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Untangling the world

06/29/2018

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Some of the student analysts who write for Aggies GO hold a meeting to discuss future plans, from left, Madeleine Waddoups, Sarah Porter, Professor Colin Flint, Hannah Penner, Kennen Sparks, and Tyler Whitney.
Some of the student analysts who write for Aggies GO hold a meeting to discuss future plans, from left, Madeleine Waddoups, Sarah Porter, Professor Colin Flint, Hannah Penner, Kennen Sparks and Tyler Whitney.

Aggies GO student analysts offer tools for making sense of crazy world events

Check out the Aggies GO website

In her high school in Clearfield, Utah, Hannah Penner recalls the labels thrown about the hallways: jocks, student-body officers, dancers. “We were often labeled as the Penner twins,” she says now. “We have the same face, so I didn’t have a lot of people who would try to get to know me.”

Now, as a writer for a new student-run website dedicated to understanding the web of international forces and events, and sharing their insights with readers, she’s influenced by that perspective. Labels like “terrorist,” like “patriot,” can take a complex idea and make it simple – simple-minded, that is, she says.

“I understand first-hand what a label can take away from understanding the actual issue at hand,” she said.

If your goal is to observe the world, really see it, taking in its complexity, its muddiness, its sublimity, its pettiness, you must reject labels.

“Labels are a big deal,” says political science junior Kennen Sparks of Kaysville. “When you use a label – one word – it simplifies everything, and you lose out. It’s looking at the world through one color instead of a myriad of colors.”

The goal of the new Geopolitical Observatory – or Aggies GO – is to address that spectrum by offering that rarest of news commodities: clarity and context. It seeks, in other words, to move beyond labels.

Aggies GO, a website featuring ongoing analysis of current global events, was the idea of Colin Flint, a professor of Political Science. He’s long provided his International Studies students what he calls a “geopolitical toolkit.” Flint’s students are now offering those same tools to readers and learners, of all stripes, perplexed by the craziness of world events.

The term “geopolitics” itself may seem academic and a tad humdrum. But it’s not an overstatement to say it’s the underpinning of everything we know. In short, a country is identified by – and its citizens identify with – its geographic position on the face of the globe.

According to Sparks “Geopolitics says, ‘Hey, we’re all the same, yet we’re different in our own ways’, because of these processes, like national myths.”

National pride is just one of the conceptual tools in that “geopolitical toolkit.” Others include “geographic entities” and the “codes” that make up, for example, a country’s friends and enemies list.

The tools may be conceptual, says Sparks, but they work like the real thing. “You wouldn’t work on random boards lying around. You’d use a table and tools,” he explains. “Instead of having these separate pieces of information from all over the world, using these tools helps bring them together, gives them greater context and lets us see things as a bigger picture.”

A recent analysis by Penner, a junior in International Studies and web master for Aggies GO, looks at how women in Iran have, in extreme cases, worn fake beards to move about more freely.

Penner stresses that the analyses published regularly on the site are apolitical and academic in nature, rather than from a political point of view. The site offers definitions of geopolitical concepts, then uses them to frame and interpret world events, she said.

“Readers can first read the definition, then read the articles and connect them back to the definition – so they can better understand the world through these definitions,” she said.

Flint left a position five years ago as a geography professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to join USU, where he is now a CHaSS Distinguished Professor. His books on geopolitics and his articles – he’s editor of the journal Geopolitics and co-editor of the Indian Ocean Economic and Political Review – have been published in eight languages. A textbook, Political Geography, was recently translated into Mandarin.

After 20 years of teaching, he says, it’s only been at USU that he’s encountered students he believed could undertake such a large task of ongoing global analysis.

“There has consistently been such a high level of great interactions with students here,” he said. “I’m so proud of my students, especially the Aggies GO team.”

“Professionalizing” these students is just one of two purposes Flint sees for Aggies GO. The second follows the university’s land-grant mission and “the role we have to reach out and communicate with the general public,” he said.

Flint anticipates that potential followers of Aggies GO will be students as well as members of the general public who may want to get a taste of university discussion and get in some solid news analysis at the same time.

Student analyst Tyler Whitney, a sophomore, agrees. He adds, though, that the site will also attract readers who are feeling “stressed” about world events. “We want to give people a clearer mind about the things they’re reading and about the things that are going on,” he said. “Aggies GO lets them be aware of things they never thought about, and helps them disregard things that actually aren’t important.”

Others on the staff of six analysts are Katie Miner of Salt Lake City, Sarah Porter of Clinton,Utah and Madeleine Waddoups of Logan.

 

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