Review of PS4311 – International Relations in Political Thought

For other module reviews, please click here.

(Alternate Title: PS4311 – Fun times reading about famous thinkers).


I was originally split between taking a more ‘useful’ module (Chinese Foreign Policy) and a more ‘reflective’ module (this mod), and spoke to Prof Bain about this. He made a convincing case why university was a good time to study something that one was interested in, and so I ended up at this module.

What I expected

I didn’t have many expectations going into this module, actually; I was just happy to be there.

What I got

A pretty insightful module that considered several themes of international relations in, well, political thought. One walks through ancient (Aristotle and ma man Augustine), medieval (Aquinas, Luther) and modern (well, post-Westphalian – Grotius, Hobbes, etc) political thought, studying how they understood interactions between individuals, what a State or Nation was, and how these interactions should (or could) be regulated. I found particularly fascinating how one could trace the changing relationship between the Church and the Kingdom/proto-State throughout different historical periods, but others likewise enjoyed a return to familiar themes of Just War and the like initially considered in Prof Bain’s International Ethics module.

Prof Bain is, as always, a joy to have as an instructor with his fatherly nature. Being caring enough to meet the class where they are in terms of knowledge really helps, as people aren’t left bored or stranded due to their lack of knowledge. The use of small groups was particularly useful for knowledge sharing, along with the framework which he told the class at the beginning that encouraged them: “I don’t expect everyone to leave each seminar module knowing 100%, because some of these thinkers are really deep, and people have spent their entire lives studying them and their thought. But you do the readings and come in with your 10%, and through our discussions you interact with others that also have their 10%, and maybe at the end of the class you’ll leave with 20 or 25%. That’s pretty good.” Finally, his familiarity with the subject matter allows him to deconstruct common stereotypes that many undergraduate students have held about key thinkers (particularly Thucydides, Hobbes, and the like), which was mind-blowing to some.

[Webcasted?] As in the case for most PS 4k modules, nope.

[Course Materials?] All PDF readings, yay for saving money! There’s a hardcopy textbook used for the module by the same name, International Relations in Political Thought which some might find useful to have on hand, but it’s by no means mandatory.

Assessment & Workload

One is assessed as follows:

  1. Seminar Participation: 10%. Given how active everyone is in discussions, this shouldn’t be a problem.
  2. Essay 1: 20%. A small taste of what is to come, due before Recess Week. At 2.5k words, it’s a slightly substantial essay, so one can’t really cover much ground in this essay content-wise. That said, it’s fun to write as some of the essay questions are fairly interesting to work on.
  3. Essay 2: 40%. At 3.5k words, one has more time to go into greater depth into a question they craft themselves. Some guiding/potential questions are offered, but by and large some found much greater enjoyment in tackling topics off the beaten road.
  4. Take home Finals: 30%. Essentially a 48 hour timed essay (with the option for 24 hours if the class agrees on it), this is probably the most challenging component. Not necessarily to score in, but those that enjoy lengthy periods of time for research may feel the squeeze. That said, one definitely does produce higher quality of work than vomiting ink in a 2 hour paper, so that is at least a consolation for both the student and the marker.

The workload for this module is fairly manageable: some readings are more tricky than others to go through, but on average it’s one of the more survivable 4ks I’ve done. At about 60 to 80 pages per week, you can expect to set aside an hour and a half to two hours for the readings.

Expected Grade

I scored an A- for my first essay (which was great fun to write on as it was a self-designed question on Augustine) and an A for my second essay (which was also great fun to write on despite being one of the offered questions), so I thought I had a good chance for an A.

Actual Grade

There isn’t a bell curve in this module (same for most of the other 4k PS modules as well, from what I’ve heard). With an A for my take-home finals, I ended up with, well, an A. Praise be, although it feels a bit unnatural to enjoy a module this much and score this well.

Conclusion & Tips

This module’s thinkers (Aristotle, Hobbes, Machiavelli, etc) may seem intimidating to some that haven’t taken PT (either Ancient or Modern Western) modules, while others might not be familiar with Christian thinkers (Augustine, Aquinas and Luther) that play a fairly large role in the early parts of this module. Yet the focus of this module is sufficiently refined that relevant portions of the texts are quite easily accessible even to someone that hasn’t taken either PT module, while Prof Bain takes pains to avoid turning the seminar into a psuedo-sermon that was likely appreciated by the class. In other words, it’s be prepared to spend good points for this module, because it’s likely to be one of the most popular 4k PS mods among the cohort.

  1. Do the readings so you can engage productively in discussions! It’s pleasantly surprising how unique some questions or perspectives are, and I really enjoyed hearing the thoughts of others as much as the module was facilitated. The readings aren’t too heavy too, so it shouldn’t take too much time.
  2. Do get a good grasp of the dichotomy between Aristotle and Augustine early on so that it’s much easier to trace characteristics and evolutions of their thought in later thinkers.
  3. Start work on the essays early, as they tend to be due much earlier than most are prepared for.

No materials to preview unfortunately 😦

Here are some of my personal notes though ^^


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