The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Yes, yes! A thousand billion million times yes!

May 15, 2011

At his own blog, PM writes:

So why were my undergrad classes so much more educational for me? The simplest explanation is just that this was the second time I’d gone through the material, and so the review made clearer connections that had been obscure. The more profound difference, though, is that undergrads are more incentivized to ask questions. Graduate students are vastly more risk-averse about asking dumb-sounding questions, not least because their professors will also be their colleagues and one simply doesn’t want to make a bad impression. (The reverse calculation–that failing to learn something correctly will lead to catastrophically bad impressions down the road–almost never seems to be made, which I leave as an unsolved puzzle for rational-choice theorists.) Accordingly, a great many people in every seminar–I will wager 80 percent of students in 80 percent of seminars–are faking it, or, worse, wrongly confident in their abilities. And 100 percent of students fall into those categories at some point.

I absolutely, positively, hyperbolically cannot emphasize enough how right this is. One of the most frustrating things about PhD seminars? The inability of graduate students to admit that they don’t know something, let alone ask questions of the kind that the class can work through so as to learn that something. All this posturing does is obscure what specific topics I need to make sure we address.

And, to make things worse, these bad habits persist for the rest of many academics careers. This is one reason why, for example, a great many very smart people say really frakking stupid things about IR theory–whether in class, on panels, or in published papers. What we have is a form of intellectual dysgenics: the passing of wrongheadedness from academic generation to generation, with each iteration accumulating more and more misrepresentations of terminology, frameworks, and theories.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with students trying terminology out, taking it for a drive around the block, and kicking its tires without fully getting it. But they should never, ever assume that just because their peers are doing this that their peers know what their talking about, and that best way to impress me is to play along.

I did the same thing for my first two years of grad school, and admitting I didn’t know what I was talking about was the first step to learning the damn stuff (as PM can testify, I’m perfectly happy to ask graduate students for guidance about stuff I don’t understand, whether it be their new-fangled techniques or social theorists I’ve never read).

So just knock it off, okay?

Embarrassingly enough, via.

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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.