panels, debating issues as diverse in scope and scale as the legacy of American power and the rhythms of the international. Just browsing the conference prospectus could set one’s mind spinning. Let me then focus on just one panel and one ‘café’. Both are connected as the panel was dedicated to teaching methods, while the café allowed space to discuss methods of doing research. As such these two academic events approached International Relations (IR) as vocation. A note on the margin, for those fellow travelers on a PhD course who have not yet attended an ISA Annual Convention – a drawback of such mass scale academic gatherings is that they become overwhelming, leaving little cognitive space to feel truly inspired. For those courageous enough to taste a sample, the entire conference programme can be browsed here. The panels I am just about to describe, however, did impress and provoke to take a different view of teaching and researching.

SB48 was the enigmatic code-name for a panel otherwise encouragingly titled: ‘Using art and technology to teach IR’. One group of panellists, reflecting on their practical experience, convincingly explained how students, stimulated to engage with visual culture and art making, developed critical evaluative skills and explored issues as complex as gender, peace, equality and security. These methods of learning facilitation contributed, as the presenters reported, to pleasant and creative seminar atmosphere and brought forth high results measured in marks and student satisfaction. The other selection of papers, perhaps more pragmatic but no less stimulating, was dedicated to practical engagement with on-line technologies and problem based learning. Students, exposed to these methods, not only read what an internet governance forum or a policy brief is, but were actually participating in an international on-line gathering, authoring policy briefs and tweeting on current world affairs. Writing a policy brief or a tweet is, of course, a very different task to deconstructing the notion of equality through art making but the panel made me realize and appreciate that both art and technology have all the potential to allow students autonomy and to empower them in the classroom. These elements, in turn, are tightly linked to learning outcomes. One of the unquestionable advantages of IR as an academic discipline is that it readily offers themes and problems amenable and even inviting to be approached through art and technology. In reverse, introducing these methods gives a tutor every conviction that students develop rather than suppress their creative skills. The panel provided ample inspiration for a beginner tutor like myself, but it was also a challenge to think about teaching differently for adept instructors.

Exhibition area (Photo Credit) Katarzyna Kaczmarska

This leads me to the second ISA event, which was a pleasure to take part in particularly because of its format. Imagine several roundtables, each with two experienced hosts sharing their views on particular research methods. Circulating between these tables is a number of researchers, mostly PhD students, asking questions and describing their research design challenges. No coffee, but the relatively fast pace of ideas exchange did keep the level of adrenaline high. This was the Critical security studies methods café sponsored by the Professional Development Committee. The café brought together a range of specialists in several disciplines: feminist, ethnographic, discourse-based and practice-based approaches. Visitors were free to move between tables and ask as many questions as they wished. There were straightforward questions: what am I doing a research for?; probing questions: what is the value of describing an activity one researches as a practice as opposed to a structure or discourse or norm?; normative/identity questions: What is my role as a researcher? and practical questions: how to turn a data swamp into an academic narrative without doing violence to all the nuances? The methodological diversity of IR allows approaching all these questions, though it does not offer definitive answers. One concluding remark is worth repeating here. IR research, however minute and contextualised, can still the basis for academically challenging arguments and should not be dismissed in terms of its policy relevance.

The diffuse and miscellaneous academic identity of IR and the richness of the world it studies are exactly these features which make it into an inspiring source for teaching and a challenge for research.