Teaching development and critical thinking
From left: International Development Studies Program faculty Jennifer Jihye Chun (academic chair), Hannah Appel, Kevan Harris and Alden Young. (Photo of Chun by McInerny/UCLA; photos of Appel and Harris provided by faculty; photo of Young by Dan Komoda for Institute of Advanced Study.)

Teaching development and critical thinking

Faculty who regularly teach required courses in the international development studies major speak about their courses and how they work collaboratively to build student knowledge of the subject matter.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, August 8, 2022 — International development studies (IDS) faculty who taught several of the major’s core required courses in the 2021–22 academic year worked to strengthen the cumulative pedagogy of their courses.

The collaboration among these UCLA professors, all of whom have joint appointments in the International Institute and other departments — including Asian American studies and labor studies (Jennifer Jihye Chun), anthropology (Hannah Appel), sociology (Kevan Harris) and African American studies (Alden Young) — is part of the IDS program’s emphasis on reflexivity and critical engagement, says Chun, who became academic chair of the program on July 1 (see related article).

Introductory course

“Jennifer spoke to me about what she wanted her students to know by the time they came into their second quarter of the IDS major. She wanted us to think about the progression of courses as building blocks for IDS students,” said Hannah Appel, associate professor of anthropology, who reworked the curriculum for Introduction to the International Development Studies (IDS 1) when she taught it for the first time in fall 2021.

The introductory course was originally designed, with input from other IDS faculty, and taught by instructor Erica Anjum (UCLA IDS 2012, Africa Studies M.A. 2016) in 2018, who continues to regularly teach the course.

“The central objective of IDS 1 is to engage students with debates around the widening patterns of disparities of wealth, power, privilege and access to social justice — as well as the policies, interventions and forms of citizen engagement intended to address them — both between and within the countries of the Global South and North,” says Anjum.

“While the course is designed to be foundational for the IDS major, I hope it also helps students of all majors be more aware, empathetic and responsible citizens.”


La Limonada, a slum in Guatemala City, Guatemala. (Photo: CDC Global via Wikimedia Commons, 2020. CC BY 2.0.

Appel based her IDS 1 curriculum on a recent critical survey of development written by economic anthropologist Jason Hickel: “The Divide: Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets” (Norton, 2018). With the exception of one “deep-dive” lecture on the role of racism in development, she assigned one chapter of the book and one primary source for each class.

“In a very accessible way, Hickel tells the story of global inequality from conquest, by which he mostly means European colonialism, to the present day — both chronologically and thematically. It’s a scholarly account, but there are no footnotes or endnotes in the text itself [they are placed at the back],” comments Appel.

“One of the things I heard repeatedly from my students, which was so exciting to me, was: ‘I liked this book so much, I told my parents to get it — my parents are reading it alongside me and we’re talking on Zoom about it.’

“The book is a great tool for introducing people to broad narratives that help them think differently about development, about capitalism and about the relationship between the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. Plus Hickel covers critical numeracy very well.”

Required core courses

Appel’s course laid the groundwork for Chun’s course — Culture, Power and Development (IDS 110) in winter quarter 2022. “I could really tell the difference in the students this year,” shares Chun, associate professor of Asian American and labor studies. “Hannah did a great job laying out the broad historical and contextual issues that shape issues of culture, power and development, so that when students got to my class, I could focus more on in-depth studies of particular countries and economic sectors.”

“I have designed the course to focus on collective efforts that have taken place to democratize and decolonize development, which have been part of every major aspect of economic development over the past century,” explains Chun.

“Cultural development is not a top-down history. It is a deeply contested process of destruction and transformation shaped by different people, groups and movements as they struggle to change the calculus of power over who gets what, how much — or how little — and why.”

“Rather than focus primarily on leaders in business and government, we look closely at workers, peasants, migrants, women and indigenous communities as key actors of development,” says Chun. “We examine their strategies, organizations, dreams and aspirations, as well as the ways in which they have built solidarity movements within their countries and across national borders.”


Native Americans protest against proposed Dakota Access Pipeline near Camp of the Sacred Stone, ND, 2016.
(Photo: Joe Brusky via Flickr.) CC BY-NC 2.0


Illegal mining site on the territory of the Indigenous Munduruku people in Pará, Brazil. Photo: IBAMA (Brazilian
Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) via Wikimedia Commons, 2018. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Guest speakers are a crucial component of the course, enhancing students’ understanding of the difference that actors on the ground can make in demanding more just and equitable outcomes. This past year, students had the opportunity to hear directly from Adriana Paz Ramirez, the Latin America coordinator of the International Domestic Workers Federation, and Manuel Rodriguez Pumoral, chief of social protection and policy at UNICEF Jordan.

In addition to Chun’s course, IDS 130 — Theory and History in International Development — was also offered in winter 2022 by Kevan Harris, associate professor of sociology. “This year, I sensed that students had acquired more cumulative knowledge when they arrived in class,” he says, echoing Chun.

“In addition to presenting different explanations for how the world became so unequal by the 20th century, in the first part of the course we look at what [newly independent] states and their leaders and planners thought should be done in the 1950s and 1960s, the range of industrial policies and economic policies they tried and the various problems that those policies induced,” he explains.

The second part of the class is devoted to regional historical surveys of East Asia (including China), South Asia, Latin America, Africa and the USSR (with attention to post-Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe). “The concepts of the first half of the class come back in a regional context and show up in the readings,” he says.

“I have two reasons for focusing on different regions,” notes Harris. “One is that an unintended consequence of the critique of colonialism is that students have this idea of European colonialism as the sole foundation of global history.

“But characteristics of regional economies prior to colonization, or prior to colonization by Europe, have a big effect on post-colonial development. Think of the long-lasting links between the Chinese empire and East Asian trade, the huge Indian Ocean world economy connecting East Africa and the Middle East to South Asia, or the massive imperial networks built in the pre-Columbian Americas.”


Saigon Port as seen from ferry between Vung Tau and Saigon. (Photo: Pieceofmetalwork via
Wikimedia Commons, 2017; cropped. Public domain.) China is Vietnam's biggest trading partner.

The second reason for a regional focus, he continues, is that “colonization was not a single thing. In some cases it was very short, in some cases, it was very long. In some cases, very shallow, and in some cases, very deep and transformative.

“[The course] links regional histories to the different ways that postcolonial states have approached the problem of development — I think that’s my contribution to the major,” he comments.

Harris pays particular attention to critical numeracy. “I want students to think of numbers the way they think of language: people use numbers to tell stories. And just as when you listen to someone tell a story, you can interpret it in different ways.

“This relates to questions such as: How is poverty measured? How is inequality measured? We talk a lot about different ways of showing the same data, and how the different ways you show data tell a different story.”

To close out the year, Alden Young taught IDS 140 — Decolonizing Political Economy: Colonialism and Development — in spring 2022. It was only the second time the course has been offered.

“The course starts with the question of how development emerges from the beginning of the colonial experience. We look particularly at the abolition of the slave trade and the ways in which the discourse of development is tied to the discourse of abolition,” he says of the class, which intensively uses primary sources from developing countries.

“We talk about how colonialism and development more or less merge out of a humanitarian impulse as two kinds of interrelated subjects,” says Young. “Then we look at the ways African and Middle Eastern scholars have tried to use development as a way to argue for the end of colonialism.”

Young focuses on how the creation of developing countries is understood in the Global North. “It’s not like we were going to Africa to save Africa,” he comments. “A lot of the processes that cause poverty around the world are also the same processes that cause our wealth. I try to tell students that development can be used in many different types of political projects.”

Faculty goals for students

One sustained goal of the faculty is to teach IDS students critical thinking skills. “By critical, I mean being open to the idea that you might be wrong and the prevailing wisdom might be wrong,” comments Harris. “It means having students think about countervailing arguments and what kind of evidence would be needed to support one versus the other.

“You also get students to think about complex problems as bundles of reasons that are sticky and that may or may not go together, but they’re not the same in every country. The goal is to nudge students away from single-bullet answers, whether it’s patriarchy or tradition or neoliberalism.”

“I’m really impressed by IDS students,” says Chun. “They have a curiosity about the world that I relate to and am also inspired by. It’s a gift to work in a field where we are exposed to students like that — I really enjoy them.”


March 13, 2020. Members of the Global Development Lab @ UCLA, a student association in which students hone 
development project design and monitoring skills, which they use to design proposed projects. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

“We get a lot of students,” comments Young, “Some are from economics and interested in other ways of thinking about economics. And we get a lot of students who want to do development and humanitarian work.

“Some students want to help the countries they come from and are interested in questions such as: What we can develop beyond just reproducing the system that we have? How can development do more than simply reinforce capitalism, as we understand it now?

“The hardest thing is actually not making students too pessimistic,” says Young. “ I think our goal is to prepare them not to be naïve [if and] when they go into development.”

Adds Chun, “We are trying to encourage students that if development or foreign policy plays to your strengths, figure out what the constraints are and what the possibilities are, and find the space to maneuver.”

*This article was published on August 8, 2022, and updated on August 11.