I have quite a bit to say about last night’s extraordinary episode of Mad Men, “The Suitcase,” but am pressed for the time at the moment (in part because I’m putting the finishing touches on a review of David Axe‘s exceptional new book, War Is Boring, and in part because those Mad Men posts always take my a couple of days to process). That said, I did want to call attention to the fact that the episode left me nodding my head in agreement with everything Mike Potemra wrote about it at The Corner, because that’s a noteworthy event in itself: the “spectral” note did ring “false,” the scene that followed was “an especially great moment,” and there was a “lot of truth in that couple of seconds.” More from me on this front shortly.
Army Colonel Matthew Moten has a piece in this month’s Foreign Affairs criticizing the declining professionalism of the US military:
Professions gain and maintain the trust of society with proven expertise derived from a long, formal education, years of practice and a demonstrated commitment to employing that expertise wisely and ethically. If the military loses the confidence of society, it will be exceedingly difficult to establish the interpersonal trust essential for effective political-military relations.
I found Moten’s piece thoughtful and informative, however it left me with two questions. Read more…
I was in the audience for the APSA panel that Scott refers to below, although to maintain my anti-establishment cred* I sat in the back, away from the front row seats reserved for “major” political science bloggers. I live-tweeted the proceedings, and unlike Dan Drezner managed to avoid comments about Ezra Klein’s hair. The panel consisted of Marc Ambinder, Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Mark Schmitt, and Mark Blumenthal. Some impressions:
While Barry Pump is being a touch over-snarky, he’s right to note that the enterprise had a bit of the lecture to it, in the sense that the blogger/journalists were telling the political scientists what we needed to do in order to be relevant. On questions of blogging, journalism, and political science I am very rarely stirred to defense of institutional academic polisci, but I nevertheless felt myself stirring. “This is what you need to do in order to make us pay attention to you” was a regular refrain from the panel, and while there is some utility to that message, it can come in shapes and sizes that provoke more or less irritation.
In part because of the constitution of the panel, discussion was weighted very heavily towards quantitative work in American politics. I found this very interesting, especially given that half or more of the blogging political scientists in the room worked in other subfields, using qualitative methodologies. I asked a question on the topic, and got some interesting answers, especially from Matt Yglesias. Yglesias noted that it was curious that quantitative Americanist polisci received the most attention, given that this subfield/methodology tends to produce work that is virtually impenetrable to outsiders. In addition to the fact, however, that voting behavior data is near and dear to the hearts of the Beltway journalist community, Yglesias suggested that what many journalists were looking for from polisci was a “men in white coats bearing Truth” effect. Voting behavior articles impenetrable to anyone not having four semesters of methodology under their belt were, once explained to journalists in single syllable words, quite useful because they allowed the journalist to write in terms of a Conclusive Study that Totally Determined the Veracity of Some Point Beyond Further Question.
This was both very interesting and quite troubling. It was interesting because I get the sense that it’s true; journalistic depictions of political science work often take the character of “studies have shown” which is a way of making a Truth claim. Qualitative work is more difficult to fit into the Scientific Truth framework, in addition to being more difficult to summarize. It’s troubling because while most political scientists tend to realize how tenuous claims to social science “Truth” are, it’s unclear that journalists have the same sense. Political scientists know that, even apart from the brutal quantitative-qualitative battle, there are serious methodological fault lines within quantitative political science that bring the delivery of Scientific Truth into question. All of the battles over proper treatment of variables and the appropriate characterization of causal claims kind of disappear when a journalist wants to know what “studies have shown.”
The question of subfield prominence also bears more attention. By and large, IR and comparative haven’t had the same impact on the journalist community in either their quantitative or qualitative forms. I think that several major concepts/grand theories from both comparative and IR have found their way into the general policy conversation (deterrence theory, for example) but it’s more difficult to find uses of clear, sound political science research. IPE might be an exception to this. The immense political science literature on ethnic conflict seems utterly detached from the way that ethnic conflict is treated in the popular media.
I’m tempted to say that the boundaries between good journalism on international affairs and qualitative political science in comparative and international relations are relatively thin, but years of experience selecting books for the Patterson Summer Reading List tells me that this isn’t true. An academic book and a journalistic account really are very different, even when they tackle vaguely the same subject. The former includes a clear theoretical perspective, and the presentation of information is provided with some methodological structure. Journalistic accounts operate according to different (although not necessarily better or worse) structures. Moreover, I can certainly appreciate why journalists don’t have the time to delve into full investigations of the area studies and comparative literature, or even to read some of the longer academic books in the field; I’m an academic, and I barely have time to read books anymore.
What the panel didn’t really touch on, and what I’m interested in for obvious reasons, is the phenomenon of political scientists using the tools they’ve been given to speak to the audiences that journalists normally command. I suppose that this gets back to the first point; why should political scientists really bother making their work accessible to journalists, when they could just make their work accessible to the audiences that journalists have? While I am convinced that the current preferred model of political science interaction with the public (none) is untenable, I’m not certain that making ourselves relevant to a profession that’s dying faster than our own is the right way to go.
*Dr. Farley does not now and has not ever possessed “anti-establishment cred”. He simply arrived late and didn’t want to look like more of a doofus by pushing his way to the front.
Like Rob, I’m heading off to the American Political Science Association Annual Conference for the weekend, and while I’m thinking about my professional obligations as a social scientist and educator, let me point out this newsflash from the Chronicle of Higher Education:
The Texas A&M University System is moving ahead with a controversial method of evaluating how much professors are worth, based on their salaries, how much research money they bring in, and how much money they generate from teaching, The Bryan-College Station Eagle reports.
Under the proposal, officials will add the money generated by each professor and subtract that amount from his or her salary to get a bottom-line value for each, according to the article.
Frank Ashley, vice chancellor for academic affairs for the 11-campus system, said the public wanted accountability. “It’s something that we’re really not used to in higher education: for someone questioning whether we’re working hard, whether our students are learning. That accountability is going to be with us from now on.”
Peter Hugill, who heads the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, blamed a conservative think tank with ties to Gov. Rick Perry for coming up with an idea that he said is simplistic and relies on “a silly measure” of accountability.
But as I’m incapable of short answers, let me provide a slightly longer one. In this post, Yglesias shares his experience of having learned that
it’s not merely that taking time to help inform a non-specialist audience about political science findings isn’t specifically rewarded, it’s positively punished. And not simply in the sense that doing less research and more publicizing is punished; I was told that holding research output constant, getting more publicity for your output would be harmful to a junior scholar’s career because it would feed an assumption of non-seriousness.
That’s pretty nuts.
It is. I won’t speak for political science as a discipline, but I can speak to the problem as it exists in mine, which is English. The basic logic is that sharing work with the general public is a means of circumventing the “serious” peer review process, and as such is necessarily “unserious.” The problem with that explanation is that the peer review process is itself a monument to unseriousness:
There are numerous examples one could cite of plagiarism, or poor practice, that seem to slip right through the peer review process. Add to this the fact that many, if not most, journals are famous for vetting processes that are as slow as Cream of Wheat going down the kitchen drain. Graduate assistants and faculty editors who lose track of manuscripts; readers who are given six months to complete the review and have to be pushed to complete it anyway; and the capacious use of “revise and resubmit” rather than bluntly saying the article is poor and needs to be completely rewritten—all of these things and more are acknowledged problems with the academic publishing process that make many people reluctant to send work to journals.
The other downside to publishing exclusively in journals that live behind pay-walls is that, while the articles contained therein are totally serious, no one ever reads them. As my advisor once told me, if I want an idea to die, the best thing to do is publish it in a flagship journal. He wasn’t being serious, obviously, but neither was he being completely unserious. To paraphrase what I believe this fellow once told me, but which I can’t seem to locate, my discipline’s flagship journal is treated like issues of The New Yorker: they live next to the toilet or in a pile forever awaiting the day in which we have nothing else to read. It’s prestigious to be published in it, but it’s a means to be hired or promoted, not start a conversation.
It hasn’t always been this way—or, at the very least, we once made a concerted effort to appear otherwise—but as it currently stands, the choice is between being a “serious” scholar who engages no one or an “unserious” scholar whose work is read by many but, because of that, counts for nothing. I’m obviously not endorsing this model, nor am I saying it’s the same in all disciplines, as I would love to be in a discipline in which my work mattered on its merits rather than for what its publication wins me; however, for those invested in the system as it’s currently constituted, the idea of public engagement is understandably frightening. After all, if you’ve spent decades advancing up the tenure ladder by never being read, a situation in which your work might be read and evaluated could result in people judging—and determining whether you deserve—your ostensibly illustrious career.
Only, no. That’s the fear, but far from the reality. If you scroll through the many, many pages I tagged “dissertation,” what you see is a community of very useful people helping me develop my ideas on a daily basis. (Twenty-four comments about Edith Wharton’s understanding, or lack thereof, of heliocentrism? How is that not useful?) So, one of the reasons behind not sharing non-peer-reviewed work with the general public is simply misguided fear; the other is that its difficult to be gatekeepers when there’s no gate, even though the road to it and through it currently resembles a Chinese traffic jam.*
I’ve strayed a little far from Yglesias’s question, but I think a detour into the internal logic of academic publication is necessary to understand why its “serious” fruits must be kept in a closely guarded garden. There’s a lot more to be said about this, obviously, but given that Yglesias was identifying the nuttiness of the situation among political scientists, I think it’s best to stop before my reasoning becomes too discipline-specific. Accordingly, I’m interested in learning whether a similar situation obtains in other humanities disciplines, as I long ago learned that scientists and engineers actually read each others’ work.
*Am I the only one who sees that becoming a metaphor for something sooner rather than later?
[Edited to reflect the fact that it’s rude to call people you only think you know because you’ve been reading them for years by their first names.]
What I want to note is that John Yoo knows that he is already on trial – not just in Spain, but here in the United States – and he is already attempting to put on his defense.
And if his performance at Chapman is an indication of his skill as his own defense attorney – and I think that it is – John Yoo is in serious trouble.
Yoo was meandering, inarticulate, and alternately simplistic and condescending. He was no match for Darmer and Rosenthal – both former federal prosecutors and both clearly far smarter and more savvy than John Yoo.
I came away from the debate feeling that Yoo is a rather pathetic figure, intellectually out-classed by the others on the panel.
Apologies again for the lack of blogging; currently at APSA. Some links for your morning perusal:
- Litter, torture, and Jay Bybee
- The US vs. the top EU economies
- How a Tomahawk kills stuff
- The literary takes a sci-fi turn.
- Military recruiting from around the world.
- The United States Navy continues to enjoy huge advantages over potential competitors.
- Professor Stanley McChrystal’s first course syllabus.
Pamela Geller wrote a “STICKY POST” seemingly intended to insult the very crowd she courts:
NO SIGNS AT THE 911 GROUND ZERO MEGA MOSQUE RALLY — FLAGS! **STICKY POST**
Robert and I respectfully request that those of you who will be attending our protest against the Ground Zero mega mosque bring American flags, not signs […] Please get the word out now […] We are asking that we all respect and honor that day with the flags, states flags, flags of other countries.. lots of flags…PLEASE don’t bring signs […] It is a solemn day. No signs. FLAGS.
From a rhetorical standpoint, listing the banned item before the desired one gives the impression that you’re more concerned with stopping people from bringing the former than encouraging them to bring the latter. To wit:
NO CHILD RAPISTS AT BILLY FOURTH YEAR BIRTHDAY PARTY — GRANDMAS! **STICKY POST**
Write that and people will not only assume that some members of your audience want to bring a pedophile to a young boy’s birthday party, but that they will do so unless specifically told not to. What does that say about how you feel about your audience?
It says that you believe they lack common sense, that they might not only consider bringing a pedophile to the party, but that they might even think it’s a good idea. At the very least, you suggest that your audience might think of bringing a pedophile before a grandma, which means you think they think more about pedophiles than grandmas.
As if to prove you think they’re scum, you decide to “sticky” a post ten days in advance of the event and implore people to “get the word out now,” because you think that if your audience isn’t constantly reminded not to bring pedophiles to the party, some members of it will. Then—presumably because you feel your audience has been insufficiently insulted—you follow that title with a post whose tone flits between pleading and hectoring:
Robert and I respectfully request that those of you who will be attending Billy’s fourth year birthday bring grandmas, not pedophiles […] Please get the word out now […] We are asking that we all respect and honor that day with the grandmas, great-grandmas, other people’s grandmas.. lots of grandmas…PLEASE don’t bring pedophiles […] It is a happy day. No pedophiles. GRANDMAS.
Why would you write that? Because you know that more than a few pedophiles will be showing up at the party and you want to establish plausible deniability.
Now replace “pedophile” with “hilariously misspelled, overtly racist, or just plain pig-ignorant sign” and the respect Geller has for her fellow attendees becomes all too apparent.