Saturday, January 16, 2021

Quarantine, Week 44: The Last of the Trump Era


 Yeah, it seems to have taken forever, and it should have ended repeatedly over the years as we lost track of impeachable acts, but the end is nigh.  Certainly, Trump can and will do damage in the next week.  How much?  I don't know.  Certainly pardons.  In terms of executive orders and the like, that stuff can be reversed.  Long-term appointments to various boards?  Already done, alas.  I don't know how those folks can be removed.  But everything Trump has done lately has cemented his role as leader of the GOP since I have come to call them the Party of Bad Faith.

When I refer to Trump as the worst President of my lifetime, folks can push back saying that either Nixon or GWBush were worst, mostly due to the body count of non-Americans.  Nixon via Cambodia "competes well" with Bush and the death toll in and near Iraq.  I get that.  However, US leadership in previous pandemics prevented untold numbers of deaths (counterfactuals are hard to measure), and the absence of US leadership has meant that hundreds of thousands of folks outside of the US may have paid a price that could have been avoided.  It is certainly the case that Trump is responsible for more unnecessary American deaths than any President since ... Jefferson Davis?  By acting slowly, by politicizing masks, by gutting government, by resisting science, Trump has caused this pandemic to be worse than it had to be.  Yes, lots of countries are failing to contain the virus, but the US has failed worse than most despite having much capability.  

And all of this is before addressing the fact that Trump has done more to divide the US and sow the seeds of insurrection and terrorism than any President since the end of Reconstruction.  No President has refused to leave office quite like Trump nor has any American president generated a personality cult that now commits violence against not just those that have been the main targets (women, Jews, Black Americans, Latinos, Muslims) but also those who are supposed to be allies--cops.  

Trump will be gone the next time I write one of these quarantine updates, but Trumpism will be here for quite some time.  Those given permission to be vocally and violently racist, misogynist, Islamophobic anti-semitic, and anti-democratic will not go away quickly or peacefully.  I wrote on twitter this week that we are in the midst of another counter-insurgency campaign against white supremacy in the US.  One was fought in the 1990s, but we didn't think of it as such as it was considered to be a law enforcement effort against criminals.  This time, their ideology of hate has gotten much more play, thanks to Fox, Sinclair, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and is a lot less fringe.  So, the FBI and other federal agencies will be fighting against white supremacy with fewer allies at their backs, far more friendly seas for the terrorists, and much infiltration.  It is going to be a tough fight, one that we can win, but next week will not solve the divisions in the US.  The Republican Party is still giving aid and comfort to those who seek to end American democracy.  Indeed, the GOP has been seeking a number of paths in that direction.  Will it correct itself?  I have far more faith in the FBI than I do in the GOP, and I am worried about the FBI.

Still, some relief is on its way.  I don't know how much of Biden's COVID relief package will make it through Congress intact, but the basic planning that has been done and the level of competence of the new team will dramatically improve the vaccination rollout, the efforts to contain the disease, and, well, all other policies.  The exits of Azar, DeVos, Pompeo, and the rest of the Arsonists will provide much relief just on their own, not to mention the very decent, smart people that will be taking their places.  Things will get better.  It didn't have to be this way and didn't have to be this bad, but we have reached the bottom finally.  

My heart goes out to those who live in DC, to those who wanted to travel to DC to celebrate the accomplishment of their hard work--bring the Democrats back to the White House.  Instead, DC is locked down, and the inauguration will simply not be much of a party.  I hope my friends in DC can get their groceries and such in the next week without too much hassle.  I can't fault the National Guard and the rest too much--the white supremacists vowed to come back on January 19th.  Better to have too many troops than too few next week.  I am hoping that the town can return to some degree of normalcy.  Of course, that will take some investigations to find out what went wrong, lots of worry to remove those from the police forces and military who abetted the effort, and, yes, some sanctions of those in the House and Senate who encouraged and helped the insurrectionists.  None of this will be easy, but it will be necessary.

The new beginning has already started on the personal front.  My two courses met for the first time this past week. I am teaching the PhD dissertation proposal workshop and an MA class in civil-military relations.  The former is much bigger than usual as we have more survivors from the 1.5 years of grad school (fewer folks had problems with the comprehensive exams) and we have a handful of folks from last semester who are not quite done revising their proposals.  I have to figure something out, because it is hard to workshop 12-13 projects at a time, especially online.  The Civ-Mil class--well, I spent too much time arguing why it is relevant--tis pretty obvious these days.  The students have a variety of interests and backgrounds, so we should have good discussions.  Because of the pandemic, I am changing how I teach it.  Instead of three hours of seminar, it will be 30 minutes of Steve video lectures sometime before the class, 45 minutes of discussion, a break, and then 45 minutes of discussion.  I just can't imagine sustaining three hours of conversation while all of us stare at screens.   I also reduced the reading load a bit, as it is harder to get work done in a pandemic, and added the meme of the week assignment.  

We are getting a dump of snow today so I may actually use my snowshoes appropriately.  Last week, I took them for a hike on a nature trail, and everyone (lots of folks were out) looked at me as if I were strange.  Why? Because the path had been beaten down--there was no need for snowshoes.  So, I will have to find less beaten trails if I want to use them.  Or I can just hike on the nature trails with my snowshoes on my back until I find paths to take.  The cross country skiing continues to be, um, oy.  Too much like skating, not enough like downhill skiing.  I remain committed thanks to my investment of $$.  But I will probably only do one or the other this weekend, rather than my new habit of doing one each weekend day.   And now that the big grant application is done, I may do a bit more of that stuff in the middle of the week.  I have been treadmilling all along. But some outdoor exercise mid-week might be nice.

And what am I watching while I treadmill?  Lately, I have been rewatching the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  This week I started re-watching Black Panther, and I am reminded how special Chadwick Boseman was.  What a loss.  I am getting close to the end of Phase Three--just an infinity war or two and a couple of movies.  I will have to figure out what to watch next, although a couple of Canadian sitcoms have been recommended to me.  So, that might be a good change of pace.

And we could also use a change of pace after the slog of the past year/four years.  Be well and stay at home.





Saturday, January 9, 2021

Forgiveness? Fuck That

 I have nothing but outrage left for those who chose this week to leave the sinking ship that is the Trump administration.  While this past week was awful, these folks didn't draw the line at kids in cages, at Muslim bans, at Charlottesville, at politicizing the pandemic, and all the rest.  So, I want to do two things in this post, ok, three if one includes venting my spleen: discuss the consequences and rank the awful.

First, the thing that comes to mind is "to the pain" that Wesley/Dread Pirate Roberts threatens Prince Humperdink at the end of Princess Bride.  No, I don't mean that we should chop off the hands and feet and cut out the eyes of the various Trumpists.  But the idea that these folks will not be able to walk the streets without the wails of disgust as they go by--that is what I want.  None of them should have a comfy dinner in a restaurant.  None of them should get comfy fellowships at Harvard.  If Heritage and other right wing institutions want to soil themselves by letting these folks hang out there, then so be it, let their reputations decline as a result.  None of these folks should ever serve in office again.  

Second, I listen to too many podcasts that rank movies and rank athletes and such.  And, yes, ranking is a Spew tradition from early on.  So, let me suggest the different circles of awful with slightly declining "to the pain" treatment (although all should never be seen as legitimate ever again).

First level, we can call the Trump Suite:  Donald Trump.  He is the worst of the worst.  He stands alone for instigating all of this, for all of the awful he has done just so that can he can get some tv time and some grift for graft or some graft for his grift.

Second level: we can call Mitch.

Third level: we can call the Family: Don Jr., Ivanka, Jared, Eric, Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, Mick Mulvaney, Pompeo, Mike Flynn, etc.  These are folks who played central roles in getting the Trump graft and incitement train running and maintaining it.  We deserve to hear from none of these people ever again, and none of them should hold a position of power or influence.  The only one that "earned" it was Bannon through his opportunism.  The rest rode coattails, and chose to ride with Trump to end of the line (Mick can pretend otherwise).

Fourth level: we can call the Circle of Hate.  This would be Fox News, Sinclair, OAN, Steve Bannon (saw awful, he deserves multiple levels), Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, whoever Q is, Jeff Sessions, Bill Barr, John Kelly, Kirsten Nielsen, Chad Wolf, Kris Kobak, Kayleigh Mcenany, Sean Spicer, and the like. These are the folks who engaged in two related enterprises--fostering an alternative reality for the gullible, koolaid-swilling cultists and promoting violence against Americans and against the government.  This is where the xenophobes and the gaslighters reside. 

Fifth level: we can call the Graft-tastic.  This would be Betsy DeVos, Elaine Chao, Ben Carson, and pretty much most of Trump's cabinet and other hangers-on who profited from their time in Trumpland.  They sold out the country for some additional wealth.  Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue and other inside traitors go here.

Sixth level: we can call Roomless Adults.  These are the folks who were viewed as the responsible people that were supposed to restrain Trump but mostly legitimated Trump and were the living embodiment of the wishful thinking of the desperate.  HR McMaster, Jim Mattis, Rex Tillerson, etc.

Seventh level: we can call the Re-Animated Deplorables.  Best exemplified by Elliott Abrams, who keeps getting chance after chance to do awful things.  

Eighth level: the bad faith cowardly enablers.  This would be Rubio, Graham, and others who have defended, explained away, and facilitated the Trump era. 

I am sure I am forgetting both individuals and levels.  The key is that none of these people should be forgiven for what they have done.  They should live in shame, despite their inability to feel shame.  People should be embarrassed to be seen with them, to employ them, to give them platforms.  They should only have each other as friends and companions.  They should live lonely lives of desperation for what they have wrought.  It is easy for me to vow to have nothing to do with organizations that embrace them since, well, I am not going to get any speaking engagements at Harvard and Heritage anytime soon.  But vow I will to condemn those that treat these awful people as if they belong in the conversation.  They have done tremendous damage at home and abroad, and it will take generations to mend (if we are lucky).  So, no, no forgiveness anytime soon.  Only if there is genuine remorse, a full fessing up, and consequences.  I don't expect any of that from these people. 

Quarantine, Week 43: Insurrections and Late Grades

 2021 still feels like 2020, and that will probably last beyond the Biden Administration.  Slow rollouts of the vaccine, spiking rates of infection, and Trump will continue to amp up the anxiety and stress even after January 20th.  It will get better, but it will take a while to feel it.  However, we can at least celebrate the end of Trump on twitter and the many social media outlets banning the inciters of violence.  But damn, that was an awful day.

Still not a coup attempt, as I have relentlessly argued with friends, family, and strangers.  Awful, but could have been far worse.  Impeachment will not happen until after Biden is President and probably not even then.  It takes consensus to have the Senate return before Jan 19, so that isn't happening.  Can the Dems on Jan 21st get 18 or so GOP to vote for impeachment?  It would have the benefit to them of preventing Trump from being eligible in 2024 to be President ... or serve any other federal office, I believe.  But it would require courage, which is in short supply among the Republicans.  Any insurrectionists should be prosecuted and punished, which might just include Hawley and Cruz.  I had forgotten that the 14th amendment bans insurrectionists from serving in the House or Senate.  Hmmmm.  Give the polls today of how the American people feel about the violence on Wednesday, Hawley and Cruz have made quite a dent in their presidential aspirations.  But I'd like to see greater consequences.  I doubt that such consequences will be forthcoming.

So, yeah, I might have been in a pissy mood when the students who handed in papers quite late and thus were graded on their incomplete work were pretty annoyed and whiny about getting their grades changed this week.  Plus Trump's shenanigans interrupted my course prep for the new term that starts next week. 

I have broken one resolution and kept another.  I promised I would bake a bit less, but then I made emergency brownies on Wednesday.  On the other hand, I also vowed to connect more, and I did a bunch of that this week, zooming with friends.  

On the CDSN front, we are making progress.  I have been working on two things.  First, we have a grant proposal due in less than two weeks.  I wrestled with the budget, which was a diversion from the DC madness.  Now that the budget is beaten into submission, and the comments I got from the Carleton grant people were super helpful, I just have to nag partners to send letters.  If funded, the grant would add three new focal points of research to the network, addressing the pandemic.  It would also bring in some folks from other disciplines and improve the diversity of the network.  Speaking of which, I have also been working on a Diversity Council, which would be a group of people who could provide us with ideas and feedback on how the CDSN could do better on one of our key objectives--fostering a more diverse and inclusive defence and security community.  I hope to have the full council ready to announce at the start of February.  Then, we will work on a Diversity Plan, which will take existing initiatives and potential new ones and see how they fit together to help us reach our goals.  

I am pretty fried from arguing about coups/autogolpes/insurrections, so I will keep it short.  I will be making my second attempt at cross country skiing later today.  I hope you and yours are finding ways to distract yourselves from the DC madness.  Be well.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Worst Day in US Transition History (post Reconstruction edition)

 I wrote earlier about the worst day in civil-military relations in reference to the Lafayette Square mess.  Yesterday was an awful day, but it had little to do with civil-military relations (some--which I will discuss below).  It had everything to with the awful state of the GOP. 

First, I will remain on this hill--it was not a coup It was not an attempt by a security force (police, secret police, military) to change who governs.  It was an insurrection--an effort to undermine existing authority to keep in power the current leader.  

Second, I will remain on a second hill--it ain't fascism.  Trump does not have a coherent political program to control society.  He just wants to stay in power for his own ego and to pursue graft.  He is an aspiring autocrat, but he does not have the attention span to be a real fascist.  Were there fascists among the insurrectionists?  Absolutely.  One of the key bits of glue among all these people is, of course, white supremacy.  But one can be a flaming racist autocrat without being a fascist.  

Ok, with those two points of pedantry aside (although I think they matter because we need to focus on the real threats and the US military is not one of them), what to make of all of this?  First, I don't expect either the 25th Amendment or impeachment to remove Trump.  Either would require Republicans to have some backbone and care about country more than power.  That is just not going to happen.  That calls for both are now mainstream shows how appalling Trump's incitement yesterday was.  Of course, Trump has been inciting violence since the Central Park 5 and since he started running for President.  But when the incitement leads to violence in broad daylight at the national capitol, it stings a bit more, doesn't it?

The Fox effort to make this appear to be Antifa will surely test their abilities to persuade since plenty of the pictures were of folks who had been vocal members of the Trumpist (fa, not antifa) effort.  These deplorables were sent to the capitol by Trump himself.  Hard to deny that reality when the assholes are posting themselves all over social media.  On the bright side, their pictures will be called "evidence" as many will be caught and prosecuted eventually.  Not quickly enough.

And, yes, the capitol police were understaffed, underprepared, and entirely too complicit.  The oversight committees will have a field day grilling them, and, yes, folks will lose their jobs.  A key point from the scholarship on ethnic riots (and this was an ethnic riot): they don't happen if the police don't let them happen.  Compare and contrast the police presence yesterday with the BLM stuff of last summer. The police had plenty of warnings, but they didn't prepare.  Why not?  Did they just underestimate the willingness of the douchebros to act?  They didn't notice what happened in Michigan? 

I am hoping that this fiasco will reduce Biden's enthusiasm for bipartisanship since as my brother put it on twitter, reaching across the aisle now seems to require a portal to the world of insanity.  I am hoping that Manchin reconsiders his opposition to killing the filibuster since all that needs to be done, such as passing a new Voting Rights Act, will be impossible if they need GOP support.  

Oh, and I am not in a forgiving mood.  Mattis and others can condemn yesterday's violence, but that is the very, very, very least they can do.  No senior official in the Trump administration, past or present, should ever serve again and they should not be welcome in polite society until they have done sufficient penance for their sins.  

On the civ-mil of the day, the big news was that the call to the National Guard was complicated.  That is, since DC isn't a state (again, something that should be changed), its NG is run by the Secretary of the Army, not the governor of DC (there is no such person).  The news is confusing--whether DoD declined the request at first, whether Pence approved it (he is not in the chain of command), and so on.  More will come out eventually, but it is a mess.  I think folks have it right--that DoD saw the request, looked back at the complaints they got last summer over the Lafayette Square mess, and tried to dodge this event.  Always learning from the last war.  Not great.  But I do think that I would want the NG to be prepared with clear rules before rushing in.  So, perhaps a bit of caution was not a bad thing.  I really don't know.  But the process does seem to have been quite flawed.  

What next?  I really hope that there are investigations so that people get arrested, that officials get fired for failing to do their jobs, and so on.  We need serious accountability.  Will we get that?  I really don't know.  Biden may want to move on and to heal, but I think that is the wrong way to go.  People need to pay a price for their sins.  Not in the afterlife--they need to pay now.  

All I know is that we are stuck with Trump for two more weeks.  Everything else is less certain.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Quarantine, Week 42: A New Year, Old Problems

Happy New Year!
 I'd love to start the new year with optimism and happiness, so I made a Dutch Baby breakfast.  But then I decided to blog about the new year and was reminded of politicians in Canada violating travel bans ("personal responsibility" apparently only applies to the peons), stories of failed vax rollouts, and hearing from friends who have families who have gotten sick and even some who have lost relatives.  With the spikes, the disease is getting much closer to everyone I know and exacting quite a price.  

And then there is the continued effort to de-legitimize a very decisive Biden win. After all, Joe got way more votes than Trump and got pretty much the exact same electoral college win that Trump did four years ago.   Of course, it really is about the bad faith parade.  I guess I can take some glee about the Congress overriding Trump's veto, but it had to be on the defense bill and not on something that overturned the worst Trump policies.  The good news is that they put into that bill some anti-corruption stuff so the US reduces its allure as a money laundering destination.  Woot!  

We finally got some real snow last night (ok, only a few inches), so I might finally be able to try out my new cross country skis today.  I haven't x-country skied in about ... forty years, so we shall see how it goes.  But the sun is super bright, the snow is so very white, that I must finally exit my house and enjoy the outdoors.  I'd go to the Gatineu park, the best place for outdoor exercise near Ottawa, but I am sure it will be swarmed.  Today, I will just see if I can handle the equipment in a local park.  

 The drinking and the baking continues.  We rang in the New Year with butterbeer and chocolate chip cookie dough pots.  The latter was one of the discoveries of 2020--super easy to make and very delightful--imagine a gushy warm chocolate chip cookie in a small dish.  And this morning, I baked a Dutch baby, which came out nicely: 

 I have already kept one set of NY resolutions: not working and not feeling guilt on NYE and New Year's Day.  I will try to get some stuff done this weekend--grading and letter of rec writing as those have strict deadlines.  I did manage to tape a few lectures for the winter course, so I am not far behind.  I still need to tweak the course website.  The big tasks ahead are cleaning up the grant application that is due in two weeks and writing a chapter for an edited volume.  And, yes, that means that I am still behind on finishing my case studies for the Dave, Phil, and Steve book.  But since they are not nagging me, I am guessing they are not done with their pieces.  We will finish the book this summer, but the distraction sauce of pandemic + elections has definitely pushed things down the road a bit.  Good thing civilian oversight of the armed forces is still a thing.

Indeed, the best news of the week were the Defense appointments.  Biden has placed some sharp civilians around the new SecDef (if Congress waives the requirement for the SecDef not to be a recently retired officer): Kath Hicks, Colin Kahl, and Kelly Magsamen.  I have interacted in twitter with Kath over the years.  My friends know Kelly and respect her quite a lot.  Colin is a political scientist with whom I have crossed paths (he had the IAF after me, so I think that is when we first met) over the years.  I couldn't get the civilian for the top spot, but we did get a very smart and experienced crew surrounded the retired general.  So, woot for that.  

I did have one New Year's resolution that I tweeted about--that I will give our cat more attention this year.  Bob is old, and I remembered how I regretted not spending more time with my dogs before they passed.  The first one died unexpectedly from pancreatitis while I was at a college.  Being away most summers and then that year or two at college meant I really did not spend much time with her.  My second dog died while I was at a conference--it just wasn't worth prolonging his pain a few more days so that I could return.  He was the coolest of dogs, the most strategic of dogs.  He did live to 18 or 19 (he was a rescue so we have no idea what age he was when we got him), and he did provide him with a playmate.  So, I am sure we did right by him, but he was terrific, crossing the country with us about three or four times (SD->VT, VT->TX, TX->VA and then VA-QC).  Our third and last dog also lived a long time--about seventeen years.  And I was with her at the end and spent the last few months of her life carrying her up and downstairs, and she was not small.  So, we had plenty of time together.  Anyhow, I have watched Bob age this past year, so I am mostly hoping that he outlives the pandemic, so that we can be with him at the end.  He has stopped doing the things that made our relationship difficult--waking us up early (banging on the bedroom door), scratching or biting me moments after he seemed so happy to be petted, etc.  I never hated him, but I certainly feared him.  Oh and he always knocked over glasses of water we had lying around.  All that is now in the past as he is too old for these shenanigans.

Other resolutions?  Hmmm.  I hope to bake a bit less while keeping up the exercising.  I haven't gained weight, but I could have lost more weight.  But I do find myself tempted by recipes I see these days, so we shall see if I keep that up.  I resolve to travel less ... oh my.  I plan to ignore Trump after Jan 20th.  Ok, those were easy ones.  The other thing I have resolved to do in 2021 is to return to the habit of zooming frequently with friends.  Being connected has been key to getting through this.  I slowed down my zooming this fall as I had a bunch of conferences and meetings.  But I realized that friend hangout zoom is not exhausting like work zoom is.  So, I will return to hanging out with whoever is willing to put up with me.

As always, stay at home, be safe, and be well!



Wednesday, December 30, 2020

So Many Letters, So Many Futures

Today, I was writing a letter of recommendation... tis the season.  And I noodled around the directory where I keep them and realized I have 748 files in that directory.  That is not equal to 748 letters, I realized, since my basic tendency is to write a letter in word and then turn it into a pdf.  But not always, so I'd guess that I have written something like 500 letters over the course of 26 years.  These cover a range from current/former undergrads to MA students to Phd students to junior faculty to peers.  I haven't written recommendations for people senior to me, but pretty much every one else.  To be clear, I have not recommended 500 different people, as some of these folks were my Phd students, which involved me writing dozens of letters for various jobs and fellowships, and, of course, many of those letters are nearly identical.  Sure, interfolio saved me some work--a website that processes letters so I can send the letter there and then it gets sent to the various targets.

The real question, of course, is whether I have asked for 500 letters in the course of my career.  Probably not, but being on the job market for much of my career and applying for heaps of fellowships ... hmmm.  In the old days, when I was a grad student and then a very junior faculty member, my recommenders would send the letters to where I got my Phd, and their staff sent those letters to the 40-50 places I would apply every year to get my first job/second job/third job.  

So, yes, this is very much about paying it forward.  I needed letters to do what I wanted to do, so I write letters to help folks as they try to find their way.  Yes, I have tried to discourage aspiring law students and Phd students due to crappy job markets, but they don't listen so I write the letters.  I have only refused to write a few times because there is often a spot on the form that asks if I would admit them to my place.  If I can't honestly say yes to that, then I tell the student to hunt elsewhere for a letter.  The few times that has happened have not been fun conversations which kind of proved that my stance was the correct one.  

I do not ask for anything in return.  A friend of mine did ask his recommendees to give him good rate my prof scores.  Sometimes, I have gotten gifts.  I don't expect them.  I do want to get one thing from those I recommend--news: what happened to them?  Did they get in?  Did they go?  How did it go?  While I remain in touch with all of my PhD students, I don't know what happened to every MA student or every undergrad.  I occasionally bump into them on twitter or at a government building in Ottawa.  

We profs tend to whine about writing letters of recommendation because they are ... work.  To do it well takes some time even if one discovers some cheats.  My way to cut corners is to ask the students for a few adjectives that I could have possibly witnessed and examples of how I could have witnessed them.  I borrowed this from Paul Dawson, a prof at Oberlin I was too scared to take.  Students vary in how well they follow my instructions with some not really knowing what kind of attributes admissions committees care about, so I adjust along the way.  The letters tend to be due at awkward times, conflicting with the other things we juggle. So, we complain.  And we wonder how many letters are truly necessary.  Does my supervisor really need to be recommended for stuff 40 years into his career?  Doesn't the CV tell the tale?  

We don't owe any particular student a letter--if I can't recommend someone, I won't.  But we do owe our students the help they need to succeed, when we can provide that help.  The satisfaction comes far later, when we hear what has happened to these folks.  So, my recommendations to those seeking recommendations:

  1. Ask politely, giving your letter-writer plenty of time to write the letter.  Give them whatever info they ask for to do the letter.
  2. Remind them a few days before the deadline as profs are, yes absentminded.
  3. Let them know if you got in.  And let them know if you had a good experience wherever you landed.  If we learn that the place you went is awful, well, you can pay it forward as well.

Good luck.  We know it is far tougher now than it was when we started out.  Sorry about that.  

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Contact the Potential Advisor? The Norms Are Abnormal

 I have no idea what is normal these days.  Last night, I got into a conversation with Emmett MacFarlane about what to do to get into a Phd program.  It was the result of someone asking folks with PhDs if they got rejected when they applied.  I answered: yep.  I distinctly remember two rejections, pretty sure there was a third, that a fourth school let me in without $ (which, to me, was tantamount to a reject--more below), a fifth that put me on their waiting list, and a sixth that gave me four years of funding.  Which is where I went.  The larger conversation was about whether students should contact potential advisors and whether places relied on individual profs making decisions about who they want to advise as a key part of admissions decisions.

First, some basics on Phd admissions.  Don't go if you are not guaranteed funding for 4 or 5 years (whatever the norm is in your discipline/country).  It is not just because going into debt is an incredibly bad idea for a degree that does not promise a job at the end.  It is also that those places where you have to compete with those in your cohort for funding became awful places to work.  It shapes the culture of the department, where colleagues are seen as rivals.  Back in the day (early-mid 1990s), a few schools were known to be like this--Columbia and UCLA come to mind.  I was lucky to be rejected by the former and, well, the latter was school #4 above.  Everyone (the PhD students) was fully funded where I went to grad school, and, perhaps no accident (since we were trained to think of how institutions provide incentives), we had a great culture.  People helped each other survive classes, we helped each other through the comprehensive exams, I received lots of useful feedback on my dissertation proposal, our practice job talks were most helpful, and, yes, we played a lot of sports and had  more than a few drams of booze (Debbi Avant didn't teach us how to make cocktails--that came later).  The more advanced grad students had time for the newbies.  Grad school is not supposed to be fun, but, for me, it was some of the best years of my life.  

Did I contact folks at UCSD and say, I want to do x, can you be my adviser?  Nope.  Indeed, I was assigned an adviser, did a heap of research for him in my first year on international telecommunications history (learned more about the Titanic than I would have expected).  But I switched advisers when I started working on my proposal.  And here's the thing, which is reason #1 I am not a fan of potential students matchmaking with supervisors before they start their Phd programs, my dissertation idea was very, very different from what I wrote in my application.  Perhaps because US Phd programs essentially assume that you will start from scratch (compared to British ones where you have an MA and just do a few years of research, and Canadian ones that think they are the latter but are really the former--MAs are often required for admission but one still has to do two years of coursework, comps, etc), I have the view that the PhD program is not just for training how to do the research agenda that one enters with but to shape the imagination of what are interesting and feasible questions.  I find it problematic that a student would enter grad school with an idea and then stay ruthlessly committed to that idea--I would hope that their views of what is a good question change.  But that may just be my bias.

Ok, that's reason 1.  Reason 2 is that profs move, die, change their minds about who they want to work with, are crappy advisers, or are actually truly awful people.  So, a student commits to a place because they have the nod from one prof.  What happens if that prof moves on?  Or turns out to be incompatible?  Or turns out to be a serial sexual harasser?  Wait, am I saying that a department might let a serial sexual harasser select their next prey?  The "individual profs give the nod rather than a graduate coordinator/committee" system allow for exactly that.  Not that sexual harassment is as rife as movies depict, but it still happens and still derails students' careers.

 Reason 3 for not having individual profs ok or not ok potential admittees based on their research compatibility has much to do with inequality.  Who gets those precious admission slots?  The profs that have the most influence?  Influence and wisdom are not always correlated.  The profs with the most money?  Which makes sense in lab situations, but in normal poli sci situations?  I am not so sure.  Which students get the admissions?  Those with the best connections to profs or those with the best ideas?  Relying on the preferences of individual profs seems ... dangerous to me.  

Reason 4: Applicant--undergrad students, MA students, and folks who have been out in the workplace--have really little clue of who is the appropriate adviser for them.  Which then creates a lot of noise and work for profs who get random emails.  Maybe if I had received more targeted emails over the years I would think this system makes sense.  But maybe there is a selection effect--since my department does not select PhD students via individual profs saying who they will work with, the smart, strategic students know not to bother profs who can't influence their admissions?  I don't know.  All I do know is that I don't want to encourage more random emails.

There is, of course, survivor bias in all of this.  That I was a happy accident.  That my Phd students--most had topics completely unrelated to my own research agenda--have been mostly successful in this business.  Perhaps I would have co-published with more students if they were in the same area as myself.  The one student who did work closest to mine and used my work as a target was actually admitted before I arrived at McG.  So, maybe my individual story shapes my preferences just a bit--that I learned a lot about other areas, other research agendas, rather than creating disciples or followers in my area of research.  I see my job as helping students realize their own agendas, how to pursue their research questions as best as they can.  I have Miles Kahler to thank for doing the same for me.  I didn't do the "smart" thing at UCSD and do an international political economy project--which is what most of of the IR profs specialized in at the time.  I followed my interests to wherever they led me--because I got into this business because I am a deeply curious person.  



Saturday, December 26, 2020

Quarantine, Week 41: A Very Untraditional Holiday

It has been a very strange winterfest.  The last time it was just Mrs. Spew and myself was back in the age of dial-up, when few folks had cell phones (and the folks who did tended to be drug dealers, or so I told one class when a student answered his cell phone).  Even though Hollywood Spew left the nest a while ago, we would see her at my mother-in-law's for the week of shopping, eating, and nagging.  

When I watched Wonder Woman 1984 last night (meh), the most moving moment was when WW and Steve walked under the Hirshhorn Museum. 

From a visit a few years ago

Going to the Smithsonian museums became a father and daughter tradition since probably the year after we lived in DC.  It was fun to chart the changing tastes of my kid as she went from wanting to just see the Natural History Museum every year to relenting and then speeding through the Air and Space Museum to being interested in the history museum to getting into the art museums.  For the past few years, we would switch up the second museum we would see (she loved the African-American museum last year, hated the Native American one the year before because it seemed to her to be too much ignoring the current plight) but we would always stop by the Hirshhorn.  She has a fondness for modern art and so do I.  Seeing Diana and Steve there forced me to pause the movie for a few seconds, as this week also marks the year anniversary of seeing my daughter in person as well as a year since I saw my sister-in-law and the nieces on that side of the family.  And, yes, my sweet hermit of a mother-in-law.  

I always enjoyed wandering around the greater DC area because of nostalgia for what little I remember of when I lived there in kindergarten and first grade and for what I remember from my year in the Pentagon and from my summers in the hills to the north at summer camp.  So, much anger and sadness that me and mine are deprived of such stuff.  

We did have a zoom holiday party "at" work this week.  A bunch of these folks I have never met in person as we added a faculty member last summer and we have had much staff turnover.  But the highlight was the two-person sweater:

But we are making the most of it.  I spent last weekend distributing the cookies I made thanks to my indecisiveness about which recipes to use.  This weekend is more relaxing (indeed, I have vowed not to do any work this weekend) as I baked only a donut--a bundt donut.  Last weekend's driving around to see friends and acquaintances to distribute cookies was fun and necessary.  Not just to avoid the extra weight if the cookies had remained at home, but I saw more people in person in one afternoon than I had the previous nine months, excepting one July in person meeting.  It really meant a lot to have some contact.  When I dropped off a 1/3 of the donut cake today with my co-teacher David Hornsby, he said he would be hugging everyone he sees at the next major conference.  That might be quite normal ... at least for the first conference or two 😂.

The only cookie cutters I have are Darth, Yoda, and R2

Among the traditions we didn't experience this year: the opening up of lots of presents (my presents were mostly things I bought in sprees of stress-shopping), the fussing over baking in a small kitchen at the mother-in-law's (the fussing would not be mine as I mostly did not cook the big dinner--that was mostly up to my wife and her sister), the poppers pulled by the next gen, the wrapping paper mess, the ritualized restaurants we would visit.  Seeing a Star Wars movie just after it came out... So, what will I do on this non-shopping Boxing Day, the first Boxing Day for which I am actually in Canada ever?  Video games that I have left gathering dust because, well, I suck at them.  Time to get beyond the beach at Normandy, I think.

Enjoy your winterfest and happy new year!  See you in 2021.