Opinion Student Life

Restoring Dignity in the MINT Program (Part 1)

by Aurélie Semunovic

In the Spring semester of 2016, I unexpectedly registered in a life-altering course titled “Social Movements in Times of Crisis” by Dr. Michal Osterweil and the critically acclaimed anthropologist Dr. Arturo Escobar. The frameworks of the course centered around deconstruction and critical theories, “an unconventional approach” which entitled the course to embody an unconventional format. The instructors insisted we referred to them using their first names, and we rearranged our desks in a circle every Thursday night in order to face every human present. For a fleeting three hours, both professors and students poured their hearts out, by connecting piercing personal experiences to the class readings. 

Mid-way through the semester, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement took shape, and a protest was planned to take place  on the streets of Chapel Hill, making its way through the campus of the University of North Carolina. Let us remember that it was not too long ago that the BLM movement was considered as a potential threat to US national security. Attending such a highly debated event was frowned upon and unquestionably controversial. Ironically, the first ever BLM protest in the area was scheduled on a memorable Thursday night, during our Social Movements course. Although we had emphatically discussed protest throughout the semester, neither Michal nor Arturo expected all 25 students, made up of mostly middle-class white Americans, to have silently and collectively decided to physically exit the comfort of our classroom to enter the heavily policed march. 

In hindsight, it is clear that neither professors had anticipated the monumental impact their teaching had on our personal decision-making process. Regardless of the potential ramification, every classmate of mine attended the march. The open and fluid structure of the course facilitated the exchange of thoughts, viewpoints, personal beliefs, theories, doubts, and feelings; transforming what would have been a dry, dull exploration of historical events, into a catalyst for change. 

I suspect most of my IHEID classmates have had the captivating experience of taking exhilarating courses in their undergraduate programs. The names of remarkable, brilliant, and devoted lecturers are perhaps vividly flooding through your brains. Those enthralling, magical speakers that left you profoundly inspired, riddled with curiosity, emboldened to change, or courageous enough to attend frowned upon BLM marches (before it was trendy). 

In the 2020 October interview published in the Globe, our director, Marie-Laure Salle, described the need for our students to “learn to take responsibility of the power we hold”. Surely due to a lack of editorial space, no questions were directed on the responsibility held by staff, professors, and lecturers in their roles within this process. As a current student and passionate educator, I respectfully embolden myself with the courage provided to me by Michal and Arturo to ask the following question: Does the current selection of professors and educational policy at IHEID have the capability to inspire students to reach the level of empowerment our director expects from us?

Evidently, COVID has impacted the quality of teaching on a global scale. We as students have had to adjust to the learning expectations despite the hurdle that is online teaching. Slightly less clear, is the fact that professors are not held to the same yardsticks in their teaching standards as they have been in the past. 

How has it become our responsibility to not only keep ourselves financially, emotionally, and academically afloat during a pandemic, but also to  plead to staff and professors to provide thorough syllabi, classroom experiences, and engaging capstone policies/workshops? Has the speed to which tables have turned, blurred the terms of the contract between professors and students, to the extent that we now pay to teach and inspire ourselves? 

In the spirit of facilitating efficient and speedy change, I will be more specific and discuss Capstone policies, MINT160 and the overall courses that fail to engage students, despite the online teaching circumstances.

 Currently, the majority of MIA and MDEV students are expected to engage in an applied research project. In essence, we pay to work on a project that will last nine months, with no guaranteed employment/internship, remuneration, choice of project, colleague, TA, or choice  of Capstone director. I ponder on the implications of having students financially burden themselves for a Capstone policy that robs them of agency. Is there truly no other policy capable of allowing students to make informed decisions on a project of this magnitude? Is deciding on a project of this scale not a learning opportunity in itself? 

In the case of the Trade and Finance track, we are also prevented from making an informed decision on the institution we will be working for, potentially contributing to an organization whose mission we do not align with; a baffling policy considering the dubious history of trade and finance establishments. Similar to the field, the capstone allocation mechanism is a well-kept secret. In the case of our track, the most confident students resorted in pleading their case to our supervisor prior to the submission deadline, since there is no transparency on the process. 

Is the selection process based on resume/experience, or a purely subjective procedure? Puzzlingly still, is the fact that the capstone grading scale has been harmonized across all tracks, disregarding the motivation and accountability that is generated from having the freedom to choose. In layman’s terms, while the Global Security track students had the option of aligning their moral stands to their organization, the Trade & Finance students are assumed to be heartless and were therefore robbed of making this decision. 

Comparably, unpaid internships or ‘real world experiences’ rarely produce a professional situation that combines the deprivation of choice on employer, project, colleague, pay, timeframe, credits, and supervisor while also billing you for it. Staggering still, is the fact that capstone deadlines aren’t released until well into the semester and are imposed on us without any regard or forethought to our prior academic commitments. Supervisors and TAs maintain in front of external partners that our academics are a priority, yet their imposed mid-semester deadlines suggest otherwise. The Capstone Guidelines attempt to hold students accountable for potential group conflicts, without questioning whether or not the policy itself is designed to set students up to succeed.

This program would have us believe that paying to get experience is all that we are worth, however considering the skills being taught, one could see the validity in their argument. There could lie difficulty in convincing partners to hire students as researchers when the reality shows that we do not in fact have master level research skills. Continuing on this trend of opaque practices, our partners expect us to actually conduct research, implicitly indicating that we have been taught and hold under our scholarly belts a variety of research methodologies. Practically speaking, they have unknowingly committed to teach us. Let us be very clear about the non-existent quality of our research education. 

Forgoing the need to have inspiring lecturers, who propel us into the sphere of intellectual curiosity Marie-Laure Salle would like us to enter, the Qualitative Research Methods course does not engage us in learning how to conduct research. Instead, we all consent to trade payment and time for a PowerPoint reading about research, given to a virtual blackhole, to which we collectively agree to call educational. We are unfortunately deprived of research exercises, which would provide an opportunity for critical feedback allowing us to develop this sought-after skill. As a required course, we are automatically enrolled in it, and must participate in the malarkey. 

As I further attempt to keep the tables turning back to a position that allows students to reach our director’s expectations; “The course is too big to teach” we are told. “Things have always been this way at the Institute” they tirelessly repeat like their words will stop the world from its next go around the sun. One could also simply say that they have gotten away with it until now. In a 1000 student institution, the inflexibility to change restricts our potential, instead of appreciating the possibilities and flexibility to align with the world around us due to our size.

I ponder on the implications of compulsory courses not meeting certain teaching criteria, leaving us unequipped with the tools necessary to attain the expectancies. I ponder the implications of depriving students of the vital and fundamental need to hear others thoughts, viewpoints, personal beliefs, theories, doubts, and feelings, which would have perhaps contributed to the transformation of our collective, in the ways that Marie-Laure Salle envisions it. 

Is the intellectual exchange of students at the Institute considered an asset? At a time when the world lacks multilateral cooperation, MINT160 brings together students from more than 50 different nationalities, of different professional backgrounds, from both MDEV and MIA programs, on a common goal to gain research skills. Yet its policy does not encourage exchange, implying that the only valuable voice in the room is the professor’s. I ponder on the implications of allowing such critical juncture to go unnoticed and underutilized. 

I deeply resonate with the words of our director, « Nos étudiants, et nos futurs décideurs, doivent en outre apprendre à assumer leurs responsabilités. Le monde de ces dernières décennies s’est écrit comme un monde de « responsabilité́ limitée » et l’on a oublié́ que l’autre face du pouvoir et du leadership est la responsabilité́ assumée ! Il est temps de revenir à̀ nos fondamentaux. Cette prise de responsabilité́ exige bien sûr du courage, et dans un monde où le management par la peur semble devenir une logique de gouvernement (au sens où Michel Foucault employait ce terme) le courage est une qualité́ qu’il va falloir toujours davantage encourager et entretenir ».

However, I do not aim them at our student body as I believe the expectations should be relayed to the IHEID staff and professors at large. Providing students with ample time to pick their courses, advanced notice on capstone deadlines, along with thorough syllabi are rudimentary requirements we should not have to plead for – Those are professional expectations in any academic institution. Learning how to pronounce students’ names ought to be normalized and considered a sign of mutual respect. Capstone project policies should be transparent and a source of empowerment to students, rather than institutionalizing free labor under the guise of education. Required courses ought to be structured and formatted to meet the most recent, most effective, and most productive educational methods available. 

If a course is to be obligatory, it bears a certain level of responsibility to be utterly spectacular. This course ought to be structurally and intellectually engaging, it ought to facilitate a significant level of academic exchange and challenge, as well as allow students to be inspired. How else would you justify its inescapability? If professors are struggling to teach online, students are struggling to learn and be engaged online. 

 A change of culture within the administration and professors is needed to alleviate the burden on GISA, and overall student advocacy. We are here to learn, not devote massive amounts of time and energy to change the fundamental structure and culture of the institute, this is the role of new hires. The staff and professors who exert students’ expectations while providing the bare minimum is systemic and paternalistic and it robs us of dignity, respect, and agency. 

As a fellow student, I invite you to kindly drop courses whose professors are not proactively teaching with as much effort as is required of us to learn. I invite you to think twice in participating in systems that exploit you, your time, your finances, and your precious aspirations. Professors have a moral duty and the honor to prepare, guide, and mentor future generations. This is a kind reminder to expect a return on your finances, and your time in the form of tangible skills. Most importantly, it is a reminder that the potential you have, should not leave this institution untapped. It is who you could become would your professors value your involvement, your education, and your success that should trump all other concerns. Amongst other things, it is time to retire “the institute has always been like this” response. 

The views, opinions, and assumptions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of the Graduate Press Editorial Board.

2 comments on “Restoring Dignity in the MINT Program (Part 1)

  1. WOW! Such a strong, respectful statement – not only full of apparent truths – but deep respect – and real solutions to improve the system, which like so many other “systems” should never rest on the weak response – “it’s always been this way”. Such a beautifully written agent for change. Thank you.Aurelie for being the voice, for I suspect, many other students.


  2. Neal Burke

    Well written
    Change is good
    Students deserve better


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