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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 4 | Apr. 3, 2003

War…What is it Good for?

UBC political scientist searches for answers

By Erica Smishek

As the world bears witness to the American and British-led attack on Iraq, UBC political scientist Allen Sens searches for a solution to the problem of war while leading his students to a better understanding of international relations.

“I was always very interested in why wars break out,” Sens explains. “To me the question is really why, what for? It’s hideously expensive in terms of human life and monetary costs, incredibly destructive, dangerous, risky. Why do this? And why is it such an eternal phenomenon in human history?

“So war and how do we stop, prevent, contain, control, manage it -- those questions to me are as relevant today as they were 10, 100, 1,000 years ago and I’m still searching for that elusive idea… I’ve looked at peacekeeping, now I’m looking at peace building and I’ve always been interested in intervention. Can force be used to make peace or build peace? Is that a contradiction or is it not? What motivates me, what makes me passionate about what I do, is that I’m able to reflect, to think, to consider, to learn all about this problem. If I could say at the end of my career that I made some small contribution to a set of ideas about addressing the problem of war, I would be fulfilled.”

Born and raised in Vancouver, Sens received a Bachelor of Arts degree and Master of Arts degree from UBC, then a PhD from Queen’s University, and returned to UBC in 1993, first as a postdoctoral fellow, then as a sessional lecturer. He is now a senior instructor and chair of undergraduate studies in the Dept. of Political Science, chair of the International Relations Program and one of Canada’s experts on international security.

Given the current state of world affairs, Sens does not have to look far for material to keep his courses relevant and his students engaged. Mindful that the biggest military event that second- or third-year students may be aware of is the NATO bombing campaign of Serbia in 1999, he mixes historic examples with present-day events to demonstrate both the continuity and the change that exist within international relations.

“One of the case studies I use is actually the 1991 Gulf War and how the Americans came up with the decisions they made. I showed students videotapes of Colin Powell and Bush [George, Sr.], and they’re captivated. They’re seeing some of the same faces, some of the same debates and then they get that real historical appreciation for a time when they were under 10 years old.”

Sens places importance on active participation in his classroom. While he once saw a course like a play, in which every lecture is an act and each act has a certain point and a specific set of issues, characters or actors that have to be introduced, he has now changed his tune -- thanks to experience and courses at the Centre for Teaching and Academic Growth (he is currently enrolled in the UBC Certificate Program in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education).

“Now the analogy I use is improv theatre, where the audience becomes part of the act, part of the play and they feel they’re part of the experience,” he explains.

“It’s students talking to students to see what we can come up with, learning from each other. So even though I’m in a 150-seat room, with fixed seats and an auditorium style, not really conducive to group work, you can still get that kind of active participation going, you can get a learning community sense, that they’re not just learning from this actor up on stage but they’re also learning from one another.”

This approach appears to be working. Sens has just been awarded the UBC Killam Teaching Prize, has twice received the UBC Alma Mater Society “Just Desserts” Award and there are always waiting lists for his classes.

“He wants people to voice their opinions but he wants them to think in a different manner,” says second-year political science major Samantha Langdorf. “He challenges us to go deeper. He uses humour and gets us involved in the discussion. He makes people feel comfortable raising their hand in front of 150 people.”

Langdorf says Sens’ POLI 260 course (International Politics) is her favourite, though it's not a requirement for other classes.
“People want to be there and they want to learn. But his presence and how he presents the material just fuels it. It’s a really interesting dynamic. The 50 minutes goes by so fast.”
In addition to teaching and research, Sens co-authored (with Concordia University’s Peter Stoett) Global Politics: Origins, Currents, Directions, one of a handful of introductory level textbooks in Canada written for Canadian students, using Canadian content and examples. He serves on a variety of university committees, co-ordinates UBC’s annual student conference on international security, assists with its Model UN committee, initiated UBC participation in the annual Harvard University model NATO and selected university representation to the annual U.S. military academy student security conference, among other commitments.

While the writer and thinker in him “wails and whines and scratches and claws and screams and begs for more time,” his primary mission as a senior instructor is to his undergraduates.
“The university is so large, it’s potentially very alienating. I think it’s very important that students, particularly first- and second-year students, get the feeling that the university has a human side. Faculty members such as myself can have a role in that on a day-to-day basis simply by being open to students, by being friendly, being an approachable entity. For me, that means my office hours are for my students. If they need advice on larger issues, I try to be there for them.”

His number one teaching objective is to give students a set of tools they can use for the rest of their lives.

“What I’m trying, more than anything else, to pass on is that sense of being able to analyze and challenge and question and think independently about some of these things, some of these issues and some of these questions.”

In the end, Sens believes the most significant issue we all face is war.

“It’s not the only problem, of course. There’s global poverty, the future of the international political economy, the structure of the world economy, environmental issues. But I still keep on coming back to war because it’s still going on, so many around the world.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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