Putting The Science Back In A Political Science Degree

Dr riyan
Dr Ryan Brasher joined Forman Christian College University at a time when foreigners were not willing to even consider a work opportunity in Pakistan. Since his arrival, he has initiated a truly modern MPhil Political Science programme and is now heading the FCCU Department of Political Science as its chairperson. We sat down with Dr Brasher to ask him a few questions about his life at one of the oldest institutes in Pakistan, his plans for the future and the city he has chosen to call home for now. 

You have been in Pakistan for a few years now, what made you consider an opportunity to live and teach in Lahore? What were your first thoughts on taking up this chance of coming to Pakistan at times where many would not have considered it, that too, with your young family?

My family and I are a bit unusual – we were actively looking for an opportunity to live and serve in Pakistan. Why? To begin with, we have felt God’s calling on our lives to come to this part of the world. Not that we think we are anything special, but we ultimately wanted our lives to be meaningful. In the Holy Injeel (the gospel of Mark 8:36) it is written: “What good is it for anyone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Secondly, and connected to this, I wanted to invest in the higher education system in Pakistan – there are many excellent institutes of higher education in North America and Europe, but ultimately I wanted to go where the need was greater.

What was your first day at Forman Christian College like teaching to new students and what was the first course you taught?

I don’t remember precisely which class I taught first, but “Foreign Policy Analysis” was one of them – I believe you were in it as well! I was excited and nervous, but I also think my students were curious to see what this ‘gora’ was up to! In the end, however, I think in the end they realized that I am just another professor, and I realized that despite the many differences, they are just like students elsewhere. The main important factor is that students know which professors prepare for their classes and make an effort, and which ones don’t, no matter if one is a foreigner or a Pakistani. 

 

Pakistan is a fascinating country, in all aspect but particularly, the political atmosphere in and around the country. What would you say is the importance of studying Political Science in today’s world and more so for students in Pakistan?

Pakistan is one of the most fascinating places in the world to study politics – there are a wide range of phenomena of interest to the discerning researcher! That also means, however, that the politics of Pakistan can be rather turbulent. And in this kind of atmosphere, it is especially important for students in Pakistan to understand not simply WHAT is happening, but HOW and WHY it is happening. To dig deeper, and connect to broader explanations at a more theoretical and abstract level. This will, in turn, enable them to compare similar phenomena elsewhere, while also working toward constructive solutions toward a brighter future for Pakistan. 

 

 How do you see Pakistan’s higher education system and what in your opinion are the underlying issues hampering Pakistan’s progress in the field of education?

Pakistan’s higher education system has a lot of potential, especially because of the young and eager students seeking knowledge in various universities in the country. I would say the following challenges exist: 1) Universities (thankfully FCC is not one of those!) can sometimes emphasize hierarchy and tradition over expertise and performance. This can be frustrating for those faculty members who are ready and willing to contribute. 2) There can sometimes be an overemphasis on external performance at the expense of the quality of the work. Faculty, for instance, may feel tempted to publish a large quantity of work, but pay less attention to the reputation of the academic publisher.  In the classroom, sometimes, students seek to show off their English fluency at the expense of substantive arguments. 3) Students are very eager to learn and generally have a good attitude in class. However, they are less willing to work outside of the class, particularly when it comes to reading. This remains a big challenge. 4) In the Field of Political Science specifically, there is too little emphasis on theory and methodology. Too often, published work remains glorified story-telling. Some people show a resistance to what they refer to as theoretical and methodological tools imported from the West. This is a valid concern. Too often, however, this becomes an excuse not to develop any systematic framework at all. 

Your expertise on the region is a given, but what is that one course you would always recommend to your students to take?

Well, students obviously have to take courses that are required. But above all, I would advise them not to shy away from courses they believe are difficult and too much work. These are the courses from which they will learn the most, even if the path itself can be painful! Even today I regret that I did not take a 2-semester “History of Philosophy Course” in my undergraduate years. I did take an introductory philosophy course, but shied away from the more advanced one as I wanted to take an easier course with less work. I’ve had to compensate for this in the ensuing years.

What is your method of teaching? Is it the same that you practiced while you taught at the Indiana University?

I realize that I constantly have to work on and improve my courses. I try to incorporate insight from previous semesters, particularly student reactions to the material and how I teach it. Overall, I emphasize conceptual learning supplemented by concrete case studies and examples. I am also a big fan of in-class group work, so that students can discuss the material with each other, and not simply passively absorb what the teacher is spouting from the front. I think I have consistently practiced this even before coming to Pakistan.  

 

Pakistan is one of the most fascinating places in the world to study politics – there are a wide range of phenomena of interest to the discerning researcher! That also means, however, that the politics of Pakistan can be rather turbulent.

 

Overall, I would say that students in Pakistan are more eager participants in the classroom, whereas students in America often come across as more skeptical. They see themselves as customers who need to be catered to by the professor. Therefore, there is a greater burden on professors to entertain their students in the US. On the other hand, students in Pakistan are less likely to complete their reading assignments outside the classroom. It is a big challenge to come up with ways to do so! So I think both American and Pakistani students have their strengths and weaknesses. 

 

What are the changes that you made in the department since becoming the chairperson? What are the unique features that a student would not be able to experience in another institute? 

Well, I am privileged to have an excellent set of colleagues in my department, several of whom served as chairpersons before me. We have a collegian atmosphere in the department. In general, because of this, I emphasize a cooperative work environment, with departmental tasks handled by various subcommittees headed by different professors. I also try to encourage the young faculty to get involved – that has not been difficult the last couple of years, as they come with a lot of energy and ideas. My job is mostly to make sure I don’t get in their way!  Overall, I believe, there is too little coordination between political scientists at different universities, particularly those in the private and public sector. Conferences are always organized by departments within a university, but not by professional associations or partnerships between universities. Because of this, we decided to host an initial meeting a symposium a month ago, which brought together political scientists from 9 different universities in Lahore. The hope is that this will morph into a more permanent association in order to bring together academics with similar research interests and to provide a regular platform for future conferences. 

 

 

As a professor of political science, what are your views about the changing face of politics in the region? Do you think Modi’s win would lead to a new era of relations between Pakistan and India or both countries would go back to traditional rivalry?  

  In general, the quality of democracy does not primarily depend on one particular combination of institutional choices, presidential ism or parliamentarian. The broader socio-economic, structural, and cultural framework has to be supportive for democracy. Political scientists have found that too much inequality, an insecure geopolitical region, and a lack of societal support for democracy may be more important hurdles to overcome. However, generally speaking, I think that presidentialism is probably less well suited to Pakistan. Why? Presidents are less powerful than most people think. They are directly elected by the people and are not members of parliament, and therefore do not have direct influence over the legislative branch. The system of checks and balances, created by the almost complete separation of powers brought about by presidentialism, can be a very frustrating experience for leaders. Parliamentary systems are generally better suited both for more efficient policy-making and the creation of a broader consensus among political stake-holders than the “winner-take-all” presidential system. Furthermore, presidents tend to be subject to the “expectations gap” – as directly elected leaders people have much higher expectations of them, but presidents don’t have the constitutional powers to fulfill them. Furthermore, in a presidential system they serve both as the symbolic head of state and the political partisan head of government. Both of these roles can be played by the same person only with great difficulty. In parliamentary systems these roles are separated, allowing the prime minister to focus more on governance than on symbolic representation. 

 

 

 How do you see the situation in the Middle East as non –state actors take a major role in politics and state actors like Iran and Saudi Arabia can trigger war by any knee jerk reaction? 

Well, it really depends on which particular conflict and/or relationship we focus on. In general, I think, the US administration has played a less positive role in the last two years. It is true, non-state actors like ISIS are less important than they were 2-3 years ago. But President Obama was seeking to bring greater balance to the region by working toward rapprochement with Iran, particularly with the Nuclear deal. That is no longer the case. The Trump government’s belligerent attitude has probably helped empower hardliners on the Iranian side as well. All of this increases the likelihood of conflict in the region. It has also not helped bring the civil war in Yemen to a conclusion either. At the end of the day, if the US gets involved in the region, it should be as an external power that brings peace and stability, and not more conflict. Particularly when we look at the Iranian-Saudi relationship, I don’t think that is the case right now. 

Most students opt for Political Science to help them appear for the Central Superior Services Exams, why do you think that is the case and what other careers can students join if they attain a degree in Political Science?

Well, in Pakistan a career in the bureaucracy is still seen by many students, and I suspect even more parents, as a very desirable path to embark on. I believe, however, that an undergraduate degree in Political Science can serve as a basis for a lot of different careers both in the private and the public sector. Political Science students who go into the corporate world can apply their broader perspective of Pakistan’s politics and International Relations in ways that will benefit the business they work for. Journalists with an undergraduate degree in Political Science may actually be better prepared as analysts and writers than those who majored only in Mass Communication. This is the beauty of the Liberal Arts degree offered at Forman Christian College. We are not simply giving job skills to students, but we are training them how to think and engage the world. Studies in America have shown that students with a broader liberal arts degree tend to perform better in the long-run as compared to those with a narrower professional education. And in Pakistan, I think, employers are catching on to this, and are quite keen to hire FCC graduates!

What have you grown to like about Lahore and Pakistan?

Lahore Lahore hai! It is both a wonderful Punjabi city, while at the same time also a melting pot of Pakistan’s different ethnic and religious groups. It has the relaxed atmosphere that one associates with being Punjabi. People generally don’t like to get up early, they like to stay up late, to have fun, to interact with one another. Also, the food and its variety are great here! A highlight a few years ago was going to Lakshmi Chowk, picking out a live Desi Chicken, and then having it cooked the way we wanted to! The people of Pakistan in general are very hospitable and welcoming people, particularly toward foreigners. 

What is your relationship with the students like and what do you like about Pakistanis?

Well, you’ll have to ask my students about their perceptions! But in general, I have high expectations from my students in terms of their engagement in class and the workload. I am particularly concerned about plagiarism, the theft of ideas and unaccredited words from other sources. In the beginning students sometimes feel that it is not such a big deal, it is only a matter of words after all. However, plagiarism is also a broader sign that a student has not properly understood the underlying source material. If they are plagiarizing from an article or book, it indicates that they have not digested its argument, and therefore feel the need to copy the original word-for-word.  On the other hand, I also seek to be available to students and work with them when they have questions or are facing difficulties. I am particularly happy about those students who struggle early on, but then work hard and improve themselves. Many of our students from outside Lahore have a weaker academic background, and often less fluent English. It is therefore particularly gratifying to see them grasp concepts they had difficulties with before, or to produce academic work that would have been impossible for them before.  Overall, I also try to maintain a friendly atmosphere outside of class. I love playing football, basketball, and volleyball with them at FCC – it helps me stay in shape, while also connecting to students outside the academic environment. 

 Finally, any message for the students, educational officials in Pakistan?

To students I would say: stay curious and read, read, read! In our interviews for applicants to our MPhil program we see time and again students openly admitting to us that they don’t read, not even for fun. Similarly, even applicants for our faculty positions often exhibit very poor reading habits. A job in academia is primarily regarded as a position for which one has to have the appropriate paper certificate. But too few people regard it as a calling, as an intellectual adventure, which it surely is.  I don’t think I’m qualified to give any advice to educational officials in Pakistan. I am sure they have a much better picture of the challenges and opportunities of higher education in this country. But I would say that there is great need to emphasize quality, and not quantity, in both undergraduate and graduate education. 

Aisah Saeed is feature editor of Academia Magazine. She can be reached at aisha.saeed@academiamag.com and on twitter @MsAishaK