Sunday, April 15, 2012

More on IR, Professionalization, Etc.

. Sunday, April 15, 2012

Dan Nexon linked to my response to his post on the horrors of the professionalization of international relations students and called it a cage match, but then was very gracious thereafter (despite misspelling my name twice). Still, I agree with some parts more than others. For example, I love this part:

On the one hand, I hope that one day Kindred will sit on a hiring committee (because I'd like to see him land a job).
Me too! Let's hope he's on a hiring committee next year. But Nexon seemed me to want me to come back strong, so here we go. To his quibble:
But while some of my comments are applicable to all journals, regardless of orientation, others are pretty clearly geared toward the "prestige" journals that occupy a central place in academic certification in the United States.
Sure. The prestige journals don't thrill me with everything they publish either. In fact, I don't think I've ever heard any political scientist ever say "You know what? I really really loved the most recent issue of APSR. I had no problems with it at all. None. It was perfect. Every article was great." I have heard complaints from nearly every possible corner on almost every conceivable level about almost every article published (at least those that are even noticed). The old saying "If you're making everyone unhappy then you must be doing something right" is a sophistry, but in this situation it's pretty hard for the "prestige" journals to escape criticism. They mostly publish the sort of research that is mostly being done. Does that leave less space for less common approaches? Yes, by definition, but what else can they do? There are niche journals for niche paradigms and mainstream journals for mainstream paradigms.

Does that lead to path dependence? I'm sure it does. Again, what else can be done? Path dependence is a favorite causal explanation for social scientists when analyzing other social systems... why should we think we're any different?

Is this healthy for the discipline? I don't know. That's not hand-waving... I actually don't know. Anyway, there's an element of have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too-ism that always bothers me in these discussions. E.g., in comments to Nexon's post, PTJ -- for whom I have a lot of respect -- responded to something I wrote thus:
It may not take a philosophical commitment to understand what a Gaussian distribution is, but it takes a philosophical commitment to consider it relevant. Ditto discourse analysis. Methods are portable; methodologies are not.
This reminds me of the tired old Keohane/Tickner You-Just-Don't-Understand "debate".* It seems somewhat perverse to me to take a position that sums to "I reject everything you do, I reject your epistemology and your ontology, I consider your entire intellectual approach to be invalid (if not oppressive), and oh by the way it's really screwed up that you aren't publishing me in your journals" or maybe "I don't consider what you do to be 'relevant' but it's so not fair that you feel the same way about me".

I am caricaturing but only just. Put another way: If critical theorists were 95% of the APSR I doubt they'd be demanding more neopositivist articles for pluralism's sake. Alternatively, neopositivists aren't demanding equal time in Alternatives. I'm all for letting a thousand flowers bloom, but that doesn't mean I expect them all to flourish equally in all climates. Nor do I know how I could make that happen even if I wanted to.**

I understand that there are things at stake. Jobs, promotions, etc. I don't take that lightly. On the other hand... this is the profession. No profession equally weights every preference or caters to every idiosyncrasy and academia does better than most.*** There are outside demands, there is an externally-imposed incentive structure, etc. The way that those shape grad student behavior was the subject of my previous post. Does that mean that I've not engaged in some types of inquiry that might be fun or interesting for me to pursue? Yes. But what I'm doing now is fun and interesting too, and it's not clear to me that I'd be better off -- intellectually or otherwise -- with fewer institutional/disciplinary constraints.

Back to Nexon:
Of course, most of what we do in graduate school should be about learning methods of inquiry, albeit understood in the broadest terms. The idea that one does this only in designated methods classes, though, is a major part of the problem that I've complained about. As is the apparent bifurcation of "substantive" and "methods of inquiry."And if you didn't get anything useful out of your "substantive" classes because you hadn't yet had your coursework in stochastic modeling... well, something just isn't right there.
I don't think there's much space between us here. I will say that one difference between "methods" classes and "substantive" classes (in my experience) is that methods classes contain students from all subfields of political science as well as other disciplines so a strong applied substantive focus is not feasible. Nor is it necessarily desirable. Similarly, "substantive" classes are taught by -- and attended by -- folks with high varied methodological backgrounds. I think methods classes should be fairly theoretical. UNC is, I think, well above the mean in this regard -- we don't just teach folks how to type 'reg y x' into Stata and then let them loose into the world -- but the point is that a strong methods training isn't bounded by substantive interest.

As some other students have said, it's not that I didn't get anything useful out of my substantive classes in my first year or so... it's just that I got very little. Mostly, it was learning what was out there. Kind of. For that I spent hundreds of hours, and had to go back and re-read everything (related to my research at least) once I had a better sense of what was actually going on in these articles. Not all of that was methods-related but a lot of it was.

And I agree... something just isn't right there. That was my whole point. From what I can tell from other grad students who contacted me after my last post, this isn't an uncommon experience. I'm not sure what can be done about it except for demanding more from undergraduates. Quite a lot of grad students' time is wasted -- in the sense that it is a prerequisite for later productive work but there is a "burn-in" period -- and this might just be one of those things.

*FWIW, I think both sides came off awfully in that exchange, and there's something half-shameful in professional educators not being able to communicate their ideas in such a way as to at least understand each other.

**A commenter on Nexon's post picked up on something I'd hinted at in my previous post: that incentives within the academia are -- to at least some extent -- dictated by the non-academic job market. Call me a dirty neopositivist, but opportunity costs are real.

***All of this is well beyond even "First World Problems". I generally find this kind of navel-gazing to be embarrassingly self-important. Yet here I am.


LFC said...

Seems to me a problem w this whole discussion is that it is, to some extent, mixing up 2 separate questions: (1) What would the 'ideal' pol sci grad program look like if one were designing it from scratch and without direct reference to the practical aspects of the job market, etc? (2) Given the facts about what the profession and the job market (both academic and non-ac.) currently value, what path should a grad student take in his/her education?

Question (2)is mostly practical (and accommodative of existing arrangements). Q. (1) is not. I think there may be some blurring of these in these posts.

This discussion btw is tempting me to write a post in which i detail my own experience as an object lesson in what not to do w/r/t grad school. But in order to do it properly I wd have to reveal more details about myself than i am comfortable doing. I cling to the rather tattered shred of quasi-anonymity provided by my initials rather than full name. (In some cases initials of course are simply a handle rather than a protective device. But that's different.)

TT said...

Much of what you've said here and on DoM resonate with me, K. I took a similar route, focusing on formal and quantitative methods, while viewing substantive courses as secondary.

My decision to do so is largely pragmatic: first, I do not have a good pedigree. As much as I'd like to land an academic position to research and teach, the fact of the matter is that hiring committees, however open they may think they are, look first at the PhD granting institution. Just look at how we construct our CVs. I don't blame them; after all, it sends a strong signal and wading through mountains of applications is hardly enjoyable. Consequently, I realized from the outset that I have to keep my options open. Learning econometric (and formal, to a lesser extent) skills is a way for me to increase my chances of getting a non-academic job and avoid the unemployment line. Will that work? I'll find out soon enough.

Kindred Winecoff said...


I see your point about 2 different questions, but part of my original point is that -- given the incentive structured embedded in academia and other public/private job markets -- the behavior that Nexon is worried about is more or less inevitable. So you can start with a pluralistic grad program that incentivizes big thinking and deep theorizing, but before long students will realize that their job market prospects are improved with a) better methods training; b) more publications. Therefore the incentives to defect from the original plan are overwhelming.

This is even if it is true that a less professionalized grad program really is better than the status quo, and Nexon merely assumes that it is rather than demonstrating that it is. I'm somewhat skeptical.

I would love to read that post of yours if you can find a way to do it while preserving your anonymity.

TT -

It's not just that. The deep dark dirty secret of grad school is that something on the order of 40-50% of students who matriculate do not complete their PhD and thus will never work in academia. Those people would *definitely* be better off with an MA and a bunch of tech skills than otherwise.

Dan Nexon said...

Kindred: you keep on saying that I assume rather than demonstrate. I'm not sure what the point of this claim is. How does one demonstrate a normative claim? What kind of demonstration would convince you?

There's no disagreement between us about structural incentives. I say that the discipline should take steps to change those incentives.

LFC said...

Kindred: Well, I'm not sure to what extent I've preserved my anonymity, but I've written the post: "How to f*** up grad school (among other things), in a few easy lessons."

Kindred Winecoff said...

D.H. -

By that I mean your basic assumption -- that less professionalization of grad students would lead to better theory -- has not been substantiated. This is not a purely normative claim -- there's a normative component but it's also speculative -- and I'm very skeptical of it. The reverse actually seems more likely to me... i.e., that the lack of good theorizing led to more professionalization. After all, if the discipline was better off prior to the recent trend of over-professionalization then why would the incentive structure change towards over-professionalization in the first place?


I've posted a longish comment at your place. I thought your post was great. I might add more here later, but I don't want to flog the horse so maybe not.

Dan Nexon said...

Kindred, I say the claim is normative for reasons I've hinted at before -- I don't think our referent for "theorization" is the same. In my view, theorization in American International Relations is in lousy shape.

"After all, if the discipline was better off prior to the recent trend of over-professionalization then why would the incentive structure change towards over-professionalization in the first place?"

And this is just silly.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Seems like there's two components here:

1. Normative: we need better theory.

2. Positive: we'll get that through less professionalization.

#1 I have no problem with. I'm not convinced of #2.

"And this is just silly."

Perhaps. But a story often told is that the trend towards formal theory and quantification came about as a result of poor theorizing and going-in-circles grand theory debates of the 1970s-1980s. If that's the case then my question is not silly at all... it fits a common narrative. Maybe the narrative is wrong but if so then we need something else to replace it.

Note that around the same time that materialist neopositivism in the form of formal/quant was becoming more and more prevalent other approaches -- particularly constructivism, but others too -- were also becoming more common and more accepted than they were before. (These approaches have their own problems, in my view and probably yours too.) So maybe the push away from grand theory wasn't *just* a push towards formal/quant, but towards new approaches more generally. Some of these have done better than others for reasons that probably relate to control of prestigious journals, etc., but I think it's hard to argue that there's *less* room in the discipline for an IR feminist critical theorist in 2012 than there was in, say, 1985.

More on IR, Professionalization, Etc.
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