Tag Archives: cold war culture

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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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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Teaching Awards Excitement

22 Apr

teachingawardsTonight is the annual Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) Teaching Awards. I’m thrilled that this year my Nuclear Cold War course has been shortlisted in the ‘Best Course’ category.

It’s immensely flattering that the students who took the course thought enough of it to both nominate and give such positive comments that I made it to the shortlist of two. There are two sets of people who really make a course work: students and the admin staff. The latter never get the credit they deserve. Without the fantastic administrative support I’ve received from the department, the course would have been far more difficult to implement.

Students are the heart of any course. Yes, enthusiasm and knowledge on the part of the tutor/lecturer are vital components, but keen, willing, critical, engaged students really make a course work. I’ve been lucky enough to have excellent classes in my first year of honours teaching, for which I’m very grateful.

So, by about 10pm tonight I’ll know if I’ve won or not. Even if it’s ‘not’, I’m delighted to have go this far.

Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Nuclear Identity

13 Apr
Hogg

Jonathan Hogg’s forthcoming book British Nuclear Culture

Last Friday, April 10, the Centre for the Study of Modern Conflict at the University of Edinburgh played host to a workshop on ‘Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Nuclear Identity’. This formed part of an ongoing series of workshops under the auspices of the British International Studies Association’s Global Nuclear Order Working Group. I was delighted to be able to organise this very stimulating and interesting session that brought together faculty, postgraduates, and practitioners from across the UK.

The aim of the day was to discuss and debate various interpretations of ‘nuclear identity’ and how the work we are doing in our different disciplines can fruitfully be shared. One of the main aims – for me certainly – was to grapple with how we understand ‘identity’ and how do we analyse it in our different disciplines and across disciplinary boundaries. In regard to this, I was struck by how much common group we all shared, whether working in history, political science, international relations, or within the nuclear establishment itself.

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Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Conclusions

13 Jan

NCWIt’s well over a month now since the conclusion of my first foray into teaching honours-level history (and only a couple of days until I start teaching my second course). Time to take stock, to assess, and to examine the good and the bad. In this post, I aim to summarise the course, look at how things ended up when compared to how I imagined they would, and think about ways to improve the course for future offerings. Hopefully, this reflection and analysis will make me a better teacher and make the course better in future.

The Good

I was delighted to see students responding to my enthusiasm for nuclear history, engaging with subjects they had never studied before, and coming to their own considered conclusions. Furthermore, I was very pleased to see from the feedback that the course had encouraged many students to think more about contemporary nuclear issues and how they relate to the Cold War.

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Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 10, 1980s nuclear culture

25 Nov

threads_rtcoverHaving taught classes on The War Game before, I was genuinely fascinated to see if teaching a class that involved the grim and disturbing Threads would be any different.

The fascinating thing about this seminar was the variety of opinions on the film. Some found it deeply disturbing and moving, others realised the impact it must have had, but were less shocked by the visceral imagery and storyline.

One thing that the class allowed me to do was articulate why I ended up teaching a course like this. Threads had a major (and terrifying) impact on me from a young age, and that terror is one of the reasons I ended up studying nuclear issues: a need to understand what made me so scared as a kid. Threads, the Greenham Common protests, post-apocalyptic cinema in general, and the news media all had a significant impact on me growing up. Teaching a course such as this is an outgrowth of that.

The image to the right scared the holy living hell out me. In fact, it still does. The image of the bandaged, badly burned, rifle-wielding traffic warden is one of the enduring images from the film. There’s something peculiarly British about this: the traffic warden as almost universally despised low-level authority figure, made in this case literally faceless and carrying the ultimate symbol of post-apocalyptic authority.

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Silver Screen Cold War

12 Nov

This list of ‘Ten Cold War Films Worth Watching‘ by James Lindsay at the Council on Foreign Relations infuriated me (OK, maybe not infuriated. ‘Mildly irritated’, perhaps). Not because the films aren’t worth watching (indeed, many of them are solid gold classics that you should certainly view) but that the list was so English-language, US-UK focused in its content. But then again, the same blog brought us ‘The Cold War in 40 Quotes‘. 36 of which were by American figures, representing (as does the film list) the highly US-centric view of the Council on Foreign Relations.

I would still encourage people to watch the films on Lindsay’s list, but I think we can look more widely at Cold War cinema in order to gauge how the experience affected film-makers from a much broader spectrum, in terms of nationality, genre, and perspective. Hence, I present my list of ten Cold War films worth watching. I will admit, the list is still horribly Euro-centric and very personal.

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