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[ 0 ] March 1, 2010 |

When this blog was launched nearly six long years ago, it was a Seattle-based blog, as all three ‘founders’ were graduate students in the political science department at the University of Washington. Shortly thereafter my two founding co-bloggers headed east to take tenure track positions in New York and Kentucky. I remained in Seattle, and spent the next several years adjuncting all over town and not finishing my dissertation. Eventually, in 2007 and 2008 respectively, I managed to get a full time non-tenure track lecturer position and finish my dissertation. These two accomplishments were a tremendous relief, emotionally and financially. However, the funding for my position has been increasingly difficult for my department to sustain, and it became clear it would not be renewed forever.

In the Fall of 2010, this blog will lose its last connection to the city of its founding. I will leave the persistent and urgent uncertainty of my career to date behind (at least for six years) as I will make the increasingly and distressingly rare leap to the ranks of tenure track faculty. I will be taking up this position at the University of Dayton in Ohio, where I will teach a range of political theory courses as well as an introductory course in comparative politics and a course on comparative democratization. Academically, this is an improbably ideal step for my career; the teaching/research mix and general intellectual environment at UD is just about perfect for my tastes and talents, and I’m remarkably fortunate, and given how many talented, sharp and accomplished people in my field who remain un- and under-employed, humbled to have been offered this job.

The difficulty, though, is leaving Seattle, a place that is very much my home. I have never lived outside Western Washington, and the city and region have become constituitive of my identity to no small degree. With the exception of my whirlwind 36 hours of a campus interview, my only experience with the state of Ohio has been a couple of hours on a layover in the Cleveland airport, and my only experience with the midwest has been a handful of visits to Chicago. So I’ll be heading east this summer with some trepidation. So, people of the internets: the purpose of this thread is to solicit advice, suggestions, warnings, and endorsements regarding any and all aspects of life and living in Dayton, SW Ohio, and the midwest more generally.

Why ISA is Different from the Olympics

[ 0 ] February 17, 2010 |

Blogging will be light over the next week while I and many colleagues descend upon the city of New Orleans for the International Studies Association Annual Conference – or, as I explained cheekily to my students yesterday, the “Olympic Games of IR geekdom” – a gathering where scholars from different schools of thought and methodological perspectives contend for the limelight, pitted against one another through the force of sheer intellect and passion for the study of world politics.

Upon further thought however, this probably ranks among the worst metaphors I’ve ever employed, for if there are any international relations scholars as megalomaniacal about their craft as are the athletes skating and boarding and luging their way toward gold up in BC, there is certainly no one in the academy cheering them on to such excess the way NBC has done the past few days.

Consider the coverage pair-skating competition, which I watched night before last before departing. So maybe it’s a sign of devotion to their careers that gold-winning pair-skaters Shen Zue and Zhao Hongbo had to forego normal married life to live out of separate dorm rooms as they traveled to competitions; and that sweethearts on separate pairs of the US figure-skating team spent Valentine’s Day competing against one another on the ice; and that pair skater Yuko Kvaguti gave up her Japanese citizenship to pursue her Olympic dream. But valorizing the fact that Yao Bin, coach of the winning Chinese team, devoted his life to coaching a gold-medal winning team to the exclusion of being present for his son’s birth and childhood? (Because of his travel schedule, his wife named the child “Far Away” in Chinese.) I read such tales as signs of the dreadful interpersonal imbalance inflicted upon athletes and their families by the vissitudes of Olympic culture, but to sports commentators, these stories apparently signify Olympian credentials and global greatness.

I cannot imagine the President-Elect of the ISA, David Lake, being introduced to give his address this Thursday with commendations for neglecting his children, partner and country in the service of his commitment to the study of world politics. On the contrary, the ISA as a profession now includes childcare at its conferences, publishes articles in its journals on how to make the tenure, promotion and publishing process in the profession more amenable to families, and includes panels and workshops on work-life balance.

Why I wonder do we valorize athletes for exhibiting the very dysfunctional Type A tendencies that most of us are lobbying in our own professions and personal lives to counteract?

[cross-posted at Duck of Minerva]

When the Shore is Out of Sight

[ 0 ] January 6, 2010 |

Via James Joyner, I’m wondering whether this really characterizes a common experience in higher ed:

All course materials, including weekly presentations, must be submitted months in advance. This, I’m told, is not only to ensure that books are ordered and copyrights cleared, but also for the various documents to pass along the line of administrative staff whose job includes vetting them in order to be sure no rules have been violated, then uploading them in the appropriate format. Moreover, a syllabus, we are constantly reminded, is a binding legal document; once submitted, it must be followed to the letter. Omissions or inclusions would be legitimate grounds for student complaint.

While the focus is on online courses, many of the generalizations seem to be intended for all college teaching. Speaking for myself, I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced anything like this. The last time anyone in authority “vetted” anything about a syllabus of mine was probably the autumn of 2000, when I began teaching my independent courses. Is the passage of syllabi through layers of administrative staff something common? Moreover, while I’ve often heard the claim that a syllabus is a “binding legal document,” I’ve always found that it means much less than it implies. I appreciate that there are faculty who attach pages of legalese to their syllabi, but a) this has always been voluntary at any institution I’ve been affiliated, and b) it’s not that onerous a task once you have the legalese; you simply attach the same handout to every syllabus.

Gone, then, are the days when I could bring my class an article from that morning’s New York Times. Now, when I stumble on a story, book or film that would fit perfectly with the course I’m currently teaching, I feel depressed, not excited. I can mention it, sure, but I can’t “use” it in the class.

Really? You can’t bring a New York Times article to class and have the students read it? I find this… implausible. For one, including the reading of the New York Times as a class requirement in the syllabus is a remarkably easy way to cover many sins. Second, while I’ve heard many student complaints in my time that I’ve believed to be illegitimate, I don’t think I’ve ever heard something quite as stupid as “she made us read a New York Times article that wasn’t on the syllabus.” More importantly, I can’t imagine any administrator actually taking such a complaint seriously.

Nor can I reorient the course in mid-stream once I get to know the students; I can’t change a core text, for example, if I find they’ve all read it before; I can’t change the materials to meet student interests or help with difficulties, as I once did without a second thought.

Indeed, I suppose that a restrictive syllabus does make it mildly more difficult to completely restructure a course halfway through the semester, or to change out major texts that the students have, in many cases, already spent money on. I guess I’m unconvinced that either of these are bad things; one of the points of a good syllabus is to allow students to plan their semester, structure their time, and choose the most helpful course of study.

And so, while I guess that some frustration at “educrats” is merited, I’m not terribly compelled by any of the above complaints. Indeed, I’m sometimes inclined to think that faculty may be a touch too attached to some of the overly feudal aspects of their positions; it’s really not necessarily to the benefit of undergraduate students that faculty be given nearly complete freedom over how to structure their courses, especially when some of those courses are required. As we all are constantly reminded, teaching undergraduates is very rarely the reason that particular faculty are hired or retained, and I can’t fault elements of administration for believing that there are aspects of undergraduate teaching that should be monitored. Another way to say this is that while I think that there should be considerable deference to the faculty vision of how specific undergraduate courses should be constituted, this deference ought not be total. Finally, I’m still deeply skeptical of the ability of teaching evaluations to act as guides to good and bad teaching.

Annals of Bad Amazon Reviews

[ 0 ] December 25, 2009 |

While working on my Statecraft and the State syllabus, I happened upon this Amazon review of Margaret Levi’s Of Rule and Revenue:

“As specialization and division of labor increase, there is greater demand on the state to provide collective goods where once there were solely private goods or no goods at all.”

From the second sentence of this book, it charts its course in oblivious contradiction of reality. In reality, of course, economic activity individuates and privatizes as society develops. The few exceptions, e.g., the Soviet Union, are typically short-lived and embarrassing to their promoters.

Ms. Levi is obviously a clever person, but sadly, as with many clever people in academia, her intelligence in this book is deployed mainly to play games of self-referential abstraction.

This book’s obscurity and practical uselessness mean that it is unlikely to be of any consequence. There probably is a good book to be written on a general theory of comparative taxation, but this ain’t it.

That’s just… super. Anyone have other examples of Amazon review that exceed stupid by utterly missing the point?

I Always Suspected That Peter Mandelson Was a Wanker

[ 0 ] December 23, 2009 |

I’ll have more to say about this later, but I’m out the door for a Christmas dinner with my partner’s family. Merry Christmas, Lord P.

Of course, the British university system never really recovered from the Thatcher slash and burn approach, only just recently recovering a modicum of respectability. Nobody really believed Tony Blair’s desire to see 50% of British “school leavers” in university was possible (or even desirable), but this is the same government, right, that now claims this:

Lord Mandelson made his position clear in the Secretary of State’s annual letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England. He said: “My predecessor repeatedly made clear the risks of student over-recruitment putting unmanageable pressures on our student support budgets.”

And people wonder why most people no longer believe a word that the Labour government has to say about, well, much of anything.

Enjoy her! She’s a perk.

[ 0 ] September 25, 2009 |

I’ve been wanting to write about the differences in culture between American and British higher education, but largely due to my dissatisfaction with my present employer, I’ve demurred, as I do like my job security. Thanks to the Vice Chancellor at Buckingham University, I have an opening.

This is, of course, bollocks. But it does speak to a difference in the culture. We don’t have tenure in the UK any longer, which was one of Maggie’s many reforms. I can’t speak for the entire island, but at my institution, at least, having relations with one’s students is, while not encouraged, also not frowned upon. It’s treated as a natural outcome, and dealt with.

Through paperwork. A lot of paperwork.
We have these end of year meetings: panels and boards. At the panel, which is held at department level, the first item on the agenda is always “does anybody have a declaration of interest?” My first experience with this concept was back in the 03-04 academic year. So, being literally foreign to the concept of the panel meeting itself, let alone its nuances, I raise my hand at this question.
All of my colleagues stared at me from around the table, the look on their faces was “you’ve been here five minutes, and you have a declaration of interest?” When I had the floor, I naively asked, “what is a declaration of interest?”
The response was, basically, “You’re shagging one of your students?”
Holy crap. In the American university culture, there’s only a few ways you can lose your job once tenured, including disagreeing with the Bush administration, or shagging one of your students. Being trained and professionalized in that culture, I look out on my sea of students professionally: I’m paid by the state to teach them, and that’s that.
Not here. I’ve had a couple colleagues who had to fill out the paperwork (one male and one female). I do wonder, however, if the British approach is more pragmatic as opposed to American morality. Even though I personally can’t entertain the notion, it does happen.
Thanks to my friend Jenaya Dawe-Stotz for bringing this to my attention.

Torture and shaming

[ 0 ] May 12, 2009 |

One possible response.

Revolution!

[ 0 ] April 12, 2009 |

As I blame Strunk and White for adding a year to my dissertation (and thus taking a year of my life), I’m deeply sympathetic with this argument.

Fish on Churchill

[ 0 ] April 6, 2009 |

This seems like a very sensible take. As far as I can tell the charges of academic misconduct against Churchill are very, very thin gruel — as Fish says, mostly run-of-the-mill academic debates about whether the evidence is sufficiently strong rather than more serious or unequivocal charges — and it’s inconceivable that he would have been fired had he not written his stupid 9/11 essay. And however offensive the essay was, if academic freedom means anything it’s not a firing offense.

Why I Study What I Study…

[ 0 ] March 24, 2009 |

Mr. Trend has a thoughtful post about why he studies military dictatorships in Latin America:

But studying dictatorships has a particular oppression looming over it. Environmental destruction, strike-breaking, and war all have really ugly components. Yet, at least to my way of thinking (and I think a lot of people’s more generally), dealing with issues like methodical torture, disappearances, and murders in lop-sided “battles” is really, really hard to deal with. I’m pretty sure every Latin Americanist who studies dictatorships (not just Southern Cone) passes through a phase somewhere in their professional path where they seriously worry, “is there something WRONG with me for wanting to study this?” At least for me, it wasn’t just some passing question I waived off – it ended up involving some pretty heavy moral and philosophical reflection in my second year of my Master’s. And I’ve known many people who started off wanting to study dictatorships, but once they really got into how awful those governments could be, they opted out, choosing to focus on some other issue either topically or temporally (or both).

Trend’s musings spurred a couple of thoughts. First, I’m quite interested in how academics come to study what they study; my recollection from graduate school is that student’s dissertation topics rarely matched up very tightly with what they had intended to study when they arrived. Figuring out how academics ended up specializing in particular topics and subfields is sort of interesting in and of itself.

This inevitably leads to the second question, which is “how did I end up specializing in security and military doctrine.” This has a relatively straightforward answer; I never really outgrew an adolescent fascination with weapons of war. The fascination slept for a while during undergrad, but awoke when I reached graduate school. Consequently, I focused on security studies, and eventually found enough space in the literature to write about how military organizations interact with one another. I credit Group Captain Lionel Mandrake for providing the proximate inspiration for my dissertation.

Anyone have an interesting story about how you came to study what you study?

A Teaching Moment…

[ 0 ] February 24, 2009 |

I normally have a post each semester about what I’m teaching. This semester I’ve let events get away from me a bit, but no time like the present. The courses I’m teaching this semester are Diplomacy 750: Defense Statecraft, and Diplomacy 600: History of Strategic Thought (DIP 600 is a catch all for courses that don’t have their own number).

This is the fourth time I’ve taught Defense Statecraft, and the course has changed a bit each time. I think I revised the list a bit more this last time than previously, in part because I shifted some readings to other courses, and in part just because I wanted to update. For example, I moved Clausewitz from Defense Statecraft to History of Strategic Thought, mainly because I didn’t think the students (about 10 are taking both courses) needed to read Clausewitz twice in the same semester. This has gone okay so far; I’ve noticed several times now that I find references to Clausewitz as I revise and prepare DIP 750 lectures. I exchanged Stephen Biddle’s treatment of the Afghan War for his treatment of the 2006 Lebanon War, which worked out pretty well; both are outstanding, and both make essentially the same point, but the latter is more up to date. I’m using three new texts for the airpower week (including one by Charles Dunlap), and I added a separate week for chemical and biological warfare. I kept the structure of the last five weeks (all of which concern the bureaucratic and industrial components of the defense complex) the same, but changed out most of the readings, in part because I got bored of them and in part because they had become outdated. We’re in week 6 right now, and I haven’t really had the opportunity to regret any of those decisions thus far. We’ll see how the absence of Clausewitz works out for the rest of the course.

History of Strategic Thought is a new course, developed from the concept of an old “Great Books” course that hadn’t been taught at Patterson for many years. This course is reading heavy and lecture light, and I’ve been conducting it as a graduate seminar, which is unusual at Patterson. Thus far, things have worked out pretty well; Thucydides and Sun Tzu were big hits, although Delbruck didn’t work out quite so well. While much of the course focuses on original source material, not all of it does; in a couple of cases I relied on contemporary works (Trachtenberg’s History and Strategy, for example) that did a good job of summarizing a particular body of thought. History of Strategic Thought is a very nice change of pace from Defense Statecraft, and I’ve generally been pleased with the course of the course thus far.

Effort and Merit

[ 0 ] February 19, 2009 |

Aye.

…the key is that these two statements are very different:

Jason Greenwood, a senior kinesiology major at the University of Maryland echoed that view.

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

Sarah Kinn, a junior English major at the University of Vermont, agreed, saying, “I feel that if I do all of the readings and attend class regularly that I should be able to achieve a grade of at least a B.”

“Putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade” is different than saying “I feel that if I do all the readings and attend class regularly that I should be able to achieve a grade of at least a B.” The latter isn’t really “entitlement”; it’s a description of reality at any major college campus. Most students, in most courses, will get Bs if they attend class, and do all the work. This is as it should be; it’s not as if a campus-wide B average is somehow vile and unnatural.

The Greenwood quote is different. Mere effort never merits a high grade; while I appreciate hard work, it has to result in actual achievement. Even if effort did merit high marks, grading “effort” is, in practice, impossible; how am I to know how hard student X worked on his or her paper? College isn’t third grade, where direct monitoring of student process is at least conceptually possible. I do appreciate the frustration of students who do a lot of work and receive a bad grade, but it’s not a problem for which there’s a satisfactory solution.

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