I want to use this blog post to thank Prof. Tierney who taught the 9 am section of Introduction to International Politics my freshman year. Intro IR, as we called it, was the very first class I attended at William and Mary and is still one of my favorites.
Within the first week of class Prof. Tierney had us declaring war against our classmates and memorizing all the countries in the world (Don’t worry-I survived). By the end of the class I was pretty afraid of nuclear holocaust but in love with international relations. You’ll know if you’ve read my previous blogs that IR has not been part of my academic repertoire since that first class (I’ve moved from the basement of Morton Hall up to the 3d floor with Women’s Studies), but the knowledge from that class has come to play in my other courses and is still some of my most valued learning.
To explain major theories of international relations Prof. Tierney would often tell stories in which, instead of one country aggressing toward another, it would be one student challenging the other to a duel and based on the theory we could predict who would win. He would often illustrate the entire world order with images that looked like this:
As he told the story and explained the theory though, those circles and lines became the world with all its nations and conflicts. It was my first college class in a subject I had no background in, and I understood thanks to him. Intro IR was my one and only 9 am thus far, and it was clear that 9 am was quite early for most of the students in that room. Prof. Tierney, however, held our attention by providing us with interesting reading, offering challenging questions, and facilitating lively discussion.
My journal for September 13th of that semester says: “I love international politics and even though lots of people in there seem much more informed than I am, so I sometimes feel I am out of my league, the readings always make me feel happy. I usually have to read them out loud because they are sort of like puzzles. The concepts are not always “difficult” they are just presented in these funny ways so I have to read a sentence and then try to say it in my own words so that it’s simple and to the point. I kind of love doing that. It’s this great surprise when you read a sentence for the first time and are just like “uhh…” but then if you break it down and look at what it’s really saying under all those adverbs and phrases it’s like tah-dah there’s the meaning. And the meaning is kind of cool. Like today’s reading is about an analogy between the International system and the economic system. It’s the idea of how you define a structure that has nothing governing it. The econ. system is only a system b/c lots of individuals are making individual choices that happen to interact. The individuals are ‘joining’ a system, just by being an individual, and there are lots of individuals out there being individuals, they are the system. I think it’s really cool.” After puzzling out the readings for myself, I would come to class and listen as Prof. Tierney filled in the pieces I was still missing and then challenge us all to think of new ways of thinking about the puzzle.
One day in class, about halfway through the semester, I had just given an answer when he replied “I see we’ve developed ourselves a structural realist over here.” Almost immediately, others in class jumped in to explain why my structural realism was the wrong approach to whatever situation we were examining, but I remember the pride that yes, I was a structural realist, and I knew how to defend my position thanks to all I had learned from Prof. Tierney.
It has been two years since I took the course, so I’ll admit my knowledge of Intro IR has slipped, but it’s not lost forever. In my course last semester about globalization and development, I found myself drawing on the theories of IR and even writing my research paper on neoliberalism because I had developed an interest in it all the way back in freshman year. Prof. Tierney even guest lectured in my globalization course and nothing had changed. He still has a way of explaining complicated theories with simple stories without diluting all the layers and complexities. He still asks questions of the class that cause me to pause and use the best parts of my brain to try to figure it out, and he still makes me excited to learn.
So thank you Prof. Tierney for unknowingly setting such high expectations for the rest of my college classes on day one of my college career. Your knowledge, commitment to your students, and challenge for us to engage, has made a significant impact on my time at William and Mary. I can no longer list all the nations in the world, I am no longer a structural realist, and I’ll admit I try not to think about the ramification of nuclear actions anymore, but I continue to learn from what you taught me.