London Connection Q&A: Dr J. Simon Rofe

SOAS academic Dr J. Simon Rofe talks about a ground-breaking new MOOC which explores issues surrounding diplomacy in the modern world
MOOC instructor, Dr J. Simon Rofe
"This MOOC is about making diplomacy accessible": Dr J. Simon Rofe
One of the things that I want to get across in this MOOC is that diplomacy actually happens above and beyond politics, in my opinion, and also underneath, it's all-inclusive

In collaboration with the University of London International Programmes and online education partner Coursera, SOAS has launched a ground-breaking MOOC entitled ‘Global Diplomacy – Diplomacy in the Modern World’. The course instructor is Dr J. Simon Rofe, a Senior Lecturer in Diplomatic and International Studies, and Director of the MA in Global Diplomacy Programme offered through the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London.

Having previously held positions at the University of Leicester, King’s College London, and the University of Kent at Canterbury, Dr Rofe is co-editor of University of Manchester Press’ Key Studies in Diplomacy book series and a member of the Editorial Board of Diplomatic History. He is co-chair of BISA's Learning and Teaching Working Group and vice-chair of the Transatlantic Studies Association.

Dr Rofe talks to London Connection about the virtues of negotiation and representation, keeping the conversation going, and why diplomacy is about the means rather than the ends.

Who is the MOOC aimed at?
It's aimed at a broad range of people who are interested in the issues surrounding diplomacy in the modern world. So, where people find diplomacy isn't just ambassadors, embassies and so on. One can find diplomacy in any walk of life – any form of transaction between different people involves a degree of diplomacy. And that's not just you and I being diplomatic and using choice language to explain what we mean, but also just the way that the process works in many regards – the practice of diplomacy – is equally important.

People may not recognise that, and one of the things we want to get across in the course is that diplomacy exists in lots of places that you may not think it does. If you're a school teacher, or work in a bank, or in any interface/transaction kind of environment, there are elements of diplomatic practice, and elements which you can learn from the more formal side of diplomacy which will be helpful, relevant, interesting and engaging.

So it ought to appeal to people from many different walks of life?
Yes, it's deliberately designed to be accessible to those with no prior knowledge. It's trying to shed light on diplomacy, both its virtues and its vices. We do reference the traditional forms of diplomacy as we go along, but that's more as an illustration of where diplomacy has been more acutely deployed, rather than you have to have an ambassadorship to be able to do it. It's very much about making diplomacy accessible. And in that sense, it's distinct from the MA programme, which is perhaps at a higher pitch.

In terms of what the MOOC will cover, are there any current hot topics that you'll be looking at?
The MOOC's framed in a way that we're really asking participants to bring what they think is a hot topic to the table. Issues surrounding Syria, for example, will I'm sure be prime among people's thoughts. But it's not a MOOC about the diplomacy of Syria, it's more about the diplomacy of different actors in the international environment, and how they relate to each other to a point where you can make progress and work towards this ephemeral thing called peace.

There's also a focus on practice. The way the MOOC's set up is we interviewed a dozen or so academic and practitioner colleagues to say what do you think diplomacy is? One of the virtues of that, pleasingly, is that there's a great deal of variety and opinion on what diplomacy constitutes.

One of the things that I want to get across in this MOOC is that diplomacy actually happens above and beyond politics, in my opinion, and also underneath, it's all-inclusive. We could have written a very narrow on diplomacy about the particular machinations of an embassy, and who does which job, and why it's important that embassies survived. We touch on some of those things, but this MOOC is actually about making diplomacy accessible.

"However bad things are in Syria at the moment, there is still a dialogue lead by the Russians and the Assad regime. So diplomacy is, in that sense, working. Whether it's making the situation better is another conversation."

You mentioned that you interviewed academics and practitioners. Could you give a flavour of one or two of these interviews?
These are people who don't necessarily exist in a diplomacy department, or a politics department. So there's a colleague in the Human Geography department at UCL, Professor Jason Dittmer, who has a very interesting perspective – he sees diplomacy in many different contexts. He takes it perhaps further than I do, in saying that diplomacy exists in any form of transaction between different entities, regardless of whether they have, as it were, a national affiliation – you don't have to have a flag attached to you to make that work.

And then, on the other hand, we interviewed the new Director of SOAS, Baroness Valerie Amos, who was formerly at the UN and has a great deal of international organisational experience. And she was very much about just start talking to people, just keep talking, even to people you might not like and who are responsible for doing horrible things.

What we draw from this is that we see diplomacy as the necessity to make sure that you can have a conversation with them. In other words, don't get to a point where whatever they've done, however heinous, is something that you can't talk about. And I think that's quite a good contrast, very much about keeping the conversation going. This came out of a number of people's conversations about how do you know when diplomacy's failed (which is one of the questions we ask)? When you're not talking. However bad things are in Syria at the moment, there is still a dialogue lead by the Russians and the Assad regime. So diplomacy is, in that sense, working. Whether it's making the situation better is another conversation.

"We've consciously put in engaged assessment opportunities that mean students have to do some thinking, rather than just passive learning."

This is your second MOOC following the very successful 'Understanding Research Methods'. How did the first MOOC inform the development of the new one?
It was influential, especially the methodology of dialogic conversation, because students got a lot of out of that – rather than me speaking to camera – to listen in on a conversation between myself and a series of experts we had lots of positive feedback from and definitely something that I took from 'Understanding Research Methods'. And again the format is there are half a dozen questions I ask each of the experts and in the MOOC the students will get access to the most relevant edits of those people. It's a case of making sure we have everyone's contribution. And also, in terms of the peer review exercise, MOOCs to me seem to be ‘you get out of it what you put in’: the more you can help students to put stuff in, the more they're going to get out of it. So we've consciously put in engaged assessment opportunities that mean students have to do some thinking, rather than just passive learning.

There are four e-tivities plus the capstone diplomatic memorandum – could you say a little bit about what this capstone might entail?
What that asks them to do is to compose a diplomatic memorandum. And that doesn't mean a memorandum for a Prime Minister or President, necessarily. What it's endeavouring to do is to show that classic bureaucratic process of getting to: here's option A, which is way too expensive; here's option B, which is the one you really want to choose; and here's option C which is totally unpalatable but would be nice in an ideal world. Oh well, funnily enough I'll go with option B then. It's framing what you want to get out of it. It's self-directed learning, to get the participant to think about what they've learned and apply it to their own circumstances, be that in their daily practice or in academic abstract, if that's what they want to get out of it.

So this does have global resonance and would be applicable wherever you are in the world?
Yes, it's not geographically or temporally specific. I can imagine that there'll be a good deal on Syria in the next little while, but equally there's diplomacy of climate change and issues like that. In some sense diplomacy is very much about the practice, the means not the ends. Why is it important to understand how things work, rather than just what the outcome is.

Are there any other MOOCs that address this specific area?
There certainly aren't any others on the Coursera platform and none that I've seen anywhere else. I think we can say with a degree of confidence that this is the first MOOC on diplomacy, so it's breaking new ground.

"Certainly our ambition is that there is the opportunity for interaction and dialogue between participants. Indeed, lots of the questions are sufficiently open-ended to encourage that directly."

In terms of practical skills, are there any tangible things that you could pick out?
We touch on the virtues of negotiation and representation – thinking about the practice of managing the levels of representation and the different identities that that entails. And then equally there's negotiation – the understanding that the dialogue needs to be kept going. So if you're cutting a business deal, even if you're not going to sign with this company or that company, at some point you're probably going to come across them again, and you don't necessarily want to burn all your bridges. It's that idea of négociation continuelle ('continual negotiation'), as Richelieu called it.

What kind of interactivity will there be between the MOOC participants?
Certainly our ambition is that, particularly by peer review exercises but also by the other open forums which are going to be moderated by trained associate tutors, there is very much the opportunity for interaction and dialogue between participants. Indeed, lots of the questions are sufficiently open-ended to encourage that directly. And that's certainly something we want to see come to pass.

Watch an introductory video about ‘Global Diplomacy – Diplomacy in the Modern World’