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The Challenges of Teaching Intelligence Studies

28 Jun

This post is based on a short presentation I gave as part of a job interview at the International Politics department of Aberystwyth University. I didn’t get the position, but I am very grateful to Jenny Mathers and the rest of the InterPol department for the chance to visit Aberystwyth. 

In addressing the question of what are the challenges of teaching intelligence studies, I’d like to focus on four main challenges that I see as significant. These obviously are not the be all and end all, but are succinct summaries of key issues that I see as affecting how and why we teach.

spooksI’d argue that one of the main challenges is addressing student expectations of what intelligence is. These expectations are at least in part formed by a lifetime of exposure to popular cultural interpretations of intelligence, such as television programmes like Alias, Spooks, 24, and The Night Manager, the Bourne films, video games like the Metal Gear Solid series, and so on and so forth. As much as we in academia would like to think otherwise, films like Bridge of Spies, the Mission Impossible series, and Burn After Reading seem to have a much greater impact on the way people think about intelligence in the wider world than our publications in scholarly journals, conference papers, or blog posts. Oh how I wish it were otherwise!

So, it’s vital to demonstrate that the realities of intelligence are at the same time more pedestrian and more exciting than any film, television programme, video game, or book. For example, while intelligence analysis is a vital component of what intelligence is, it’s dull, painstaking, and often long-winded. I’m not sure a real time programme that involves watching analysts pour over decrypted emails would get quite the same viewing figures as Jack Bauer torturing and killing his way around the world. On the other hand, the career of Oleg Penkovsky or the story of Able Archer ’83 is far more thrilling than any fictional accounts. Able Archer ’83 in particularly informative. The way in which Soviet intelligence gathering that was at its heart based on faulty and often false assumptions about NATO intentions towards the USSR led us closer to nuclear war than any time since the Cuban crisis is a fascinating story. Tales of KGB and GRU officers wandering the streets of London and Brussels at 2 in the morning looking for excessive numbers of lights on in government offices never fails to catch the interest of students.

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Supervision, scholarship, and empathy

29 Jan
Above: I struggled to think of an image for 'supervisor'. So here's the late, great Carl Sagan.

Above: I struggled to think of an image for ‘supervisor’. So here’s the late, great Carl Sagan.

My biggest teaching challenge for the 2015-16 academic year has been taking on responsibility for supervising the final year dissertations of eleven undergraduate students. It’s very rewarding to be given this job, but it also makes me only too aware of the profound responsibility that I now have for the research of junior scholars.

It’s ironic that as academics, we all worry about our own research: its quality, accessibility, and implications. I’m grappling with that right now as I explore the relationships between governments, the secret intelligence services, and media institutions during the 1980s. Supervision adds to this. You’re now worried on behalf of a cohort of other scholars!

One way I’ve tried to approach this is by using the lessons I’ve learned from those who have supervised me. I’ve been lucky to benefit from the advice and support of a number of great people since I returned to university in 2008. In particular, my Masters supervisors Dolores Janiewski and Malcolm McKinnon, and my doctoral supervisors Fabian Hilfrich and Robert Mason.

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Nuclear Terrorism in the Modern Seminar Room

9 Dec
Time

I have no idea what that cover image is actually meant to be.

Next semester, I will be making statements supporting the proliferation network of A Q Khan, the idea of an ‘Islamic bomb‘, and and means of conducting ‘nuclear terrorism‘. Give me a few weeks and I’ll have MI5 at my office door with a set of handcuffs and a whole series of  awkward questions. Or not, as is probably the case

Of course, I don’t actually agree with A Q Khan’s self-aggrandising nuclear proliferation motives. The idea of an ‘Islamic bomb’ is complicated and multilayered.(1) And I don’t support the use of nuclear weapons by anyone. But, I will be making ‘controversial’ statements in order to stir up debate and provoke discussion in my seminars for The United States and the Conundrum of Nuclear Proliferation.

I mention this because of the UK’s ongoing Prevent Strategy (hereafter just ‘Prevent’)to combat ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’. Universities, colleges, and schools are now – for David Cameron’s government at least – the front line in a battle against ‘extremist ideologies’. Prevent aims to cover all ‘extreme ideologies’, but in the current climate we all know what they’re really talking about.

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Lecture: Governments and the post-apocalypse world

25 Sep

v0_masterOn Monday October 5 at 7pm, I’ll be giving the first lecture of the year to the University of Edinburgh’s History Society. HistSoc are an extremely vibrant, active society, and I’m delighted to be part of this excellent series of student-organised academic lectures.

The lecture is entitled Staring into the Abyss: Governments and the post-apocalypse world. As my lecture blurb states:

During the Cold War, post-apocalyptic fiction became a staple of cinema, literature, and television. But what did governments think the post-nuclear attack world was going to be like? Did the politicians and officials with their fingers on triggers envisage post-attack societies in the same way as filmmakers, artists, and writers? This lecture explores the post-apocalyptic visions of the American and British governments and how they imagined life carrying on after the horror of global thermonuclear war. Delving into the the dark – and sometimes darkly comical – world of ‘breakdown’, ‘the machinery of control’, and ‘continuity of government’, this will be a whistle-stop tour through official visions of a nuclear holocaust that thankfully never happened.

If you’re in Edinburgh and want to come along, the lecture starts at 7pm on October 5 in Lecture Theatre 183, Old College, University of Edinburgh.

The United States and Nuclear Proliferation: An Undergraduate Course

10 Sep
Above: Donald Trump, noted non-proliferation theorist and proponent of sane of foreign policy positions.

Above: Donald Trump, noted non-proliferation theorist and proponent of sane foreign policy positions.

With debate about the Iranian nuclear deal still raging and everyone and their dog expressing an opinion (no matter how ill-informed, reactionary, or just plain stupid it might be), my new undergraduate course is alarmingly well-timed.

This year, I’m offering a new 4MA (fourth year honours, full year) course entitled The United States and the Problem of Nuclear Proliferation, 1945-2015 (hereafter USPNP). An outgrowth of my research interests and doctoral work, USPNP is my first attempt at a year-long course for the undergraduates in their final year. The class is relatively small (12-15 students) and there will have an intense focus on discussing and debating primary, secondary, and theoretical materials.

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Atomic Triggers

19 Aug

Stillman-Hiroshima-690

Note: Stemming from further useful discussions on social media, I’ve added some additional comment at the end of this piece. The original post remains unchanged.

Recent discussions about ‘trigger warnings’ in higher education have been all over the place, resulting in a predictable mishmash of reasoned argument, straw men, and pointless tosh. Rather than boringly attempt to give yet another take on the issue as a whole, I’d like to address how I see this intersecting with my own teaching of nuclear history. I’d also like to add my support for the term ‘content warning‘ in this context (the linked article usefully discusses this).

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Recent Round-up

2 Jun

The last couple of months have been a busy time, as they generally are for anyone working in higher education. Essay marking, exam marking, exam boards, moderation meetings, and all the other vital administrative tasks required in a moder university. Hence, a scarcity of posts.

In amongst all the admin, though, there have been some great moments. The teaching awards that I mentioned in this post? I won! Thanks to the kind words of my undergraduate students, The Nuclear Cold War won best course (out of the entire university!) at the annual Edinburgh University Students’ Association Teaching Awards. I now have a rather nice glass award on my desk.

Mark and I recorded a sequel to our podcast on nuclear fallout, which turned out quite well. More recently, we recorded an episode on the AIDS crisis in the United States during the 1980s. A challenging topic, but one of great interest.

And last week, I had my first artice accepted for publication by Cold War History. It honestly felt like a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders. That first publication is – for me – a huge milestone, a step towards a full-time career in academia. The article is on British arms sales to India in the 1970s, and the ways in which they complicated nuclear non-proliferation diplomacy. Not sure when it will be out yet (these things take quite a while), but I’m thrilled that some of my research will be in print.

Over the summer, I should have some time to research and write. Part of that at least will involve more posting!

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