UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 4 | Apr.
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? Its 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
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 Im still searching
for that elusive idea
Ive looked at peacekeeping,
now Im looking at peace building and Ive 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 Im 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 Queens 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 Canadas experts on international
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 theyre captivated. Theyre
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 theyre part of the experience, he explains.
Its students talking to students to see what
we can come up with, learning from each other. So even though
Im 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 theyre not just learning from
this actor up on stage but theyre also learning from
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
People want to be there and they want to learn. But
his presence and how he presents the material just fuels it.
Its a really interesting dynamic. The 50 minutes goes
by so fast.
In addition to teaching and research, Sens co-authored (with
Concordia Universitys 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 UBCs 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
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, its potentially very
alienating. I think its 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
His number one teaching objective is to give students a set
of tools they can use for the rest of their lives.
What Im 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.
Its not the only problem, of course. Theres
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 its
still going on, so many around the world.