Monday, November 8, 2010

Blog LVIII (58): A Teaching Workshop

On August 5 and 6, 2010, the Department of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College sponsored a workshop on the teaching of grand strategy. This workshop brought together 20 visiting scholars from colleges and universities all across the country to talk with the faculty of the Strategy Department, and a small group of visitors from other NWC departments and the Naval War College Foundation. All told, 75 different people attended the two-day event. The conference focused solely on teaching. I have never seen or heard of a department bringing all its faculty together to discuss the art of teaching, much less bringing in a number of guests. As a result, I took a lot of notes during those two days. This blog essay is a short and condensed version of a report on the issues that got discussed during those two days.

Four things are important to note before we begin. First, the discussants were multidisciplinary in nature. Our guests were from history, political science, and public policy programs. Second, while the conversations focused on how to teach grand strategy (a multidisciplinary topic) much of the conversations translates very easily into discussions on how to teach history. Third, the Naval War College has a non-attribution policy. The College adopted this policy to encourage a free flow of ideas. While in my opinion, nothing that controversial was said during this gathering, I do not intend to violate this policy. As a result, no individuals will be mentioned by name in this blog essay. Fourth, while teaching is a voyage of discovery, prior planning and thinking can save you a good deal of time that you can use for other professional activities. Since teaching is actually what most of us spend most of our time doing, that is no small consideration for other career goals and options.

The conference started with an opening speaker. This individual noted that what the NWC does is significant and offered two examples. He explained that the writings of Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan have stood the test of time. Mahan, who was the second president of the War College and was president of the American Historical Association in 1902 is currently being read in China for better or worse. The speaker also noted that under the leadership of Rear Admiral Stansfield Turner, the NWC in the early 1970s took the lead in developing courses in strategy, which had helped develop many of the programs represented in the room. “We can learn from one another about the craft,” he explained.

One of the first major teaching issues focused on context. A guest scholar from the United Kingdom observed that one of the key issues when teaching strategy is to understand the changes that take place. The tendency is to see strategy as a “generic thing” in simple structured terms. He added, “The context is important to understand where they are coming from.” Staff Colleges did not see changes and a good instructor needs to educate students to challenge of change.

Another guest from an Ivy League school disagreed. He replied that yes, context is important, and it is an issue that is important when discussing the Peloponnesian Wars. Yet, only to a degree. The course is on strategy, not history. As teachers of grand strategy, we need to back away from context and look at enduring principles. A member of the Strategy Department said he wants his student “to think like a historian.” The important thing for them to see is the “continuity and change.” He wants his students to ask “What’s similar, what’s different.” That analytical approach can be developed through the use of the theorists and it is really important for military officers to develop that skill. He always wants a voice in back of their mind, what’s different about this situation.

A senior NWC official raised several issues that the room began discussing. Since there were over seventy people in the room, the various topics of discussion overlapped. The senior asked: what constraints does an instructor face in designing a class. The big one at the NWC is time. How much context do we have to give? The other trade off is reading workload. Course critiques constantly stress that the students do not have time to do all the readings. When they reach the case studies, they see how important theorists are and it makes them frustrated that they have not had more time to think about the theorists. The reality is that the students have difficultly doing all the readings.

These questions provoked a good deal of discussion, since they are basically the same issues that instructors face in most environments. One visitor from Pennsylvania, said, “I am appalled at the idea of doing Thucydides in two hours?” How do you read a 700 page book, he asked. You got to wait out students, he said answering his own question. You ask questions and then wait for response. Another guest agreed to a degree. He has done two hours on page one of Herodotus, but that approach cannot be done at War Colleges. Military schools have to focus on key sections, and get to the “theory of the whole.”

Several members of the workshop analyzed the discussion and provided some good commentary. A War College professor said class is always a beginning. A good professor helps a student create a habit of mind. A guest from a New York school added, “All of this is a tradeoff between breadth and depth.” Most people in the room keep talking about depth, but there is a need to compare the two different modes. “There is no obvious solution to striking the right balance between breadth and depth.” A visitor from a school in the Big Ten noticed that many of the issues that this gather was talking about in teaching are the same issues that people face in making strategy: breadth vs. depth and the scarcity of time. A good instructor and course will make students familiar with these issues.

Another topic the assembly examined was what type of books should an instructor assign. The Big Ten professor observed that making policy is difficult and he wants his students to understand three factors: first, choosing between options is difficult; second, they should have an understanding of how contingency comes into play; third, the judgment of individuals is crucial. Many of the mentioned in today’s discussion offer models of judicious thinking about difficult decisions. A professor from a different Big Ten school said he assigns books that make it clear that people make grand strategy. “The students get it.”

A War College professor said there is an art to assigning books: “It’s not which great books we use, but how we use them.” He continued, explaining, “It’s the role of the teacher to be disagreeable.” A good instructor will “attack the literature in a productive way” so that it teaches them how to think. “That’s the key.” Giving them this analytical skill set will do them a great service.

Several professors from Ivy League schools that books also help when dealing with students. One noted that all students at prestigious schools—the military academies or an Ivy League university—already think they are leaders. Another said one of the ways you deal with this issue is to hit them with great books. Another is to have them do simulations where they have to develop a strategy and then deal with a crisis. One student said the faculty were trying to make students fail. That, he remarked, is true. Saying, “I don’t know to a boss but I will find out” is extremely difficult. The exercise is generally successful. The students get insights and often are what the faculty want students to get.

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