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Scaffolded learning: Using Advanced Writing to teach policy analysis in International Studies

Writing, thinking, and practicing incrementally

ITS 202 is all about writing policy analysis. In other words, students are learning to write evidence-based arguments about how decision-makers can address specific problems.

Stevens inspects a policy memo, a genre of important focus in ITS 202

The course stresses approaching problems in specific, international contexts. Often, the resulting analysis is delivered through context-specific writing that requires students to offer practical policy recommendations that draw on theory and research.

Dahlman uses an example: “Students will say, ‘I'd like to solve human trafficking,’ or, ‘I'd like to solve nuclear weapons.’ And I say, ‘Okay, whose nuclear weapons? Human trafficking where? In what context?’ I try to get students to be as narrow and specific as possible so that they can design a policy solution that is doable.”

Students also have to begin to think in multifaceted ways that draw on interdisciplinary research to inform their policy analysis.

“We're an interdisciplinary major,” explains Dahlman. “So the way an economist might tell you to solve a human trafficking problem is different than the way, say, an anthropologist might. Students have to figure out how to resolve the tensions that appear among expert positions.”

I'm learning how to guide students from a term paper mentality into a policy-oriented mentality.

“They need to develop these skill sets incrementally,” adds Stevens. “Not just policy writing, but also language acquisition, feeling comfortable with being uncomfortable in foreign situations. I'm learning how to guide students from a term paper mentality into a policy-oriented mentality.”

Both Stevens and Dahlman hope that introducing these ways of writing, thinking, and practicing early will lay important groundwork that will allow students to build on and continue developing what they learned throughout the major.

Learning professional and public genres

ITS 202 also introduces majors to important genres early in the curriculum. Particularly, ITS 202 focuses on policy memos, white papers, and persuasive public essays, all critical genres for policy writing and analysis.

“Policy memos and white papers,” says Dahlman, “are the two most typical documents that analysts would use to inform policy makers and decision makers. They're typical for the kinds of jobs that our students are most likely to perform for an organization—whether that's government or a corporation or an NGO—where they're employed to analyze complex situations and convey that information to someone who's not a specialist. On the other hand, in learning how to write these documents, students learn to do research on complex global issues in a specific context.”

But both Stevens and Dahlman agree that their students will also need to learn how to persuade public audiences.

“We're assuming that our students are operating in democratic contexts,” explains Dahlman, “that none of them are going to go work for a dictatorship where they don't have to explain their policy—they just do things. But in a democracy, good policy requires public support.”

Stevens describes the kind of public argument students will have to craft to garner such public support. “Students will take a policy paper that's written presumably for a professional audience,” he says, “and try to convince the public or a policy person through an op-ed piece of the legitimacy of what was written in the policy.”

Confronting common sense contradictions

Both Stevens and Dahlman have come up with creative ways to help their students learn how to write, think, and practice like policy analysts. Sometimes, they also confront students’ common sense ideas about how policy analysis should be done, and they’re often creating exercises that make the conventions of the genres they teach explicit to students.

“An exercise I do on day one,” says Dahlman, “is a case study of a policy failure, particularly the memo regarding the Bay of Pigs invasion. The memo was kind of mealy-mouthed in terms of its doubts and its concerns, but the author was correct that it was going to go down in flames. The questions for students are, ‘How would you have done that memo better? What would you do?’ I'm hoping that thinking like this every week—’What would you do differently? How would you improve this? What effect would that have?’—will help students think about themselves as active agents rather than passive recipients.”

Dahlman stands next to his bookshelf packed full of white papers

Dahlman stands next to his bookshelf packed full of white papers

Stevens has his students read an article on drone warfare written by prominent figures in international relations. He feels it embodies many of the characteristics and values of good writing in the International Studies discipline. “It's such a great example of how to narrow a problem and present a policy that would hold states accountable for their use of drone weapons,” explains Stevens. “The authors do a great job of saying, ‘Here's a problem; how can we approach this in a way that has some semblance of reasonable expectation, how can we really limit the scope, how can we define some of the risk, how can we define some of the potential benefits, how can it be operationalized, and in what context will it be successfully operationalized?’ They do a really good job of not dwelling on the moral issue, which I think some of our students would find offensive.”

Stevens here is referring to one of the common places where students get stuck or find disciplinary content troublesome: Arguments in policy memos and white papers conventionally rely on detached consideration of evidence and research, not on moral or philosophical debate about an issue.

“I’m hoping I can help students understand how to step away from just ‘feels’ [emotional responses] about the ethics of things and engage in more dispassionate analysis,” explains Stevens, “with the goal of actually making a difference. I want to get students away from just weeping and gnashing their teeth and pulling their hair over how horrible things are in South Sudan. Yes, they are, but fretting about it is unlikely to be influential.”

Sometimes, the kinds of thought exercises and writing assignments in International Studies also contradict students’ ideas about how to write policy analysis or think about global events.

For instance, Stevens wonders if their insistence upon “dispassionate analysis” is difficult for students to understand because it contradicts students’ typical responses to international crises. “Every time students turn on cable news,” explains Stevens, “they're getting this kind of emotionality. It's kind of ingrained in them, but the idea in our discipline is not to think with the reptilian portion of your brain. It's having a conversation with someone you disagree with and trying to resolve an issue.”

Similarly, Dahlman notices that the structures behind global events are sometimes invisible to students. “They see world politics as being the play of massive personalities,” says Dahlman. “Students see international affairs and global events as Putin, Trump, or Kim Jong-un when there are, in fact, massive apparati behind these pieces.”

Dahlman also feels that the specific disciplinary genres he teaches sometimes confront students’ common sense ideas about how to make an argument in writing. For instance, one of the genre conventions of a policy memo is that the argument is often stated directly at the beginning. Dahlman finds that students encounter difficulty with this convention. “I took them through an exercise the other day,” he explains, “about how a policy memo is not like an episode of Fixer Upper.”

Fixer Upper is a show in which the hosts work with buyers to completely renovate a dilapidated home. The newly remodeled home is only revealed at the very end of each episode.

In Fixer Upper, “it’s sort of a reverse-engineered situation,” says Dahlman, “where they do the reveal at the end. With policy memos, you want to do the reveal at the beginning. But I find that students are really used to that kind of dramatic buildup in writing, which I was not sensitive to before I started having to teach writing.”

In Fixer Upper, doing a reveal at the end makes the story interesting, but it would actually make “a horrible policy memo,” Dahlman says, laughing.

Looking ahead

Stevens and Dahlman are optimistic about ITS 202’s potential for helping their students learn the ways of writing, thinking, and practicing of their discipline. Particularly, they’re hopeful that having students begin to learn about these ideas early will give them time to practice and refine their abilities throughout the major. In other words, they want their students to learn over time—incrementally.

I don't expect students to get half of what I'm saying now at all,” says Stevens, “but I'm hoping that five years from now a lightbulb will go off.

They are also pleased with the potential of ITS 202’s early position in the curriculum.

“Before,” says Dahlman, “there was no arc by which these ideas would settle in and season, so when the Advanced Writing requirement came down, we thought that made a lot more sense—because then we start in their first year.”

As we conclude, Stevens says, “I'm looking forward to seeing how the papers turn out by the end of the semester. Both of us are confident that this is a really good way to structure our major.”

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