Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11

I am writing today at the end of the first week of classes. I’m taking four courses this semester. First and foremost is Barrington Briggs’s graduate seminar on IR theory, which meets Monday mornings, from nine to eleven. (Graduate courses here meet once a week for two hours.) The syllabus that Briggs passed out is twenty pages long!

Only a dozen students showed up for the class, but three of these did not come back after the break at ten. I must admit that even I felt a little intimidated. Cohen warned me that the reading assignments for graduate students are much, much greater than for undergraduates. He wasn’t kidding!

The overall structure of Briggs’s course is not all that different from the one I took with Cohen. Just as at Barstow, we will go over all the major schools of IR theory. The difference, though, is that Briggs will cover them in extreme depth, looking at all the different nuances within each school. As well versed in this subject as I am, I have not even heard of—much less read—over half the authors listed on his syllabus.

The requirements for the class are: three critical book reviews (Briggs is big on this sort of thing) and “a major paper in which the student shall set forth his or her own theory of international relations,” as the syllabus put it. Maybe I can submit my senior thesis from Barstow for this—appropriately revised, of course. Please note, biographers: I would never submit the same work for two different classes. That would be totally unethical.

I already know I’m going to love this seminar. Briggs has some of the same qualities that I used to admire in Cohen, only more intensified: he does not shy away from employing sarcasm to expose shoddy theorizing. Yet far from being intimidating, he has a way of making students feel that they are part of an in-group of cognoscenti with him. At least, that’s how he makes me feel. I would certainly hate to be on the receiving end of his sarcasm! But that will never happen, I am sure. [I won’t delete these last two sentences: I feel it is important for my future biographers to know that even with all my intellectual strengths, I too possess certain feelings of anxiety and uncertainty]

The second class I am taking is Elton Asquith’s political science methodology course, which is required for all graduate students in the program. It meets Monday afternoons from two to four. All of the incoming graduate students who were at the orientation session last week are in this class—and nobody else. The syllabus for this course is fifteen pages long. I have to admit: I recognized only a handful of the authors listed on it. [delete this last sentence later]

In the first semester of this year-long course, Asquith is requiring us to write seven—yes, seven—short papers employing different methodological techniques. The papers only have to be about five pages long each, but this is very annoying. He wants us to become familiar with many different methodologies—whether we’re going to need them or not for our dissertations. There will also be a final exam. During the second semester, all we will have to do is write up a mock research proposal and present it in class. That actually might be useful.

This semester, though, I think this class is going to be something of a trial. From his first lecture, it appears that Asquith’s main theme is going to be that no matter how sophisticated the methodology we may employ, it will always have flaws, or “threats to validity.” This being the case, we really can’t know anything for certain in political science.

After Asquith had made this point several times, one student asked a question that was probably on all our minds: “If we can’t know anything for certain in this field, then what is the point of developing increasingly complex methodologies?” Asquith responded testily that if that was his attitude, then what was the point of going to graduate school or doing anything in life since we all had to die some day anyway. Unlike Briggs, Asquith appears to have no sense of humor. Yes, this class is definitely going to be something of a trial.

The third class I’m taking is Ilya Trizenko’s politics of Russia and Eurasia course. I wouldn’t take a class on this ordinarily, but I have to for my field distribution requirements. It is different from the other two classes I am taking in that it is open to undergraduates as well as graduates. It meets Friday mornings, from nine to eleven. There are about sixty students in the class—most of whom appear to be undergraduates. The syllabus he passed out was only three pages long. But he also handed out an extra reading list for the eight or so graduate students in the class. The undergraduates have to take two midterms and a final. We have to take these also, plus write a book review and a research paper.

Unlike Asquith, Trizenko definitely has a sense of humor. His sense of humor, though, is very different from that of Briggs. Where Briggs is sarcastic, Trizenko is self-deprecating. As I anticipated, he is an excellent lecturer. Having grown up in the former Soviet Union during the turbulent eighties and nineties before coming to the U.S., he has an insider’s feel for the terrible problems of this region. I can see why he is so popular with the undergraduates.

I don’t think, though, that he will have much to offer to me and the other graduate students. His work is obviously highly descriptive and not at all theoretical. Still, I’m not complaining about a class that will not require much effort but will still be interesting.

The fourth class I am taking is one at Harvard. Students from Charles, Harvard, and M.I.T. can all take classes at the other two schools. I’ve signed up for a class there on international security with Tim Saltz, which I’ll describe later.

I wrote last week that I would say something about the “colleagues” whom I share my office with. It is important to do this so that future intellectual historians will know who my interlocutors were during what will undoubtedly be considered a crucial year in my intellectual development. Some of them may also become famous scholars—who knows?

Three of them, like me, are first year grad students. Doug Terenti is one. He received his B.A. from New Dominion University in Northern Virginia. I think I’ve heard professors from there interviewed on National Public Radio. He is taking both the IR theory seminar and the methodology class with me. He is also hoping to write his dissertation with Briggs. He seems like a smart, friendly guy. I am sure that we are going to be friends.

Another is Craig Hatfield. He’s also in the IR theory seminar and the methodology class with Doug and me, but I haven’t talked with him, so I don’t know where he did his B.A. He really appears to be into methodology. He spoke up more about it than anyone else in the first session of Asquith’s class this past Monday anyway. He and Asquith seem to know each other already. I have a feeling that Craig may be gay. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But somehow I don’t think he and I are going to have much in common. [consider deleting this later if it turns out not to be true]

The other first year grad student in our office is Lisa Dudwick. She’s in both the methodology class and the Briggs seminar. She is rather thin, has long brown hair, and seems very quiet. She did tell me, though, that she is from Iowa, where she went to Grinnell College, and that she is into feminist theory. She plans on writing her dissertation with Theda DeKlerk. She is obviously very bright, but I don’t think we will have common intellectual interests.

The two second year grad students in the office are Michael Radkowski and Danielle Stephens. Michael is currently the TA for the lower division undergraduate international relations class Briggs teaches. Michael got his B.A. here at Charles, and so has known Briggs for quite some time. He told me that he will be writing his dissertation with him too. Michael is obviously a bright guy (he couldn’t be working with Briggs if he wasn’t), but he is not very friendly. I hate arrogance.

Danielle is the TA for Trizenko’s lower division undergraduate comparative politics class. She is really into Russian politics and plans to write her dissertation with Trizenko. She has been very friendly and welcoming toward us first year grad students. She is also something of a tease: when I asked her where she got her B.A., she said she wouldn’t tell me. “As grad students here at Charles, we’re all here on an equal basis. It doesn’t matter where we came from or what we did before,” she explained.

I, of course, knew this already. Danielle appears to be older than the rest of us. Maybe thirty? I didn’t ask her her age though: if she wouldn’t tell me where she had been an undergrad, I knew she wouldn’t tell me that!

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