What Are the Implications of the 2016 Election for Teaching International Studies in the US?

Key Takeaways:

  • In the wake of a divisive election and the president’s sometimes vitriolic language, there is an urgent need to make sure our classrooms and campuses are spaces where all students—regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, ability, immigration status, citizenship, and so forth—feel welcome, safe, and encouraged to learn;
  • International studies schools and faculty face unique challenges in this regard because of the origins of the field, demographics of our students, and content of our coursework;
  • To begin to create inclusive classrooms, international studies faculty should take these necessary, but not sufficient, steps:
    • Diversify assigned readings by making sure that women, scholars of color, and scholars from the Global South are represented in substantive ways;
    • Talk explicitly about power, inequality, and privilege in the classroom, without burdening students with marginalized identities;
    • Bring current domestic issues into the classroom, especially in classes that discuss topics like fascism, authoritarianism, political violence, populism, and human rights;
    • Model inclusive language in syllabi and lectures, recognizing that such language is important, powerful, and not only relevant to the U.S. context.


We enter 2017 in a highly charged political moment. There are important conversations happening at universities across the U.S. about creating and preserving our classrooms and campuses as spaces where all students—regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, ability, immigration status, citizenship, and so forth—feel welcome and encouraged to learn. Universities have developed a wealth of resources on how to create more inclusive classrooms. The University of Denver’s own Office of Teaching and Learning has extensive resources on inclusive excellence and teaching. Some U.S. colleges and universities are taking steps to become “sanctuary campuses” to proactively work to prevent the potential deportation of undocumented students or registration of Muslim students under the incoming administration.

At the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, it has also become apparent that international studies schools face a series of unique issues related to inclusiveness and diversity, particularly given the current political context. These issues include the facts that the majority of students in international studies programs in the U.S. are from the West (and advantaged backgrounds), yet many aim to do work in the Global South among the most disadvantaged; many international studies topics (e.g., development) have roots in colonial projects; core readings in the field are primarily written by Western authors; much coursework looks at international issues as separate and different from domestic ones; and even skills courses often reflect greater attention to technical expertise than to local knowledge. In the field and in the classroom, though, local perspectives often challenge those from the West, the current American political moment looks anything but exceptional, and international studies programs also teach less advantaged students, including those from the Global South.. Creating an environment conducive to participation among students from these varied backgrounds is challenging.

While these issues have long been important for international studies programs, in the wake of the 2017 election campaign there is an acute need to address them because members of our community—students, staff, and faculty—feel under threat.

We therefore solicited feedback from current Korbel graduate students on simple but potentially impactful ways that we, as faculty in an international studies school, can begin to work towards creating inclusive classrooms where all students feel safe and encouraged to learn about global issues. We sent a survey to Sié Center Research Assistants and a few others (~35 students) and received 13 responses. We followed up with longer conversations with individual students (~8) and drew on related group discussions, including a student-organized panel on this topic.

Based on the feedback from students, we offer this initial list with the recognition that it is not sufficient or comprehensive; rather it offers points of entry where we as international studies faculty can easily infuse principles of diversity and inclusion into our courses. We invite further suggestions.

  1. Diversify Assigned Readings:

    Work to ensure our course readings reflect a diversity of perspectives and authors from different backgrounds—including women, people of color, and scholars from the Global South. This is particularly important in international studies courses in order to actively disrupt the tendency to anoint Western scholarship and perspectives as the gold standard. Instead, we can ask whether there are places on your syllabus where local voices, scholars from marginalized groups, and scholars from the regions under discussion could be assigned. Even when these voices do not dispute traditional scholarship, normalizing diverse voices on our syllabi can allow more students at Korbel to recognize their backgrounds as generating useful and legitimate perspectives on an issue. A faculty member can upload a syllabus to this tool to get a quick estimate of its diversity.

    Further work: make sure all of the author diversity is not only focused on the issues, gender/race/religion, etc., related to that diversity and only assigned during the week focused on particular identities. In other words, do not only assign readings by women during the “gender week.” Instead, we can seek out core readings written by women, scholars of color, and so forth on the central themes of the course.

  2. Talk explicitly about inequality, power and privilege (without burdening those on the margins):

    International studies students aspire to careers in the global arena. In order to do this work effectively, many are eager to better understand their own privilege and bias. One way to integrate these discussions into a variety of international studies courses is to integrate the idea of intersectionality—the recognition that all people have multiple identities that are bound up with power hierarchies and that intersect and overlap in ways that create discrimination, advantage, or both in different situations. There are many resources to help facilitate these discussions (see here to get started and watch Kimberlé Crenshaw’s new TedTalk). These conversations are important for white, wealthy, Western students aiming to do work in the Global South (especially those that seek to avoid perpetuating what Teju Cole has dubbed the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”), and are also important for students of color who may be interested in joining the Foreign Service or international development field, where they may experience unique challenges related to their own race and positionality (see this excellent discussion by Yolande Bouka). Critically, recognizing one’s privilege does not erase other oppressions one experiences. Recognizing Western privilege—and, critically, citizenship privilege—is particularly key for students of international studies.

    Further tip: discussions about inequality can often get personal. As such, we can be conscious of not putting the burden of this discussion on students with marginalized identities. This can make them feel like “tokens of diversity” being asked to do more emotional and intellectual labor than those occupying dominant identities, such as their white, cis-gender, straight, Christian, U.S.-citizen classmates. For instance, we can take care not to put a student of color on the spot by asking them to explain how white people can be more effective allies or more reflective of their privilege. White students should be encouraged to do the work and seek out resources if they are interested in doing so (Mia McKenzie’s work on this is a good place to start for more on this topic, or a reply here). Why? To quote McKenzie, “[T]he people who experience racism, misogyny, ableism, queerphobia, transphobia, classism, etc. are exhausted.” Professors can also model how to discuss power and privilege by bringing their own identities into the discussion. It may be powerful to acknowledge that we are learning right alongside the students and may make mistakes as we go that can serve as teachable/learnable moments.

    A note of caution: such discussions can arouse strong emotions from students occupying dominant identities, which can lead to heated discussions that have the opposite of the intended effect on both “dominant” and underrepresented students. It is important for instructors to emphasize trying to understand other perspectives rather than seeking to call out or “shame” privilege of whatever sort. These discussions work best when instructors set ground rules, play an active role in discussion, carve out space for reflection and feedback, and draw on the many resources available ahead of time (see, for example, here).

  3. Consider bringing current events—including domestic ones—into the classroom:

    During fall quarter 2016, many Korbel students were reeling from ongoing events within the U.S., from the offensive writings on DU’s own “free speech” wall, to police killings of unarmed Black people, to the inflammatory election exchanges. While most of the classes at Korbel focus on international issues, many students—and scholars—see the need to bring these domestic examples into the classroom as well. Perhaps more urgently than ever, what international studies faculty have been teaching for years—on fascismauthoritarianismpolitical violencepoliticized ethnicitypopulismhuman rights, and so forth—can no longer pretend to only apply to “over there.” For instance, classes that highlight authoritarian regimes would do well to integrate class discussions on how current political discourse in the U.S. shares (or doesn’t share) similarities with the rise of authoritarian regimes elsewhere. Current Korbel students see these issues in the U.S. as linked to broader issues of global peace and security and thus have a strong desire to see them integrated into the classroom more often.

  4. Model inclusive language on our syllabi and in our lectures:

    Language is a powerful tool for either facilitating or combating inequality, discrimination, and oppression. As international studies faculty, we may see language that is respectful and reflective of the needs of marginalized communities (what some call “politically correct”) as applying more to the political dialogue in the U.S. than to the subjects we teach on or the work we do. However, this language has been, is, and will continue to be of critical importance for communicating sensitivity to different students’ experiences and avoiding unintended slights. As such, here are some preliminary tips:

    • Consider adding a note to our syllabi affirming all gender expressions and identities and encouraging students to reach out to us if they wish to be referred to by a different pronoun;
    • Avoid asking students questions about their race or ethnicity—questions like, “what are you?” can make students feel singled out and uncomfortable;
    • Note any accommodations we will make for students with differing abilities, medical issues, religious observances, and so forth. Invite students to talk to us if they feel unsafe or discriminated against in any way;
    • Try to avoid using phrases like, “Hi guys” or “us Americans” or “that’s insane” as each phrase is exclusionary or dismissive in certain ways;
    • Look to work by Gary Howard and others for additional ways of approaching inclusive language.


These suggestions are intended as accessible “first steps” for faculty to create more inclusive classrooms. They are neither comprehensive nor intended to achieve the unrealistic goal of completely avoiding discomfort or unintended offense in the classroom. Indeed, addressing issues of power and identity in the classroom is often uncomfortable for everyone. However, it is our responsibility as faculty members to acknowledge and respond to that discomfort, rather than avoid it. The steps listed above can move us toward creating “brave” spaces in the classroom, where faculty and students have the language to respectfully share their experiences and ask tough questions but still be open to being held accountable for their own learning and growth.

Additional Resources at the University of Denver: