‘The Research Process is Similar to Art’: Denis Stremoukhov on Teaching and Research
HSE professors actively engage in research and share their experiences with students. They also often participate in the management of educational activities. How do they manage to do everything in time? We talked to Denis Stremoukhov, Deputy Academic Supervisor of the Bachelor's programme 'Political Science and World Politics'. The professor told us how he manages to combine teaching, science and administrative activities. Read about students, new research topics, and his favourite books in this article.
— Prof. Stremoukhov, you deliver several courses in the programme 'Political Science and World Politics'. Could you tell us about your favourite one? Is there a course which you enjoy teaching the most?
— This was the first year that I delivered a 'Research Seminar' for fourth-year students, and I really enjoyed the experience. Firstly, helping students to learn how to conduct good research is a professional challenge. The research process is similar to art: there are some procedures, but ground-breaking work often does not follow them. Written procedures offer a lot of space for creativity, as standards can be interpreted in different ways by different professional communities and individual researchers. Secondly, with fourth-year students, you can discuss advanced topics related to methodology and research design. It is not only interesting, but also helps you to stay in good shape. Thirdly, a research seminar never goes as planned: the contents of a class are defined by methodological approaches and questions from students in each specific educational group. Fourthly, I tried to make this course useful to the students in terms of their thesis. When you see the benefit from the classes straight away, it motivates you a lot. In general, I noticed that the pleasure you get from teaching mainly depends on two factors: how confident you feel about the material and the extent to which you define the contents of the course yourself; whether you have freedom to be creative, find the best format for tasks, and test pedagogical discoveries.
— In addition to teaching, you help students write term papers and theses a lot. Could you tell us about the most popular research areas and methods used under your supervision?
— In my opinion, the task of a thesis supervisor is not only to provide specific cues on literature and methods, but also to help students come up with a good research design and write a good text. That is why I am versatile in terms of the themes and methods used in theses under my supervision. In one way or another, the majority of them are related to international relations and public policy. But there are some students with more exotic topics. Sometimes, it is better to trust a student with their choice.
— Prof. Stremoukhov, you are also the Deputy Academic Supervisor of the Bachelor's programme. How do you manage to combine all of your responsibilities?
— Not as well as I would like to. As is the case for many in the academic community, teaching and administrative responsibilities leave little time and energy for research activities. But the issue of combining several roles is more about stress resistance, motivation and energy than time management.
Firstly, you have to get enough sleep, eat properly and engage in at least moderate physical activity. Secondly, you have to develop such mental habits as awareness, acceptance and an ability to deal with negative emotions. Thirdly, you have to set clear boundaries between work and other aspects of life and let yourself have some rest. For a very long time, I haven't worked or discussed work issues on Sundays or received notifications about new emails. I try to check my inbox only at planned intervals.
You have to develop habits which bring you closer to your desired lifestyle. An action which has become a habit does not require any motivation and won't fall victim to procrastination. The main challenge for me now is to develop a habit of working regularly on scientific texts.
With experience, some actions start taking less time: I used to spend a whole working day preparing one lecture for the first time, and now one hour is enough for me to update the slides from the last year and revise the material. Teaching assistants help me with all the courses—I don't know what I would do without them.
— What regions of the world and political processes should students pay attention to? Are there any places which are relevant for studying but are not very popular with students for whatever reason?
— To political scientists, a certain region or country is a source of empirical material for formulating and testing theories. From this point of view, any region is interesting if you realise what new things it can tell us in terms of abstract concepts and processes. For me, the most interesting works are the ones based on historical sources and historiography of certain countries and regions. Now, there are more works based on empirical material from South-Eastern Asia, Africa, Latin America, China and Japan. These papers show that some processes, which we were theorising based on western European experience in the first place, are not so universally applicable (for instance, an establishment of the state as an institution or the anarchic nature of the international system). Other processes (for example, the appearance of linear state boundaries) are not unique and were not spread by European colonialists all over the world.
The Bachelor's programme 'Political Science and World Politics' offers three tracks to choose from: China, the Post-Soviet space, and the European Union. They largely define the research interests of our students. Despite that, works, for instance, on African politics regularly appear. It seems that the students give short shrift to India and Latin America—countries and regions which are extremely interesting to political scientists. In the near future, we plan to expand the geographical focus of our programme to include them as well.
— We know that you read a lot. What is your favourite fiction book and what scientific articles do you recommend? What should future political scientists read?
— If you consider a book which you return to from time to time to be a favourite, then for me, it would be Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. It manages to put me in some kind of extraordinary state. I read it for the first time when I was a teenager. It was summer, my whole family gathered in the summer house, and back then, I believe, it resonated with my environment a lot. Apart from the personal emotional experience, it is a very kind and sad book about a person's life which everyone should try to read.
As for academic recommendations, I will refrain from naming specific titles. Future political scientists can choose any research topic and methodological approach. The curricula of basic courses perfectly manage to give recommendations. If we are talking about our applicants, fiction might be even more useful than scientific articles. I (and as I found out later, not only I) was inspired to engage in social sciences by the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov in particular. Read classic fantastic fiction—Isaac Asimov, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Ursula Le Guin and Frank Herbert raise eternal questions of the structure of the human community just as well as social scientists.
— Based on your experience of studying and teaching, what advice do you have for those who want to pursue an academic career?
— I am at the beginning of my academic path, so I do not want to give advice 'from above'. Read and write a lot. Find a thesis supervisor who's right for you. Join some kind of academic community as early as possible.
Interviewed by Veronika Berdnikova, student of the Bachelor's programme 'Political Science and World Politics'