When students get to the point where they can say 'I don’t know' – that's when they really can begin to learn and their minds open.

David Mitchell makes his students uncomfortable -- on purpose.

Mitchell, an associate professor of political science and international relations, injects disconcerting exercises into his courses because he wants his students to understand the world around them. "We're dealing with really important, weighty issues that, whether they're fully aware of it or not, impact students' lives," he says.

One way Mitchell pushes students beyond their level of comfort is to get them involved in discussions that help them realize that political decisions are not always as linear as we assume they would be. "I want them to view the issues as if they were in the position to make political decisions themselves," he says. "We look at models and theories that can explain why some world leaders make the decisions they do. We even predict how leaders will behave in the future. In order to do this, though, we must first come to the conclusion that we do not have all the answers. When students get to the point where they can say 'I don't know' - that's when they really can begin to learn and their minds open."

For instance, in his International Politics seminar, Mitchell divides students into small groups, each group "leading" a small fictional country. The students must deal with diplomatic and security issues while developing ways to increase their country's wealth. They quickly learn that achieving an outcome is not as easy as completing tasks x, y and z.

"Whether we're talking about some dimension of international political economy or U.S. foreign policy," says Mitchell, "I want students to view the issues as if they were in the position of making high-level decisions that affect people's lives."

"When a student tries to negotiate an agreement on trade with one country alongside an agreement on security with another country - and actually try to find some common ground - we really begin to breathe life into the idea that politics are not always intentional," he says.

Posted Sept. 20, 2011

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