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International Studies Scholars Score

Professor of International Relations Patrick James received the Deborah “Misty” Gerner Innovative Teaching in International Studies Award.Photo/Philip Channing

International relations and Middle-earth. The media and environmental foreign policy.

As four USC College scholars chart new territory in international studies, their colleagues around the world are taking note.

At the annual convention of the International Studies Association held 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 program doctoral student Abigail Ruane, recent 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 the association’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 incorporated 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 the summer session course watched The Lord of the Rings films and selectively read from Tolkien’s books. The goal was to discover what resulted when international relations and The Lord of the Rings informed each other � when students engaged 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 multiformat 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 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.

As winners of the 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.

The authors hypothesized 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 argued that when the media cover extreme weather events and draw a “connection frame” to climate change for the public, the issue gains the necessary gravitas to raise both public and elite concern about the issue.

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 Politics and International Relations 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 International Studies Association was founded in 1959 by a group of scholars and practitioners to pursue mutual interests in international studies. Representing 80 countries, the association has more than 4,000 members worldwide and is the most widely known scholarly association in the field.

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