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  • Anne van Dijken

Mobilizing Non-Western Narratives in University Education

Written by: Anne van Dijken


Introduction

The Erasmus University needs to be a university that not only talks about the Western perspective.[1]

While our university prides itself on being progressive, modern, globally oriented, and open-minded, our education does not always reflect this, despite research showing that the decolonization of university curricula positively effects student satisfaction.[2] To explore these developments and implement educational changes within our department, the Mobilizing Non-Western Narratives of Friendship, Conflict, and Cooperation-project, involves focus groups with students from the Global History and International Relations program to better understand their perspectives on how a new version of the course “International Relations Theory” (IRT) can be redesigned to meet their needs and the changing academic landscape. Additionally, this change helps Erasmus University maintain their reputation as a top university in academia by bringing the newest scientific knowledge to the curriculum, as well as responding to students’ growing demand for centering critical perspectives in the curriculum.

This article discusses three approaches to decolonizing our curriculum: 1) introducing new and critical narratives, 2) taking an inclusive and global approach to International Relations, and 3) shifting towards more future-oriented education. Additionally, this article ties these approaches to the needs and perspectives of students following the course in question.


Introducing New Narratives

Despite International Relations being a relatively new field of study, it is quite traditional, with university teaching starting with the classical theories, such as liberalism, before moving onto the more modern and critical theories.[3] Accordingly, the IRT-course at Erasmus University traditionally followed the same format, despite the department's claims to “avoid Eurocentrism” and actively prepare students for their future careers.[4] To live up to these statements, it is essential to introduce students to more new and critical narratives in International Relations, rather than reinforcing the dominant ideologies of liberalism and realism. Throughout the project, students repeatedly expressed their (growing) interest in critical theories within International Relations, as ‘the development of Critical Theory can add to the traditional debates and help reshape them to not only better understand our world, but also to create more realistic solutions’.[5] Furthermore, critical theories are popular among students because ‘all of them feel, to a certain extent, progressive and basically change reality’[6] as well as providing ‘a good framework for understanding International Relations, allowing us to critique the limitations of positivist approaches and develop a robust critical theory of International Relations’.[7]

This (growing) interest also showed in students’ positive attitudes towards critical theories in their weekly reflection essays. Last year (2022-2023), 50% of comments on classical theories were negative and 76% of comments on critical theories were positive and this year (2023-2024) 61% of comments on classical theories were negative and 65% of comments on critical theories were positive.[8] It is important to respond to these international developments towards decolonizing curricula, as well as trends within our own walls. Therefore, introducing new narratives to the course and shifting the focus from traditional theories towards critical theories will ensure Erasmus University stands out in the crowd of universities offering International Relations courses and/or programs, as well as aligning the course with the university’s Erasmian values of being socially engaged and innovative.[9]


Towards an Inclusive and Global International Relations

In recent years, scholars started questioning the dominance of Western narratives and Eurocentrism within the field of International Relations, with most theories originating from Western countries or building on ideals and notions of Western societies. Even students have voiced their concerns with the Western orientation of the field, stating:

In the interdependent, globalized world we live in today, it is important to learn how different regions perceive IR to have more effective collaboration.[10]

This raises questions about the international in International Relations. Throughout the project, students shared their desire for more inclusivity and global orientation within the course:

The degree to which this represented ‘Global IR’ I believe was not as strong. I would have liked to see alternative perspectives mentioned from other national viewpoints.[11]

This sentiment was reflected in students’ reactions to the final weeks of the course, which were dedicated to additional non-western approaches. Both during focus groups and in the weekly reflection essays, students were very laudatory about the content of these weeks. For example, 72% of comments on Chinese International Relations were highly positive:[12]

I thought that the presentation of Chinese IR was very intriguing and presented a new perspective that I was not entirely familiar with.[13]

This shift towards global perspectives and non-western narratives further aligns the course with the goals of Erasmus University and differentiates the Rotterdam-way of teaching International Relations from other universities.


Focus on The Future

Concretely, the project leads to several changes in the curriculum of IRT to make the course more future-oriented: 1) emphasizing new theories and perspectives in the field of International Relations, and 2) preparing students for their future careers after the university. Most of the theories discussed during the course have been established and written about for decades and consequently only show the output of International Relations rather than the process leading up to it. When discussing this issue with students, their interest in new and developing theories became evident, as they feel that ‘it also adds a layer to our understanding of how these theories come about’.[14] This year, the curriculum included, for the first time, a discussion on Benjamin Tallis’ neo-idealism, which was very positively received:

Due to its novelty, neo-idealism is great to learn about as it is a developing theory that has yet to be applied to contexts other than Ukraine and Russia. (Focus Group III, 19-01-2024)

Not only does working with such a new theory help students understand how theories are developed, but it also provides students with new perspective through which they can evaluate and understand traditional theories.[15] Furthermore, students believe that learning more international and global perspectives on International Relations will better prepare them for a future in this field[16] because ‘the international in International Relations is not only about European diplomacy, but truly about global phenomena’[17] and ‘if you would know more about the non-western theories, you also know more in your future career’.[18] These insights confirm that this new approach to teaching IRT is crucial to meet the aforementioned goal of our department to provide students with active preparation for their future careers.[19]

 

Conclusion

In sum, a new version of IRT ensures the course meets the demand of our students as well as the goals of our university. Furthermore, this project convincingly demonstrates that collecting student feedback through focus groups is crucial to improving our education. For IRT to accommodate the growing interest in critical theories among students, the new course centers a critical perspective, introducing new narratives in International Relations and incorporating the newest scientific knowledge in the curriculum. These changes align the course with the Erasmian values, as well as Erasmus University’s position at the forefront of academia. Additionally, the incorporation of new perspectives creates a more in-depth understanding of the theories among students. Finally, the incorporation of truly global and non-western narratives in the redesigned course not only brings the ‘international’ back to International Relations but also demonstrably better prepares students for their future careers in the field. Finally, the modernization and redesign of IRT through student feedback serves as an excellent template for redesigning and decolonizing other courses, both within our university as well as further afield and abroad.


Anne van Dijken is a student assistant in the ESHCC-funded project Mobilizing Non-Western Narratives of Friendship, Conflict, and Cooperation, led by Yuri van Hoef. Anne studies Media, Culture & Society at ESHCC and is responsible for organizing and leading the focus groups in the project.


Notes

[1] Focus Group II, Classical Theories, Critical Theories & The Affective Turn, December 15, 2023.

[2] Katherine Wimpenny et al., “Curriculum Internationalization and the ‘Decolonizing Academic,’” Higher Education Research & Development 41, no. 7 (November 10, 2022): 2490–2505, https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2021.2014406; Pauline W.U. Chinn, “Decolonizing Methodologies and Indigenous Knowledge: The Role of Culture, Place and Personal Experience in Professional Development,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 44, no. 9 (November 2007): 1247–68, https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.20192; Marie Charles, “Effective Teaching and Learning: Decolonizing the Curriculum,” Journal of Black Studies 50, no. 8 (November 2019): 731–66, https://doi.org/10.1177/0021934719885631; Karlee D. Fellner, “Embodying Decoloniality: Indigenizing Curriculum and Pedagogy,” American Journal of Community Psychology 62, no. 3–4 (December 2018): 283–93, https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12286; Patricia Espiritu Halagao, “Liberating Filipino Americans through Decolonizing Curriculum,” Race Ethnicity and Education 13, no. 4 (December 2010): 495–512, https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2010.492132.

[3] Focus Group II, Classical Theories, Critical Theories & The Affective Turn.

[4] Maarten van Dijck, “‘Changez Vos Feuilles, Gardez Vos Racines’: A Personal Vision on History Education at the Erasmus University,” Erasmus Student Journal of History Studies (History Collective) 1 (May 2023): 96–101.

[5] Theory Journals 23-24, “Reflections on The Theories of International Relations,” February 2, 2024.

[6] Theory Journals 22-23, “Reflections on The Theories of International Relations,” January 20, 2023.

[7] Theory Journals 23-24, “Reflections on The Theories of International Relations.”

[8] Primary dataset, “Quantitative Analysis Theory Journals: Positive versus Negative Attitudes Towards International Relations Theories,” March 15, 2024.

[9] Erasmus University Rotterdam, “Erasmian Values,” 2024, https://www.eur.nl/en/about-eur/strategy-2024/about-strategy-2024/erasmian-values.

[10] Theory Journals 23-24, “Reflections on The Theories of International Relations.”

[11] Theory Journals 23-24.

[12] Primary dataset, “Quantitative Analysis Theory Journals: Positive versus Negative Attitudes Towards International Relations Theories.”

[13] Theory Journals 23-24, “Reflections on The Theories of International Relations.”

[14] Focus Group III, The Middle Ground: The English School, Constructivism & Neo-Idealism, January 19, 2024.

[15] Focus Group III.

[16] Focus Group V, Non-Western IR, Course Assignments & Structure, February 9, 2024.

[17] Theory Journals 23-24, “Reflections on The Theories of International Relations.”

[18] Focus Group V, Non-Western IR, Course Assignments & Structure.

[19] van Dijck, “‘Changez Vos Feuilles, Gardez Vos Racines’: A Personal Vision on History Education at the Erasmus University.”


References

Charles, Marie. “Effective Teaching and Learning: Decolonizing the Curriculum.” Journal of Black Studies 50, no. 8 (November 2019): 731–66. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021934719885631.

Chinn, Pauline W.U. “Decolonizing Methodologies and Indigenous Knowledge: The Role of Culture, Place and Personal Experience in Professional Development.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 44, no. 9 (November 2007): 1247–68. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.20192.

Dijck, Maarten van. “‘Changez Vos Feuilles, Gardez Vos Racines’: A Personal Vision on History Education at the Erasmus University.” Erasmus Student Journal of History Studies (History Collective) 1 (May 2023): 96–101.

Erasmus University Rotterdam. “Erasmian Values,” 2024. https://www.eur.nl/en/about-eur/strategy-2024/about-strategy-2024/erasmian-values.

Fellner, Karlee D. “Embodying Decoloniality: Indigenizing Curriculum and Pedagogy.” American Journal of Community Psychology 62, no. 3–4 (December 2018): 283–93. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12286.

Focus Group II. Classical Theories, Critical Theories & The Affective Turn, December 15, 2023.

Focus Group III. The Middle Ground: The English School, Constructivism & Neo-Idealism, January 19, 2024.

Focus Group V. Non-Western IR, Course Assignments & Structure, February 9, 2024.

Halagao, Patricia Espiritu. “Liberating Filipino Americans through Decolonizing Curriculum.” Race Ethnicity and Education 13, no. 4 (December 2010): 495–512. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2010.492132.

Primary dataset. “Quantitative Analysis Theory Journals: Positive versus Negative Attitudes Towards International Relations Theories,” March 15, 2024.

Theory Journals 22-23. “Reflections on The Theories of International Relations,” January 20, 2023.

Theory Journals 23-24. “Reflections on The Theories of International Relations,” February 2, 2024.

Wimpenny, Katherine, Jos Beelen, Karine Hindrix, Virginia King, and Ellen Sjoer. “Curriculum Internationalization and the ‘Decolonizing Academic.’” Higher Education Research & Development 41, no. 7 (November 10, 2022): 2490–2505. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2021.2014406.

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