Brent Steele By: Brent Steele
Professor of Political Science and International Relations
View profile and Diary

29 Nov 2020 : Reflective essay for my US foreign policy class

Note: After doing so this past Spring for an Intro to IR course, I again assigned an optional reflective essay, this time to my POLS 5660 US foreign policy course here at the University of Utah this Fall. It asked students to reflect on the events of 2020 (the pandemic, the protests, the US Presidential election, and whatever else they found noteworthy from this Fall), and their implications for US Foreign Policy.  Before the students had to start their essays, I thought it was useful to do one myself, to give them a sense of how they could approach the assignment.

Here is the essay I posted:

Muddling through 2020

The Historic Fall that I just want to be over


 My reflective paper is organized along my different roles, all impacted by 2020 (dad, teacher, department chair, scholar). But before jumping into that, a quick disclosure for what follows. I don’t wish to focus too much on the stresses and labor of this Fall without also acknowledging my fortune and privilege compared to the experiences of so many others throughout this country and world. I have a family. My kids and I are healthy so far and managing the pandemic ok. My mental health is ok. I have a good, steady job that is both stressful but can at times be quite enjoyable and fulfilling. And it’s one I can do in the safety and security of my home, surrounded by my family. I have a dog, one who loves 2020, with all of us around him all the time. It’s good to have him to walk with in the afternoons. Further, I actually don’t mind staying home for the most part (as I note below). In fact since moving to Utah seven years ago, I have preferred working from home. One of the drawbacks of becoming a department chair, I knew, was that I’d have to go into the office every day when I don’t really work well in that kind of setting. It’s a big difference I suspect between the Boomers, who are used to the 9-5 setting, the socially-networked Millennials (exemplified by our grad students who do very much miss and need the office), versus Gen X, which was the first academic generation to really work outside an office – on their own in coffee shops, parks, apartments, even pubs. So, one of the few silver linings of the pandemic has been being able to work from home, like I used to in grad school. Finally, as of this writing, it has been announced within the past two weeks that three vaccines have shown strong promise in trials, and all should be distributed throughout the US even for the ‘general’ public by next Spring or early summer. So, there’s light finally at the end of the tunnel. But we have a dark winter to get through first.


First and foremost, I’m a dad. It’s a role that impacts my other roles quite frequently. Unlike the end of their 2019-2020 school years, my kids were back in school in modified form this Fall. It was terrifying for me, as the research on school transmission is pretty mixed, and throughout the Fall there have been outbreaks in Utah schools as our cases have been rising. But while my daughter has had to get a Covid test on occasion due to exposures, so far both of my children are ok, at least physically. It’s an irony that the school children in this country wear their masks with great discipline while some of the adults throw fits about it.

My daughter is not like I was in high school (she’s a sophomore). I was kind of a loner and shy and enjoyed staying home and reading or watching TV or playing Nintendo. She’s a social butterfly (more like a social Tasmanian devil), and has to be around people all the time. So only seeing her friends at school or neighborhood friends outside for just a couple hours a week has been difficult. We are at loggerheads quite frequently. The election also stressed her out, she paid much more attention to this one and asked me way more questions about electoral dynamics and processes than ever before. But that too has been a silver lining, getting to see her become more interested in politics, and even moreso with her friends who are at the same stage.

My son is a bit more like I was, he’s ok chilling at home with me for the most part, playing his video games or riding his exercise bike, or playing outside. But he misses his life before Covid. He misses going to mass with me on Saturday nights, the once a month church bingo that he and I used to work following mass, going to the gym with me, going to the restaurants we frequented, even an occasional trip with me to a conference (he’s the easiest travel companion so long as we find places that serve grilled cheese and/or have pinball games). He doesn’t understand why we still have to go through the protocols we go through now, after all this time. He told me that even though I’ve published on pandemics he’s convinced I’ve never seen one like this and it’s a type of evil that I can’t fathom (he watches too many superhero movies I think). He doesn’t understand why the grown-ups aren’t making it better.

He and I drove out to Iowa for my nephew’s (his cousin’s) wedding in October. It was an outdoor wedding and we were incredibly cautious, only staying in our hotel and eating outdoors or getting takeout. We wore our masks constantly. So of course he couldn’t understand why nobody seemed to be wearing masks at the gas stations we stopped at along the way. He asked me if Covid didn’t exist in Nebraska and Iowa. ‘Well, it does, buddy, so let’s get your donut and Dad’s coffee and get back on the road quickly’.

I think my kids will be ok, but now that the weather is colder it will admittedly be a difficult winter. We have spent quite a bit of time golfing, or hiking, to stay active, and that will all be more difficult to do for a while. I’m not teaching in the Spring, and if necessary I can work from anywhere. The kids will have online format options throughout early 2021 for their school. So, if cases decrease again, I’ll probably drive them to Iowa for a few weeks in the spring to see family so long as we get tests before leaving and stay safe while we’re out there. Maybe we’ll even have the vaccine before then. But I shake my head at what they must think of this year. We had one moment in September when a windstorm blew through Northern Utah, downed trees and powerlines everywhere, and we were without power for several days. I brought them to campus with me so they could do online schooling. It was like a war zone driving to campus. All during a pandemic. But they rolled with it. They really are pretty resilient. And I hope when this is all over they remember how much we enjoyed doing what we could, while we could, throughout it all.


I am finishing up teaching a US Foreign Policy course this Fall. It’s an upper level course that normally enrolls around 40 students, but once it went fully online/Zoom we raised the cap to 80 because with department-wide enrollments skyrocketing, I couldn’t in good conscience as a department chair ask my colleagues to raise their caps and not raise my own in turn. But I do love teaching it, and I have a great teaching assistant to help, and the Zoom format while imperfect has allowed for some pretty enjoyable interaction and kept us in a nice routinized groove throughout the fall.  I have something akin to weekly office hours (that I call ‘Thursday wraps’) and in-person outdoors meetings (Open Air Fridays) that have proven to be a decent way to get to check in on the students. One option for their final projects has been a site analysis, and I got to meet a number of students, and see others I’d met in prior semesters, at one of those visits to a site (at the Ft. Douglas military cemetery). We also opened up a grad section, which enrolled a strong group of inquisitive grad students. In addition to the undergrad readings the grad students met 5 times throughout the Fall to discuss additional US foreign policy readings. Those were fun meetings although happening on Fridays I was always running on fumes. Especially since Fridays always seemed to have some kind of disruption in store.

The undergrad class usually met on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but sometimes I had to shift a meeting around due to the aforementioned drive to/from Iowa, and/or because our wifi at home couldn’t host the kids’ live schooling and my own class. I do worry about these students, not as students, but as a younger generation facing this pandemic, and this disruptive/dysfunctional political community of the US. It really is going to be up to them to try and stitch this all back together, because for the next decade I don’t see that happening.

Knowing this would be a stressful Fall, ahead of the semester, I developed a ‘pandemic objectives’ part of the syllabus where I promised the students our understanding considering the times and asked, in turn, for their understanding as well. It’s worked out ok I think. One always wants to strike a balance between having firm expectations when it comes to mastering content, encouraging students to keep going when they think they can’t, while also trying not to overwhelm them.

I suspect this will in retrospect be an important semester for most of the students I’ve had the fortune of teaching this Fall. We had another very unusual Presidential election, the pandemic, protests, as well as the VP debate on campus and I know a couple of our students were able to attend as ushers/volunteers, which I think is so cool especially since it was the most substantive debate of the Fall.  Will students remember this Fall as being as historically important as it seems already? Yet it will also be one that they, and I, will be happy to complete as soon as possible. Hence the title of my essay.

Department Chair

I’m in my third of six semesters as department chair and this has by far been the longest and most difficult one. I like my colleagues and department and our grad students and especially the service our discipline provides students and the community, but I’m wiped out. The Zoom meetings alone have sapped me. And I wasn’t running on a full tank to start the semester. Faculty at especially research universities like the U don’t really get their summers off – they just transfer their energies towards research, presenting at conferences and/or using that time to pursue fieldwork. With the travel restrictions, our faculty spent most of the summer pursuing what research they could at home.

But as department chair there was no letting up this summer. It was a daily struggle to try and figure out based on the enrollments, and the cases, and the protocols, whether and in what capacity classes would proceed.  For a while this was not only a daily logistical consideration, but an ethical one. I knew the U of U needed to at least promise to offer in person classes to keep enrollments up, because students demanded that format. But I didn’t like the idea one bit of sending any of my faculty into a classroom if they didn’t want to. I’ve got enough Catholic guilt without that hanging over my head. Eventually all who wanted to teach remotely were able to, after I filled out forms and pleaded each case.

I’m not sure I took a day off in the summer, with maybe the exception of a round of golf here or there with my kids. As a result I was hitting burnout pretty regularly in the fall, when things only seemed to accelerate. My sleep has never been great (I had insomnia as a kid), but it’s been hilariously bad this Fall. I’ve used the time in the middle of the night to catch up on the mountain of emails that flood my inbox.  I can’t imagine what kinds of reactions my colleagues and/or friends or students have had seeing some of the timestamps on my replies. So it goes.

My colleagues are doing well on the whole. But they are stressed out like any of us. And issues or concerns pop up weekly so I’ve taken to having them call me when I’m on my afternoon dogwalks. We are hiring in American Politics this year, which will be interesting as we won’t have the typical campus visits for finalists and have to do it all on Zoom. But we desperately need faculty in our department, to pursue not only research but to mentor students and help with the admin and service load that has only increased across academia since the global financial crisis left its mark over a decade ago. And at a time when most universities are not hiring, when US society seems destined to yet again get its austerity on, our search is an opportunity to find an incredibly talented scholar and instructor from what promises to be an elite pool of new PhD’s out on the market. I’m excited about that, because we already have a talented group of faculty and this will just strengthen us even more. We need more colleagues to handle the strong uptick in interest of political science.

But this role is perhaps the biggest reason I’ll be happy when the semester is over. We at the U of U actually get an extended Winter Break this time, and I’ll be unplugging for a week to hopefully refresh ahead of the start of Spring 2021. I’m in NCAA basketball tourney mode with department chair work – survive and advance. I don’t really care if people think I’m a good chair. Some already don’t, and that’s perfectly fine. I only care that my colleagues are doing ok, our students are ok, and that I get my work done and move on. It will be three semesters down in December, with three more to go. Then I go back to teaching and doing research full time and hopefully back to sleeping again. Halfway home …


With the three previous roles taking up almost all of my time, I haven’t been able to get much in the way of research done. At all. I miss doing research. I miss reading articles and books and having conversations about all of that at conferences with friends and even adversaries. Your brain really needs to be in a good groove for research. Admin work doesn’t enable that too well. Especially during a pandemic when you’re not sleeping. The work I was hoping to start in terms of analyzing the pandemic, as I’d done before with my old friend Curt Collins, never really got off the ground mainly because the data is spotty at best. The latter is more a reflection of the lack of seriousness that parts of the US, and other countries, have taken with regard to the pandemic. A society has to comprehensively care about a problem to properly document it. In fact, perhaps the most important insight of this pandemic for especially the ‘rationalist’ social scientists out there is coming to grips with a society that, in part, doesn’t care for its own health well-being, or at least lets that take a back seat for its own economic and identity routines. This is all the more puzzling considering how obsessed the US as a political community has been over issues like terrorism which, on the whole, are very low-probability threats. And yet as a constructivist I don’t find it that surprising at all, it speaks to the necessity of utilizing sociological and social psychological approaches to understand politics. Nevertheless, I did very little research this Fall.

And yet there have been some bright spots. I did take over as a co-editor of a new ISA journal, Global Studies Quarterly, and that’s been an enjoyable way to read some work outside my comfort zone. I attended three virtual conferences and have another one in a few weeks I’ll attend. Virtual conferences have for some academics been less than ideal, but not for me. No, it’s not the same as attending a conference in person, but in some ways it’s pretty fun and even preferable. No travel. More flexibility. I joined panels from my living room, or with my audio/video off while I listened to presenters talk about international relations while I walked my dog.

I had a couple articles accepted. After checking in with Curt after he worked yet another marathon shift at his hospital network in Michigan treating Covid patients, I wrote a half rage-fueled, half scholastically-focused essay where I made a conditional case for making the effort to fight Covid, following James, ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’. I plan to develop that some more, or at least connect it to my next book project on US militarism and ontological insecurity. My Restraint book has been reviewed in a forthcoming essay in Ethics in International Affairs, and in a rare moment of really unexpected good news I found out it co-won an award for the best book by the Theory section of ISA. I have another book coming out in December, a labor of love that took myself and my good friends and co-authors almost three years to complete.

And my academic friends have included me in some Zoom happy hours. We sometimes talked about research. But mainly, these became even more necessary when a number of us lost a dear friend in fellow scholar Amy Eckert, who unexpectedly passed away late this summer.

Historic as it has been, 2020 has in many ways been the height of suck. So much death, suffering, misery, uncertainty, anxiety. But it’s almost over.


© 2020, All rights reserved. Views expressed are those of individual contributors. Privacy Policy