Making Choices and Taking Risks in Designing a Seminar

Making Choices and Taking Risks in Designing a Seminar


My biggest take-away from participating this past year in the LAMP program is that, while I’ve taught at Duke  35 years, I’m still grappling with the basics of good course design!  In my case, productive conversation with LAMP colleagues and leaders have led me to make two substantive changes to a new undergraduate capstone seminar in Political Science I’m developing for next year, PS430S, which will focus on how scholars in that discipline, and in History, study the origins of, and in one instance the avoidance of, major wars in 20th century Europe. 

The first main change for the seminar concerned its scope.  When I originally envisioned the class I thought it would focus solely on the origins of World War I and World War II, both defining events of the 20th Century.  There was one problem with this design:  an equally consequential case was being ignored of a struggle between great powers in Europe that did not escalate to military hostilities, the Cold War of 1945-89.  But how to fit it in?

I raised this problem at LAMP meetings.  I was persuaded by those discussions that the Cold War is intrinsically important, and provides an important counterpoint to WWI and WWII.  I decided to bring it into the seminar.  In doing so, I had to force myself to accept a risk, namely, that in cutting back on readings on the origins or WWI and WWII to make room for the Cold War I might inadvertently drop an important reading about one or the other World Wars.   

What about the required seminar paper?  Throughout my career I’ve thought that a seminar paper should be a full-blown research product.  Such a paper identifies a good research question, reports on the data and methods employed to address the question, provides and explores actual results, and concludes with implications for scholarship as well as real-world policy ideas and proposals for future research. 

During LAMP meetings I mentioned that many of my friends in Political Science have moved away from this understanding of what constitutes a seminar paper, and instead they have their students produce a research design.  A research design usually consists of a research question, a discussion of existing literature to show that the proposed question is interesting and important, the identification of available data and appropriate methods to implement the research project, and perhaps the presenting of an illustrative result to demonstrate that the project is feasible.  What is left to the future is the actual execution of the project—in particular, the generation of a Results and Discussion section of the paper—and therefore the drawing of conclusions based on the Results/Discussion.

I’ve always felt that research designs put off the day of reckoning:  that is, they leave for some unspecified future a confrontation with the question, can the proposed research design actually be implemented?

Yet, especially as a result of discussions with LAMP leaders, I came to see that what might have underpinned my reticence about research designs was a fear I had that students might take too many risks in their research designs, and that they might experience a sense of failure.  That is, they might stipulate questions that could never really be answered in a reasonable time period, or the questions might require for their engagement data that would be infeasible to acquire.  Yet, I learned through those LAMP discussions that it might not be an entirely bad thing for students to learn that some questions are more tractable than others.  In other words, writing a research design that included a marvelous but unrealistic program of actual steps might yield important lessons for a student, even if there was a sense that the design did not represent “success” in the traditional sense. 

Hence, I’ve decided for PS430S to give students the option of doing either a traditional research paper or a research design. 

Looking back and discussing my experiences with LAMP’s leadership, I see that both changes—the expansion of the seminar to include the Cold War and the research-design option—required that I face up to and accept risk.  In the first instance, the risk is that, in compressing the reading list to make room for the Cold War, I would make an incorrect choice regarding it or WWI or WWII.   In the second instance, the risk is that the students might make choices about a research design that ended in a certain amount of frustration.  Where does that sense of risk come from?  Ultimately, I think it comes from stepping outside of our day-to-day research efforts and moving into teaching in an area that is adjacent to but just far enough from our core research competencies that we see more possibilities for making errors.  That is what it means, I guess, to be a teacher:  to be willing to extend ourselves into new areas and in doing so to risk error to attain and transmit new knowledge. 


IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Michael Shannon on Unsplash

ABOUT THE AUTHORJoseph Grieco is a Professor of Political Science at Duke University. He concentrates on theories of international relations, issues of international political economy, and problems of international conflict. He is the author of Cooperation Among Nations: Europe, America, and Non-Tariff Barriers to Trade, and Between Dependency and Autonomy: India’s Experience with the International Computer Industry; and the co-author (with G. John Ikenberry) of State Power and World Markets: The International Political Economy, and (with G. John Ikenberry and Michael Mastanduno) Introduction to International Relations: Enduring Questions & Contemporary Perspectives. Articles and notes by him have appeared in American Journal of Political ScienceJournal of Conflict Resolution, International Studies Quarterly, Security Studies, Review of International Studies, the American Political Science Review, International Organization, the Journal of Politics, and World Politics.