Before Spring Break and the outbreak of COVID-19 across the country, The Argus sat down with Associate Professor of Government Douglas Foyle to discuss his latest reads, interactive classes and how the University has changed over the years. We also discussed his opinions on United States foreign policy, his favorite classes to teach, and the ending to Game of Thrones.
The Argus: What are your favorite books in the office? What do you like reading for your classes versus just for pleasure?
Professor Douglas Foyle: What I like reading for pleasure are two types of books. The first type of book are histories about presidents, and presidencies, and foreign policy issues: firsthand accounts or biographies. One I really like is called “Nixonland,” which is by Rick Perlstein. What I like about “Nixonland” so much is it really talks about the rise of Richard Nixon from his beginning and then ascendancy to the presidency, and what he kind of came up with was this dichotomy between the intellectuals and the regular person. He used that, you know, in political campaigns, and I think there’s a really strong through-line of what Nixon did in the fifties and sixties and early seventies to our current politics with Trump and anti-intellectualism antics. There’s a long tale to it, and that book is really kind of like at the core of it. So I really liked that book.
A: Was he writing that during the crisis or was it retrospective?
DF: It’s from a 2018 book. So it’s a very recent book, where he’s kind of recalling his experiences and writing about those two things. I actually used the Cuban missile crisis description in my US foreign policy class: here was this crisis and look how effectively Kennedy managed the situation to avoid nuclear war…. Ellsberg’s point is that—he kind of puts a frame on it—where Kennedy was very escalatory in his approach and really aggressive and got us so close to nuclear war in a really unhinged way that the material, conventional balance of power in the region, really the Soviets were going to back down anyways and we didn’t need to get as close as we got to thermonuclear war.
I read things that give me some perspective on the things I teach and modern politics. I mean, the Game of Thrones books. I really liked [those books] because they bring together a lot of stuff that we’re dealing with international politics, the interplay of power ideas, rules and institutions and the interplay of personality and all those sorts of things. The TV series is good too.
A: I didn’t like the end…
DF: Yeah… It’ll be interesting to see how [George R. R. Martin] ends it. I mean my sense of how the TV show ended is they really probably tried to cram too much in the development of Daenerys, sort of her perspective on the world. They really needed another two seasons, because I could see her character becoming that…but they rushed it.
A: Anyways, what is your favorite class to teach here? Like which one are you the most excited about?
DF: That’s a good question. Um, I like all my classes for different reasons. I get different things out of each of them.
A: I mean… That feels like kind of a cop-out answer.
DF: Well, I’ll keep talking. I think my favorite class is probably my presidential foreign policy decision making class. Either that one or my foreign policy at the movies class. I think what I like most about those is it’s kind of substance and also process. So substantively my movie class, you know, the students watch movies and we talk about what are the political messages in movies and that kind of really connects into my interest in public opinion and foreign policy. The question there is: to what extent does going to the movies affect our attitudes about foreign policy, about how things are done?
My presidential foreign policy decision making class that I’m doing this semester, we’re doing a series of five simulations where [the students are] acting in different roles as members of the national security council and confronting foreign policy issues such as a cyber attack from China to attack on a terrorist cell in Pakistan. We’re dealing with the novel disease growing in Columbia. So it’s about how you make good decisions, how you write memos, how you advocate for your position. I really liked the substance of those.
The other thing which I like about both those classes: they’re all discussion. So there’s a lot of really deep engagement among the students with each other, myself and the students. And it’s really a student centered experience. The simulation class in particular, there’s two whole classes where I’m literally just sitting in the corner taking notes and the president and national security advisor are running the class.
A: So what’s one class you wish you could teach but just like, haven’t yet because there isn’t time or for whatever reason, but if you could design any class and just teach it like tomorrow, what would that class be on? And it doesn’t have to be within government.
DF: I think I’ve done that. I mean the two classes that are my favorites, the movie class and the foreign policy decision making class, especially the simulation version, those two classes come out of that exact question. What do I want to teach that I haven’t taught? I created the movie class about 10 years ago because that was something I wanted to do. Anytime I’d go to a movie that had foreign policy in it, I’d come out sort of, you know, ranting about how that it isn’t anything like the way it happens. Like “Goldfinger”! I talk about the gold standard in my class you know, and it’s all about Fort Knox and all that. That kind of stuff is all just a bunch of foreign economic policy.
A: Yeah, I want to see who the new Bond villain is!
DF: Well, they’ve delayed the release until November because of the virus. People won’t be going to the movie theaters and congregating, [so] they won’t get as many sales on opening night.
A: Huh, interesting. So how long have you been teaching at Wesleyan and then how has it changed since you started here?
DF: I started in 1998. My classes have become more interactive, I’ve sort of moved as much as I can away from lecture and more into discussion. One thing I’ve noticed in terms of the students is that when I first got to Wesleyan in the late 1990s, they were a lot more… free thinking is probably the wrong word… but, less kind of academically disciplined. What I mean by that is in contrast to my current students who have gone through a time period where they have standardized tests, they’re taught to write a certain way—there’s a rubric to how to write that. The writing and thinking is more structured from a common way of going about doing things at the standardization of education. I need to challenge the students in that way because they’re very good about sort of writing in a structured way. I need to have them sort of come up with their own intellectual structure and give them a question that isn’t structured where I say, okay, spend two paragraphs talking about this and three paragraphs talking about this. That’s what they’re used to doing. And so I give them big unanswerable questions. I think that’s when you get out into the work world and leave Wesleyan, most of the problems and issues and things that students are going to deal with in other jobs are going to be unstructured problems without a rubric. So I’m trying to really help them take what they’ve learned and how they’ve thought about things, and push them in new directions so that they can be prepared to be active, engaged citizens.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Katarina Grealish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.