Departmental Diary

Jenny Mathers

Originally published in 1996/1997, Issue 1

This issue marks the debut of a new purveyor of news about the Department for Interstate readers. The previous Department diarist, Alan Macmillan, has finished his PhD and started a new job in the College’s Academic Office. I wish him all the best in his new post and hope that I will serve up news in a manner as entertaining and informative as Alan’s. In at least one way I am a logical person to inherit Alan’s pen: one of my administrative duties is to be the Department’s ‘publicity officer’ (spin doctor), so news of most Departmental events makes it way to me for repackaging for the consumption of the College and the wider world.

Assessment

Looking back over the period since the last issue of Interstate, the single event which most stands out in the memories of teaching staff is the arrival of TQA (Teaching Quality Assessment) in the Department. For a week in February the Department was host to a team of ‘assessors’ (senior academics from other British universities). The visit was long-awaited, although with about as much eagerness as a trip to the dentist, and was preceded by months of preparation. The TQA process is a voracious consumer of staff time and energy, not to mention paper. In advance of the assessors’ visit the Department was required to produce a ‘self-assessment document’ describing every aspect of its teaching activities, from the structure of degree schemes and the assessment of modules to the amount of money the Department spends buying books for the College library. But after such a long and anxious period of anticipation, the assessment visit itself was something of an anticlimax. The assessors proved to be decent, humane people and, best of all, they gave the Department the result it most wanted: a grade of excellent.

Once TQA was successfully completed, attention turned to the possible results of the other type of periodic assessment to which university departments are subjected: the Research Assessment Exercise or RAE. Every 4 years panels of senior academics judge the quality of the publications produced in their discipline and on that basis rank every department on a 5 point scale. At stake is not only prestige and reputation, but also large sums of money. Funding for universities is increasingly linked to the outcome of the RAE, with rewards for departments which move up the ranks and substantial penalties for those which slip down. The results of the exercise are expected towards the end of this calendar year or the beginning of the next, and the Department hopes to maintain or improve on its 1992 4* rating.

Exchange with Poland

At the beginning of 1996 five intrepid International Politics undergraduates left Aberystwyth for a semester at the University of Wroclaw in Poland, while the Department welcomed 3 Polish students in their places. Thus began what is hoped will be a long and fruitful exchange programme. Both sides in the exchange feel they have a great deal to offer to and to learn from the other. As was the case in all of East-Central Europe and the USSR, research and teaching in the social sciences in Poland was carefully controlled by the regime, and the discipline is only just beginning to recover from the damage that was done to it over the course of more than 40 years. The Polish students who come to Aber have the opportunity to find out first-hand how international politics is studied in a Western country, and one of the students who came last semester liked it here so much that she has stayed on to do postgraduate study in the Department. The Aberystwyth students who go to Poland have the chance to live and study in a country which is considerably different from Britain, and which is undergoing enormous social, political and economic change.

Arrivals and Departures

Since the last issue 2 members of academic staff have left the Department. Professor Ritchie Ovendale has taken early retirement and Professor Jim Piscatori has taken up a post at Oxford University. No replacement has yet been hired for Professor Ovendale, although the appointment of a new international historian is expected sometime this academic year. Dr Simon Murden, a Middle East specialist who arrived in September 1995 for one year, has been reappointed for a further year.

The rest of the new appointments are a mixture of new and familiar faces. Dr Lucy Taylor comes to Aber from Sheffield University to teach comparative politics. She has a strong interest in democratisation and Latin America, the latter shared by another new appointment, Dr Steve Hobden. Steve has been in the Department since he started work on his PhD here in 1992, and has just been appointed to a 5-year post combining lecturing with administration. Guto Thomas is the new Welsh-medium Tutor. Guto’s appointment marks an expansion in the teaching available in the Department through the medium of Welsh. He is currently completing his PhD in the Department and his research interests include intelligence studies and cold war history.

Among the arrivals are three visiting fellows, who are spending part or all of their sabbatical leave doing research in the Department. Ulrich Teusch from Friedrich-Schiller University in Germany was here from July through October working on various aspects of international relations theory. Cynthia Weber from Purdue University in the US is here for the academic year 1996-97 and works primarily in the field of gender and international relations. Roger Epp from Augustana University College in Canada is the most recent arrival and will be in Aber through the New Year. He is particularly interested in aboriginal diplomacies. The presence of so many visiting fellows at once is very exciting for the Department, and helps to encourage the cross-fertilisation of ideas about the subject.

Conferences

Aberystwyth has increasingly become the venue for major conferences in the field of international politics. The most recent of these took place in May when Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Tooze organised a conference here on critical theory and international relations, which brought together the ‘big names’ in that field. Professor Mick Cox is currently organising a conference celebrating the work of E.H. Carr, one of the Department’s best-known Wilson professors. The Carr conference will take place in July at Gregynog Hall, and will bring together virtually every major scholar who either worked with Carr or has written substantially about him and his work.

In addition to hosting conferences, academic staff and postgraduates in the Department also travel far and wide to attend these gatherings. There are the usual fixtures in the calender, such as the conferences put on by BISA (British International Studies Association) in December, and ISA (International Studies Association) and PSA (Political Studies Association) in the spring, where the Department is usually well-represented. In addition, there are a myriad of specialist conferences, some regular and others one-off events. Over the past several months staff and postgraduates have given papers at conferences in Norway, Denmark, Japan, South Africa, India, Germany, Poland, Luxembourg and the United States, as well as in the UK.

Guest Speakers

The number of guest speakers visiting the Department during 1996 was considerably higher than in previous years. This was due mainly to the creation of 4 research groups among the staff and postgraduates in the Department, each of which put together its own programme of discussions and guest speakers. Some of the groups were more active than others–the IR theory group indeed was almost hyperactive. Its members became the Stakhanovites of the Department, over fulfilling their quotas by attending what at times seemed like several sessions each week!

The combination of the research groups’ activities with those of other organisations such as the International Politics Society, the Aberystwyth PostInternational Group and the Aberystwyth Forum on Humanitarian Affairs provided a very rich offering of thought-provoking lectures. Included among the many visiting speakers were: Professor Stephen White on ‘Rethinking the Russian Transition’; Alexander Wendt on ‘Social Theory of International Relations’; Richard Little on ‘Reconceptualising the International System’; and Justin Rosenberg on ‘Dethroning the Balance of Power’. This year’s E.H. Carr Memorial Lecture was given by Professor Andrew Linklater of Keele University, who spoke on ‘The Transformation of Political Community: E.H. Carr, Critical Theory and International Relations’. The student organisers of the International Politics Society managed to persuade former KGB agent Oleg Gordievsky to visit Aber in March. Gordievsky’s lecture was certainly the best-attended of any in the living memory of the Interpol Society. Less well-attended but in many ways more intellectually satisfying was a talk given by David Denver of Lancaster University earlier this semester. Professor Denver is one of the leading experts on British electoral politics, and spoke on ‘Who will win the next election?’