by John D. Hubbard
"Your papers are due next week. Don't hand them in late. Ten pages."
Beth Fischer '86 addresses her 85 students in Introduction to International Relations at the University of Toronto before beginning her lecture on the United Nations. They are in a nondescript room of Tanz Hall, a neuroscience building with high brick walls and rows of green auditorium chairs.
On the board behind her, Fischer has outlined key points: "Purpose & structure of U.N." In front of her is the multicultural face of Toronto. Most of the students grew up in the city but their parents are from around the world. Many of the students pay their own tuition and are determined to get their money's worth from each class.
The University of Toronto is a huge research institution made up of lovely old buildings, new complexes and bureaucratic labyrinths through which both students and faculty navigate.
Despite large class sizes, Beth is "adamant" about learning her students' first names. "I like to know their needs and interests," says Fischer. "I try to create a low-key, comfortable environment in my classroom. The University of Toronto is a very formal place with classes of 400. I try to offset that."
The lecture begins. Fischer has written 20 pages for the two-hour class and she launches the material by setting the climate following the end of World War II.
"I didn't know I wanted to be a professor as an undergraduate but when I look back it seems obvious," says Fischer. "When I graduated I wanted to do something in the real world. I didn't want to stay in school because it was what I knew, it was safe and I liked it." The masters was only a beginning.
Accepted for Toronto's Ph.D program, Fischer deferred to spend a year in England with her husband Gerard Waslin '86 who had signed to play hockey there. When they returned to Toronto Beth wasted no time continuing her education.
"I had dabbled in the corporate world so when I got to graduate school I was very focused. I had learned what I needed out of a career. Money didn't motivate me. I need an intellectual challenge from my job."
According to Fischer, earning a PhD is an endurance test that includes constant criticism. "Dec. 9, 1993, 7:12 p.m. At that moment I finished writing my dissertation," is Beth's precise recollection. "I think Gerard did a bigger dance than I did."
Not only had Fischer cut the typical seven years it takes to earn a doctorate
in half but her paper about the Reagan Administration's policy toward the
Soviet Union was accepted without revisions and will be published in book form
next year as The Reagan Reversal.|
"The emphasis here is on writing and publishing," says Fischer, who is now working with a colleague on a book concerning the United States Constitution and foreign policy. One of Fischer's graduate students, Kathleen Sullivan '91, worked as a research assistant on the project. "My first thought when I learned Kathleen went to Colgate was `That's terrific.' My second thought was `Am I that old?'"
Research can be both time consuming and trying. "I had the idea professors only worked when they were in class. I didn't realize when they weren't in class they were locked away with a computer or trying to get their research done.
"One aspect I wasn't prepared for is how solitary it is. You can get a little loopy spending all day with the computer," says Fischer, who for that reason is especially happy to see her students.
"I'm a better teacher because of my research and a better researcher because of my teaching. When I come across something new I use it in class, and my students can ask questions about my own research that never occurred to me. They force me to look at the material from a different perspective. The learning process goes both ways."
Fischer, who kept all her Colgate notebooks ("Subconsciously I must have known I wanted to be a pro-fessor."), says her experiences with the Geneva Study Group in 1984 remain pivotal to the research she is now doing. "It was when international relations came alive for me."
In addition to the introductory course, Fischer is teaching two classes on American foreign policy and offers a course on psychology and international conflict.
Not particularly comfortable as the center of attention, Fischer remembers feeling "a bizarre sensation" the first time she taught and 30 people wrote down everything she said. Nowadays she easily gets into the rhythm of a class, which in this instance includes periodic timeouts for inquiries.
"Yes, Emma. Did you have a question?" asks Fischer after making a point about Boutros Boutros-Ghali's preventative diplomacy.
"Questions are vital. I get feedback through them. I can tell if I'm reaching the students -- what's clear, what's not -- and they also help me tailor subsequent lectures. It's really easy to present information. It's much harder to facilitate a discussion."
The lecture wraps up with some of the recurring themes in international relations. Power politics, new world order, liberal ideas, collective security. "Let's hope they get it right this time," concludes Fischer before spending a half-hour clarifying points and offering advice on the final papers for a knot of students.
Later, away from campus, Fischer talks about her expectations of those who study with her. "I want them to develop the ability to think critically, to be able to listen to an argument and understand the assumptions people make, while following the logic or finding the flaws."
Beth Fischer is sharing the lessons she learned so well.