The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

April is the cruelest month

April 2, 2008

My April Fools’ Day post, “Why I’ve decided to leave the academy,” has generated some interesting commentary. LC, in particular, complains that the post isn’t very funny.

must say I find this April Fools joke to be rather distinctly un-funny. It’s actually moderately convincing as a straight-face routine — or it would it be if one didn’t know that the author of the post recently announced the send-off of his 500-page magnum opus to Princeton Univ Press — until one gets to the line about re-tooling as a statistician or game theorist in order to be policy-relevant. This is a giveaway: many denizens of the think tanks do not know statistics or elaborate game theory/formal modeling. Nor do they necessarily have to.

But that’s the point: I wasn’t trying to write something in the genre of Google’s “Virgle” spoof, but a piece that some readers might take to be genuine.

I intended my fake announcement to be something more in the tradition of the “hoax” genre then the “funny” genre. I wanted to see if I could actually fool people into thinking that I was going to leave (by choice) academia. Judging from the number of email queries, the post worked[*].

In fact, I began to worry yesterday afternoon that the post might work too well: that I would start a difficult-to-control rumor that I was quiting the discipline. Maia herself said the post was somewhat convincing. The Duck received an increasing number of hits to the blog from academic institutions that originated from google searches for “Duck of Minerva.” I was pleased, then, that my commentators came to the rescue by identifying my announcement as fake.

Like all such hoaxes, my aim was to build from plausible arguments to ones of increasing dubiousness. Unlike one of my favorite April Fools’ Day jokes, All Things Considered’s “New England Suffers Maple Woes,” though, a reader would have to know specific information–particularly about me–to spot the aspects of the fakery that made increasingly less sense, such as my claim that international-relations scholarship must be directly and unequivocally policy relevant, my identification of game-theoretic models as a pinnacle of policy relevant work, and my line that the “academic lifestyle never really suited my personality…”

But, if you think about it, even the earlier components of the post don’t really hold up. While academics do have a genuine point about the way in which our jobs interfere with creating bright lines between work and domestic life–and that many people don’t understand how hard most of us actually work–the fact is that those of us lucky enough to land a tenure-track job (and, in particular, those who achieve tenure) live very good lives compared to those in most other professions.

In particular, we get enormous control over our own time, which explains why the productivity of academics varies so widely, from “I got tenure! If I schedule my classes just right, I can spend six days a week sailing!” to “must… publish… more… articles… more… books… advise… more… students… improve… teaching… performance….”

I also debated with myself how far to adopt the narratives Tim Burke highlights in his excellent post about hostility towards academia. In the end, I didn’t push many of these lines, which might explain why more people than I expected took me seriously.

I must admit, though, that my particular choice of topics was a bit lazy. If I had felt comfortable putting in the time, I would’ve aimed for something along the lines of Andrew Gellman’s critique of Bayesian statistics. Still, questions of policy relevance, the impact of tenure on academic productivity and lifestyle, and of the methodological direction of the discipline of international relations are all very much on my mind. And I hope that a few people might have found the “hoax” thought-provoking with respect to at least one of those issues.

[*]It worked, briefly, better than I ever wanted it to. The Chronicle’s blog, Footnoted, wrote up the post and pretty quickly deleted it. I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I was pretty freaked out when I saw the referral link and read the summary. On the other hand, perhaps it might have sparked some discussion of the issues involved. I think, for now, my main reaction is one of relief.

website | + posts

Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.