Category: Featured (Page 1 of 140)

Is bullying baked into academia?

Recently, David Edelstein and Jim Goldgeier circulated an open letter for signature to address bullying in the profession. The open letter can be found here. So far, there are nearly 100 signatures, including mine.

As a sophomore in high school, I was 5’2”, weighed 215 pounds, was in a bunch of advanced classes with much older students, and played role-playing games in my spare time. I know a little bit about being bullied. And I know a lot about its toll. I know also that bullying can come in many forms, with some bullies savvier than others in terms of how they ply their craft.

Verbal abuse and physical intimidation or assault are clear violations of behavioral standards – professional or otherwise – and instantly recognizable by any reasonably aware on-looker. One of the things that made some of the recently surfaced allegations of bullying so shocking is that the language and behaviors were so coarse and bluntly damaging as to stagger belief. I think this kind of bullying can be policed, and in ways not all that different from the way it got policed on the schoolyard: someone larger or with more status would make it clear the behavior needed to stop. Or eventually one would snap and stand up for oneself, even if it meant fighting a literal fight you could not win.

Ferreting out more subtle bullying behavior is going to be incredibly difficult because behaviors that would be considered bullying in other professional or interpersonal contexts are formalized parts of how our work is assessed and rewarded. 

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How do you kill a zombie argument? Middle East studies edition

I’ve started practicing mindfulness, partly to deal with the stress of being a Professor and parent of small kids in a pandemic, and partly to reduce the number of times I become unreasonably angry over bad policy arguments. I experienced a major setback this week, when I encountered yet another evidence-less argument on Saudi-Iran relations. What’s worse, it looks like this zombie claim is not only refusing to die, but it is–in zombie apocalypse fashion–replicating itself and spreading.

The offender was this article in Slate by Fred Kaplan. Reports have emerged of secret talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, intended to ease long-standing tensions between the two countries. According to Kaplan, “by all accounts, this shift was spurred by recognition that the United States is moving away from the Middle East.”

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Introducing Bridging the Gap’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Fellow: Emmanuel Balogun

The Bridging the Gap team is thrilled to announce the addition of a new member of our leadership team: Emmanuel Balogun, the inaugural BtG Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Fellow. We recently sat down with him to ask about his work, hobbies, and plans for the fellowship. Welcome to the team, Emmanuel!

BTG: Tell us a bit about yourself. What drives your scholarship?

EB: What drives my scholarship is my desire to highlight the multitude of ways African countries engage with the international community. I am also very curious about the role of African expertise in IR. My research on African regional organizations was actually born out of thinking about Foreign Policy Decision Making and how African leaders use regional organizations as forums for foreign policy. As I got into the research, I became more interested in the bureaucracy of ROs and the creative ways they would try to get their job done. As a result, my scholarship is driven by a desire to see how expertise and resourcefulness among African bureaucrats gets turned into governance.

Growing up as a First-Generation Nigerian American, I would often hear stories from my dad and family members about how great it was to grow up in Nigeria, yet these stories were not the same stories I would hear in school, if I heard them at all. I always said that I would want to have a career where I could learn more about Nigeria and where my family comes from and a career that would allow me to travel and learn on the continent. I think this also drives my scholarship, in that I want to better understand the social and political contexts of Africa and better understand my own connection to the continent.

BTG: What’s your favorite part about teaching?

EB: My favorite part about teaching is seeing students get excited about making connections. The connections are not always profound, but I genuinely enjoy seeing students apply material in the course to something in their other courses, or something they have experienced in their own lives. Relatedly, I just enjoy the journey of the semester. The difficulties, the weeks where everyone is struggling to get through the materials, and just the overall challenge of getting students to think critically about course content, while also thinking reflectively about how they situate themselves in the world. Teaching is also a great opportunity to try out my dad jokes. Most of all, I truly enjoy helping students through the learning process and I see the learning process as truly collaborative. I learn a lot from my students and I hope that they leave my classes having been challenged in a way that helps them in other courses down the line.

BTG: What about your interest and activities — how do you spend your time outside of work?

EB: I have a 3 year old and a 10 month old, so a lot of my activities outside of work currently involve singing, acting out Disney movies, and conflict resolution. I really value and enjoy spending time with my family.  But in general, I watch a lot of basketball (go Celtics) and I am trying to get back into playing competitively; I am rediscovering my love for video games, and I am a huge hip-hop fan—I am currently re-listening to the early catalogs of DMX (RIP), De La Soul, and NY Drill music. I also have a long commute, so I have been able to listen to more podcasts. My current favorites are Hear to Slaythe Bodega Boysthe NBA Mismatch, and Trade Talks.

BTG: Why did you want to get involved with Bridging the Gap?

EB: I’ve always wanted to think about how to make my work relevant to the audiences that would benefit from the implications of my work. In my conversations with policymakers and practitioners that I meet and work with on the continent, they often tell me that they do not engage with political science scholarship on Africa for a lot of reasons, but mainly because of accessibility and the tone of the scholarship. I think Bridging the Gap will help me personally keep these questions of accessibility in the forefront of my research moving forward and be more intentional about including the perspectives of my colleagues on the continent in my work. 

Relatedly, I wanted to work with Bridging the Gap because I think there is a great opportunity in this moment to really rethink questions of equity and access in our discipline. I’ve admired the work of Bridging the Gap from afar, but never thought I’d be able to participate in any of the programming, as I did not think I was the type of scholar they would be interested in. Once I saw they were looking for a Diversity Fellow, I thought it’d be a great opportunity to get involved and work collaboratively to seek out ways to make BtG more accessible to those who are also interested in “bridging the gap” but feel they might not have an entry point into this space.

BTG: Why is it important for scholars to share their work with policymakers and the public?

EB: Again, I come back to access. What good is it if we as scholars have something important to say or have an interesting finding and it is gated in an academic journal somewhere? Also, I think it is important for the public to know and be able to access information that we produce as scholars. I think we see this with the crowd sourced syllabi produced over the years and the anti-racism reading lists that proliferated over the summer. While I have some criticisms of these syllabi and reading lists, the fact that scholars were quickly able to deploy scholarly resources for public discussion/consumption in such an immediate and effective way, offers a necessary kind of access for the public to gain deeper understandings about politics and society that I think will lead to a more engaged public. 

It is a two-way street—scholars also get a lot out of sharing our work. For me, it’s allowed me to focus more on the important points of my scholarship—the “so what” of my research, if you will. Being able to distill complex academic arguments in a way that is intelligible for policymaker and public consumption I believe is an invaluable skill. It is also a way to potentially boost the profile of scholars who have great ideas, but have been boxed out of traditional dissemination outlets due to their position in the academy.

BTG: What do you see as some of the challenges confronting underrepresented groups in writing and disseminating policy-relevant scholarship?

EB: There are a lot, but if I must pick a couple, I will say tokenization/representation and legitimacy. I think many people will point to the issue of representation first, and rightfully so. When you look at policy makers or the field of political science (IR in particular), there is an issue of racial representation. Those of us who are black in the discipline, there is the issue of us being tokenized to only speak to “black” issues. For example, the black American that must only study Race and Ethnic Politics, or the black IR scholar who could not possibly be an expert on the EU and/or South Asia. These elements of tokenization and the lack of racial representation might lead to underrepresented scholars not receiving the opportunities for policy engagement because of a perceived lack of expertise. This is why I value the work of Women Also Know Stuff and POC Also Know Stuff, because their mandate is to force underrepresented groups into the space and legitimize our knowledge. 

I also think a significant challenge is knowing where to start/how to engage. For those who do not have the “pedigree” (I hate this term) and were not educated in spaces where everyone has access to policymakers or colleagues/professors who have policy connections, how would they know how to get their research in the hands of someone at a think-tank? How would one know the process of what it takes to write for the Monkey Cage for example? Academia and political science are still very gated and guarded, which I think poses a significant challenge to underrepresented groups and their ability to engage in policy-relevant work.

BTG: What are some of the things you hope to do with Bridging the Gap this year?

EB: I am hoping to build partnerships with groups who are already doing excellent work to make political science and international affairs more equitable. One of my main goals as Diversity Fellow is to work towards creating more of a pipeline from graduate school to post-doctoral studies for underrepresented scholars to engage in this space. I also hope to build on efforts for BtG to engage with undergraduate students as well. 

I am also interested in thinking more about how to mainstream equity and inclusion in BtG programming. I am planning to do an internal climate survey with the BtG leadership team and a broader engagement with BtG alumni to see where they believe equity and inclusion could be improved within BtG. Alongside this, I want to think about how we can broaden our conception of the policy space, to think about those scholars who want to engage with practitioners beyond DC and engage with the practitioners in their area of research.  

Finally, I hope to create what I call a Bridging the Gap “Makers Space” which I envision to be a collaborative space with other like-minded organizations to focus more on how we make the practices in academia and in the policy world conducive to the lived experiences of Black people, queer people, gender non-conforming folx, and people with disabilities.


Not everything outside the Pentagon is “soft power”

As someone who works on religion and politics, I encounter the term “soft power” a lot. Most of the time it’s in a good way; soft power is a means to advocate for policies that draw on our values but still advance our interests. But, occasionally, the term frustrates me. Too often it’s used as a catch-all to address any foreign policy that doesn’t involve military force or economic sanctions. If we want to advocate for a broader set of foreign policy tools, we need a better set of terms to describe them.

Soft power

Soft power was famously introduced by Joseph Nye in a 1990 Foreign Policy article. He argued that it is the ability to get others to “want what we want,” rather than merely doing what we want. It amplifies, or even replaces, conventional “hard power.” Since then, scholars have tried to test it, policymakers have advocated for its use in US foreign policy, and skeptics have questioned the usefulness of the term or whether it really matters.

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Writing a Dissertation isn’t Running a Marathon… it’s Training for One

Hilary Matfess is a PhD candidate at Yale University, an incoming professor at the University of Denver’s Korbel School, and a 2020-2021 United States Institute for Peace (USIP) Peace Scholar Fellow. She will participate in the Bridging the Gap NEW Era workshop in 2021. Her work has been published in International Security, Security Studies, Stability, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, and African Studies Review. Her first book, Women and the War on Boko Haram, was published in 2017 with Zed Publishers. Relevant to this article, she has also completed several marathons and looks forward to the return of in-person races!

Throughout graduate school, I heard the same, well-intentioned refrain over and over from fellow graduate students, faculty members, and family: “the dissertation is a marathon.” I generally responded with a half-hearted “yeah” and a shrug – sure, it’s hard and time consuming and long so why not call it a marathon? But now, as someone who’s completed both a dissertation and a handful of marathons, I can definitively say that writing a dissertation isn’t runninga marathon; it’s training for one. 

This difference is more than jock semantics. Shifting from a mindset that frames your dissertation as a singular feat of endurance to one that underlines the process of preparation can help graduate students avoid burnout and right-size their perception of what the dissertation signifies.  A training mindset can help academics better balance work-life balance and identify sustainable patterns of work.

Trust Your Training” 

Running a marathon is, even under the best circumstances, pretty monotonous. You’re going to move your body at more or less a steady pace for 26.2 miles. Training, for a marathon, however, requires integrating several different types of exercises into your routine; there’s the classic “long runs,” easy runsfast runs, and even strength training. A marathoner who only ran long runs would underperform and risk injury. 

Just like you don’t one day go out and run 26.2 miles, you don’t just wake up one day and write a dissertation – both processes require setting smaller, discrete goals that build on one another over time. Writing a dissertation isn’t just setting words to page – it’s a task comprised of a myriad of other cumulative and complementary tasks like identifying a viable research question, producing a research design that leverages the methods best suited to your research question, collecting or generating data, analyzing that data, editing, presenting drafts to peers and advisors, identifying relevant literature, and proofreading.  Setting SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-specific) goals while writing a dissertation can help graduate students consider the different components of the project and consider a realistic timeline for completing each individual component. 

Identifying shorter-term accomplishments is a way to keep graduate students and those training for the marathon on-track and enthusiastic about the process. For example, some marathon training programs actually suggest that runners race shorter distances as a part of their training. This helps runners not only know their true “race pace” and get a feel for what race day will be like, it allows them to pepper a sense of accomplishment throughout their marathon training. So too can graduate students use side projects and intermediate milestones to both further their dissertation efforts and mark their progress along the way. 

There is evidence that “small wins” boost motivation at work, so graduate students should seek out and celebrate their small wins to help keep them on track to achieve their larger goals. Presenting a draft dissertation paper or chapter at a conference, working on a coauthored project on a topic tangentially related to your dissertation topic, or translating your academic research into mass-audience publications can all help keep graduate students motivated and enthusiastic about their work. 

When training for a marathon, you have to balance running with the rest of your life. I’ll admit that the jokes about marathon runners being obsessive and insufferable about their training are warranted to a degree, but ultimately marathon training can’t be the entirety of someone’s identity. Similarly, graduate students need to cultivate a sense of self that’s not related to work. This can be exceptionally difficult – after all, so many of us care deeply about our work and are often making considerable sacrifices (both in terms of salary and in our personal lives) to pursue this degree. Yet maintaining a distinction between the work that we do as graduate students and the people that we are is critical for living a fulfilled life, avoiding burnout, and combatting the culture of “workism.”

One study of economics graduate students noted that “62% of students worry always or most of the time about work when not working” and that 20.5% of students found themselves too tired for activities in private life always or most of the time.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, these students expressed the biggest regrets over “how they organize their timeand engage with their studies.” These findings suggest that preserving aspects of our identity, apart from our position as graduate students, is important for mental health. Given the emergent evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis among graduate students, ensuring that your identity is not enmeshed with your work may be all the more important.

Support Systems

While running a marathon, you’re often surrounded by people. There are other runners, aid station volunteers, and spectators. The mood is jubilant— literal strangers are cheering you on! It’s an incredible experience and a heartening display of humanity and support. In contrast, training for a marathon can be pretty lonesome and requires strategies for maintaining motivation. 

Whether you’re working on your dissertation or tackling your daily run, there is rarely someone cheering you on. Tapping into your intrinsic motivation or identifying external sources of motivation is an important part of finishing the dissertation. Intrinsic motivation is often praised for being more durable and reliable than external motivation. Remembering why your work is important and why you cared about the question in the first place can help cultivate intrinsic motivation, even when the work gets tedious or frustrating. 

Even the fiercest self-starters may also benefit from developing external accountability mechanisms. Just as you may join a running group to get you through difficult parts of the training (and also to make friends), joining initiatives like #ACWRIMO and building your own writing groups can help keep you on track and foster a sense of community. Writing groups, whether convened online or in-person, can provide opportunities for feedback, help academics set aside time devoted specifically to their dissertation projects, and provide powerful accountability mechanisms – in addition to building a sense of community and solidarity. 

Of course, self-bribery can also be effective. To get myself through the hard slog of the last few miles of a long run, I’ve frequently passed the time by thinking about the jar of peanut butter waiting for me at home. Rewarding yourself for getting through a difficult project or for achieving an intermediate goal can also help keep momentum going throughout the course of writing your dissertation. Mirya Holman described her tiered reward system for #ACRWIMO in her #MHAWS newsletter it’s something that I’ve adopted for projects year-round. 

Avoiding Burnout 

Marathon training also involves taking purposeful rest between workouts. In contrast, during the race, you’ll likely only take a few minutes to stop at an aid station. If your approach to rest while writing a dissertation resembles the latter, rather than the former, you’re setting yourself up for mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. One cannot crank out a dissertation with the social equivalent of a dixie cup of Gatorade and a handful of jelly beans. 

Just like people training for a marathon schedule a rest day, so too should graduate students set aside time to rest. My friends give me (well-deserved) flak for sending google calendar invitations to hang out, but if I don’t explicitly schedule time away from work, the impulse to work all the time will take over. Graduate school can be a years-long demonstration of Parkinson’s Law (that work expands to fill the time that you’ve allotted to it); setting aside purposeful times to not work can counter that. 

Something will probably go wrong during the course of your dissertation. A training mindset can help graduate students understand what is necessary to get them across the finish line, despite challenges. Runners that encounter injuries or disruptions to their training schedule can adjust their training plan. Similarly, a training mindset can help graduate students respond to challenges (say, a global pandemic) with minimal despair and maximum flexibility, prioritizing the absolutely critical tasks that need to be done to complete the dissertation (Mara Revkin’s helpful guideon finishing a dissertation under non-ideal conditions is instructive about how to prioritize tasks). 

What Comes Next?

Perhaps the most important way in which writing a dissertation differs from running a marathon is what happens after you cross the finish line. The end of the marathon is the end of the marathon; you get a medal and hopefully a lot of rest. The end of the dissertation, however, is the start of another process; it’s, in fact, just the beginning of your career. Just as those who trained poorly for their marathons are often laid-up on the couch for weeks after the race, vowing to never run again, developing bad habits in the course of writing a dissertation can set you up for failure after you defend. The habits that you are developing as a graduate student writing a dissertation will carry over into your career after graduate school – meaning that developing a sustainable work pattern is key. Both marathon training and writing a dissertation are long processes that prepare you for the next fun, but grueling, endeavor. 


Beyond the Electoral College: MMP in the USA?

Wahlrecht - Schafft die Zweitstimme ab! | Cicero Online
Photo courtesy of Cicero Online.

This is a guest post by Timothy Sisk, professor of international studies and director of the Institute for Comparative and Regional Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. This post is the first in an occasional series discussing the ethical dilemmas engendered when academics engage with policymakers and the broader public. This series is part of the Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility project of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy, which seeks to make ethical considerations an integral part of policy-relevant research and engagement. The program develops knowledge around, and informs the practice of, responsible engagement so that future generations of academics can engage in the policy world with confidence and clarity. This program is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The Trump-induced 2020 electoral crisis in the United States underscores that, in the world’s most long-standing democracy, the “rules of the game” for presidential elections, the Electoral College, is irreparably obsolete.  The diagnosis of the problem is simple: in two of the three most-recent electoral cycles, prior to 2020, the “winner” in fact failed to win in the popular vote. The presidency was won by a plurality of voters.  The U.S., in so many ways, has tendencies toward a “minoritarian” winner-take-all democracy.  If we know one thing in comparative politics, it is that minority- and bare-majority rule governments – especially in ethnically diverse societies – are not sustainable: such systems create broader susceptibilities to political violence.

Observers including the Editorial Board of The Washington Post and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) observer mission to the 2020 U.S. elections have called for the U.S. to move beyond the Electoral College.  Even some from the Republican party, which has ostensibly benefited from the disproportional effects of the Electoral College, have argued it should be jettisoned.  The national move toward rank-choice voting is a step in the right direction in efforts to induce moderate campaigning in a polarized society.  But ranked-choice voting is at best a baby step, as the systems adopted in Maine, Alaska, and New York City for example, ultimately still function as winner-take-all, or simple-majority rule.

Setting aside the question of how to reform an ossified electoral system, reformers must contend with an equally daunting question: What is the best electoral system to replace it?

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We want you to write for us!

This post from our partners at Bridging the Gap is written by BTG Fellows Danielle Gilbert and Erik Lin-Greenberg, who are now the new editors of the BTG Duck channel, coordinating contributions from BTG’s network of scholars.

The past twelve months have been fraught with challenges, yet they have also given rise to a host of new opportunities. We’ve faced a global pandemic, a contentious U.S. election, social and racial injustice, and assaults on democracy around the world. These experiences have led scholars to ask tough questions, have difficult—but critically important—conversations, and to rethink how we teach and conduct research. At the Bridging the Gap Project, we’ve tried to keep pace with these global shifts, including on our channel here at the Duck.

Beginning today, we’re the new editors of the BTG Duck channel, and we hope to build upon the great work of our predecessors Naazneen Barma and Brent Durbin. We look forward to publishing more content that helps scholars navigate the academia-policy space and to showcasing the work of members of the BTG community. We’re excited to feature posts about your research, teaching, and mentoring as they relate to policy and public engagement.

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Confronting Biases in Policy-Engaged Research: The Case of NATO and Russia

Photo courtesy of NATO via Creative Commons License.

This is a guest post by Rachel Epstein, professor of international studies and associate dean of faculty & research at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. This post is the first in an occasional series discussing the ethical dilemmas engendered when academics engage with policymakers and the broader public. This series is part of the Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility project of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy, which seeks to make ethical considerations an integral part of policy-relevant research and engagement. The program develops knowledge around, and informs the practice of, responsible engagement so that future generations of academics can engage in the policy world with confidence and clarity. This program is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

As early as middle school, we are teaching young minds to think critically and notice bias when it inevitably arises in news and media. Yet as academics, there is an illusion that we are free from bias and conflicts of interests that permeate all other parts of the world. To perpetuate this illusion only hinders policy engagement and deepens the divide between academics and practitioners. PhD training addresses part of this problem pretty effectively—by teaching us to consider alternative explanations in depth, to articulate the limits of any given study, and to avoid making sweeping statements about future developments that are intrinsically unknowable. 

However, in light of a recent review of literature on NATO enlargement, I ponder whether there is a critical strategy to be added to the discourse.  Antithetical to what we are taught at the advanced level—to strive for objectivity— academics should openly acknowledge political commitments where they exist, because of course they will exist. These political commitments can lead us to become “stealth issue advocates,” in the words of Roger Pielke, where social scientists claim to be arguing from expertise but are in fact arguing from a political position. And we may only be dimly aware of doing this; the first victim of the deception may be the researchers themselves, in terms of not recognizing their own biases.

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The peace, women’s suffrage and reproductive rights activist you might not know: Aletta Jacobs.

Aletta Jacobs. Raise your hand if you have never heard her name! In our neck of the tulip fields, however, she is a celebrated professional: she was the first woman to be officially enrolled and graduate with a doctorate at the university in the Netherlands (shoutout to my employer – Rijksuniversiteit Groningen!) and the first woman to receive a medical degree. On top of those accomplishments, she was a women’s suffrage and peace activist, and helped establish Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, a Novel prize winning anti-war organization. To celebrate international women’s day, let me tell you her story. 

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When Data Closes Doors: Lessons for Sharing Unpopular Findings

Photo courtesy of the Negative Psychologist.

When sharing unpopular findings, what obligations (if any) do scholars have when policymakers do not care to hear the message?

This is a guest post by Tricia Olsen, associate professor of business ethics and legal studies at the Daniels College of Business and Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. It is part of an occasional series discussing the ethical dilemmas that arise when academics engage with policymakers and the broader public. This series is part of the Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility project of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy, which seeks to make ethical considerations an integral part of policy-relevant research and engagement. The program develops knowledge around, and informs the practice of, responsible engagement so that future generations of academics can engage in the policy world with confidence and clarity. This program is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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The Importance of Being (Pragmatically) Earnest

Photo courtesy of the Guardian UK.

When engaging with policy audiences and organizations, how can one be truthful when telling the whole truth may be counterproductive?

This post is part of an occasional series discussing the ethical dilemmas that arise when academics engage with policymakers and the broader public. This series is part of the Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility project of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy, which seeks to make ethical considerations an integral part of policy-relevant research and engagement. The program develops knowledge around, and informs the practice of, responsible engagement so that future generations of academics can engage in the policy world with confidence and clarity. This program is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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Uncomfortable Conversations at a Distance: Lessons from Teaching the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Daniel J. Levine is Aaron Aronov Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Alabama, where he divides his time between the Departments of Political Science and Religious Studies.  Information on his research can be found here

Last fall, I taught – as I have done every year since coming to the University of Alabama (UA) – an upper-division lecture-seminar on the Israel-Palestine Conflict.  The topic is never an easy one, with both the transition to remote teaching, and the acutely partisan political climate of the US elections, adding to the difficulty.  In this post, I describe these challenges, and a set of assignments which I developed in order to address some of them.  I then briefly assess their successes and limitations.  Comments and suggestions regarding the latter would be most appreciated!

Outlining the Challenges

The Israel-Palestine conflict poses particular teaching challenges even in the best of times.   First, the territories and peoples most directly implicated in it are mediated through tangled webs of overlappingutopianand mutually-exclusive mythic imaginaries.  So viewed, Palestinians and Israelis lose much of their humanity and autonomy; they become players in set-piece dramas of the students’ own, often unconscious, imaginings.   

A second challenge relates to student expectations.  UA undergraduates receive a version of political science that emphasizes practicaldispassionate problem-solving.  For many reasons – not least because that traditionis itself implicated in the conflict in a variety of ways – this course is ‘pitched’ somewhat differently.  

The subsequent discussion – following readings that connected the emergence of Zionism to that of 19thCentury anti-Semitism – may illustrate how these problems surface in class.  “If Zionism is a response to anti-Semitism,” one student asked, “then where is the boundary between legitimate criticisms of Israel, and those which are anti-Semitic?”  

A vigorous discussion ensued.  Several students held that the question of anti-Semitism was an invented controversy, a ‘false flag.’  To what end, I asked, and by whom?  

To distract Americans from more difficult historical reckonings of their own, said some.  To cultivate sympathy for Israel, said others.  A smaller number argued for the existence of a well-coordinated, highly influential group of ethnic-religious elites, with hidden ties to media and finance.  One student went so far as to state that I – the university’s only professor of Jewish studies – was myself part of that elite; further, that the design of the course reflected my support for its agenda.

However fraught, this discussion reveals a number of certain shared understandings. First, it acknowledges – if only in the breech – anti-Semitism’s historical-conceptual trajectory.  Second, that the memory of thattrajectory shapecontemporary political normsdiscoursesand policies.  Third, the linkages between critical reflection on that trajectory and claims of bad faith.

The Problem of Political Judgement

Consider the student who is deeply dissatisfied with the terms of contemporary political discourse.  Said student suspects that certain historical facts have been tendentiously assembled, but feels uncertainty – or fear – in raising the matter.  Their fear curdles into resentment.  

In what forums will they seek out to work out those intuitions?  Should one be surprised if some of them are drawn into conversations that are marginal, and anonymous – all the more so in a period of enforced isolation?  Should one then be surprised if some number of them show up for class with lightly-reworked conspiracy theories?  There are, after all, any number of well-conceived scholarly and journalistic discussionsalong the lines summarized above.  That said, the line separating ‘good’ arguments from ‘bad’ ones is no more self-evident here than in my student’s original question.    

This is because such lines cannot be drawn merely with reference to the facts upon which they are predicated.  Some critical or reflexive faculty must be brought to bear on them – political or ethical judgement.  But judgement is both contingent and fallible.  Its exercise has, moreover, become increasingly fraught. The student who asked me ‘where the line was’ intuitively understood this; they sought to substitute my judgement for their own.  

Hannah Arendt has noted that judgement relies on a shared consensus: first, as to what facts are, and second, to those public-discursive frameworks by which they acquire meaning: debates, elections, trials, literary-historical canons, etc.  Each of these has come under increasing pressure.  In the present context, consider recent attempts to formulate or institutionalize detailed definitions of anti-Semitism.  When married to enforcement of Title VI anti-discrimination legislation, these definitions seem intended to police the scope of  ‘acceptable’ scholarly and political discourse in the era of BDS, rather than to focus or direct intellectual argument.    

Fostering Student Solidarities

In the face of these challenges, I have historically relied on approaches that foster trust, openness, and mutual respect in the classroom.  Such trust emerges gradually, and by degree. To feel safe, students must be able to ‘take the measure’ of one another in ways that do not carry over Zoom.  What I needed was some alternative way to foster horizontal solidarities between and among a group of students could not meet in person.

To that end, I developed three inter-connected group assignments for the opening weeks of the course.  Students were placed randomly into groups.  Each was given two short preparatory assignments, and a longer project.  A brief summary of these follows (full details here):

First, each group received a list of web-based informational resources related to the conflict: websites, blogs, and reference materials maintained by leading think tanks, policy shops, NGOs, ministries, etc.  Students were asked to survey the range and depth of the information on offer, and to assess its credibility along different lines.  A second assignment asked them to track how these sites and resources were used, and by whom.    

The third assignment turned them from critics into curators. Each group was asked to arrive at a relevant topic of shared interest, and then to develop their own web-based finding aids.  These would be posted on a shared WordPress site.  Time was set aside in class for groups to meet in breakout rooms. Each group received its own ‘Blackboard’ workspace, with dedicated email, online storage, and a virtual meeting platform.   

Yes, But Did It Work?  

The best of these produced innovative takes on topics as diverse as arms sales, the UNRWA, satellite surveillance, and Israeli collective memory.  Less successful were those that reproduced the reified categories and ‘imagined dramas’ discussed above.  That said, pointing out that reproduction became a way to demonstrate and challenge the hold they exercise over students’ imaginations. My hope is to refine this challenge in future.

Hoping to foster the kind of small-group solidarity that would carry over into general discussion, groups were sized at 4-5.  As hoped, some bonded strongly, collaborating on subsequent projects together and participating interactively in open discussion.  Others suffered from ‘free ridership,’ or failed to arrive at consensus.  Thoughts on how to incentivize the former and address the latter would be welcome.       

It was also evident that this assignment only scratched the surface of the questions from which it arose.  How do we equip students to identify and critique the effects of knowledge networks – a space bounded by partisan politics, the sociology of knowledge, critical media studies, and ‘groupthink’?   Given the flood of information to which students are subjected, how useful is fine-grained analysis as a mode of cultivating judgement?  What becomes of a civic ideal predicated on unhurried, dispassionate reflection and unfettered argument, when the conditions of possibility for such practices, and public faith in them, were either never present or no longer exist?  


Trump’s Budweiser Putsch

US President Donald Trump gestures as he arrives to a “Make America Great Again” campaign rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 1, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Emily Holland, an Assistant Professor in the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College & Hadas Aron, a Faculty Fellow at the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at NYU.

This week’s violent takeover of the Capitol Building has fueled the ongoing debate on the future of American democracy. For several years analysts have argued that the United States is undergoing the same process of de-democratization as countries like Turkey, Hungary, and Poland. However, the comparison to European populist de-democratization is misleading. The difference between Trump and European counterparts is that the latter do not rely on post-election violence to hold onto power, instead they rig the system long before the election. This week’s events demonstrate what is at stake for American democracy. Unlike  in European countries, the elimination of checks and balances is not the main concern. The real danger for the United States is out of control anti-system political violence that brings to a boiling point polarization and racial tensions.

Democratic breakdown or decline in places like Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Israel, and Poland, has inspired theories on how democracies die, comparing the United States to failing democracies around the world. But in these countries, populist insurrection is far more subtle [and effective] than the attempted insurrection on Capitol Hill. Populist leaders have successfully transformed political institutions, concentrated political power, broke down opposition, and dismantled democracy, with little overt violence and often without large-scale election fraud. Trump also attempted these strategies, but mostly failed because of the dispersed power structure of the United States, and his own incompetence.

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Why We Should Stop Picking on 2020

The awfulness of 2020 has become one of the year’s most unforgettable cultural memes. But in the current cascade of 2020-bashing let’s not forget what went right this year – and what didn’t go wrong.

It yields perspective to recall that the year began with what appeared to be a national security crisis with Iran. The killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and accidental downing of a civilian airliner set off protests in Iran, sent oil markets plunging, and threatened to destabilize the Middle East. Analysts feared a major regional war among nuclear powers before the year was out. Based on this unpromising start, it is remarkable that in fact 2020 saw the US involved in none of the world’s major armed conflicts, that war did not break out or significantly worsen in the Middle East, and those conflicts underway – in Nagorno-Karabakh, Ethiopia and South Sudan – have thus far been kept largely to a dull roar. Moreover, despite increasing polarization, the US remained resilient against civil war.

Yes, the Trump administration badly mishandled a major health crisis, sunk the economy into a sub-oceanic trench, and rendered American passports largely useless. Even with a modest contagion index and hearteningly high recovery rate, the death toll from COVID-19 now outmatches that of all American wars, with more Americans dying per day of the disease than died on 9/11. And that’s just America: the cost in human life and medical resources worldwide is staggering, and the mental health cost incalculable.

But this moment of worldwide hibernation also gave the Earth a moment to breathe. American high-schoolers were finally able to get enough sleep, reducing rates of teen depression. The world’s peoples conducted a global social experiment in pandemic control that has better prepared it for the next onslaught. Developing nations became poster children for good governance. Faith in the miracle of science and the power of vaccination experienced a renaissance. Americans have rediscovered the outdoors, the power of unstructured learning, the mental health benefits of hobbies and value of simple connections and staycations. They have turned out in huge numbers to local food banks and blood donation centers, filling in where the state has failed and revitalizing neighborhoods and communities. The story of the year is as much one of resilience as of catastrophe.

And as misbegotten as the US government response has been, the passivity of Trump’s response to the pandemic meant America avoided a much worse outcome. For all its flaws, for all the signs it was leading the country toward dictatorship, note the Trump administration did not use that classic authoritarian tool, capitalizing on the pandemic to engage in a massive centralization of executive authority and political crackdown – as might have been predicted by an administration prone toward authoritarianism and political opportunism.

Perhaps this was due to the power of the political resistance: the turnout in the streets at the travel ban and the detention camps, the trolling of Trump’s re-election campaign by youth on Tik-tok, the persistent pushback by the courts. Perhaps it was because the boredom of the lockdowns suddenly allowed an overworked, politically distracted generation both time and inclination to take to the streets en masse, risking their lives to protest racial injustice. In so many ways, Americans demonstrated that Trump could steal democracy only at great cost, and forestalled some of the worst of which a man in his position could be capable. And ultimately, Americans removed Trump by a large margin – repudiating bigotry, corruption and creeping authoritarianism, affirming the constitution and principles on which the republic was founded, and modestly rehabilitating the country in the global gaze.

Perhaps most significantly of all, Americans learned they could quickly and willingly adapt their lifestyle to a national security crisis. For years climate activists have been begging nations to do just that, swimming against a social tide that made it seem inconceivable, even reckless, to quickly and completely stop flying, driving, polluting, consuming and straining economies to their limits. While it remains to be seen how to make this sustainable (and such strategies are contested and the impacts excruciating uneven) Americans like the rest of the world learned they were capable of sacrificing pleasantries in the service of a wider good. Nations have always been able to do this in time of war, but this was the first effort in history to adapt economic and social life so swiftly to a non-military existential crisis. While the extent to which the US has succeeded should not be exaggerated, the extent to which it has managed lends hope to its ability to do the same for other crises.

These aren’t small achievements. They are foundations on which to build. For all the 2020-bashing, it may be that we look back on this year not as a blemish, but as a historic turning point, the year when the human race began to take stock. If 2020 shocked us out of our complacency, gave us time to pause and notice what’s important, and expanded our sense of political possibility at a moment of global uncertainty, this is something to celebrate rather than scorn.   

(cross-posted at Medium)


The True Meaning of a Hot Christmas Prince

In the spirit of holiday cheer and Paul Musgrave’s great Foreign Policy piece “The True Meaning of Christmas Movies Is a Cozy American Worldview” as well as our common poli sci curse of “being unable to enjoy anything without analysing it to death”, here is my take on that red and green scourge that clogs your Netflix queue as well as your cable. I have watched a fair amount of those in my day (for research purposes, obvs), but might be missing something, so correct me if I am wrong. I can’t refresh my memory right away, as those movies lack dinosaur subplots and that’s the only type of videos my toddler would let me watch. Jurassic Prince: the Royal Baby, anyone?

You might guess what kind of plots a lot of those holidays movies feature: a hard-working (white) American woman gets swept away by the lukewarm charms of a vaguely European royal from an invariably Romanian castle. He teaches her about cucumber sandwiches, she shows him how to bake Christmas cookies, sticks it to the local stuffy female suitors and they live happily ever after. In other words, as Paul observed, the true meaning of Christmas can be found with the help of “cute but not hot” foreign dude with a received pronunciation accent in a quaint Ruritanian setting. The cuteness but not hotness trope seems to be a deliberate choice, just look what Hallmark did to Sam Heughan, yes, this Sam Heughan:

If you squint your eye, you would probably be unable to distinguish between all those bland, combed over to the left dirty blonds with blue eyes and personalities that usually don’t go beyond the ability to procure a Christmas tree for the hallway. They are hardly prime examples of the real American heroes that protect the country at Christmas in the Nakatomi Plaza.

After all, it is still a cozy fantasy of an American dream, so one should be extra careful with the kind of baubles you decorate your imaginary Christmas tree. You should especially make sure that your foreign Nutcracker is not going to be too threatening to the homegrown ornaments, that you might still want to get back to if those pesky royals don’t let you blog. Yes, you read that right, I argue that those vanilla foreign princes should not be too imposing of a masculinity construct to diminish the appeal of the domestic commoner beaus.

As Paul rightly points out, the key demographic for those Christmas movies are women. Women who just need a reasonably forgettable dude with whom they can take care of the chores around the house. While there is a history of orientalizing, exoticising, and eroticising women for the male gaze, also in the spirit of the (not so cozy) American dream, the female gaze around Christmas seems to need a little fairy-tale respite that would not create unreasonable expectations and upset the balance in the household. That’s why those foreign princes are just cute, but not sizzling hot dishes that would tarnish the image of the cozy American worldview.

And if they do, John McClane will welcome them to the party. Pal.


Voldemort, Trump, and the other usual suspects of Putin’s press conference

Klimentyev, RIA Novosti.

Sing it with me: It’s the most Putinist time of the year! For the 16th time the Dear Leader addressed the nation and the world from through their TV screens during a carefully choreographed almost 5-hour long annual press conference that could count as a State of the Union Q&A. there were some adjustments to the usual format: the lidded cup was still there, but almost no journalists in the actual room with Putin, his answers were televised from his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo. It’s almost impossible to go through all the press conference and not bore the readers to tears by the ritualised legitimation theatre, so I will concentrate on some of the IR-y stuff.

One of the most anticipated questions were about the bombshell investigation about Navalny’s poisoning that seems to point to a group of FSB operatives who had been tracking him for three years. Never fear: Putin successfully dodged every attempt to even get him to say Navalny’s name on TV and accused him of working for the CIA. Putin did, however, admit that He-who-must-not-be-named was under surveillance, but, apparently, if “we wanted to [poison him], we would have succeeded”, but instead he “let him be treated in a Berlin clinic on the wife request” instead. Interestingly enough, it didn’t even occur to Putin to deny the fact that Navalny was under surveillance or the fact that his security services are allowed to commit extrajudicial killings. 

What about Putin’s old friend Trump? I am not sure that any American Late Show missed the opportunity to report Putin’s telegram to President-Elect Biden where Putin is looking forward to “interactions and contacts”, but Trump, in fact, was barely mentioned during the press conference. Putin did assure that Trump has become an integral part of American political life and given that “50% of the population support him” there was no reason for him to seek asylum in Russia like Edward Snowden. The usual anti-Westernism, however, was on full display: Putin berated the NATO for expanding eastwards despite their promise not to, accused the UK for flying spy planes and, of course, accused the American State Department for vengefully leaking financial documents that alleged that his (ex?) son-in-law bought some company shares for a hundred bucks, instead of paying the market 380 million. Or, as Putin phrased it, “we are white and fluffy compared to you”, “prickly and aggressive types”. 

Putin also did not miss the chance to scold the “failure of the multiculturalism project” in Europe in relation to Samuel Paty’s murder in Paris. After implicitly praising the law that “protects religious feelings” in Russia (yes, the one that got Pussy Riot a 2-year sentence for asking the Mother of God to chase Putin away), he condemned murder as a response to those wounded feelings. He praised the multi confessional legacy that Russia inherited, because “there was no religious repression. In the Soviet Union, [all] priests were persecuted, but not selectively”. Yes, absolutely, all religious leaders were indiscriminately persecuted, especially the current Patriarch, who was posted to Geneva in 1971 as the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the World Council of Churches. smh.

In any case, to quote an Icelandic (!) journalist, it’s just some mass media that don’t like Russia and there is a war against Putin. Other countries are in a much worse shape because of the pandemic compared to Russia. An obligatory reminder from Putin about the real bad 90s so you would see how good you have it these days, here’s some extra cash ($60) for your children and happy holidays.

I sincerely hope that for some they will be.


Writing about Violence During the Pandemic

This is guest post from Philipp Schulz, a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) at the University of Bremen. His work focuses on the gender dynamics of political violence, armed conflict and post-conflict transitions, with a focus on wartime sexual violence.

Writing, and researching, about violence is never easy, involving complex ethical, moral, methodological and epistemologieschallenges. This makes it difficult enough to write about violence under ‘ordinary’ circumstances and in ‘normal times’ – and most certainly so during this unusual moment in time of a global pandemic. To be fair, writing (and researching) about anything seems difficult in these times, but writing about violence perhaps particularly so. As an early career researcher who researches and writes about violence – specifically about sexual and gender-based violence in Uganda – I certainly feel this extra weight of trying to do my work in these current times. 

On the one hand, these difficulties certainly have to do with what is going on around us. As I try to write these reflections in mid-December, we are recording over 500,000 new Covid-19 infections as well as over 10,000 new Corona-related deaths per day around the world. As much as I try, it is almost impossible to get the pictures from April of military trucks transporting hundreds of dead bodies from the hospitals in Italy out of my head. Being constantly confronted with these realities – which are also becoming increasingly real and personal – and the violences, insecurities and vulnerabilities that accompany all of this makes it incredibly difficult to engage with stories of violence as part of the research I conduct. In many ways, our lives become consumed by pretty much anything else but violence, death, and insecurities. This, I think, will certainly have impacts on our mental well-being, much more than doing this type of work already does.

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Restraint requires more than “ending endless wars”

Voices calling for restraint in US foreign policy are getting louder. A bipartisan community has grown tired of the tired consensus on America’s role in the world and–thanks partly to the excesses of the Trump Administration–has had some success in shifting policy debates. I am generally sympathetic to this community, but worry that they are focusing too much on “ending endless wars.” We should also encourage a broader sense of humility in America’s foreign policy.

“Restraint” as a viable foreign policy orientation came together in the past few years, although it’s been building for some time. Libertarians like the Cato Institute and academic realists like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have been calling on America to adopt more modest goals for the world; this has been directed at both Republicans (like George W. Bush’s Global War on Terrorism) and Democrats’ interventionist tendencies as part of hawkish liberal internationalism. Peter Beinart, initially a cheerleader for muscular liberalism, later expressed regret.

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Ignoble Lies? The Problem of Prosocial Lying in the Economics Profession

Photo credit: under Creative Commons license.

This is a guest post by George DeMartino, professor of international economics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. This post is the first in an occasional series discussing the ethical dilemmas engendered when academics engage with policymakers and the broader public. This series is part of the Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility project of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy, which seeks to make ethical considerations an integral part of policy-relevant research and engagement. The program develops knowledge around, and informs the practice of, responsible engagement so that future generations of academics can engage in the policy world with confidence and clarity. This program is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Imagine it’s time for your yearly checkup at the family doctor. Sitting on the paper covered medical bench in a fluorescent room, you submit to the full array of tests. You say “ah,” you squint at letters from across the room, you feel the cold stethoscope against your back, maybe you even get some blood drawn. After answering all of your doctor’s questions, they look you in the eye, smile, and send you on your way with a clean bill of health! Feeling great, you go about your day. Perhaps you even take the stairs instead of the elevator because you’re feeling invigorated and full of life. There is an implicit trust between doctor and patient, so why should you feel otherwise? 

Let’s say however, that your doctor actually lied to you – everything is not okay. Perhaps they lied for your own good; because they don’t know what will happen to you or what to do about it; or perhaps they lied for monetary gain. But does the reason really matter? The inherent doctor-patient trust has been broken and we fervently and unequivocally condemn deceit of any kind in the medical field.

Why then, are we so cavalier about untruthfulness in economics? 

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