Teaching heroes: Savun tackles civil war, world politics and peacekeeping

Burcu Savun


Being a good global citizen means approaching tough, emotional topics with reason and research, says Burcu Savun, a political science faculty member specializing in international relations.

Savun brought such an approach to her course on civil wars, on a day when her students were examining a question in Uganda and elsewhere: Does the violence of such wars — experiencing them as soldier or victim — lead survivors to more or less political participation when the war is over?

She exuded confidence and calm, seeming to think things through in front of the class, or with them. “But what is the reason?” she kept asking. What does the research say?

“If you are obstructed in a civil war, if you're forced to serve in a rebel group,” does that inspire or prevent civic engagement afterward? Are regular soldiers more likely to participate in politics after civil wars? When abductees go back to their villages, are men or women more socially accepted? What if you are a refugee or immigrant after war: Is your political participation in your new country affected by your war experience?

The topics don’t get any easier in Savun’s other classes, which include World Politics and Peacemaking and Peacekeeping.

Born in Turkey, Savun joined Pitt in 2006 after graduate studies at Rice University. “I grew up in a country where you hear about political instability in the Middle East, so I was very curious early on,” she says.

Today she is an associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Dietrich School’s Department of Political Science.

“I love teaching because I really like students to develop critical and analytical reasoning abilities and also encourage them to appreciate different perspectives on world politics … and also become good world citizens.

“Looking at research you can usually debunk some of the myths they have,” she added, such as that peacekeeping missions are generally ineffective or that civil wars would discourage civic engagement. “Facts speak for themselves,” she says.

Asking student opinions, and then showing them that research may offer counterintuitive results, is part of “moving them from passive to active learners,” Savun adds. “It is also much more fun for me. Really important is being passionate about what you teach. You can motivate learning by bringing enthusiasm into the classroom.

“Once students see that you care about their learning experience and you are really enthusiastic about the subject matter, they generally become better learners,” she says. By mid-term, she is asking students, “What is working, and what is not working?” in her class. “They appreciate that.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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