Does Reimagining WPS mean Reimagining Pedagogy?

In this blog post, the authors draw on personal experience to discuss how experiential learning can be used as a tool in WPS pedagogy that challenges traditional forms of teaching and allows learners to develop in-depth knowledge while engaging directly in the community of practice.

The Research Network on Women, Peace and Security’s inaugural year – the “year of learning” – prompted members to reflect deeply on the origins of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and has been applied, mobilized and adapted since its inception. As graduate students in the Network, we emerged with a deepened appreciation for the collective memory of the WPS Agenda. Throughout the network’s “year of imagining,” we have deepened our feminist analysis to reflect on how the WPS Agenda can build on generations of advocacy while becoming more inclusive, addresses intersectional forms of marginalization, and responds to the existential and compounding crises of our time. As we imagine the future of the WPS agenda and WPS scholarship, we must also imagine how to equip learners to be stewards of a WPS agenda that is increasingly inclusive and responsive to a rapidly shifting geopolitical context.

In this blog post, we draw on personal experience to discuss how experiential learning can be used as a tool in WPS pedagogy that challenges traditional forms of teaching and allows learners to develop in-depth knowledge while engaging directly in the community of practice. There are several definitions of experiential learning, for example, Kolb’s model of experiential learning is often cited as seminal in this field and the Association for Experiential Education provides “Principles of Practice” for educators. These models generally converge on three key points: (1) learners engage in well-scoped experiential activities where they have agency and can make decisions; (2) learning experiences are accompanied by reflection on the process; and (3) this reflection influences learners’ future actions in this sphere. As Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs students at the University of British Columbia, we have seen first-hand the catalytic potential of experiential learning in WPS pedagogy through the completion of our Global Policy Project (GP2).

About the Project

The Global Policy Project is a capstone project organized by the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia which provides its second-year students in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs program the opportunity to work closely with a client to address an ongoing policy issue. Students in the program are assigned their clients and policy projects based on their interests in diverse and emerging global policy issues. Our research team was tasked and sponsored by the Dallaire Centre of Excellence for Peace and Security to research the interplay between human security and the Women, Peace and Security agenda. The project required the team to conduct field research in Ghana in November 2022 for a period of two weeks to gain stakeholder perspectives on the interaction of human security and the Women, Peace and Security agenda and how these approaches are relevant to the Canadian Armed Forces. This fieldwork period was complemented by virtual interviews with global stakeholders conducted from Canada. The team conducted 53 interviews with stakeholders mainly from Ghana and Canada associated with civil society organisations, WPS experts, governmental officials, multilateral organisations, and security actors through a collective data collection approach as well as a snowball sampling method. Our research has been supervised by Dr. Luna K.C., an accomplished WPS scholar who has provided subject-matter expertise, guidance on research design, and insights on merging academic research and policy discourse.

The Value of Experiential Learning

The GP2 project allowed us to do research with the purpose of tackling a real policy issue of particular interest to a client organization. The other academic research we have done during our master’s degree is often disjointed from the real policy landscape of the issues it addresses, or in better cases, such research aims to respond to a perceived – but not necessarily publicly defined -- policy problem or issue. What’s more, there is no guarantee that the outputs of academic research will reach the desks of decision-makers or other relevant actors in the field. In the case of our GP2 project, our client organization, DCOE, identified a specific anticipated defence policy challenge – one that the Canadian defence apparatus needs information about. In this sense, the production of knowledge is forward-looking and responds to the specific knowledge needs of Canada’s defence practitioners. The output of the research is thus prepared for a specific and pre-determined audience and has a guaranteed readership.

Our research placed us at the intersection of two distinct spheres – (1) scholars working on WPS and security issues in Canada, and (2) the world of WPS practitioners and civil society. Our research team drew on our existing connections to both groups. We benefitted greatly from the networks of WPS scholars and practitioners we had built through our membership in the RN-WPS. We also leaned on these networks for advice on conducting research in the field and engaging with militarized actors, as young women researchers. During our fieldwork period in Ghana, we connected with both scholars and practitioners with the support of the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre (KAIPTC), a centre renowned for its integration of academic research into the training and programs they provide for various armed forces.

The policy-oriented research approach is also beneficial for the client organization. DCOE is a hub for research and the production of knowledge on contemporary defence issues, with leading thinkers and scholars contributing to their work as staff or commissioned researchers. Despite this, our client organization recognized the potential for the student research team to carry out a research project and engage with stakeholders in ways that are different from what DCOE’s own researchers can contribute. Our positionality as student women researchers, who are not armed forces members, and are connected to civil society in the field of WPS in Canada and abroad, was a great asset for our research. We were able to connect to stakeholders who may be apprehensive about engaging with military researchers. Our interviewees shared valuable insights and expertise because they saw us as peers in WPS civil society, fellow graduate students, and young scholars doing research with the intention of learning. From a feminist perspective, we saw this as an opportunity to tap into the expertise of grassroots actors and civil society, which are so often excluded from these conversations. Engaging with these perspectives – through both virtual and in-person interviews – also benefited our research because it allowed us to ground our work in the experiences of a diverse community of practice. While much of the academia on our research topic focuses on theoretical or high-level policy discussions, these interviews revealed the human- and organization-level impacts of policy change. To centre these voices and ensure that our report accurately represented the diverse perspectives we heard in the field, it was critical for us to handle the data with care, continue to grow our expertise as researchers and recognize the research limitations in our analysis.

The GP2 project also allowed us to experience conducting research outside the vacuum of academia in Canada – where knowledge production and producers are assumed to be neutral and objective actors. In our case, our engagement with the Ghana Armed Forces, the WPS and security scholars, and the CSOs in Ghana took place in the context of a strong existing bilateral relationship between the two countries and their militaries. This context made our presence and research particularly well-received but may have also influenced interviewees to express a more positive sentiment toward Canada. Learning to navigate these intricacies will be a valuable tool for our future work as scholars and practitioners in this space.

Limitations and Areas for Growth

In recognizing the invaluable benefit that experiential learning can confer onto students, it is important to also identify the limitations of such an educational approach. The first constraint we found is that students commonly enter their degree programs with limited professional experience working in international spaces with diverse stakeholders. Conversely, effectively and safely navigating diverse research environments requires in-depth and contextual knowledge and expertise. As such, academic institutions should consider how to provide context-specific comprehensive training. As an extension of the first limitation, there are also restrictions imposed on research from the basis that students have limited field expertise which may pose problematic when considering the appropriateness and suitability of their own positionality as researchers. The final limitation draws attention to the extractive nature of conflict research which may implicate the integrity and ethics of research practices. These limitations are not stated to detract from the many ways in which experiential learning has greatly contributed to our academic and professional networking and development. Rather, these limitations should serve as a starting point for educators to continue to grow and expand WPS pedagogy.

Overall, our research team can end our capstone project with many lessons learned, the ability to contribute to the broader WPS literature and a greater opportunity for employment upon graduation – all important elements of shaping stewards of an evolving WPS agenda.

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