Skip to content

Why we teach

March 10, 2016

If you’ve ever taught, you know how rewarding it can be. The transformation can seem almost magical sometimes as you watch students stretch themselves intellectually, week after week, term by term. You can feel the progress and its accompanying struggle, as students eke out their gains, reading by reading, one problem set at a time. You listen as they experiment with different viewpoints, trying each one on for size. And you fight the urge to jump for joy when you see them nail it- a presentation, an essay, a moment of insight. This is undoubtedly one of the most gratifying parts of my job as an academic. It feels good when you know that you’ve taught them well- even when they can’t yet appreciate it for themselves.


Then there’s the icing on the cake: every once in a while, you receive an out-of-the-blue heartfelt thank you. An unexpected visit from a student you haven’t seen for years; gifts in your mailbox (like my favourite polkadot teapot); or a thank you note that comes months or years after the final lecture, long after the diplomas have been awarded. Recently, I received one of these thank yous and it brought me a lot of joy. After some thought, I asked my student if I could share her words.

Dear Christine,
I hope this finds you well.
I never got around to emailing you after the dissertation frenzy, but they say it’s better late than never.
First of all, I wanted to thank you for the dissertation support. I learned a lot and was pleased to notice that both you and Dr Patel mentioned my evident enthusiasm for the topic and that you appreciated my effort to critique the dominant Anglosaxon perspective- I found that feedback perhaps more important than the grade itself.
I also wanted to thank you for your class on state failure, and for the CSD [Conflict, Security, and Development] lectures. You always brought a ‘fresh’ perspective and attitude to class, and amongst the other lecturers, the fact that you had had extensive experience working in the field was evident and brought much appreciated pragmatism to our discussions.
Shortly after handing in my dissertation last summer I began interning at WFP [World Food Programme] HQ in Rome, where I have been since. Coincidentally, I applied at a time when they were setting up various civil-military projects. The fact that I had written a dissertation on this topic meant that I had background knowledge in a subject that both humanitarians and militaries generally prefer to avoid!
So far I have been loving my job at WFP- I’ve been working in the Emergency Response division and I have learned so much. I have so much respect for the work that is done and the hardworking people that have committed their lives to making our imperfect humanitarian system a little less imperfect.
There are days where, inevitably, I have flashbacks to the CSD/SF [state failure] discussions and moral dilemmas- to your class, to the dominant conclusion to many of our questions: ‘Well, it depends’. I also think a lot about our discussions and what many of you, as teachers, as well as us students were very aware of: that the reality on the ground is so different from what we read about in books. This is clear in my work  at WFP headquarters. As much as we try to design the best options for field conditions, the reality is that those who have to implement these plans will encounter obstacles that we, from the ivory tower perspective, will not be able to take into account.
Anyways, I think I’ve gone on for too long! I really do hope this finds you well and I just wanted to thank you for your class and your teaching. Oh, and you were right about sharing food in class- it really does bring people together.

I teach- we all teach- for moments like this. It’s a reminder to all of us teachers that our words and ideas continue to resonate in students’ minds months and years later…. long after they’ve left our classrooms.

War Studies is hiring *7* permanent/tenure-track faculty, 18 posts in King’s politics

February 18, 2016

Yes, that’s correct. The Dept of War Studies at King’s College London is hiring 7 permanent lecturers + 2 fixed-term lecturers. In addition, Defence Studies (Shrivenham campus) is hiring 8 permanent lecturers, and there are 3 more permanent posts in International Development.

For those who are not from the UK, these are tenure-track positions equivalent to assistant professor. WS is a huge interdisciplinary department (70? tenure-line academics + 50? research associates, teaching fellows). We welcome scholars in history, politics & IR, psychology, geography, area studies, anthropology, sociology, economics, computer science, law.

For more on why you should apply, see here for my sales pitch on working in War Studies at King’s College London. The post is a few years old and the department has grown, but it’s worth a read if you’re thinking about applying. (Our department is awesome- ask anyone.)

Deadline: 20 March 2016. Interviews in April.

Lecturer in War Studies (International History)

Lecturer in International Relations (Diplomacy and Foreign Policy)

Lecturer in War Studies (Social Psychology and Security Studies)
Lecturer in War Studies (East Asian Security and International Relations)
Lecturer in International Relations (Global Governance and Security)
Lecturer in International Relations (Gender and International Relations)
Lecturer in War Studies (Intelligence and Cyber Security)
Lecturer in War Studies (Japan) (1 year)
Lecturer in War Studies (History and Grand Strategy) (2 years)
Lecturer or Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies (8 Posts, yes 8!)
Defence Studies Department, King’s College London (Shrivenham campus, 1 hr outside London)
Note: I only created this post to link all seven posts. Please forward your questions about these positions to the appropriate academic lead at the bottom of each posting (not to me).
3 Bonus posts (also permanent tenured/tenure-track) in the International Development Institute:

Senior Lecturer in International Development (East Asia and Southeast Asia)

2 Lecturers in International Development (East Asia & Southeast Asia)


Unmask the Reviewer- My Response to #AddMaleAuthorGate

May 11, 2015

2015-05 AddmaleauthorgateLast week, there was a big scandal at PLoS One (a major science journal) for some very sexist comments that were made as part of the peer review process. Retraction Watch wrote a nice summary on this. (For twitter commentary, see #addmaleauthorgate.)

Personally, I was floored by how openly sexist the comments were. Usually, sexism is much more subtle- it’s more about things that don’t happen: third author, not first; section chair, not keynote speech; secretary, not president.

John Gill, the Editor of Times Higher Education invited me to respond to this scandal through a Letter to the Editor. I’ve posted it below.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gender inequality in higher education- A few examples that come to mind immediately: clear biases in Citation Practices (in international relations, in sciences), Teaching Evaluations, Letters of Recommendation, and Lower Starting Salaries. For a statistical snapshot of the problem in the UK, see Anna Notaro’s piece. More controversially, I would argue that the darker problems of rape culture in the US and Canada, and laddism and harassment in the UK, are related manifestations of how society and its institutions deal with gender inequality.

Male Scientist Adjectives in Reference Letters

Male Scientist Adjectives in Reference Letters

Female Scientist Adjectives in Reference Letters

Female Scientist Adjectives in Reference Letters

But clearly, the problem of gender inequality is not limited to universities and colleges. It persists globally, in just about every field, and pervades more aspects of our lives than we’d care to admit. Some will read this scandal as an isolated incident, but I assure you, it is not. There is now a fair amount of  hard evidence demonstrating that sexism is systemic. Whether it is conscious or subconscious is debatable- but it is definitely systemic.

#AddMaleAuthorGate only scratches the surface of an inequality that runs very very deep- even then, you will only see it if you choose to look for it. And therein lies the problem- most of us don’t want to see it. Including me.

For the first two decades of my life, I genuinely believed that gender inequality was a dying problem. When I was 18, I laughed at my mom when she told me that I would eventually hit a glass ceiling in my career. I was convinced that by the time I was old enough to enter the workforce, discrimination against women in Canada would be in its twilight years- extinct, like the dinosaurs.

Since that conversation with my mom so long ago, I’ve come to realize that culture and norms are powerful things. Gender inequality is structural, sociological, biological, political, geographical, cultural. It is embedded into the social fabric of our societies, and it will take generations for big changes to take root. In the meantime, here’s my small contribution:

Inexcusable sexism calls for action

7 May 2015

The sexist nature of the peer review comments (suggesting that a paper written by two female researchers ought to include at least one male author to make sure that the data are interpreted correctly and saying that only men have the personality necessary to make it to the top jobs in science) that were offered in response to Fiona Ingleby and Megan Head’s Plos One journal submission on gender inequality in the life sciences has been met with a roar of public outrage (“‘Sexist’ peer review causes storm online”, 30 April).

As a female academic, I personally found some of the sexist comments (such as only men have the personality necessary to make it to the top jobs in science) so outlandish that it was difficult to take them seriously. Surely no credible scientist could honestly believe that it is physical stamina that explains men’s publication advantage? That the journal editor(s) accepted such a review without challenge was equally galling.

If these comments were indeed meant to be taken literally, let me ask, rather provocatively: is this a case where the reviewing scientist is so patently sexist that s/he should be unmasked in this particular instance – as a public service to the scientific community? Anonymity plays a very specific function in the research process; when it undermines trust in the system of how work is judged, as demonstrated in this case, should it be withdrawn?

I do not ask this question lightly, but rather because we (myself included) often stand by and tolerate quiet sexism within the walls of academia. If this person is evidently biased, then why are we, as an academic community, protecting such clearly sexist behaviour? If key gatekeepers (such as peer reviewers at major journals) are permitted to express their damaging personal biases without any personal cost to their reputations, then it undermines the trust of female scientists in the fairness of the overall “meritocratic” system. This sense of fairness, by the way, has already been systematically undermined in more ways than a letter allows me to express.

Christine Cheng
Lecturer in war studies
King’s College London

This piece was first published in Times Higher Education on 7 May 2015.

The Art of Academic Writing (for Policy Makers & Everyone Else)

April 21, 2015

Many of my students in the MA in Conflict, Security, and Development at King’s College London have come directly from the policy world. They are diplomats, military commanders, NGO workers, social activists. They bring with them diverse knowledge and skill sets to the classroom, but they also bring with them particular ways of communicating that are very different from what is required of them in academia. Key to this is academic writing.

For people who worked as practitioners, it is hard to understand what could possibly be more important than deriving policy recommendations from a piece of writing. What is the point of writing about something if you can’t decide what to do about it? This is a common complaint of academic writing.

The first thing practitioners should appreciate is that deciding what to do is not the goal of an academic essay or article. The goal usually has to do with understanding the nature of the problem. With a proper diagnosis/analysis/explanation of the phenomenon, policy recommendations will follow.

So, how can practitioners-turned-students learn to write academically? The key point that needs to be appreciated is that what matters is not the impact of the argument on the real world, but rather, how this argument impacts upon the existing literature. The foundation upon which an academic essay is constructed is the literature.

First you need to build comprehension. Start your academic writing journey by reading deeply and understanding how the literature fits together. How are the debates constructed? On what ideas do they build? Where are the agreements and disagreements? How are leading thinkers grouped? What are the big ideas? You need to synthesize these ideas for yourself to figure out what fits where and who is arguing against whom.

Once you fully grasp the importance of the literature, the next task is to mimic the form. The goal here is to learn to write academically (tone, style, word choice, format, methods, presentation style, terminology, citation practices). This is like learning the grammatical rules of a new language. The goal is to look and sound like others in the discipline. If you are writing a sociology paper, you want your work to mimic the way that other sociologists write.

Once you’ve mastered the form, then you need to be able to meaningfully ‘engage with the literature‘. What does that mean? Well, you have to be able to play with it, to dance with it, to critique it, to comment on elements where you agree and disagree. When you’re able to do that, then you’ve found your ‘voice’ and you should put your own ideas into this form.

Once you’ve mastered the form and learned how to engage, you can subvert academic form- if you want. This is the fun part. Now, you can disregard the rules- up to a point. Having developed the confidence to express your ideas in your own style, you can start to improvise, and decide whether you’d like to continue using existing formats, or whether you’d like to create hybrid forms, or whether you’d like to create your own forms of academic expression.

Think about Picasso. He first had to learn classical drawing techniques. He began by copying traditional forms. Then he had to master them, and find his own style within a classical tradition. Finally, he was able to question existing forms, and discard them in order to create new styles and modes of expression.

To recap:

1. Build comprehension.

2. Mimic the academic form of your discipline.

3. Engage with the literature and find your academic voice.

4. (Optional) Experiment with new forms of expressing your ideas.

Buhari’s win- A watershed moment in Nigerian politics

March 31, 2015

Today’s election win for Muhammadu Buhari is a watershed moment in Nigerian politics. The results deserve comment because Nigeria was at a crossroads- and it seems like the citizens made a decision that is going to benefit not just Nigeria itself, but African politics as a whole.

Nigeria's president-elect: General Muhammadu Buhari

Nigeria’s president-elect: General Muhammadu Buhari

Since Goodluck Jonathan officially took power in 2010, he has run Nigeria into the ground. For a taste of these problems, there has been the firing of central banker Sanusi, the mishandling of the Chibok kidnappings, the government’s incompetence in dealing with Boko Haram, and the staggering corruption problems within the Jonathan administration, including $20 billion that went “missing from the account of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC.”

I never thought I would say this, but I’m actually happy that a former dictator has won this contest fair and square (thanks to new biometric voter’s cards). Here’s why it’s good for Nigeria, and good for African politics:

1. Nigeria now has a viable opposition party. This will hopefully mean a more inclusive, and more stable political system.

“This is the first time an opposition party with a diverse national support base has taken on an incumbent party: it is the end of a long period of elite pacts in national politics,” said Africa Confidential. This is extremely significant because there has long been a power-sharing pact in place within the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP)- this saw the Christian south and the Muslim north alternate the presidency every four years. This was an informal elite pact and voters in each region stuck to the rules of the game- for a period. Then in 2010, when Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim northerner, died part way through his first term and Goodluck Jonathan formally assumed the presidency.

The election of Buhari has ended this pact and proven the viability of an opposition that can harness widespread geographical, ethnic, and religious support. In this way, it becomes an important step for consolidating  democracy.

2. Jonathan’s willingness to give up power signifies that he is not above the rule of the people, and that he respects the election results, even when these rules don’t work out in his favour.

It will be the FIRST time in Nigeria that an incumbent president will have lost to an opposition candidate. This is a rare moment on the continent- we have just witnessed a relatively peaceful election, followed by a graceful admission of defeat from an incumbent. Watching Jonathan concede is critical to democratic consolidation not just in Nigeria, but across Africa.

To get a feel for how truly momentous this was, read Yetty Williams’ Huffington Post piece:

Up until now, the average Nigerian was not sure whether his or her vote really counts, wondered whether votes can actually make a difference or cause a change. Till this most recent elections majority of the nation had only heard about the idea of free, fair and violence-free elections….There are people still in shock that change happened! We were able to vote out the sitting president and guess what? The sky is still intact. Life is going on! And to top it off our outgoing president called the president elect to concede prior to official announcement of the results…We are suddenly in a new era, an era where the old are hopeful that things can actually change in their lifetime — free and fair elections… Can I repeat, it was largely violence-free, free and fair — we do not take this for granted.

3. If anyone has a chance of changing Nigeria’s culture of corruption, it is Buhari.

Several years, I attended the UN Convention Against Corruption conference. I met a civil society leader there who told me about General Buhari’s rule in 1984-85. At the time, what I found fascinating was that he seemed to imply that there was a brief ordering of society. He told me that people started queuing up for buses, and that petty corruption seemed to have briefly plummeted. Until Buhari left office. Then it went back to business as usual. This civil society leader recognized that there were a lot of problems with Buhari’s rule (see his human rights record), but corruption was not one of them.

Fast forward several years to a recent Wilton Park conference on African peacekeeping: What was interesting was listening to the Nigerians express their appreciation for Buhari’s clean record when it came to corruption. My sense is that a good part of Buhari’s election win was due in part due to this contrast between a Jonathan government that has been perceived to be extremely flashy and corrupt, and the relatively modest lifestyle that Buhari has consistently lived (and has promised to maintain). Buhari, hardliner though he is, has been pretty honest about who he is, and what he has accumulated. That is rare in a country of political leaders who are renowned for corruption.

And if you believe Sarah Chayes’ thesis on how corruption contributes to the conditions that drive religious extremism, then Buhari may be also be good for dealing with Boko Haram- but not in the way that the West thinks. In searching for purity and consistency, Boko Haram has argued that the West is a corrupt and contaminating influence- if Buhari shows that he will not live the flashy life of previous leaders, then Boko Haram loses an important narrative for driving recruitment.

The right leader can have a transformative effect for a country (Mandela), a cause (Martin Luther King), or even a religion (Pope Francis). Without wanting to set expectations too high, it’s the first time in a long time that I’ve felt this hopeful about Nigeria’s political prospects. It’s been less than 24 hours since the election, but I’m already hoping against hope that Buhari doesn’t disappoint.

Women in Frontline Combat Roles

December 23, 2014

On Friday 19 Dec 2014, I talked to the BBC about allowing women women to take on frontline combat roles in the UK military. The Ministry of Defence has been reviewing its policy on this matter, and the BBC asked me for some thoughts on this issue. For a whole variety of reasons, I think women should be allowed to take on combat roles.

I have a lot more to say about this topic- hopefully I’ll be able to expand on some of the points from the clip when things are less busy. But to begin this conversation, I’ve posted the BBC interview clip below.

Some of my ideas are also summarized here in this Independent article.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,187 other followers