Tag: scholarship

What Makes a Great Scholar?

I attended a celebration of the life of Kenneth Waltz held at Columbia University last weekend. The service was organized and hosted by Robert Jervis, Robert Art, and Richard Betts and included sixteen speakers — family members, scholars, and former students who gave wonderful tributes based on their own personal reflections on his life, research, and teaching.

It was clear that Waltz was gifted intellectually. His book Man, the State, and War was written in just over a year in 1959 and transformed the field. But this was only the start, he made major intellectual contributions in each of the next five decades — remarkable staying power for a scholar. Yet, as Jervis pointed out, Waltz was not really that prolific — only three solo authored books and the two major books (Man, the State and War and Theory of International Politics) were rather short. As one speaker noted, he wrote slowly and with few words, but because his did so, his words will last for a very long time.

In listening to the tributes, I jotted down notes on what people thought might have given Waltz the insights to make such a contribution to IR — and wondered more broadly, what makes a great scholar, one with the insights to transform and keep pressing the field for decades?

Here are a few thoughts from the tributes: Continue reading


Hanging Out on the Theory-Practice-Policy Divide

In Spring of 2006, I was nearing the end of data collection on my investigation into the human rights of children born of rape and exploitation in conflict zones, and I presented my preliminary findings on the topic atUniversity of Pittsburgh’s Research in International Politics (RIP) monthly brown-bag. In such circles, heavily dominated by empirical approaches, one does not present normative theory (that is, value-laden arguments about how the world should look) or policy-oriented sets of recommendations about particular problems. Rather, one identifies empirical puzzles about the world and then goes
about solving them by applying or modifying existing theories. Theories, in this sense, are lenses said to explain and predict major patterns in world affairs. 

Therefore, I had organized this particular paper not as a problem-focused human rights argument about children born of war, but rather as an empirical study on “issue non-emergence” within advocacy networks. I presented the subject of “children born of war” as a negative case and demonstrated why, from the perspective of agenda-setting theory, this might be considered an interesting puzzle. The case, I argued, showed that we needed a different understanding of the obstacles to issue emergence. This was the working paper version of a longer book project exploring why children born of war rape had received so little attention from advocacy organizations aiming to protect war-affected children. 

My colleagues provided a variety of suggestions on the theory, the methods, and the structure of the argument. But one piece of advice particularly sticks out in my mind. “You’d better stop talking to international organizations about this issue until you publish,” said one senior faculty member. “Otherwise, before you know it, you will no longer have a puzzle to explain, because these children will be on the agenda.”  

Two things struck me about this comment. First was the suggestion that in researching the non-emergence of “children born of war,” I might in fact be engaged in a form of issue entrepreneurship that could alter the research findings. Second was the suggestion that the idea that more attention to this population should have been less preferable to me (or anyone) than the ability to advance my career by publishing an interesting paper. In this essay, I grapple with those two problematiques as a way of thinking about what we aim for when we choose political science as a vocation, and to what extent our answers to that question are implicated in the social constructions we study.

Thus begins my reflection essay in this month’s issue of Perspectives on Politics. This piece began as the concluding chapter of the my book on human rights agenda-setting, but I was asked to remove it by the Columbia University Press editor as the price of publication. The essay reflects on that maneuver and its meaning in the context of a wider set of ruminations about academic norms, scholarly inquiry and the ways we interface with and affect the world we study.  We do this both through our practices as scholars and through our many every-day interactions with the public, practitioners and policy-makers on the research frontier, but this dialectic is masked by our professional norms. I hope that’s starting to change.

This set of ruminations from my professional journey along theory-data-practitioner-policy-public-sphere continuum remains very relevant to my new book project. These days, I think of what I learned on the Bosnia project constantly as I navigate semi-structured interviews and informal conversations with human security elites in the areas of civilian protection, children’s health, and arms control. I hope that in my new manuscript I can find a way to acknowledge my embeddedness within these communities of practice as a methodological choice in a way that nonetheless passes academic peer review.

Along those lines, Stephen Walt reminds us in an new important essay that hanging out on the divide between academe and the real world is necessary, yet full of pitfalls. He proposes a menu of strategies by which academic institutions can incentivize an ethical, reflexive and transparent approach that encourages such bridge-building. But he also insists we must acknowledge and render transparent the academic and political significance of such interactions between scholars and practitioners, policymakers and the public. If we can find a way to do that without unhelpfully blurring the line between academe and the ‘rest’ perhaps we can rescue the discipline from what he calls the “cult of irrelevance.”

To do it, we need to rethink how we train and socialize students, reward our junior colleagues, and report on our consulting relationships, as Walt points out. But in my view we also need to change our publishing norms to include and honor scholarly reflections on one’s journey through one’s subject matter as a staple component of analytical presentations.


$h•! PTJ Says #3: protest banners vs. precise terms

 I am going to try writing down pieces of advice that I give to students all the time, in the hopes that they might be useful for people who can’t make it to my office hours.

“Many if not most of the terms we use to differentiate styles and traditions of scholarly inquiry are tools for positioning ourselves relative to other scholars. Names of schools of thought, incontrovertible assumptions that have to be agreed to in order to belong to a particular club, shorthand references to ‘great debates’ and ‘key controversies’ — treating these as though they had positive content is basically the same mistake as treating a nationalist claim to possessing some patch of ground from time immemorial as though it were a factual claim. Positioning can provide a helpful signal to other scholars, but but one should be careful not to go overboard in trying to give serious content to something that is basically a set of mapping coordinates.

“This is particularly problematic when we are discussing methodological terms, which are supposed to provide actual guidance for how to do good research. The ordinary academic machine that translates such terms into shibboleths and slogans does an immense disservice to anyone trying to figure out how to do, or to teach others to do, scholarly research, because if open is not careful one can easily find oneself trapped in a hall of mirrors. Perhaps the worst offenders nowadays are words like ‘qualitative’ and ‘interpretive,’ which seem to say something important about a style of research but actually don’t. Both are better thought of as hortatory protest banners: ‘qualitative’ means something like ‘you don’t have to use numbers in order to engage in systematic procedures of data-collection and -analysis’ and ‘interpretive’ means something like ‘get out of your office and go talk to some people, and not just in order to plug their responses into a regression equation’. Okay, fine, but this tells me basically nothing about how to actually do anything.

“Precise terms give us guidance about how to ‘go on’ in producing scholarship that is in some sense valid. Protest banners get our blood pumping and fuel our passion, and maybe get us out into the streets to complain about the lack of thinking space for our kind of work in our field or discipline, but that’s all they are good for. Don’t try to teach using them, and don’t spend too much time trying to give them positive meaning in your own work. Use them to carve out a little academic space for yourself, if you must, and then move on. Because at the end of the day, if you don’t show me the intellectual payoff of your conceptual apparatus, I am not sure what on earth it might possibly be for.”


2011 Grawemeyer winner

Kevin Bales, President of Free the Slaves, has won the 2011 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. The prize is worth $100,000 this year.

The press release describes the award-winning ideas from Ending Slavery, the most recent book published by Bales with University of California Press:

In the book, Bales outlines steps to end the enslavement of some 27 million people worldwide. Slavery and human trafficking are tightly interwoven into the modern global economy, so new political and economic policies must be enacted to suppress them, he says.

Slavery, illegal in every country but still widely practiced, can be stopped within 30 years at a cost of less than $20 billion, a much cheaper price tag than most other social problems, he argues…

“Bales lays out an urgent human challenge, offers ways to make a difference and challenges the reader to become part of the solution,” award jurors said.

Since 2001, Bales’ group has liberated thousands of slaves in India, Nepal, Haiti, Ghana, Brazil, Ivory Coast and Bangladesh.

The Chronicle of Higher Education covered the story, as did the local Louisville Courier Journal and other news outlets. This is from the local paper:

[Bales] estimates that modern slavery puts tens of billions of dollars worth of products into the global economy each year. And while every country has laws against slavery, some don’t enforce them or provide few resources to fight it.

Bales’ ideas for suppressing it involve a mix of tightening government enforcement on illegal trafficking; enacting new policies for businesses that identify when slavery is connected to global supply chains; and adding more grassroots efforts to help free groups of slaves — and then help them get basic skills to avoid such traps again.

Bales said individuals can also help by buying Fair Trade goods and choosing socially responsible investment options.

“There’s no magic bullet,” Bales said. “But there is a box of magic bullets,”

Bales was trained as a sociologist at LSE, but IR theorists interested in norm construction, human rights, and/or scholarly activism will want to check out the award-winning book, as well as other scholarship Bales has produced on this topic.

Disclosure: I chair the Department Committee that overseas the administration of this prize. This entails soliciting external book reviews, chairing a first-round screening committee, bringing together a panel of experts to evaluate and rank a set of semi-finalists, and making sure that the information gleaned from these processes is advanced to a Final Selection Committee.


Threat inflation: intergalactic edition

Should IR scholars worry about material threats emanating from outside the confines of earth? IR scholars Alexander Wendt and Raymond Duvall sort of tackled that question in a 2008 article in the journal Political Theory. They discussed the “UFO taboo,” which essentially prohibits “the authoritative public sphere” from “taking UFOs seriously.” Dan gave the scholarly response some attention at the time.

In any event, here’s a summary of the Wendt and Duvall argument:

The UFO compels decision because it exceeds modern governmentality, but we argue that the decision cannot be made. The reason is that modern decision presupposes anthropocentrism, which is threatened metaphysically by the possibility that UFOs might be ETs. As such, genuine UFO ignorance cannot be acknowledged without calling modern sovereignty itself into question. This puts the problem of normalizing the UFO back onto governmentality, where it can be “known”only without trying to find out what it is—through a taboo. The UFO, in short, is a previously unacknowledged site of contestation in an ongoing historical project to constitute sovereignty in anthropocentric terms. Importantly, our argument here is structural rather than agentic. We are not saying the authorities are hiding The Truth about UFOs, much less that it is ET. We are saying they cannot ask the question.

The Wendt and Duvall piece is available for free download, so check it out if you are interested.

This post is about the fact that physicist Stephen Hawking broke the taboo this past week with the broadcast of his Discovery Channel program and followup interviews for newspapers and television. Moreover, Hawking is clearly worried about extraterrestrial threats.

The following quotes are from a Times of London story dated April 25, 2010:

“To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational,” he said. “The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.”

…He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky”. He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

According to published reports, aliens might pose enormous threats to earth that wouldn’t even directly involve the planet:

“Hawking contends that one such consequence of contact with advanced life is the possibility of our sun being either drained completely for energy resources, or used as the catalyst to create massive wormholes for cross planetary travel. In either case, these two options being catastrophic and deadly for humans.”

Perhaps because of the SETI program and other human activity, Hawking told Larry King that humans cannot readily hide our existence: “It is already too late. If they are out there they will know.”

Earlier this week, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert was far more sanguine about the alleged threat.


Joking cousins

The most recent Utne Reader includes a short piece from Katie Krueger about the practice of “joking cousins” in Senegal:

This means that whenever we meet, as a sign of friendliness, we insult each other without hesitation. Every ethnic group in Senegal has at least one or two joking cousin groups, so meeting one is rare enough to be a delight but common enough that it is protocol.

Professor Brett O’Bannon of DePauw University (a former graduate student of mine) has written an academic paper arguing that such “joking relationships” are threatened by the forces of globalization. Yet, he notes, these localized relationships ordinarily play important roles in maintaining peaceful order in some societies.

In a short blurb describing his academic work, O’Bannon explains that the “joking relationship”

“binds families, clans or even whole ethnic groups into ties of imagined kinship. For example, when two people of the Ndiaye and Diop families (quite common family names in the Senegambia) meet, they are required to ‘dis’ each other. That is, they insult each others’ family heritage, eating habits, you name it. It’s pretty funny stuff, actually. The important thing is that they are not only required to engage in these insulting exchanges, but they are equally obligated not to take offense.”

“For one, these fictive relationships have been known to bring an end to quite serious conflicts. I document an instance in which a rebel group in southern Senegal actually released a carload of hostages because the driver successfully pleaded for their lives in the name of the Serer-Diola joking relationship. The Serer and Diola are two ethnic groups bound by a mutual pact of non-aggression, so to speak. The rebels in question are mainly from the Diola group and the terms of their joking relationship prohibit the spilling of the other’s blood. The potential for these kinds of indigenous institutions of self governance is significant.”

Apparently, the practice is fairly common throughout Africa — though O’Bannon’s field work (like Krueger‘s travel) has been based in Senegal.

In the Occasional Paper, O’Bannon views joking relationships as “quintessential indigenous governance institutions,” particularly important because rural Senegal faces conditions consistent with state collapse. Farmers and herders, for example, find themselves increasingly in conflict over natural resources. O’Bannon explains that neoliberal economic policies have wrought changes in rural Senegal that impose barriers between herders and ranchers that did not previously exist — individual property rights claims, for instance, which limit access to land. In his words, “the ties between these putative cousins are fraying.”

I find this practice an interesting supplement to my ongoing work on the comedy of global politics. In Medieval and other historical contexts, the court jester was similarly allowed to make jokes at the expense of the king — without fear of retribution. I see these as important elements in critical IR theory.

Note: the Krueger story originally appeared at World Hum.

I also fixed the typo in the title. Blogger doesn’t seem to identify spelling errors in the title.


Uses of theory

There have been some interesting replies to my post a couple of weeks ago about the relationship between policymaking and scholarship. Well, when it started out it was a post about the idea that teaching IR ought to be about more than certifying the idealism of our students, but as it went on it morphed into a set of complaints about the very idea of a terminal MA degree in IR. And then a discussion ensued: Rob Farley weighed in, as did Dan Drezner, I replied (some of my replies were gathered here, others are in the comments on Rob’s and Dan’s posts), and now both Rob and Dan have replied again. So here’s #7 in this ongoing series of posts, in which I reply both to Rob and to Dan, as well as to some of the commentators who posted on their sites.

I’m not going to reply to each point individually, though. That would be pretty tedious, and open the possibility of missing the overall point amidst my counterpoint to, say, Dan’s misreading of my argument about sabremetrics (my point wasn’t that sabremetrics wasn’t important to the Red Sox’s World Series victories; my point was that sabremetrics wasn’t any kind of a grounding for the actual baseball operations of the Red Sox, and in a similar way IR theory ought not to be thought of as a grounding for the actual policy operations of any government or think-tank policy intellectual). See, even in that little digression, my overall point is already getting lost. So instead I am going to build a three-fold case that will hopefully flesh out my position a bit and, in so doing, respond to the various people who have raised critical comments. Since I am in fact writing on this topic at the moment, I am very grateful for the opportunity to do this!

With apologies for the fact this this is going to be more of an essay than a blog post, my basic argument unfolds in three steps: 1) there are different practical orientations towards politics; 2) those different orientations towards politics imply different meanings for and uses of “theory”; and 3) the issues I have with the terminal MA in IR, as well as some of my interlocutors’ arguments about the relationship between the university and policy worlds, derive from those differences in practical orientation and the different meanings of “theory” that they entail.

First things first. What I mean by a “practical orientation” is not the same thing as a substantive position; we’re not talking liberal versus conservative here. Rather, wht I have in mind is something more fundamental: how one comports oneself towards politics and the public sphere in general. Anyone who has talked to me for longer than about five minutes about this quickly discovers that I think that Weber is the appropriate place to begin thinking this through — especially Weber’s distinction between “scientific” and “political” orientations towards politics. The scientific orientation is about systematically producing knowledge about politics, while the political orientation is about entering politics and trying to do something concrete within that sphere of activity.

What Weber is getting at here, I think, actually goes far beyond politics. In just about every field of human endeavor we can find a split between generating knowledge about the field and doing something in the field. In material science this is physics versus engineering; in the economy this is economics versus business; in literature this is criticism versus creative writing. This split is not about people as much as it is about roles; actual people can oscillate back and forth, whereas the orientations themselves remain pretty clear and unambiguous. And both orientations are “practical” — it’s just that they are different practices, set up to produce very different products.

If we call these two orientations “contemplating” and “enacting,” this will hopefully clarify the distinction between them. To contemplate, to be a scientist and to incline towards “wissenschaft” in Weber’s sense, is to be dedicated to producing knowledge. To enact, to be a politician and to incline towards “politik” in Weber’s sense, is to be dedicated to producing results. The contemplative orientation is concerned with rigor, consistency, and elegance; the enactive orientation is concerned with outcomes, effects, and impact.

As a further wrinkle, consider the fact that these orientations manifest themselves relatively rather than absolutely. Contemplation looks contemplative only when contrasted to enacting, and vice versa. In this way, it makes little sense to talk about either contemplating or enacting in isolation as clearly defined practical categories; instead, it makes sense to talk about orientations as more or less contemplative or enactive in comparison to others. By the same token, there are more contemplative enactors and more enactive contemplators, even though the distinction itself remains logically pure and unambiguous.

I find it helpful to talk about splits like this replicating over time, an idea I borrow from Andrew Abbott: first we have a basic split between the two camps, and then each camp splits internally over the same issue. This presents us with a diagram of the contemplating/enacting distinction that looks like this:

We therefore have four ideal-typical positions combining contemplating and enacting in various ways. Pure contemplators — “scholars” — are only concerned with the production of systematic knowledge, while pure enactors — “professionals” — are only concerned with producing outcomes. The intermediate positions combine a primary orientation towards knowledge-production or results-production with a secondary gesture in the opposite direction, producing “experts” who are contemplators seeking to apply the results of their investigations to get things done, and “scholar-activists” who are reflective practitioners seeking to generate knowledge based very closely on their experiences in the political world.

It stands to reason that these four positions — and let me reiterate once again that these are ideal-typical rather than descriptive, which means primarily that actual people and organizations are probably going to be some combination of them; the point of ideal-typical analysis of this sort is not to describe, but to clarify the characteristic tensions and challenges that concrete individuals standing in concrete places will have to face — entail different ways of thinking about and using “theory.” To a “scholar,” theory means systematic, disciplinary knowledge, generally pretty abstract and focused on broad principles rather than on specific cases (even if theory might be constructed and refined through the analysis of specific cases). To an “expert,” on the other hand, theory means a set of relatively firm precepts the primary purpose of which is to answer specific questions about particular situations. “Experts” primarily use theory rather than primarily creating it, while for “scholars” it’s the other way around. But both “scholars” and “experts” are contemplators first, so they both are interested in theory from the outset.

Not so the other two positions, which as enactors first are more interested in results and understand theory as a tool or instrument for achieving those results. “Professionals” aren’t very interested in theory unless it can immediately point to some outcomes, and generally don’t see the value in excessive theorizing (and are probably the most likely position to say things like “that might be fine in theory but it won’t work in practice,” which is the kind of thing that drives “scholars” to distraction — especially if they’ve read Kant on the subject). “Scholar-activists” are more receptive to theorizing, but for them theory is more on the level of strategic advice and worldly wisdom, since it derives from and remains very close to their experiences of trying to get things done.

Note a couple of things here. First, “scholars” and “scholar-activists” have a relatively similar take on theory, at least in contrast to their local enactors: both are interested in systematizing experience, albeit for different purposes. Similarly, “experts” and “professionals” have a relatively similar take on theory in contrast to their local contemplators, since they both are interested in using theory to ground or inform their pursuit of particular goals. This means that these two groupings can talk to one another pretty easily. Second, “scholars” and “experts” are both comtemplators first, which gives them something to debate: “scholars” taking “experts” to task for not being nuanced enough, “experts” pressing “scholars” to get out of the realm of the abstract and into the realm of concrete implications. But as compared to “scholar-activists” and “professionals,” both “scholars” and “experts” are tremendously abstract and general — which gives them something to discuss. Ditto, but in the other direction, for “scholar-activists” and “professionals,” both of whom start from a rejection of any value to what the other two positions would call “theory” and “theorizing” for its own sake.

I want to be clear here: even though I myself am something of a self-caricature of a “scholar” in my own position, and as such may quite unintentionally be coming across as dismissive of the other positions, I am trying very hard not so. The bottom line for me is that these are different positions, not that one is better than the others. Of course, from each position that position looks to be the best one, and the others look more or less appealing on various grounds according to the positional alliance-patterns I have just sketched out. And I doubt that anyone but a scholar would have spent as much time as I have in fleshing this whole schema out; I’ve been using it in my IR theory courses for several years now, and it forms the foundation of a couple of other things I’m working on at the moment (so you’ll see that diagram showing up in print soon, I hope). But I do not want anyone to get the idea that I think that everyone ought to be a “scholar” or that only what scholars do is valuable, whether in IR or in other fields of human endeavor.

But I do think that thinking about things in this way helps both to clarify my debate with Dan and Rob, and to clarify my original stance about terminal MA programs in IR. Although somewhat wary of characterizing other people without a more detailed knowledge of their work, I would tentatively say that Dan and Rob are “experts” while I am a “scholar,” since they are interested in using theory to ground practice while I am interested in knowledge-construction pretty much for its own sake — but all three of us are considerably more open to theory and theorizing than the other two positions would be (after all, we’re all employed in academic positions where publication in peer-reviewed disciplinary journals is necessary for tenure and promotion). So the debate we’re having takes place in the left-hand-side of my diagram. Not so the comments on the various posts, some of which come from “professionals” and some of which come from “scholar-activists” (the clue here is the skepticism expressed some comments about the value of theory per se). Obviously I’m going to disagree with Dan and Rob about what theory is and what it can and should be used for, since I’m primarily interested in constructing knowledge regardless of its short-term use-value while they’re interested in using knowledge and refining it so as to make it into a better basis for action in a pretty tight time-frame. So that’s what’s going on there.

Notice that when I talked about positional alliances, I did not talk about any kind of easy connection between “scholars” and “professionals.” That was deliberate, and I think it really helps to explain my frustration with terminal MA degrees. In my experience, students enrolling in such programs, with very few exceptions, are “professionals.” They’re looking to improve and refine their professional practice, so as to make them better enactors; as such they can learn most easily from “scholar-activists” who have refined their enacting and come up with some lessons, and from “experts” who have a conceptual basis on which to place professional practice and perhaps to critically improve it. But what can an aspiring “professional,” let alone an established “professional” looking to advance in her or his career, learn from a “scholar”? What use to a “professional” is theory in the sense that a “scholar” would deploy it, as opposed to the way that an “expert” or a “scholar-activist” would? I can only think of two such uses:

1) a “professional” might learn from the “scholar” some of the basic vocabulary in which debates about courses of action are conducted. As in most of the social sciences, “professionals” use terms and concepts in their work that were for the most part designed by “scholars” at some point (a point variously made by Mill, Keynes, Dewey, etc.); it’s just that “professionals” use them very, very differently. It might be useful for a “professional” to learn some of that language from a member of the community that created it, bearing in mind that they are subsequently going to have to learn how to use it in a rather different fashion. “Scholarly” debate is simply out of place in the world of policymaking. I think of this as the Sam Huntington Problem: I would never, never teach Huntington’s civilizations book as a piece of scholarly theory, since it’s basically worthless understood in that light (if I were teaching about civilizations, I’d use something else — something like this, which ought to be out in paperback sometime next year); but by the same token it might be very helpful to teach to “professionals,” since there are serious policy debates conduced using the language that Huntington introduces in that book.

2) in addition to language-instruction, I can see only one other use to instructing a “professional” in scholarly theory, and it’s the same thing that I use theory for in my undergraduate pedagogy: seeing a perspective spelled out in unworldly logical purity can help to clarify one’s stance on that perspective. Weber called this “value-clarification,” and the basic point is to say “well, if you hold X, can you help but agree with implications Y, Z, and W?” This gets the student to really ponder what is at stake in her or his holding of X. But notice that what has happened in this pedagogical situation is not that theory has become a basis for action, as “experts” would like to do and as “professionals” would welcome; instead, theory has become an instrument of self-discovery. The result of such a pedagogy is to have students who are better able to articulate and defend a perspective on the world, not to have students who are somehow properly grounded in “the way that the world actually is” since from my perspective that’s a meaningless notion. All knowledge is perspectival, I would say, and pedagogy of this sort is about clarifying perspectives, and not about authoritatively selecting between them. (One of the commentators on one of the posts satirized my position by claiming that I was saying that my knowledge was no better than that of a chicken or an infant; in terms of its correspondence with something called “the real world,” sure, all knowledge-claims are equal, but that just means that we have to evaluate them on other grounds, like their logical coherence and comprehensiveness. In that case I’m petty sure I can beat both a chicken and an infant.)

Option #1 I could see that MA students might not have gotten in their prior education, and I can see the value in it since speaking the vernacular language is probably directly related to their employability. It’s just that I am not particularly interested in language-instruction, myself, especially since it’s very frustrating to me to see the concepts and principles that I work with in my way taken out of context and used for quite different purposes. (I know that this might be inevitable, and in the long term probably is, but it pains me to watch it up close.) That’s why I tend to take option #2 in my courses open to MA students, since that’s the value I think I bring to them. Of course, this raises another problem, since I think that option #2 is the sort of thing that a student ought already to have gotten from a competent undergraduate program. Maybe there’s value in re-doing that aspect of undergrad as an MA student, but it does make me wonder.

As for looking for prospective Ph.D. students: well, as a “scholar” it’s only natural for me to want to socialize others into my world, and that world is the world of the Ph.D. and academia broadly understood. This either means I find budding “scholars” and help to set them on their way, or I find budding “experts” and try to show them the subtlety of scholarly theory. Either way, those are easier conversations to have than the continual head-butting I find myself doing with “professionals” when I am doing anything other than pressing them to promote value-clarification.

I don’t think this analysis definitively answers any questions. But maybe it focuses the disagreement and makes it even more productive.


A downside of a shorter Ph.D. program

Interesting article in the New York Times about efforts to reduce the amount of time that it takes to get a Ph.D. While I have no objection to many of the strategies discussed — give students guaranteed funding for five years, dissertation-writing groups, a culture in which advisers actually check up on how their students are coming along — this line about the impact of increased funding gave me pause:

That means students need teach no more than two courses during their schooling and can focus on research.

On one hand, sure, that probably helps people finish faster. But at what cost? The article depressingly, if not uncharacteristically, points out that many universities benefit from the cheap labor of Ph.D. students teaching undergraduate classes, and links this on the student side to the need for students to finance their educations somehow — as if the primary benefit here was a financial one.

I think this is a short-sighted perspective on both counts. Yes, universities benefit financially if they use Ph.D. candidates to teach classes, since Ph.D.s cost less than tenure-line or even most temporary faculty, but they also benefit in that young teachers just starting out can be some of the most dynamic presences in the classroom. Everything is new and fresh — there’s no possibility of getting bored with one’s material, since one won’t have taught it for decades already. And those Ph.D.s can also be the sources of classroom innovation for the same reason: they don’t yet have bad classroom habits to break, so they may be more easily able to experiment with novel techniques and technologies.

As for the students: the primary benefit of teaching while still a Ph.D. candidate is that hopefully that experience will make you a better teacher once you get your degree and move out into a more permanent job! When one is a professional academic, which is still what I think a Ph.D. in basically anything but the natural sciences (where there’s a well-established pure lab research track) is actually for, your actual day-to-day job is — this should not come as a big surprise — teaching students. Is it too much to ask that Ph.D. candidates perhaps get a chance to learn how to do the thing that they’re going to be doing for the rest of their professional lives, and to learn that while they’re, you know, in training? All of this reinforces the attitude that the academics are scholars first and foremost, that Ph.D. training is purely about acquiring research skills and experience, and and that teaching — especially undergraduate teaching, because how often do you see departments offering Ph.D. students the opportunity to teach graduate seminars? — is something that can be safely externalized onto untrained students and overworked adjuncts. And that’s depressing, both for the undergraduate students who are paying for the experience of attending institutions where their famous faculty never see them because they’re always out doing research, and for the Ph.D.s socialized into a culture where teaching is decidedly secondary, a culture they can and will then bring with them when they are hired elsewhere.

What I’d much rather see is something like the famous Contemporary Civilization program at Columbia, in which Dan and I both taught, where Ph.D. students are selected to teach their own section of the famous Plato-to-NATO course that is required of all undergraduate students in their sophomore year. These preceptors — from the Latin for “not a professor so not paid as much” — teach alongside members of the permanent faculty, many of whom are quite senior; they also participate in weekly seminars designed to help them develop into better classroom teachers. Thus graduates of Columbia who have taught in “CC” are not only junior scholars, but junior teachers. If CC had only paid enough that I didn’t have to maintain another adjunct gig downtown at NYU, that would have been perfect: learn to teach and work on my dissertation, without having to worry about where the grocery and rent money was coming from.

I just hope that the push to have students finish their Ph.D.s quickly doesn’t end up exacerbating the split between teaching and research even further — and doing this by further denigrating teaching. In the modern academy, any effort to value and enhance undergrad teaching faces enough challenges as it is; it doesn’t need any more.


Intellectual Property

I have this long post in draft form about U.S. foreign policy and Central Asia, but I’ll probably never finish it before it gets stale (not least because I have an edited volume to finish). There is, however, a very interesting discussion going on over at Crooked Timber about academia, ideas, and progress. You can read the details yourself. I only have a few comments:

1. The goal of cumulative knowledge in the social and natural sciences is all well and good. The fact is, however, that academics should strive to cite and reference prior work that is relevant to our own because our ideas are our currency. We are hired, fired, promoted, and accorded relative status by our colleagues largely on the value of our intellectual output. This imposes a basic obligation to cite your sources and inspiration, and an obligation to seek out work, even in other fields, that parallels your own. There are limits on what can reasonably be expected on the latter front, but searching journal databases – let alone googling – for central aspects of your manuscript fall well within them. This is, I believe, the basic code that should govern all academic work.

2. There are unethical and inconsiderate sorts who will violate that code. There are also people who will do so even though they operate with the best of intentions. But there is a much bigger structural problem looming that precludes us from adequately acknowledging the work of others. I speak here of the incredible shrinking word limits of journals and book publishers. What’s the first causality of any attempt to cut those extra one thousand words? Not the irrelevant part of your argument that you nonetheless just have to get into print, but a citation here, a citation there… at 20-30 words each, references can really add up.

3. Wheel reinvention is not only sometimes desirable, it is inevitable. Most good ideas – and almost all bad ones – have already occurred, in one form or another, to someone else. This, of course, greatly complicates the academic code.


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