Andrew Owsiak, an assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs, walks students through the scientific process to help them reach a deeper understanding of how to make sense of political events.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I completed a bachelor’s degree in economics and Spanish at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, a master’s degree in conflict resolution at the University of Denver in Colorado, and a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Within the broad field of political science, I focus on international relations—particularly questions of war, peace processes and diplomacy.
My current responsibilities at the University of Georgia involve teaching undergraduate and graduate courses, advising the Model United Nations club, and mentoring numerous talented students through the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities. In addition to these tasks, I also conduct independent research (that is, write academic articles, books and book chapters), write grant proposals and serve my department and the university in a number of ways—for example, by sitting on various committees or participating in university events.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I arrived at UGA in August 2011. Ultimately, my position within the department of international affairs brought me here. I interviewed at UGA in December 2010. During that visit, I realized how great and unique UGA is. The students are extremely smart, my colleagues are very dedicated to the educational and research mission of the university, and the campus itself is gorgeous and welcoming. I am very proud and lucky to work here.
What are your favorite courses and why?
Honestly, I enjoy teaching each of my courses for different reasons. For example, I like teaching “Introduction to International Relations” because it lets me introduce students to the broader field and offers me the opportunity to revisit topics that I enjoy in my field but do not research in depth. Each time I teach the course, my love for the field is reinvigorated.
Having said all this, I have a special affinity for my “Crisis Diplomacy” course. It combines my interests in the causes of war, conflict management and diplomacy—all within particularly tense scenarios. We dissect numerous historical crises to investigate the factors that constrain or embolden decision makers—such as public opinion, past experiences, alliances and international norms. To bring these factors alive, I also hold a simulation that allows students to experience firsthand the concepts we cover. Finally, students research and analyze a modern crisis to apply what we learn. Students therefore become experts in their research topic and teach others and myself about it. The reinforcement of what we learn through these various activities makes the class engaging and fun. And as I see students captivated by the material, I get more captivated by it as well. It’s a great experience.
What interests you about your field?
I think international affairs (a subfield of political science) is a fascinating field for two reasons. First, I like introducing others to the idea that political science is science. Many people believe that political scientists simply study “current events.” This is only superficially true. We actually follow the scientific method to study political events in systematic ways—that is, building theoretical arguments about how and why actors behave in certain ways and testing those arguments by designing studies. I like helping students realize this because when they do, they understand that we can make sense of the (often chaotic) political events occurring in our world—including current events. This is perhaps why I enjoy working with CURO students so much; because I walk these students through the scientific process for their own research, they reach a deeper understanding of how to make sense of political events, allowing them to see the world in a different way.
Second, we study people, and although people often behave in predictable ways, sometimes they do not. This means that interesting things (for example, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014) regularly happen. It keeps me on my toes!
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
The highlights of my time at UGA all involve seeing my students succeed. I recognize that might seem a little hokey, but I very much enjoy watching students complete their presentations at the annual CURO symposium, turn in the final research papers that they work so hard to complete, and walk across the stage at commencement. To me, these are all proud moments of accomplishment for students. I appreciate that I can share these moments with them.
On top of that, I really love interacting with students outside the classroom—when the formality falls away. Playing capture the flag with the Model UN team; having conversations with students as we walk to our next engagements; mentoring students on research; meeting students’ family and friends; or just running into students on campus and hearing about how they are doing are all memorable moments for me. It makes a larger institution seem smaller. It also helps faculty and students see one another as human beings, rather than just the role they fill on campus.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
For me, research involves pursuing the answer to a question that I find both puzzling and interesting. The pursuit of that answer—being on the cutting edge of knowledge—is exciting, and it infuses me with enthusiasm. I then carry that enthusiasm into the classroom, and I think it gives my classroom more energy than it would otherwise have (especially important when teaching at 8 a.m.!). Beyond this, I aim to teach students how to think critically—how to dissect and construct arguments, as well as how to evaluate and marshal evidence in support of arguments. This is an essential part of the research process. So by being involved in research, I remain connected to the very skills I ask my students to develop. This, in turn, allows me to anticipate their obstacles (for example, writer’s block or being overwhelmed by too much reading material), empathize with them and help them find a way to move forward.
Teaching informs my research in three ways. First, students often teach me new things. International affairs is a very broad spectrum of events and topics; student questions often push me to investigate things I had not previously examined. Second, in order to teach something well, I need to dissect it into smaller component parts. As I do this, I often gain new insight about the topics of my research (for example, how an argument works, or how best to explain something in writing). Finally, it has encouraged me to study learning processes. My colleagues and I, for example, are studying the design of classroom simulations to see how they affect student learning. Our teaching motivates this project (we all use simulations in the classroom), and the results will hopefully make us better teachers.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
I see college as a time for students to learn how to think more critically about the world around them. Ultimately, this is what I want students to gain from their experience with me.
The ability to think critically transcends any specific career, making it applicable to students regardless of where they want to go in life. Furthermore, the importance of critical thinking only grows over time, especially as we have access to ever-increasing amounts of information via electronic media. This bombardment of information means we are regularly confronted with both good and bad arguments (for example, logical versus illogical ones), both supported and unsubstantiated opinions, and both useful and trivial data. To complicate matters further, much of the information we see has an editorial “spin” to it—generating “half-truths” or opinions that masquerade as facts. I suspect information flow will only continue accelerating, and therefore, students need the skills to make sense of all this information—that is, to process, evaluate, analyze and criticize it.
As I regularly tell my students: my job is not to tell you what to think, but show you how to think. This “critical thinking” involves learning how to dissect and construct arguments, challenge and marshal evidence in support of arguments and convey thoughts and opinions clearly in writing. My courses are designed to help students in each of these areas.
Describe your ideal student.
To me, the ideal student simply possesses curiosity about the world. They want to know why things happen or actors behave as they do, and they enjoy the process of discovering answers to these questions.
When students possess this kind of curiosity, three amazing things happen. First, they prepare for our class meetings not because they have to, but because they want to. They also get increasingly engaged in our class activities. Second, they find what it is they are passionate about. Curiosity has this uncanny ability to draw us toward certain fields/careers over others. This can be international affairs, but it also can be languages, literature, engineering, medicine, law, other disciplines or a combination of disciplines. Ultimately, I think this is the best part of college: Students have an opportunity to find and pursue whatever it is that captivates them. Finally, the focus on grades fades into the background, allowing students to just learn. Of course, most students that possess the curiosity I have in mind will also perform well in their courses—not because they try to figure out what they need to do to get an “A” or “B,” but because their curiosity causes them to invest heavily in their coursework.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
I really enjoy being in my office. That will seem odd to some people. But I have a great view of Herty Field from there, and I often spend time thinking while I look out at the amazing landscaped grounds we have at UGA.
When I leave the office, I enjoy visiting the fountain by Herty Field. The sound of water has always been relaxing for me. And, when I sit on the benches near it, that fountain’s sound can block out everything else running through my mind. It is very calming.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
Some of my recreational activities take me back to the university; for example, I enjoy using the amazing facilities available to us at the Ramsey Student Center for Physical Activities, particularly for swimming and just staying healthy. Beyond this, I enjoy running, reading a variety of books, photography, food and spending time with our dogs, Bailey and Jackson. When I can, I also enjoy visiting family back in the Midwest: Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Brookings, South Dakota.
Community/civic involvement includes….
UGA connects to the Athens (and wider) community in a multitude of ways, and my opportunities for community involvement therefore usually result from my connection to the university. For example, because of my affiliation with UGA, I have met with residents at Highland Hills senior living community to talk about current events, shared my research with an Athens-area community group, led a discussion on the war in Iraq through the Athens Public Library and spoken as part of Conflict Resolution Week for a nonprofit organization in Athens. As I continue meeting people around Athens and developing my life here, I expect further opportunities like these to arise, and I greatly look forward to them.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
If I had to choose one non-work-related, favorite book, it would be “Love in the Time of Cholera.” For me personally, Marquez has a unique ability to show multiple sides of human relationships—the virtuous and impious—and to highlight the various dimensions of concepts such as love. His consistent theme of unrequited love also makes the work interesting to read, since the plot can unfold in different ways. On top of all this, the story is beautifully written in his trademark magical realism style, which combines my appreciation for the fantastical with my desire to see things grounded in reality.
Although I probably watch action movies most, my favorite movie would be “Edward Scissorhands.” As with the book above, the tragic component appeals to me a bit: multiple relationships that are real but can never develop as the characters want. There also exists here a combination of the fantastical and reality. And, of course, Tim Burton’s sets are always visually interesting—in color and design.
Proudest moment at UGA?
I have had many proud moments at UGA—most of which involve seeing my students succeed.
One such moment that stands out involves the Model United Nations team. This group of students plans, organizes and executes a conference for high school students each year on the UGA campus. It is entirely their design and initiative from beginning to end. Last February, I attended the opening and closing events for their conference. At the opening, a number of university officials got to see firsthand the hard work these students invest in the conference. At the closing, I received positive feedback from numerous conference attendees. As always, the conference went well. I was, however, very proud of these students’ ability to see such a large event successfully through from beginning to end.
Originally published March 1, 2015