Sunday, February 16, 2014

Kristof on Academia

This Nicholas Kristof article really made the rounds yesterday on Twitter, where political science professors took exception with an argument that perhaps once was true but now is out of date. Here's the crux:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

This just isn't true. Outlets like The Monkey Cage are well respected, and contributors include top scholars of all different generations. Back when I started blogging in 2006, people talked about whether to blog while untenured. Nobody does that anymore.


My onetime love, political science, is a particular offender and seems to be trying, in terms of practical impact, to commit suicide.

“Political science Ph.D.’s often aren’t prepared to do real-world analysis,” says Ian Bremmer, a Stanford political science Ph.D. who runs the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, one-fifth of articles in The American Political Science Review focused on policy prescriptions; at last count, the share was down to 0.3 percent.

Oh man, where to start? Political scientists are doing "real-world analysis" all the time. I do it pretty much constantly. I have colleagues in my department who are interested in various kinds of increasingly sophisticated methods yet are involved in a large Defense Department grant to understand the relationship between natural resources and conflict. I could go on and on for my department alone.

Now, maybe they don't phrase their research in terms of "policy prescription," but why should they? The important thing is to give policy makers the analysis they need to make decisions rather than tell them what decisions to make.

Kristof assumes that political science work is disseminated only through academic journals. But believe me, when people get things published, they want to reach as many people as possible, so they are writing op-eds, blogging, tweeting, writing about it on Facebook, giving guest lectures (including to the government in various ways, as I've done), talking to reporters, etc., etc.

Coincidentally, I organized a panel for the Latin American Studies Association on this very topic--the connection between academia and the policy world in the study of U.S.-Latin American relations (where, in fact, policy analysis abounds!). I disagree with Kristof's assessment, but the topic is a worthy one.


Adam Isacson 12:56 PM  

Kristof nailed a view of academia that's pretty common in Washington. It can be summed up as: people who make policy are very busy people, and scholars in the nation's university departments do not write for busy people.

Too often, it seems like their notional reader instead is someone who has several uninterrupted hours in which to delve into an esoteric topic, is able to parse obtuse prose that badly needs editing, and is already deeply familiar with the past work of dozens of other authors in the field who each get name-checked at least once per page-long paragraph.

I understand the importance of that kind of writing for rigor and having an official record of knowledge and debate. But it's never going to reach an audience of busy people. A Foreign Relations Committee staff member or State Dept desk officer just doesn't have the time, or often even the background, to get through it.

I applaud the examples you cite of scholars who do put out briefer, more "busy person-appropriate" products based on their work, like the bloggers out there. They are the most effective spreaders of knowledge in the field. You know better than me, though, whether these individuals are at all rewarded professionally for putting out these kind of products, or whether their universities regard them as "extracurricular" at best.

Greg Weeks 2:26 PM  

I guess my response is mostly frustration because the Washington view is outdated, as there are even very mainstream outlets (i.e. Washington Post, Foreign Policy, etc.) full of political scientists discussing policy relevant research in accessible ways.

Universities vary greatly, but my experience has been to feel support since the outreach reflects well on the university as a producer of knowledge. As chair, I support it, and my dean talks about it and supports it. We have no cash bonuses to give (too little even for "traditional" research!) but we see it as one part of being an effective, relevant scholar.

Russell Bither-Terry 11:49 AM  

Good post and good comments. I started to write a response and realized I had a post's worth of stuff to write, so posted it here:

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