Thursday, April 30, 2009

Professing to Generalize or Generalizing Professionally

In recent days, there has been much discussion about the profession of professor. Whether it is Joseph Nye arguing that we political scientists are not policy relevant (see also this) and punish those who try; or Francis Fukuyama asserting that we need to get rid of tenure. My first instinct is to think and say that we ought not generalize about all professors or all political scientists. But then I realized, my job is to generalize about political events, including how politicians, military officers, bureaucrats, and even voters behave.

So, I guess I am stuck with the generalizations of others about what I do. Turn about is fair, after all.

Still, to start my blogging career/hobby/new form of not-working, I gotta say that it is funny that these two, with very non-traditional careers, standing at the commanding heights of the profession, may be taking a key nugget of truth and running way too far with them.

First, regarding Nye, political science aspires to be a science, which is pretty arrogant perhaps, but the idea is to create a better understanding of the political world. If physicists and biologists range from those who do very basic research that appear unconnected to today's problems to those who are directly involved in policy-making, what is wrong with those who study politics having the same range. We have scholars doing all kinds of work that seems obscure to the layperson, but actually may provide the foundations for those who are closer to the policy world.

My own perspective may be somewhat unique, as I was lucky enough to get a fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations in 2001-2002 to hang out in the Pentagon in the Strategic Planning and Policy Directorate of the Joint Staff on the Bosnia desk. I learned a great deal from that experience, some of which ran directly counter to my theoretical orientations gained through graduate school and beyond, including the importance of personality and process. It also opened up a new set of questions that is now occupying much of my research time (civil-military relations, how countries manage their military when operating in alliances/coalitions), etc. While this opportunity is somewhat rare, political scientists of all stripes interact with voters, interest groups, media, policy-makers and other relevant audiences all the time. And, fundamentally, we interact with citizens in democracies (most of the time) who then vote. So, we are not entirely excluded from the policy realm and most of us do care about such stuff, if I am permitted to generalize. Of course, much of our professional incentives point away from policy relevance and public engagement, towards academic journals and the like. But we are all ego-driven and want more people to hear us, rather than less, as the existence of this blog suggests.

Regarding Fukuyama, I will be briefer--ours is a strange profession with complete job security--after a harrowing start with a very difficult job market and a probationary period. He may be concerned about the stultification that may come with job security, but there are other solutions to that problem, mostly focused on developing incentives for continued good performance. Merit pay is the obvious answer that exists at most places. The job market is another one, as any effort to move before or after tenure requires a record that resonates beyond one's locale.

And this gets to the heart of the challenge. Academia is rewarding in many ways, but it requires a great deal of sacrifice as well:
  • 5 plus years of minimal income in graduate school,
  • followed by a very stressful and uncertain job market (see the various rumor blogs to get a quick taste of this not-so-quiet desperation),
  • then having to move somewhere that may not be entirely desirable (I spent six years in Lubbock, TX, which has good points, but has undervalued housing and a near zero population growth for more than a few reasons),
  • wages that are generally not competitive with professions with similar levels of education.
So, if you want to eliminate tenure, then you will have to come up with some other way to compensate those who thirst for greater knowledge but have to live in the real world.

PS See Dan Drezner's take on this debate.


Steve Greene said...

Well done, Steve. I look forward to reading more such thoughtful analysis in the future.

Kenneth said...

Good post. I tend to think the primary problemw with PS is that no one seems to be asking interesting/insightful questions. When I quit the game back in '04, the top journals were quite full of discourse involving statistical methods that, at best, improve predictive modeling by 3%. Little focus seemed to be given to the actual questions we should have been trying to answer. My undergrads would ask me simple questions such as "does the VP selection matter in presidential elections?" and I couldn't find an answer for them. What I could point them to were several academics attempting to make a name for themselves by slightly modifying someone else's method, then slapping their name on it.

As someone who does public opinion work in the private sector now, I feel like writing a top PS paper is sort of like winning your fantasy baseball league. Among a small cohort of people in the field, you'll be quite popular - but as soon as you leave the hotel, you become irrelevant at best, a waste of tax dollars at worst. So yes, I certainly agree with the point about PS having a stronger role in policy, but honestly, I'd just be happy if the field placed any emphasis whatsoever on teaching. That alone would justify the profession.

BTW - my tainted experience comes by way of Ohio State where I was a Ph.D. student for 2.5 years.

Dan Nexon said...


Dan Nexon said...

Substantively: I find it deeply ironic that a full professor at SAIS is writing against tenure. SAIS does not tenure junior faculty. They give them renewable contracts, but these contracts terminate after a certain number of renewals. The results have not generally been good for the junior professors, and I hear constant stories about all sorts of bias in terms of who does and doesn't get renewed.

I agree completely that part of the rationale for tenure is as a kind of compensation for the pay-relative-to-education found in the academy and the tremendous insecurity that comes before tenure. But I also think those who say that the "free speech" issue isn't so important anymore only think that because tenure has protected it for so long. Abolish tenure, and things will get ugly very, very quickly.

Thea argument is also a bit strange. Viz. my comment about SAIS: if you want to destroy creativity, there's no faster way to do it then to make year-to-year job security dependent upon the whims of senior colleagues or administrators.