International relations and Middle-earth. The media and environmental foreign policy. Four USC College scholars are charting new territory in international studies and their colleagues throughout the world are taking note.
At the International Studies Association (ISA) annual convention held this February in New York City honorees included Patrick James, professor of international relations and director of the USC Center for International Studies, as well as Politics and International Relations Ph.D. (POIR) program doctoral student Abigail Ruane, recent POIR program graduate Amy Below, and international relations doctoral student Jenifer Whitten-Woodring.
James and Ruane received the Deborah “Misty” Gerner Innovative Teaching in International Studies Award for developing effective new approaches to teaching in the discipline. Below and Whitten-Woodring won the Best Paper Award from ISA’s International Communication section for their paper titled “Climate Change in the News: Media and U.S. Environmental Foreign Policy.”
Recognized for their creation of the course The International Relations of Middle-earth, James and Ruane incorporate J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series to illustrate theoretical approaches in international relations. In conjunction with James’ traditional syllabus, students in this summer session course watch The Lord of the Rings films and selectively read from Tolkien’s books. The goal is to discover what is illuminated when international relations and The Lord of the Rings inform each other — when students engage critically with international politics both in this world and in Middle-earth.
“‘The proof of the pudding,’ as the saying goes, ‘is in the eating,’” James said. “Reading about international relations in textbooks, along with the other mediums I have introduced, triangulates the material in a way that improves students’ overall level of understanding. I believe today’s students are more visually oriented and therefore benefit most from multi-format learning.”
For Ruane, her collaboration with James has been especially valuable as she prepares to enter the academe.
“Faculty members like Pat James encourage superior academic performance in the classroom, publishing and teaching arenas,” Ruane said. “For me, this has resulted in a co-authored article, a book contract, and a national teaching award, all related to our work on this course.”
In November 2008, James and Ruane published an article in International Studies Perspectives detailing the course’s creation. They have also garnered a contract with University of Michigan Press for a co-authored book elaborating on the same subject. James received support for the course’s development through the Fund for Innovative Undergraduate Teaching sponsored by the Office of the Provost, in collaboration with the Center for Excellence in Teaching.
With the ISA International Communication section’s Best Paper Award, Below and Whitten-Woodring earned praise for their research into the effect that news coverage of environmental issues has on U.S. environmental foreign policy, specifically, global climate change. They hypothesize that general media coverage of abstract issues such as global warming will fail to attract attention because by itself climate change is perceived as a vague and distant threat. However, they posit when the media cover extreme weather events and draw a “connection frame” to climate change for the public, the issue gains the salience necessary to raise both public and elite concern about the issue.
While examining a case study of global warming coverage in The New York Times and two statistical analyses of the effect of news coverage and extreme weather events on congressional attention to global warming, they found that because many environmental issues are grounded in complex scientific principles, media play a crucial role in bridging the gap by explaining and interpreting the significance for the general public and thus gaining policy makers’ attention.
“I think it is really important for graduate students to be encouraged to present and publish their work,” Whitten-Woodring said. “The faculty do a great job of this. Because of this encouragement, I was able to get an article accepted at International Studies Quarterly and this has proved quite important as I enter the job market.”
Below and Whitten-Woodring’s research is ongoing, and the pair plans to publish their findings in an article and ultimately write a book. Below, who graduated from the POIR program last summer, is currently a visiting professor at Ohio University and will begin a tenure-track faculty position at Oregon State University in the fall.
The ISA was founded in 1959 by a group of scholars and practitioners to pursue mutual interests in international studies. Representing 80 countries, the ISA has more than 4,000 members worldwide and is the most respected and widely known scholarly association in the field.