Tag Archives: teaching american history

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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Tesla and Brexit

26 Apr

Tesla_circa_1890…which would be one of the strangest situation comedies ever made. Even weirder than Comrade Dad or Heil Honey, I’m Home.

Which is really a long-winded way of highlighting a couple of things I’ve done elsewhere over the past week. I was delighted to be asked by the LSE’s European Politics & Policy blog to comment on the historical aspects of the US-UK-Europe relationship.

Meanwhile, American History Too! pushes on with an episode where Mark and I discuss the life and legacy of inventor Nikola Tesla.

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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The American History Too! Podcast

2 Nov

One thing I completely forgot to mention over the past few weeks. my colleague Mark McLay and I have started a podcast. It’s called American History Too! and is aimed at undergraduates and others interested in US and international history.

The name is a play on the American History 2 pre-honours course that we both teach on at the University of Edinburgh. Although, it has to be said, the podcast is in no way associated with the university or the course.

So far, we’ve covered colonial era slavery, the creation and ratification of the Constitution, and President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. Next up: the Civil War.

Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 3, the nuclear 1950s

6 Oct

From our beginnings with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the origins of the Cold War, and the incoherence of early US atomic policy, last week we moved on to the 1950s: the era of the Korean War, Massive Retaliation, and (of course) the hydrogen bomb. One thing that has really struck me is the interest in the catastrophic Castle Bravo test. While I expected that it might generate a little interest, the enthusiasm exhibited by some students has really surprised me.(1)

Student presentations continue to impress, with some very strong ten-minute papers on key subjects. The breadth and depth of scholarship and sources addressed by these very brief presentations is remarkable. We had examinations of the reasons for US non-use of atomic weapons during the Korean War, the role of race issues in nuclear policy, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace‘ initiative, and the impact of Castle Bravo on Japanese-American relations.(2)

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Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 2, the early Cold War

29 Sep

After the introductory Muellerising of last week, this time we really get down to business. Our class this week looked at the totally non-controversial and historiographically non-debateable questions of the “atomic diplomacy” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the atomic bomb as a causal factor in the onset of the Cold War, and the direction (or lack thereof) of American nuclear policy in the immediate aftermath of World War II. So, no room for debate and discussion there then.

This was also the first week where students had the chance to give ten-minute presentations on topics within our general theme for the week. It’s always a tough gig going first, and I’m glad to say that all of our presenters set a high standard. In both classes we had someone examine the “atomic diplomacy” question and someone else look at the bomb and the onset of the Cold War. In all cases, the presentations usefully stimulated debate and set the tone for the ensuing conversations.

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