Update to Qualtrics JavaScript Conjoint Randomization Code

Are you using the standard JavaScript code written by Thomas Leeper (Git) in your conjoint project? Wondering why your traits1a variable is no longer storing the piped traits? The answer is straightforward. You need to change your embedded variable names and the command you’re using in JavaScript to save the traits. (Here’s the random forum post that helped me understand this; apparently, it has to do with the migration to Simple, but maybe it’s deeper. User Tom_1842, you da real one.)

First, your traits embedded variables need to have this prefix (no quotes): “__js_”.

Second, you need to change your code block:

Qualtrics.SurveyEngine.setEmbeddedData('traits1a', traits_a.join("|"));
Qualtrics.SurveyEngine.setEmbeddedData('traits1b', traits_b.join("|"));

To instead be
Qualtrics.SurveyEngine.setJSEmbeddedData('traits1a', traits_a.join("|"));
Qualtrics.SurveyEngine.setJSEmbeddedData('traits1b', traits_b.join("|"));

The Moderately Skilled Person’s Guide to Making a Bluesky Feed

In this post, I’ll lay out the basics of how to create a curated Bluesky feed–that is, a feed for a list of approved posters, like the Polisky feed. With a couple of deletions, this is also a guide to how to create an uncurated Bluesky feed, although given the nature of the site this is not an appropriate solution for all users.

This is not difficult, but it is just a little intimidating at first.

Continue reading “The Moderately Skilled Person’s Guide to Making a Bluesky Feed”

How to Use Polisky

Attention conservation notice: If you’re a political scientist or IR scholar on Bluesky,

  1. Like (and pin) the Political Science feed to make it easier to find relevant content.
  2. Tag @profmusgrave.bsky.social in a post asking to be added to the Polisky list (make sure your bio has something to do with political science or IR). When you’re added, your request will be “liked” (no further announcement needed!)
  3. Update your settings to show posts from your feeds in your home feed.

What’s Bluesky?

Bluesky is a new, so far invitation-only social media network that functions a lot like pre-Musk Twitter. There are some key differences, however. For one, there aren’t (yet!) hashtags in the same way Twitter had them (although, notably, Twitter didn’t have hashtags at the beginning, either). This means that organizing posts takes place via feeds.

Feeds offer some of the same functionalities as hashtags, lists, or communities. A feed is simply a curated list of posts on Bluesky. The curation can be done fully openly, as with a feed that searches for any keywords and automatically indexes them. (This can approximate hashtag behavior and some feeds are keyed to hashtag-looking keywords, like #LandBack.) Feeds can also display all posts from some users or some posts from a pre-screened list of users. There are other varieties, too, but these are the ones most relevant to us right now.

The purpose of a feed is to make it easier to find information in the jumble of Bluesky. Posting privileges means that a user can choose to broadcast a post to the feed, where it may have greater reach than on the user’s timeline alone and where it will also be easier to find than on the main timeline.

What’s Polisky?

Polisky is a feed in Bluesky. It is also, as of this writing, one of the largest science communities and one of the very largest feeds on Bluesky altogether, although I do not expect either of those distinctions to endure forever.

Polisky is the political science feed for Bluesky. More accurately, it is a feed about academic political science and related topics comprised of user-nominated posts from a closed list of political scientists, international relations scholars, journalists, think tankers, and associated others.

To post, users must be added to the confusingly-named mute list “PoliSci List”. (Mute lists are, so far, the only way in Bluesky to organize large lists of users; their original function was to share lists of users to be muted, but feed organizers also use them to create lists of users to populate feeds. It’s not confusing at all if you ignore the technical name.)

The list is maintained by me. It is open to anyone within those broad, if subjective, parameters, including faculty, Ph.D. students, and so on.

Polisky is not just an attempt to provide a replacement for hashtags: it’s an effort to democratize the discovery and promotion of academics, experts, and work relevant to that community. If you’re a member of Polisky, you can reach a much larger audience than your follower list alone. The core principle of Polisky is that your follower count shouldn’t determine your ability to reach the discipline.

You may be wondering why there is an approval list for people to post to Polisky. In that case, you are probably new to Bluesky. (What does he mean by that? you wonder. It means you are probably new to Bluesky.)

What’s on Polisky?

Polisky only displays posts (not replies!) that users on the list have marked with “polisci”, “polisky”, or the globe emoji 🌐 . That means it is not a feed of everything that people on the list say, but it is a feed of everything that one of the users with posting privileges has tagged with one of those phrases. Those posts can include users talking about their own or others’ works, or it can include relevant posts by other users that a poster has quote-posted with one of the keywords. (By the way, it can take two to five minutes for a post to appear, so don’t expect it to appear instantaneously.)

How do I Join Polisky?

Anyone can like and follow the Political Science feed–unlike Twitter communities, these are not closed.

Being added to the list does grant permission to post to the feed, but to follow the feed requires liking (pressing the heart icon for) the Political Science feed itself. Liking the feed adds it to the “My Feeds” section of Bluesky (app or Desktop). The next level up is to pin the feed, which makes it easier to find within the My Feeds section.

How do I Use Polisky?

A good way to use Polisky is to follow the feed and see what’s happening. The best way is to contribute to Polisky and its subfeeds.

You might be wondering: is it rude to share your own work to polisky? Absolutely not. Self-promotion is encouraged. As Rabbi Hillel never said, if you are not for your work, who will be for your work? Promote! And if someone else’s work is relevant, promote that too. Aside from usual norms against hate-criming and other abuses, the only thing that would be discouraged would be overly monetizing behavior–but book promotion is okay as long as it’s not spam.

Other Feeds and Subfeeds

Polisky is for a broad audience, but you don’t always want to communicate with such a broad audience–or sometimes you want to communicate with different audiences.

Professor Tim Ruback and Maaike Verbruggen have collected a list of political science expanded universe feeds and subfeeds. (Thanks, folks!!) Some of these are feeds in their own right; some are Polisky subfeeds. (A subfeed is something that uses the same closed list as Polisky.) Check this out! You might find that you want to get active in the Authoritarian Regimes feed or in the Visual International Relations subfeed.

Can I Make My Own Feeds?

Yes! See this explainer.

How Can I Use the Feeds Most Effectively?

To see what’s in your feeds, go to the # (hashtag) icon in the app / desktop version of Bluesky. (If you’re using other apps to access this, I’m going to assume you’re technically competent enough to figure out the corresponding steps.) This will bring up a list of the feeds you’ve liked:

It’s a good idea to check in on your feeds every once in a while. To do that, just click on the feed and you’ll be taken to a page showing all the most recent posts.

Of course, people get lazy and want material delivered to them. (Don’t we all!) That’s why it’s a good idea to change your settings so that posts from the feeds to which you’ve subscribed show up in your home feed. To do this, go to settings (the gearbox icon) and then click “Home Feed Preferences”.

Once you’ve done that, a new menu will show up with ways to customize your home feeds. Scroll to the bottom and hit the toggle for “Show Posts from My Feeds” to set it to “Yes”. (I make no recommendations regarding the other settings I’m showing here.)

Finally, if you’re really into a feed, go to its page and hit the “Pin” button.

Doing this will add the feed to the top of your home feed as a tab that you can access quickly.

Apocrypha Against Canon

My informal presentation to ISA-Northeast 2022 on pedagogy

Apocrypha Against Canon: Breaking Free of 1648 and All That in the IR and Foreign Policy Classroom

Abstract: Although International Relations is arguably becoming more diverse and less Eurocentric, the canonical timeline of pivotal events and important years remains: 1648, 1789, 1945, and so on. Even attempts to dethrone the timeline’s reign only reinforce its status as the default. To the extent that this dominance reinforces a potted historical understanding, it perpetuates a model of thinking about IR that continues to place Western Europe and its offshoots in the most flattering light at the center of world politics, rather than introducing students to the broad sweep of contestation and variation present in International Relations. One way to address this issue is to use what I term “apocryphal history”: cases that put the canonical timeline into a different light, either by showing “sidelights” of the main events, using cases other than the canonical ones to illustrate core phenomena, and by displaying fuller context of events. From using the U.S.-Mexican War to illustrate bargaining theory to discussing the cooperative roads half-taken at the end of the Cold War, this paper discusses how to reinvigorate historical examples in the classroom.

Introduction: What are we teaching when we teach “world politics”?

I teach large courses on world politics and U.S. foreign policy at a flagship public university. I like doing this, and the conditions are acceptable. Like all workers who aren’t terminally alienated from their labor, however, I want to have some meaning in what I do. Like all scholars who aren’t locked into the conventional paradigms transmitted from the past, I’m interested in finding ways to explore themes that will help illuminate students understand the world they will live in. And like everyone who fancies themself an intellectual, I’d like to put my own stamp on the material.

This leads to a dilemma of andragogy (really, we shouldn’t talk about “pedagogy” in higher ed). For all I want to shake things up and present my own arguments, we as scholars live in a society: a course called Introduction to World Politics can’t just be an Introduction to Things I, Paul Musgrave, Find Interesting. There has to be some way that my courses are inducting students into a larger field of study. And, because these are large lecture courses that form part of the (semi-)requirements of my department’s largest major and which also function as gen-ed courses, it’s really more about larger fields of study: political science, international relations, public policy, being conversant with scholarly knowledge production, and learning how to decipher articles in publications like The New Yorker and Foreign Affairs that may be foreign to my students’ experiences.

In other words, I recognize that there’s value in the conventional. I can’t just go rogue without betraying my (loose) obligations to others and my (more important) obligations to students who might reasonably assume that my courses are stepping-stones to other learning. There’s coercion, too, in the conventional. Those conventions encompass student assumptions about assessment, time to be spent on coursework, topics to be covered, and so on. It is already hard enough to dissuade students from the perception that political scientists like myself are politics super-fans or wannabe senators who have no obligations other than cheering for a team (and we all know what team they think we cheer for). Much of my classroom work is already set against this belief by proclaiming, and sometimes demonstrating, the value of theory and deep learning. That’s on top of some degree of individuation (difficult in courses whose enrollment numbers in the hundreds) and the ordinary effort involved in the maintenance of LMSs, TAs, GPAs, and other acronymical demons.

The particular set of conventions I want to discuss here, though, have more to do with the canons of what to include in a survey course. In substantive terms, those frequently include tropes like the prominence of historical markers bringing our story from the international relations of ancient Greece to the maneuverings of today’s great powers or deliberations about the Paradigms and what wisdom they have today. In formal terms (that is, literally the forms of what we convey), that often involves a reliance on textbooks, readers, and pop political science translations (that is, Monkey Cage and similar “explainer) pieces. And in disciplinary terms, it means enforcing boundaries about who counts as IR and what subjects matter.

I am not, particularly, an iconoclast. My syllabi are still pretty conventional and my courses use textbooks when good ones are available. But I have tried to strike out on my won in a couple of ways. One way, which I won’t go into here, is making sure that I have pieces that address the abstract and remote issues we discuss in our theories and cases in more humanistic ways. That includes making sure there’s some poetry or first-person essays or a short story in World Politics. Another way, which I also won’t go into here because I’m not doing a good enough job at it right now, is in trying to use examples in World Politics that, well, come from world politics–less Europe, more India; less USA, more Americas.

The way I want to talk about balancing these tensions, instead, has to do with how I try to choose cases that are before, after, or besides the conventional cases we use to illustrate key concepts–and, in one case, how I choose cases that conventional readings leave out of international relations altogether. In this way, I think of myself as trying to break out of the particularities of The Canon, or at least of the canonical cases, by using cases and topics that aren’t quite as easily available. Doing so, I think, can lead us to another way of rethinking the canon of IR: moving beyond the standard histories we know are wrong to less familiar territories that can provide useful encounters.

Making a Canon

Organized Christian and Jewish practices recognize some scriptural texts as belonging to a different status than others. For Christians, the practice of constructing a Biblical canon took, at a minimum, centuries–millennia, if we view Protestant reforms to Old Testament inclusion as a part of a process that began with the compilation of the Hebrew Bible. The process was not smooth and was not pre-ordained: Is 2 Thessalonians canonical? Well, maybe not, but probably so. The Apocalypse of Peter? Well, no, even if the contents of that apocryphal text seem pretty close to the vulgar beliefs of the demotic church.

The process of constructing a canon of international relations cases has been no less … divinely guided. Some cases (the Second World War, the First World War, the Cuban Missile Crisis) were born canonical; others (Fashoda, the Montreal Convention) have had canonicity thrust upon them. There is no one path to becoming part of the canon: objective importance or scholarly interest, for instance, can elevate a case to this point. Once chosen, the status is semi-permanent: at this point, everyone in the USA has their lecture notes on the Cuban Missile Crisis set, and no amount of change in the world (or, often, in the scholarship) is going to stop it being the focal point of a good many lectures in intro courses. The canonical cases can be short (“the Treaty of Westphalia heralded the modern states-system” is a statement nobody has ever written but which everyone will recognize and most, by now, will doubt) or they can be as lengthy as an assigned book, but they are in the main familiar to everyone who teaches the subject.

That common core of knowledge helps communicate some concepts well, not least because the cases are so well understood that they have been taught repeatedly and materials are readily available. Yet the construction of a canon has also created both non-canonical cases. The vast library of these cases include ones that are too messy, unfamiliar to students, or otherwise inaccessible for intro courses. Yet it’s likely that the set of cases that could have served as well as some of the other ones that have been elevated exceeds the number of cases that were included. And, in fact, given the (seemingly) enormous switching costs, it’s likely that there’s a lot of cases out there in the apocrypha–cases that are eligible to be included but haven’t been–that we could use to better effect.

Cases from the Apocrypha

What would those cases look like? Well, they’d explore topics and themes that are of theoretical interest and which display clear evidence of that mechanism or concept’s operation. Ideally, furthermore, they’d also stretch students just a little in terms of introducing them to something that’s superficially familiar but strange or something that’s in the “Extended Universe” of the standard K-12 American educational curriculum–something that, once you know it, makes the standard saga more comprehensible.

One of the cases I use in my U.S. foreign policy course is an excerpt from The Familiar Made Strange, an edited volume by historians, which deals with the 1965 immigration reform. Rather than slot the case into the conventional, retrospective reading of history, in which the bill opened up greater immigration to the U.S.A., Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof (a historian and specialist in Latinx studies) talks about how this outcome was inadvertent and rested in large part on the unexpected reach of the bill. Doing so allows me to talk about the continuities of today’s immigration debates with the debates that allowed many of my students’ families to come to the United States while simultaneously troubling notions of the USA as a “nation of immigrants.” (Astute readers will also note that this means my US Foreign Policy course treats immigration as a fundamental foreign policy issue, which it very much is.)

Another case I use in my World Politics course concerns U.S. territorial expansion during the 1830s and 1840s, in particular the parallel negotiations between the USA and the United Kingdom over the status of Oregon and the war with Mexico over (at least initially) the status of Texas. These are not particularly familiar cases to my (mainly Northeastern) audience. Indeed, for all the importance of the U.S. war with Mexico, it hardly registers in most K-12 curricula. A good many of my students may graduate college without otherwise hearing about this–even though it has been foundational to shaping the continent on which they live. These cases thus help me teach my students something about the processes that have concretely shaped their country and its relations with its neighbors. They also help me illustrate the bargaining model of war and different outcomes. Further, by portraying the Mexican war using a source that’s anchored in the Mexican perspective, I can talk about the domestic politics and identities involved on the Mexican side of the conflict, thus de-centering the U.S. perspective while also making clear how such processes can produce bargaining failures.

The apocryphal cases can also be useful for public-facing work and other forms of scholarship. In an article for Foreign Policy published last November, I investigated the case of one of those Internet facts that springs to life, zombie-like, every few months: the fact that Pepsi once “owned” the “fourth-largest navy in the world”. Well, in one particular sense, yes, but in any meaningful sense, no–but that case nevertheless proved an important and accessible road into thinking about the development (and eventual failure) of commercial ties as a way out of the Cold War without having the Soviet Union collapse. The piece explores the limits of commercial ties as a way to piece but also, more importantly, how difficult to predict the future is when you’re living history forward instead of recounting it backward. Even if I’m a staunch presentist (or even futurist) in my course design, I try to fight presentism in terms of the perspective we bring to the past when I’m teaching. (To be sure, other scholars have addressed these topics, and done so in more depth, although to be fair to me, not in as interesting a way and not in as short a length–assign this piece in your IPE, business and politics, or Russian foreign policy course!)

In my World Politics course, I’ve begun treating a case as central to IR that is marginal to the discipline: indigenous-settler relations. Although entire subfields of scholarship are centered on this issue, relations between settler countries and indigenous societies are not central to political science or international relations writ large. Indeed, from the habitual state-centric paradigm of many intro courses, Native politics really doesn’t exist. There is good work (and we need more) out there to be taught on this issue. In particular, intro American courses need to recognize that U.S. sovereignty is inextricably a multi-polity one, with not just states but also tribal governments existing as sovereign within the framework of the U.S. political order. (In the same way, my U.S. Foreign Policy course treats the mechanics of U.S. formal empire as part of its remit, since at a minimum imperial possessions condition U.S. interests and prove to be literal testing grounds for U.S. exercises of power, whether administrative or nuclear.) Studying indigenous politics not only entails the recognition of indigenous peoples and societies as a part of political systems. It entails discussions about what the extension of the “Westphalian state” actually meant, about the boundaries of “civilization”, and about the negotiated and unsettling ways that a good chunk of the currently sovereign countries in the world came to be. This is not the same as incorporating “race” into international relations–it is in many ways parallel, to be sure–and the topics that it raises allows for discussions of South American and antipodean politics in ways that often don’t come about.

In World Politics, we also talk about the distinctions that drive global politics. One unusual way I get at this is to teach an excerpt from Ashley Mears’s Very Important People, an ethnography of VIP rooms at exclusive clubs. It’s got everything: drugs, alcohol, the accumulation of capital, gender roles, immigration and migration politics, Bourdieu–and not much sex, because the point of being in the club is showing that you are in the club. There’s other ways to talk about how constructivism and social mechanisms influence the accumulation of certain types of capital and the dispensing of other types, but why not do it in style?

Finally, and again in World Politics, we don’t start with the Greeks. The ancient Greeks weren’t central to ancient international relations. We start with the Egyptians and the Amarna System. Others might be better placed to start with something in South Asia, in the Mayan world, or in the Warring States period, but I … happen to like the opera Akhenaten (which is not historically accurate). The Greeks can come back at some point, to be sure, but Thucydides wasn’t the start of the story–neither were the Amarna letters!–and starting off with yet another bad history of the Peloponnesian War seemed to me to be doing a disservice to everyone involved, including myself, while reinforcing some rather harmful stereotypes about the centrality of “the West” to many conversations.

The Case for the Canonical Cases

The case against doing all of this is that it might weaken my students’ ties to the rest of the discipline. It’s probably a good thing for folks studying a similar topic to have similar understandings of cases, after all. That could be the case even if the common understandings are wrong. A Schelling point isn’t the best point to meet in a city–it’s the one that you can get to with the greatest chance of seeing someone else. If our just-so stories about the Cuban Missile Crisis (or whatever) are wrong, well, at least they’re common.

Okay, that’s a strawmannirg of an argument. But it’s not entirely wrong. There really is a reason we get away with shorthands we all know are wrong, like “Westphalia” or “1918” or even “the end of the Cold War” (please give me a date). All theories are wrong, some theories are useful, etc.

Strawman or no, though, I do think that the case for the canon should be heard out. I’m just less inclined to defer to every part of it than I used to. Fortunately, at this point, there’s enough anti-paradigmatic extremism that I can avoid teaching the tedious paradigms in World Politics (or, rather, I can teach the isms that matter: racism, capitalism, imperialism…). Teaching less about cases that are overtaught in the world, like the Second World War, means I can use better cases to talk about things that take place in the world. Indeed, it often means choosing more representative cases or cases that look at more interesting topics than the rather closed-off and stale canon. Probably the most important example of this, of course, is the way that The Clash of Civilizations (in whatever form it takes) became a part of the canon. As I’ve written elsewhere, this (like the parallel canonization of eugenicist Garrett Hardin) was a mistake, and one that’s wasted a lot of time. Teach Ostrom instead of Hardin, and teach anything instead of Clash.

My point, then, is that we should realize that the canon of IR isn’t divinely inspired. The canon is what we make of it — and within a good deal of discretion, we can make of it something a lot better than we’ve been handed down.

Succeeding in Political Science Ph.D. Comps

Few parts of Ph.D. education in political science and international relations are as stress-inducing as the comprehensive examinations.

Generally, doctoral students value doing well in school, and generally that means they value doing well on tests. For students that fall into that category, the idea that there’s a test which, if you fail, means you might have to leave graduate school is bad enough. More to the point, this is a special kind of test, one that students will likely have to take only once or twice and with a format that can be maddeningly vague. Yet well-meaning people also often advise that you shouldn’t try to do too well on the exam, because you have other things to do.

High-stakes and ambiguous? That’s a formula for extreme tension.

That’s the spirit!

Ideally, students arrive at the comprehensive examination after a well-integrated curriculum provided by a supportive faculty who have made their expectations clear. Not everyone can expect this: some departments are dysfunctional, sometimes faculty are busy, and sometimes a pandemic strikes. If you’re floundering, or even just worried, I hope this post will provide you with the mentorship and advice you need.

What I Want From Your Comp

Let me begin by laying out what I, a faculty member, want from graduate students’ comps experience. I don’t want you to fail! Neither do most faculty members. Failure is costly for students and for the faculty. It sets back graduation timelines, adds to workload, and suggests that we as a faculty made a mistake somewhere–whether in admitting a student, engaging and supporting students, teaching students well, or somewhere else. I want students to succeed well enough that I can sign the paper attesting that they displayed enough knowledge about the field to pass.

But I don’t want to pass someone who does not display that competence. If a student is struggling with the comprehensive exam, then by definition they are not meeting one of the requirements for graduation. At a minimum, that should require students and faculty to re-assess the student’s present course. It may be that their trajectory can be saved; it may also be that doctoral education is not a good fit. Comps can force conversations that can be unpleasant but which can result in something kinder than deferring difficult talks about whether graduate school is the right fit. Saving someone years of their life and lifelong bitterness is a kindness, not a cruelty, no matter how it may subjectively appear at the time.

What Does Success Mean?

The first task is to explore what the meaning of success in a comprehensive examination is.

The easiest answer is that success means passing. So what does it take to pass? When I assess comprehensive examinations, I am looking for students to hit two major points.

Demonstrating Command of the Literature

At a minimum, I am looking for good, clear answers to the questions that demonstrate a command of the relevant literature. That normally involves some sense of the historical development of the field, the major theoretical arguments, the relationship between real-world events and academic theory development, and the strengths and limitations of major methodological developments and how they have contributed to the development of the field. This should draw upon but go beyond the coverage of these topics in seminar courses. (It’s important to note that what people are capable of will depend on the specifics of your department and comps format.)

Thus, a question about realism might begin with Morgenthau, progress to Waltz, give an overview of Mearsheimer, and then engage seriously with one or two of the more recent and useful debates. You could also engage questions like whether theories must be testable and why that proposition is or isn’t useful, or whether realism is a degenerative research project, etc. And you could address how theory relates to real-world tests like the end of the Cold War, the long-term decline in conventional warfare, critiques from feminist and other scholars, and so on. (Note, by the way, that an appropriate answer could also be constructed using none of these elements; I’m just giving a flavor for what I would like to see.)

By the same token, a question about what methodology IR scholars should employ would address the similarities and disagreements among major methodological approaches, as well as survey some approaches that have been discarded and some that are on the rise. This would involve understanding not only what methodologists prescribe but also how applied researchers have employed those tools and the relationship (close or loose fit) between theory and tests. These days, for instance, I’d expect to read something much more than a refried qual vs quant debate. I’d want to hear about different varieties of qualitative methods and distinctions between observational statistical methods, text-as-data approaches, network methods, experiments, and so on.

Throughout, the goal is not just to regurgitate classical citations, but to relate those enduring debates to the paths that have been taken, the paths taken but abandoned, and the paths that we could take.

Making an Argument

The second part is whether a student can actually devise and present an argument rather than a summary. This is a, perhaps the, key distinction between undergraduate and graduate work.

I take it practically for granted that students should be able to competently and correctly summarize and synthesize earlier work. Failure to do so is pretty much an automatic failure (and a pretty good sign that the student is not fit for this business). This isn’t Political Science Jeopardy where we test whether you can match the author to the argument. You should be able to do that, of course, but you should also be working toward a clear goal and target in your writing. This isn’t just a literature exam, it’s a true literature review in which you draw on evidence from what you’ve read to make a real argument.

What I would like to see is that evidence marshaled in favor of a thesis that answers the question fully and directly. A great answer would also lay out ways that the student could build upon it in her own work (whether that be teaching or research). So that answer to the hypothetical question about realism could build to an argument about why one or another strand of realism should be discarded or enthroned, about why materialist arguments should be discarded altogether, about why the debate about the paradigms is not worthwhile, etc, and then lead to the conclusion about what I should do next. (These can become the basis for literature reviews and undergraduate lectures later on.)

Demonstrating a command of the literature without putting that command toward the construction of a compelling, or at least competent, thesis is useless. As one commenter on a draft put it, “a good comp answer identifies what the big divides in a literature are, and attempts to adjudicate which side is right (or at least less wrong).” Beyond that, originality and a point of view can be valuable. What I’d really like to see is an argument that makes me think about these questions differently. (Indeed, when I write questions for comps, sometimes I write questions that I’m of two or more minds about!). The model should be the review essays in World PoliticsThe Annual Review of Political Science, and International Studies Review.

Modulating Expectations

Again, though, the point is to pass. It is much easier to pass than to impress me or change my mind. And passing doesn’t require you to do that! Despite the name “comprehensive”, your goal is not to have a thorough knowledge of everything in the discipline: your goal is to be competent enough to pass.

To be sure, in chess, I was taught that it’s bad to play for a draw. Doing so is likely to put you in a position to lose. If you want to maximize your chances for a draw, you probably still want to be looking for ways to win. In the same way, it’s hard to say what it takes to pass instead of to pass with honors (or whatever your local equivalent is). Nevertheless, focusing on these two major points does, I think, clarify where marginal effort should be put: past a certain point of preparation, you are probably better off working to find ways to make arguments that answer likely categories of questions (and using those outlines to guide your prep) than trying to read another book.

To tie this together: you can’t expect to gut this out without studying, and you probably can’t bullshit your way to a pass. But if you put in the effort and approach studying for the exam in an organized way, it’s unlikely that you will fail. (And if you do, that points to a larger problem with the department or other agents beyond the scope of this essay.) The question, then, is how you should organize yourself to succeed.

How to Prepare for Comps: In General

This two-step definition of success should be reflected in preparation for the comp.

It is a good beginning, but only a beginning, to read and understand the comps reading list (if one is provided for you). I will note that the reading list tends to be itself a beginning, by the way. I certainly expect to see at least a few citations from major journals and books that aren’t on the reading list, especially from journals like International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, and International Security (although not limited to this list). (My preference is for more recent stuff rather than canonical works, although this is not universal and you should check.)

The goal of reading all of this is, again, not to memorize a disjointed list of abstracts and keywords. Rather, the point of this reading is to acquaint students with major debates and give them the raw materials they need to develop a sense within the student of what in the field is working and what is not. Indeed, my interest is not really that the student passes comps; at this level, passing comps is the expectation. Rather, my interest in how the student can use comps to orient herself toward something that seems promising and away from arguments that seem played out. Ideally, this leads to a better dissertation (and career).

The more one is contact with work recently published in major journals, the easier this is; similarly, work from the fringes of the discipline can also be useful because it is work outside the paradigm that will, eventually, supply the basis for overturning the incumbent paradigm. (Just because something is published in IO doesn’t make it right, and just because something is published in a lower-ranked journal doesn’t make it wrong.)

Okay, but how can you read all of this? By now, I hope it’s no surprise that you’re not expected to read every word on every page of every book (or article). You need to read with a purpose and you need to read like a graduate student. For standard academic books, that means reading the introduction, theory chapter, conclusion, and one or two empirical chapters. For articles, it means reading the abstract, introduction, and then the sections you’re most responsible for. (Yes, you shouldn’t even be reading all of every article.)

In fact, you shouldn’t be reading the entire list at all. You should be prepping with a group of at least one other and as many as three or four other grad students. Divide the readings among yourselves and share your notes. Similarly, parcel out the likely questions among yourselves and share your outlines. You shouldn’t outsource everything (and you certainly shouldn’t all turn in identical answers!) but you should be thinking about how you can focus on your strengths while letting others help you through your weak spots (and vice versa). In other words, the logic should be that everyone does some foundational work but after that it’s comparative advantage that should guide you. Prepping for comps should not be a solo endeavor–it’s a group project.

(As one reviewer notes, like all group projects, there is a risk of free-riding. My advice here is to practice both ex ante and ex post screening: be a little selfish about whom you choose to work with, and be willing to be firm about having people live up to commitments. Having just one partner who’s great can be better than having three mid partners.)

As you read, you should be continually iterating through answers to likely questions. This should be one of the things you talk about with your group and with the faculty members you’re close to. As a professor, I’m much more interested in having conversations with students about critiques and arguments than about summaries of books. Developing arguments involves making drafts, testing them against counterarguments, and revising in response–and that revision, in turn, should guide your engagement with the recent scholarship that’s not on the reading list just as it guides your review of the works on that list.

In other words, you should not arrive at comps eager to find out what argument you’re going to make. You should arrive at comps with a suite of tested, revised argumentation lines that you’ve debated with your peers and (for at least some) with one or two faculty members. Since the precise questions will be a surprise, there’s going to be a lot of work to adapt these, but many of the subsidiary lines should be relatively pat.

Incidentally, this should suggest that your preparation for comps begins with your choice of coursework and with your note-taking and paper-writing for courses. You should be familiar with a solid core of the literature from your seminars. Go back to the syllabi and your notes to re-acquaint yourself with those arguments (and now might be a good time to look at some of the optional readings). That, in turn, should guide your approach to comps. (I really hope this isn’t a surprise but I’ve had some experiences that suggest that it may be to at least some readers.)

Note: this isn’t middle school. If your takeaway from coursework was that some major approach is deeply flawed or that there’s a hundred-dollar bill on the sidewalk should the field only adopt this or that approach, then develop that! You’re not really supposed to be in the business of repeating what other people have said before. Know, however, that this is a riskier approach (after all, your insight might turn out to be, uh, dumb). It may be a better idea for you to try to make a softer version of the critique in comps as you attempt to pass and develop your idea as a review essay or original article later. After all, pubs > comps.

How to Prepare for Comps: Specific Tactics

There are some specific tactics you can employ to prepare.

  • Extended summaries. Prepare extended summaries of books and articles so that you can systematically record their main argument, methodology, evidence, major interlocutors, and caveats. Use a spreadsheet or Google Forms to capture this; leave a text box for your own thoughts and questions and for rebuttals and connections to other readings as you come across them. This is a great way to organize your group’s work, by the way.
  • Flash cards. Yes, I’ve said before that recall isn’t the point of comps, but it is part of the formula. Using flash cards or flash card apps to associate your notes with the citation can work wonders. This is one reason I encourage you to take your notes in some sort of spreadsheet-esque format: you can simplify the process of merging your notes into study guides and flash cards.
  • Book reviews. When you read books–especially major books–grab two or three capsule book reviews from major journals, especially reviews by major authors in the field. It’s okay to use others’ critiques! Just make sure you cite them.
  • Zotero. It’s time for you to use structured bibliographic and note-taking software. Your first (and I hope last) stop will be Zotero. You should be building the core of the bibliography you’ll be using for your dissertation and publications as you go through comps.
  • Get the old questions. This should be one of your very first tasks. Make sure you have as many old questions as you can from previous years’ comps in your department. Analyze them. Are there certain categories of questions that get asked on a given cycle? Are there ways you can predict what you’ll be asked about?
  • Get old answers. It’s time to talk to the people who are one to three years ahead of you. Ask students who have passed for their answers. Privately review them and critique them. You should use this to build up your sense of what “passing” means in your department.
  • Use databases intelligently. At a minimum, talk to a librarian about how to use database tools to find articles that cite each other. You should ideally be able to use Web of Science, Google Scholar, and similar tools to find connections among
  • Read literature reviews as well as the literature. There are a number of resources that you can and should be using to help organize your thinking. These may not show up on your department’s reading list, but they probably ought to. In particular, you should be reading the Oxford Handbooks for relevant topics, Annual Review of Political Science, International Studies Review, and similar review articles. These are not neutral summaries of the literature: they are interventions in debates. As such, they both model what you should be doing and also give you a good sense of what the major arguments are right now. Moreover, they also point to the new research and emerging trends that your coursework may have only hinted at.
  • Most important, practice writing your answers. As one commenter on this piece noted, “Comps are evaluated on what you write. [It’s] easy to keep focusing on reading more, rather than practicing writing.” Comps shouldn’t be seen as a reading comprehension exam–that’s the first stage of Bloom’s taxonomy. We’re at the top of that ladder, and synthesis and creation are way more important here. Reading is an ingredient, but practicing turning your reading into arguments is more important. Being able to match authors to arguments is necessary but far from sufficient. Actually stringing together sentences will give you a lot of feedback about where your preparation needs tork and what type of prep you still need. Eventually, that needs to go beyond writing outlines into actually writing timed practice exams. Ideally, that would happen with faculty feedback–that may not always be possible, but you can ask. I will say that a combination of courtesy and faculty willingness to schedule things well in advance they may not otherwise agree to means you should ask for this a couple of months ahead of time.

Why Comps?

I’m not writing this essay to defend or critique comps. If you’re reading this, then you’re probably at a department where that question has been answered for you. I do, however, want to leave you with a few thoughts about why this test–the last test you may ever take!–could be justified as a part of doctoral education. That is to say, there’s a reason, or many reasons, why many departments for decades have had students take a giant pass/fail exam.

  • Practicing academic skills. You’ll be writing a lot of literature reviews in the future. You should be able to do this. Comps acquaints you with the literature and the general approaches to doing this.
  • Socialization into the discipline. Learning more about what the discipline has done and what it’s decided not to do is important. This is socialization! You should be able to develop a sense about how the literature has and will evolve that will extend your horizons beyond your carrel and your department. (One reviewer notes that they called core courses “Rituali socialization through collective mortification”, and there’s something to that for comps as well.) That said…
  • Socialization into the department. Comps is also a time for you to learn more about the faculty nearer to you. It’s time for you to really learn what your faculty members do. You should make a special attempt to acquaint yourself with at least a couple of pieces by everyone on the faculty of your department. Cite at least some of them in the answers (and have a plan to cite them, uh, positively). But this also means learning about their approaches. Will Professor Jones veto anything that doesn’t acknowledge realism? Will Professor Chekov object to anything that hints ethnography will be useful? Well, if Jones or Chekov is going to be reading your answers (and, yes, you can ask), then you should know and plan accordingly. Since it’s unlikely you’ll have taken courses with everyone who’s going to be eligible to grade your answers, it’s time to stretch your wing.
  • Socialization into your cohort (and prior cohorts). Much as methods courses provide bonding experiences through trauma, so too will comps help generate the glue that holds your cohort together. This should also extend beyond your cohort: you should make a point to talk to the older students in the department about the process and their experiences and advice.
  • Discovering a topic. One of my professors told me that comps was great for developing a dissertation topic because you’re likely to find something that makes you angry. Well, anger might not be the only valid emotion that can lead you to a topic (there’s also fascination and annoyance), but the point remains. You should be reading not just to pass comps but to feed your dissertation work, whether that means refining your literature review for the prospectus or finally figuring out what you want to do.
  • Using comps to build your personal literature reviews. Courses are important, but they barely do more than scratching the surface of what’s important. Comps represent the last time you’ll have an incentive to read broadly outside of your niche. Quite a lot of what you know about the field will come from this experience. Wherever possible, err on reading things you’ll need for your research rather than breadth of the field. Again, you’re not in graduate school to excel in comps: you’re aiming to write the best scholarship you can. So make sure you know enough of the canon and the field to pass, but you should still be favoring the topics, subtopics, and sub-subtopics that you need.

Some institutions may approach comps as a hazing ritual. I disagree with that, as do many others; I think that comps need to align with your interests. They do, however, also serve a role in making sure that you’re not wholly captive to your (and your adviser’s) interests. If you’re in a hazing department, well, my apologies–this is not something you’re likely to be able to fix. You can, however, pay forward the kindness you wish you’d received to future graduate students, both those junior to you in your department and those that you’ll mentor in the future by making their experiences more helpful.

Thanks to Jason Reifler, Robert Marchini, and Jenna Sindle for feedback on an earlier version. All errors and omissions are my own.

Your Academic Journal Website Sucks

As part of maintaining the Political Science and International Relations Journal Listing, I’ve looked at a lot (almost all!) of the websites for academic journals in political science and international relations. Some are very good. Many or most have the information I’ve needed to answer basic questions about them. Some have been confusing or ludicrously out of date. Very few have been what I’d describe as “easy to use”, and the vast majority have been designed with little thought for what their purpose or user is.

I get it: running a journal is difficult. By the time someone is an editor, they’re shouldering big burdens in teaching, research, and service; they’re also likely a decade or more into a career. They aren’t newbies and they don’t have a lot of time. Some people view this as a no-nonsense job; others have dreams of transforming the field, or at least the journal. But few people shoulder the burden because they really want to spend time on the nuts and bolts of communicating with potential authors. After all, doesn’t everyone in the field know what the Ruritanian Journal of Informatical Politics look for in a submission?

As a user and (still!) early-career researcher, however, let me tell you that it’s possible to be pretty well versed in the discipline and savvy about the profession but still find many to most journal websites to be–at best–cumbersome. At worst, they can be confusing or wrong. That matters a lot, and not just because we should always try to do a good job in our endeavors. Rather, poor website communication by journals wastes the time of editors, reviewers, and authors. If authors don’t know if their piece is a good fit; if reviewers can’t easily find guidelines for their review; and if editors have to manage the frictions and damage that result, then it seems like everyone is shouldering an even larger burden than they really have to. Journal webpages need to be written to be read, and read by people who have the least time to waste on a mistake: early-career researchers and others for whom publication is a career necessity.

Photograph of young woman looking frustrated with laptop
Don’t worry: your journal is wonderful, it’s all the other websites I’m complaining about! Photo by energepic.com: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-sitting-in-front-of-macbook-313690/

Here’s the biggest ways to fix problems I see in journal webpages:

  • State the mission up front and briefly. Great journal webpages have a succinct, easy-to-read synopsis of their mission and editorial fit. How brief? Well, if editors think that journal articles can be summarized in 150 to 200 words, it’s not out of place to suggest that a journal mission–which is broader–can be done in the same length or shorter. Specifically, this paragraph should indicate the disciplinary, methodological, and substantive scope of the journal, while being clear about whether it errs on inclusion or exclusion. It can link to a more detailed description (ideally including keywords), but 90 percent of potential authors should be able to know whether they’re in or out within one paragraph.
  • Describe article types fully and briefly. Most journals run at most three types of peer-reviewed publications: research articles, review essays, and research/theory notes. (They may run rebuttals, capsule book reviews, invited essays, and the like, but that’s not in scope for this discussion.) Journals should state the requirements for these fully but briefly. A website that describes the ideal review essay is far more useful than one that just lists “review essay” as a type of submission.
  • Non-standard is fine–as long as it’s clear. I’ve been doing this job, off and on, since 2008, and I had not ever heard of a “state of the art” essay until two weeks ago. More frustrating: the journal I first encountered it (I then found another the same day!) did not describe what it is. Nor could I find anything helpful online. I assume it’s a review essay, but I don’t know. Similarly, from time to time, journals list other non-obvious forms like “country notes” or “election reports”, again with no additional clarity. Editors may think that the answer is to refer people to earlier issues of the journal, but that’s the opposite of helpful: it’s putting barriers in front of researchers rather than removing them. We need more nonstandard output types! But we also need to define them and explain them in a standardized format.
  • Be specific bluntly. Requirements are not the time to be cute or to hedge. Some journals suggest page lengths in forms of word counts; others, in forms of pages; others, in word count or page lengths but prefaced with the deadly ambivalence of “about”. Crisp guidelines should be preferred for initial submission, and word lengths should be preferred over page counts. If page counts are used, typeface, font size, and margin size should be stated directly. (It’s always preferable to supply Word and TeX templates.) Arbitrary guidelines are annoying but ambivalent guidelines are invitations to frustration.
  • Write a human-readable summary that fits on one page. By”one page” I don’t mean “one webpage that scrolls infinitely”, I mean that one 8.5″ x 11″ or A4 page of standard 12-point, Times New Roman with 1-inch margins should be able to fit everything you think authors need to know about submission type, formatting, editorial fit, and the editorial board. You can always expound on these summaries using hyperlinks; you can always have several pages throughout your website that explains all the finer points for final submission. Fine. But I’m aware of one political science journal that has editorial instructions that run nearly 3,500 words: this is just inviting authors to trip up at submission. Be a good regulator, not a red-tape enthusiast: write the rules that you need and that users can understand.
  • Keep your website up-to-date. Blessings upon those who maintain accurate webpages; plagues upon those whose website bears no correlation to the actual process of submitting to journals. (Have I personally encountered journals where I’ve diligently followed the rules laid out on the website only to have a submission kicked back? Yep.) This also includes keeping up-to-date your editorial board and editors’ information, including affiliations.
  • Mean what you say. If you list research/theory notes on your website, but you don’t direct reviewers to specific reviewer instructions for research/theory notes, then you don’t really accept research/theory notes. Failure of editors to communicate and/or failure of reviewers to understand the notes format is universal among the ECRs I’ve spoken to regarding this issue. This is a journal problem, but it’s a harm that falls disproportionately on people who believe your website reflects editorial policies (which it should).
  • Make it shorter. Your journal is special. Your journal website isn’t. Resist the urge to embroider the website by loading everything with more text. Use hierarchical organization to ruthlessly shove nice-to-knows (or nice-to-says) into subordinate pages, while keeping the top pages open only for need-to-knows.

Writing the Faculty Job Application Cover Letter for Political Science Ph.D. Students

It always comes down to old-fashioned letter-writing.

Ph.D. students in political science, international relations, and other social sciences dread writing cover letters for their job applications. As part of a panel in the University of Massachusetts-Amherst political science department, I put together some notes about what to do in assembling these. This is aimed at Ph.D. students (ABDs) and very recent graduates.

Here’s the key takeaways:

  • The goal of the cover letter is to move you from “reject” to “consider”
  • A great cover letter can’t save a weak application, but a weak cover letter could sabotage a strong application
  • You must demonstrate your fit for the position (a function of, first, the job ad and, second, the institution type)

The goal of the cover letter

In the entirety of your application, the cover letter is your only chance to tell an overarching narrative about yourself and why you fit the job.

  • Other parts of the application will let you discuss e.g. teaching and research trajectories, but those do not add up to a complete package about yourself for this job.
  • The narrative needs to be exciting, compelling, and demonstrate how you fit the needs of the institution and the position
  • When the search committee does their initial reviews, members will spend less than five minutes per packet. Your cover letter and CV (sometimes only the CV!) will get attention in this round. The search committee’s task is to cut an overwhelming number of applicants into a manageable number. They are looking for reasons to ding you, not to save you—there are more than enough fish in the pond. Demonstrate in the cover letter that you merit further consideration in later rounds of deliberation.

The structure of the cover letter

The structure is a very simple formula:

  • Begin with a quick introduction of yourself and list the job to which you are applying. State your qualifications in summary.
  • Describe your major research project (which will normally be your presentation). Now is not the time to be humble, but don’t bore anyone. Just stick to the highlights and remember that at least one member of the search committee won’t be in your field (much less your specialty). Make sure to mention publications or publication plans.
  • Describe your next or secondary research project.
  • Talk about your relevant teaching experience. Describe two or three courses you have taught or could teach, including one introductory course, one seminar, and (if relevant) one graduate seminar.
  • Customize your letter to the needs of the department and college. Show you know where you’re applying and why. Make sure to list the college name correctly.

Keep this all to two pages, but go no smaller than 11-point text.

The limits of the cover letter

The cover letter isn’t magic. It can’t make up for flaws or gaps in the rest of your application.

  • If you don’t have publications (or credible evidence of forthcoming publications) at a research-oriented job, you will not be in contention regardless of how good your cover letter is
  • If you don’t have teaching experience (not including TA work), the bulk of institutions will disregard you (if you’re competitive for a job at Harvard, you can disregard this; but if you’re competitive for a job at Harvard, you aren’t reading this anyway)
  • The goal of the cover letter is, minimally, to make sure that the hiring committee knows that you have research potential, teaching experience, and the ability to Google their institution and department. Maximally (and this should be your goal), it’s to make them excited about your bold new research (or teaching) contributions

Mass-customizing your research letter

  • The cover letter should reflect institutional type. For teaching-focused positions, go heavier on teaching experience and competence; for research-oriented positions (including top SLACs), stress research potential and evidence of research success. Some people think that you should adjust the order of the teaching and research sections of the letter to reflect institutional priorities; others disagree. Whichever you choose, you should spend
  • The cover letter should address the specific requirements of the job ad. If they are an R1 but need someone to cover Introduction to Basket-Weaving, make sure you mention the Intro to Basket Weaving. If they are a liberal-arts college and need a college debate coach, talk about your debate coaching skills. Remember: they’re looking for reasons to cut you, not to love you, so you need to show you meet their qualifications.
  • Customize your cover letter just enough so that it’s not cookie-cutter, but don’t spend too much time on this. People talk about spending hours and days customizing these things; just spend enough time to know what the department is doing and suggest some possible connections you could make within the department and to relevant centers and similar non-departmental organizations on campus.

Student Reading Presentations

From time to time, college instructors assign students to lead a discussion about readings in class. What do instructors want from this?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself. After a decade of assigning and grading these assignments, I have some clear expectations. This guide should be useful for students in political science, sociology, anthropology, history, literature (especially literature criticism), and any discipline in college in which professors ask students to take part in leading course discussions.

Your presentation is about the reading

One reason instructors assign presentations is to make sure that at least someone in the class has actually done the reading. It’s a terrible feeling (and a waste of a lot of money!) to try to run a class where only a couple of students know what’s going on. So the first principle is to make sure that you clearly summarize and explain the reading. That means, in particular, that you

  • identify the thesis or argument of the piece (in your own words, ideally)
  • describe the contours of the author’s argument
  • explain the supporting evidence the author provides
People meeting and talking
A representative, multiracial, gender-balanced group of people wearing earth tones and engaging in PMC banter

Your presentation is about the reading, but not just the reading

Yet the assignment is rarely that students should just offer a summary of the reading. Instead, you should seek to connect and to critique the reading.

The first way to succeed here is to connect the reading to the theme of the class and to what the class has done so far. How can you make clear the connections between this reading and the course? You could try to explain how the reading advances particular themes or arguments, and whether it offers illustrations of particular concepts or particularly compelling pieces of evidence. The piece could also be trying to rebut or refute the larger arguments of the class, and in that case you should make that clear. If you’re very lucky, then the piece directly takes on another reading, and in that case you should make that very clear.

The next way you can succeed is by offering a critique of whether the author has actually succeeded in their goal. Did they make a persuasive argument? Does their evidence actually support their theme? Could they have anticipated objections to their argument? Are there obvious rebuttals or flaws that they should have done more to guard against? Make these points clear — and then go on to consider whether there are subtle issues or arguments that could have been addressed.

I want to be clear that you’re not just looking for a knockout blow here. You’re also looking for the hundred-dollar-bills on the sidewalk–the points the author could have made but didn’t that would have strengthened their argument.

The next level is to address whether what the author couldn’t have known (such as subsequent events or more recent discoveries) have strengthened or undermined the author’s argument. A brilliant piece about how countries will never go to war because the costs of war are too high may be persuasive and airtight–but if an author wrote it in 1913, a year before the First World War, well, there may have been some holes in it.

The advanced move here is to show how a seemingly obvious refutation or contradiction wasn’t, by the way–for example, the costs of the First World War were inordinately high, and it was in some ways the belief of national leaders that the costs would be low (or lower the earlier war came) that shaped their behavior, which is a more complex point than just saying “hurr-durr world war”.

Your presentation is about the reading, but not just the reading, and really it’s about what it means for the class

The final big step you should try to accomplish is to bring both the author’s argument and your critique back to the goals of the class. This is the masterful move your professor most wants to see: what’s the bottom line for the class? What do you think that the piece brings to the discussion, either as a positive or negative example or both? Being able to display your ability to talk about the strengths and limitations of a reading, and to relate both sides of that balance sheet to the goals of the course, is the real mark of someone who has “done the reading”–and it’s a lot more than just offering a rote summary.

The real goal here, after all, is to spark a good class discussion that everyone can benefit from. You want an opportunity to open up discussion rather than closing it off, and offering your thoughts (especially your strong thoughts!) can be a great way to do that. Identifying clear areas in which there’s still room for debate can also help the course.

Organizing a 5-minute presentation

So how should you organize a five-minute presentation?

Ideally, 30 seconds or show should lay out your summary: X piece says this, it’s supported by that, and it relates to our discussions about the other thing. It has these strengths and flaws, and it means this big takeaway for us. Then spend about one or two minutes each on the summary and the connections/critique to build out your points. Finally, spend the remainder of the time (at least 30 seconds, but more ideally 60) making your original argument that you already previewed.

The Sixth Risk is Boredom

Every chapter of Michael Lewis’s The Sixth Risk, as it sounds to somebody who had heard of the federal government before November 2016.

John “Curley” Stooge was an unprepossessing man–White, middle-aged, and graying at the edges. As I nibbled on a pastry in the kitchen of his modest 3,000-square foot McMansion, I listened to him tell his totally relatable story. “As a freshman at MIT, I’d wanted to do something normal, like become a nuclear engineer,” Stooge said. “Then, out of the blue, I was picked to become an astronaut. It was a change from what I’d wanted to do, but I thought it could still be a challenge.”

It would be a challenge. An “astronaut” is a federal employee who travels to space on behalf of an obscure agency called the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration.” If you’ve never heard of it, it might surprise you to learn that NASA has run many complex projects, including Skylab and even once putting men on the Moon. They even returned them safely to Earth! Of course, NASA has had some problems, like when they commissioned the most dangerous passenger vehicle ever launched, but that was because of Republican dreams of privatizing space. Besides that, however, the space agency’s record of manned space flight has been meaningful and successful in vague ways that cannot be quantified.

“After being an astronaut, I decided to give back to the country,” Stooge said. He spent a few years in the private sector making an absolute metric ton of money–literally: he ran a gold mine in South Africa and was paid in bullion–before being named Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defense in Charge of Space Warfare. “It came as a total surprise,” Stooge reflected. “I’d only given the Obama campaign several hundred thousand dollars and written three New York Times columns praising his plan to give SpaceX control of Mons Olympus, so when the call came I was politely shocked.”

In his new post, Stooge learned a real appreciation for the ways of government. “I didn’t know much about the civilian side of the defense side of the government,” Stooge said. “But the people there were really smarter than I’d expected. It turns out that even non-astronauts with fewer than two Ph.D.s can breathe through their nostrils, mostly.”

Stooge oversaw large and obscure projects of the federal governments, like the launching of “artificial satellites” that contributed to a “global positioning system”. Not many people have heard of GPS, but it’s used to tell Google Maps how to get to your nearest Williams-Sonoma or Crate and Barrel. It’s just one of the ways that Pentagon spending affects our daily lives–yet another reason why literally any deviation from the status quo must be resisted.

“I really enjoyed the work,” Stooge said. But everything changed on Election Day 2016. “We’d never thought that anyone but a perfectly liberal technocrat could win an election in a democracy,” Stooge said. He and his staff continued work on the Tantalus Kill-a-Tron 3000, a project that would give the American president the power to kill anyone anywhere instantly by the press of a button or a typo. “This was important work,” Stooge explained. “We’d wondered at drinks after late nights perfecting the Kill-a-Tron if it could ever be misused, but who ever thought that power might lead to corruption?”

The incoming Trump administration took weeks to learn basic facts about the Defense Department, like the fact that the “Pentagon” is a five-sided building that houses its leadership or that there were different parts of the military. “The ‘landing team’ was just six guys, all named ‘Chip’ and all from Jared’s real-estate firm,” Stooge recalled. “They showed up to be briefed, but ten minutes in they were asking questions like ‘wait, we don’t have a Space Force?’ and ‘so are we winning this war in Afghanistan or not?'”

Now an unemployed former official who works part-time as a vice president of Lockheed Martin, Stooge has adjusted to losing his government salary. But he worries about the Trump administration. What’s the biggest risk of the Trump administration, I ask him. He looks at me as if I’m slow. “The fact that the president can launch a nuclear war at any time for any reason,” he replies, slowly.

He can? I ask.


I didn’t know that.

“You also didn’t know what GPS was,” he replies.

Okay, point taken. Before November 2016, I’d never really thought about the federal government, but over the course of reporting this book I’d come to learn that all those people in government buildings did things, all the time, mostly, and that at least a half-dozen of them were important. It stood to reason that the president and Department of Defense also mattered.

For some reason, I had earlier decided that I would just ask questions of former officials in this manner, often going on for pages and pages, just recapitulating things that should have been obvious to anyone who’d heard of “food stamps” or “the National Weather Service.”So what’s the second-most worrisome thing about the Trump administration? I asked.

“Definitely the Kill-a-Tron 3000.”

Yeah, that sounded pretty worrisome to me, too. If only someone had been paying attention before giving the government to a failed New York real-estate buffoon, we might have had a discussion about the wisdom of building such a project. But it was too late for recriminations. I had to leave for drinks with someone who had once worked at a little-known government body called the “Federal Reserve.”

Thoughts on Teaching at the End of the World

Stock image of podcast technology

This past semester, I worked with 23 Honors students at UMASS Amherst on a course modestly entitled “The Politics of the End of the World.” In that course, students explored different ways in which the physical sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities had approached ends of the world caused or threatened by disease, nuclear warfare, environmental change, and cultural processes. The students concluded the term by working in groups to prepare podcasts on how various societies in Massachusetts had approached the same ends.

This class was an evolution of an earlier version of the course, which was a one-credit-hour special topics class offered two years ago. Reworking that readings and seminar course into the new, four-credit-hour version formed my project during a year as a Lilly teaching fellow. That UMASS program gave me a year’s worth of seminars, and a course buyout, during which I could refine my understanding of the end of the world and of how to teach at a college level. I want to reflect on why I structured the course as I did and how I would reform that structure in the future.

My vision for the course was a simple one: having students learn by creating. Given that the study of the end of the world as a theoretical concept remains in its infancy, I could not teach the students by having them become acolytes to some dead scribbler or even by introducing them to the work of a community of scholars. Rather, I knew that we would have to knit together disparate communities whose work touched on a common theme, but who did not yet know themselves to be participating in a common endeavor. Moreover, even had such a project existed, I would have still wanted to have the students engage with the subject by creating their own knowledge, rather than copying and repeating someone else’s theories or descriptions.

The choice of a podcast as a final project followed naturally from that vision. Requiring students to create a podcast combined all the advantages of an open canvas with the additional benefit that numerous examples exist showing how to structure such a work. Like a traditional research paper, it would allow students to pose and explore a new argument; unlike those dreary assignments, a podcast—simply by being novel—would spur students to work with more creative (but no less rigorous ways) of performing analyses.

The technical challenge of producing podcasts rather than entering text into a word processor also put the project in a sweet spot. Because podcasts can incorporate interviews, sound effects, music, and other editing, they reflect the mediated information environment in which people, including students, actually exist better than do purely textual assignments. Furthermore, the very complexity of creating such a document provided a structure that would encourage (and all but require) students to master project planning, a division of labor, and creative ways to deliver their message. Yet podcasts remain far less complex than visual media, like an online video or a television program. Every technical challenge inherent in a podcast remains in a visual project but compounded by more complex challenges of shot framing, lighting, and acting. Such challenges can overshadow the goal of creating an argument, rather than a spectacle. A podcast, then, would produce the right mix of complication and simplicity that would help students break out of the 8.5” x 11” box within which so much undergraduate education is crafted to fit.

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