top of page


I am still not sure how it happened. The Department of Economics at The Ohio State University took a chance on me. They hired me to teach a 7:30am Principles of Macroeconomics course in the fall of 2001. That was all they were willing to offer, since I only had a Masters degree (from the London School of Economics). But five years later, I was teaching three classes a quarter (none fortunately at 7:30am), had created my own class on the economics of war, was instructing MBA students at the Fisher College of Business, and had taught senior level classes on international trade, on international finance, and on the political economy of globalization (for the international studies program).  I even offered a course on the Japanese Economy (assigned to me after making a remark about keiretsu around a senior colleague).  


The approach to teaching that I developed during my years as a lecturer at OSU was only enhanced when I moved to Michigan to pursue my PhD.  As a graduate student instructor at Michigan, I helped Arthur "Skip" Lupia and William Roberts Clark develop a first year graduate game theory sequence, and received the Rackham Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award. This meant that I was more than ready to handle my teaching responsibilities by the time I became an assistant professor, first at Rutgers University and then at the University of Chicago.


While teaching is just a portion of the purpose of universities, it is and remains a core part of my work. I will describe below my approach to teaching undergraduate students (which will illustrate my overall teaching philosophy), how I structure courses for graduate students, the manner by which I advise a thesis, and the opportunities I pursue to educate individuals outside the UChicago student body.


Undergraduate Teaching Philosophy


My teaching philosophy is to instruct according to the three principles: (1) Be a Facilitator, (2) Be Organized, and (3) Be Enthusiastic and Focused.  I will now describe each of these principles and illustrate how I actualize them using two undergraduate courses I teach at UChicago: my Introduction to International Relations course and the Social Science Inquiry II course in The Core.


(1) Be a Facilitator: As I explain in the above video, my role is to assist students in exploring concepts and gaining knowledge for themselves.  Make no mistake; there is a time and place for conveying knowledge via a lecture. But I am always looking for opportunities for student-led learning -- I want the students to engage with me and with one another.


This is most easily done in small seminars, such as those in The Core or in graduate courses.  In my Core courses, I often begin class by dividing the 19 student class into groups of 4 or 5 students.  Next, I present the students (commonly by writing on the board) a question (or series of questions).  I then ask the students to talk with the members of their small group for 10 to 15 minutes to see if they can come to a consensus answer (or, if not, be able to explain the points of disagreement).  For example, I might write on the board, "What is a Democracy?" and then turn it over to the groups.  After the 10 to 15 minutes, each group chooses a "spokesperson" who will state for the class her/his group's answer.  It is at this point that I ask each spokesperson, one at a time, to share with the class his/her group's answer to the question. I then keep track of commonalities and differences between the answers offered by the groups (commonly by writing a few notes on the board that summarizes a group's response).  


The benefits of this approach are (i) the small groups encourage students to share their views (as the students are now "having a conversation" with 3 or 4 others, rather than "performing" in front of 19 or 20 other people), and (ii) the students gain a better understanding of the concept being discussed and are more likely to retain the information pertaining to the concept.  


While playing the role of "facilitator" is most easily done in small seminars, it is possible to take on this role intermittently in large lectures.  Specifically, I identify points within each lecture where I can stop and ask the class to provide the answer.  For example, in one lecture in my Introduction to International Relations course, I show the students that democracies have an empirical tendency to not fight wars against one another.  Rather than simply tell them the leading theories seeking to explain this empirical regularity (though I eventually do this too), I stop and ask, "Hmmmm, why might that be?  Anyone have any ideas?"  I am not looking for the students to provide the "correct answer", but to simply be willing to "throw an idea out there" (though the students inevitably do share some answers that are also given by scholars).  To encourage the students to give answers, I walk around the lecture hall when lecturing.  This helps to “break the barrier” between me and the students. This is just one way in which I try to play the role of facilitator and make a large lecture feel smaller and more personalized.


I also carry this goal over to my remote teaching.  Rather than provide passive content, I attempt to make the online version of Intro to International Relations (created for the autumn of 2020) as interactive as possible.  This can be seen on this sample page (which shows the content from lecture 1 of the online class). The lecture component is kept brief and divided into short (approximately 5 minute) videos, making it easier for students to digest the content.  Every few videos is followed by a class question.  These questions ask students to reflect on the content from the preceding videos, either by reading and commenting on additional material or by simply offering their "off the top" thoughts based on the videos.  The overall goal is to place myself in the role of facilitating their exploration of a topic, rather than dictate the lessons.  


(2) Be Organized:  This component is about more than ensuring that the course has a syllabus on the first day (though that should be a given). Instead, it is about the course structure and the individual class structure.


First, I must ensure that the course has an overarching and coherent structure. In Social Science Inquiry II, the students spend the quarter exploring the intentionally broad question: Is Democracy Good?  The course is then organized around three questions: (1) Conceptually, what do we mean by "Democracy" and "Good" (i.e. commonly some desirable policy outcome, such as low infant mortality or internal peace), (2) Empirically, how should both concepts be measured, and (3) Analytically, how do we determine if the data support the notion that democracy leads to desirable outcomes?  


In Introduction to International Relations, the course progresses through three units: (1) defining sovereignty and anarchy, (2) exploring the three primary ways that territorial-states interact within the anarchic international system (violence, exchange, and contracts), and (3) determining if separate territorial-states will ever be replaced by a single world government?  


Having crafted the overall course structure, I ensure that the students know how each class fits into this arc.  This is one reason why I begin each class with an overview of the previous class and a reminder of the classes' overall structure (a secondary reason is that it gives the students a few minutes to focus their minds away from what they were doing prior to the start of class and turn their attention to me and the class material).  Some students might find opening each class this way to be a bit repetitive.  However, that is a worthwhile price to ensure that the class is "on the same page" in terms of understanding what they are expected to be learning in the course.  


Second, each class must not only coherently fit into the course structure, but itself be structured and coherent. The structure I give to seminars was described above (i.e. dividing the students into small groups and posing questions for them to explore).  When giving a lecture, I share with the students the goal for that lecture (after reminding the students what we discussed last time and where we are in the overall course structure).  My lectures then follow a similar pattern: begin with a concrete historical example, tie that example to a larger question, show that the question is still relevant today, then present the answers scholars have offered to that question.  


For example, when lecturing on the "Democratic Peace", I open with the claim by Woodrow Wilson that the United States had to enter World War I in order to "Make the world safe for democracy" because democracies are peace loving nations.  I then show how every US President since Wilson has made similar statements. This naturally leads to the question: "Is that really the case?  Are democracies peaceful?"  I then show students the empirical data used by scholars to evaluate this claim and then present the arguments scholars have given for this claim.  I conclude the lecture (and every lecture) with a "Wrapping Up" slide. You can see the slides that I use for this lecture here.


(3) Be Enthusiastic and Focused:  Being focused and being enthusiastic go hand and hand. With respect to being focused, I am upfront with the students at the beginning of each term: my job is first and foremost to do research. But I then say, "however, when I'm here, it's my job to be focused on you.  I have to forget what I was just working on, forget the recent rejection notice from XYZ journal, etc and focus on you."  I then ask the students to do the same – when they attend lecture, please focus on the class.


Once focused, my goal is to bring energy to the classroom (if this requires drinking a caffeinated beverage throughout class, so be it). I do not stand behind a podium.  I "break the wall" by, for example, sitting on a table at the front of the room and by moving throughout the room (even a large lecture hall like those in Kent Hall).  I also use slides that (barring a need to post a long direct quote) keep text to a minimum.  I prefer having an image, figure, table, or map on the slide.  My goal is for my words and for the slide to work together, rather than compete with one another.  While I post my slides after class, students know that the slides convey less than half of the information from lecture.

Graduate Teaching


I attempt to apply the same teaching philosophy principles to my graduate courses. However, I recognize that a primary reason I was brought to Chicago was to help bolster the quantitative training of our graduate students, both in the PhD and MA programs.  To that end, I have offered the past two winter quarters a course titled Quantitative Security. The syllabus to be used winter 2019 is here.


The course has two goals.  First, it is structured as an intellectual history. The goal is for students to understand why scholars came to view the collection of machine readable data as a useful way of studying international politics, that this practice began at the University of Chicago through the efforts of Quincy Wright, and that Wright's legacy moved on to become embodied in the Correlates of War Project, the Peace Science Society, the Journal of Conflict Resolution, and a large segment of international relations scholars in general (most recently scholars of internal wars, such as those affiliated with Pearson Institute here at Chicago).  


Second, while providing this intellectual history, students eventually see work that analyzes such data.  This allows me to introduce students to modern methods of data analysis, ranging from maximum likelihood estimation to quasi-experimental approaches. I also require students to replicate three recently published studies (one from the Journal of Conflict Resolution, one from the Journal of Peace Research, and one from a journal of their choosing).  I view replication as a critical component of graduate training, as it comprised a significant portion of my own graduate training (i.e. I would frequently locate the data used in papers in a seminar to see if I could reproduce the findings reported in the paper).


Since Quantitative Security is taught in the winter quarter, I will begin this fall teaching a new course titled Inference in Diplomatic History and International Relations.  This course will introduce students to issues such as (1) the role of theory in diplomatic history and international relations, (2) when is a scholar doing one and not the other (if it is even possible to separate the two), and (3) force students to think about how inferences are a combination of a scholar's assumptions and the data (in the form of documents) read by the scholar.  This final point goes to the heart of conducting empirical inference in international relations research (or social science in general). My plan is for the two classes to be a two-course sequence for the PhD and CIR MA students titled, Evidence and Analysis in International Relations Research.

Thesis Advising


Teaching at UChicago is not limited to the classroom.  Whether advising a B.A. honors thesis, a terminal Masters degree thesis, or serving on a PhD dissertation committee, a critical function of faculty at UChicago is to advise thesis writing.  Fortunately, my time at Rutgers University left me well prepared for this effort.  At Rutgers, I advised a number of B.A. honors thesis papers, MA thesis papers (through a student exchange program with Konstanz University), and PhD students (and I am still a member of a few remaining PhD committees of Rutgers students). Because of this experience, I was quite comfortable with the advising responsibilities I took on once I came to UChicago.  I have already advised a number of BA and MA theses (the MA theses being from both the MAPSS and CIR programs) and am a member of several PhD committees.  


The writing of a thesis is the pinnacle educational experience at any degree level.  Hence, I take this responsibility seriously. When I advise a thesis, regardless of degree level, my advisee is required to start their thesis writing in the same manner: produce a "one-pager".  This document must answer in a single page (I stress to the students that I am serious about "one page") three questions: (1) What is your research question? (2) What is your (proposed) argument? (3) Why do they (the question and argument) matter (both to the scholarship on the topic and for policy purposes)?  Only after I am satisfied with the student’s answers to these three questions (which can entail multiple drafts of the "one-pager" and extensive reading by the student) do we then discuss research design, data, evidence, and analysis.  In short, I want students to concentrate on concepts and theory before thinking about data and evidence.

Outside UChicago


My role as an educator should not stop on UChicago's campus or be limited to UChicago students. Fortunately, UChicago has been a direct platform for educating a broader community of leaners.  This includes teaching classes at other universities (through the Graham School's program with CEU in Madrid), offering lectures at local community colleagues (as one of several UChicago faculty who participate in the Passport program at Oakton Community College), being a discussion leader during the Midwest Faculty Seminar, or crafting the curriculum for UChicago's Pathways high school program on international politics This also involves helping to organize events for the general public. Examples include the January 2017 "Talking Trump" event held in Mandell Hall, the January 2018 "Safer or More Dangerous Word" event held as part of UChicago's "Nuclear Reactions" series, and my "The American Century in Hyde Park" tour  held several times each year.


I also use social media (particularly Twitter/X via @ProfPaulPoast) to generate awareness of international relations research, help improve public knowledge and discourse regarding foreign affairs, and assist in furthering the profile of UChicago as a place to study international politics and the social sciences.

bottom of page