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.

Academics write well enough, actually

The most intimidating sight in the world: the empty page

The complaint is perennial: Why can’t academics write well? I’m not going to tag any particular examples of essays plying these waters; their numbers are so vast that the genre has become as stale and repetitive as it accuses scholars of being. Finding myself waiting for a server migration to complete before I can do real work, however, let me essay a response.

The Presumption: That Academics Can’t Write

The standard form of the complaint fits into one of a few categories:

  • Academic prose is dense. The standard exposition of this complaint involves putting some poor humanities or social-science professor in the stocks and mocking how inscrutable their prose is.
  • Academic writing is boring. Although often confused for the complaint that “academic prose is dense”, boredom and density form distinct branches of this family tree. Dense prose must of necessity be boring, but spritely prose about a topic that readers find dull will produce boring effects as well. Similarly, the leadenness of academic prose may result not from any bad sentence taken individually but from the plodding insistence on adding details, citations, and counterarguments, until the weight of all these straws breaks the reader’s back.
  • Academic writing is structured poorly. This more sophisticated critique begins with the observation that scholarly monographs and articles are not structured to be welcoming to outsiders. Sometimes, renegades from the academy will profess to reveal the secrets of the temple–that academics don’t read the entirety of every book they cite. They will point out that, unlike bestselling nonfiction texts, many scholarly books are designed to be read nonlinearly or in pieces. The failure of academic writing is thus linked to the failure of academic reading.
  • Academic writing concerns itself with trivial topics. I hesitate to mention this, since it is not, strictly, a complaint about writing but a complaint about scholarship. Yet the two sets of complaints are so tightly correlated that I must mention them together, as frequently the argument holds that academic writing is bad because those boffins are wasting their time writing about the history of the s

The Second Axiom: That Academic Writing Is Distinctively Bad

None of these complaints would matter if it were not for the assumption–sometimes unstated, sometimes spotlighted–that academic prose is distinctly bad. The comparison sets are usually drawn from journalism, good-selling texts written by academic (and that does exist), and from high-profile authors of nonfiction unburdened by academic affiliations.

One senses occasionally a desire on the part of the author to turn the red pen that some professor wielded against a sophomore essay back against authority in these complaints. Who doesn’t yearn to undermine the teacher? The number of complaints about the distinct badness of academic prose penned by scholars themselves means that this complaint has deeper foundations than a lust for vengeance.

Most Bad Academic Prose Is Bad For Good Reasons

One cannot defend the indefensible, and so I begin by disclaiming any intent to do so. I admit that most academic prose is bad; long habituation to academic writing has sharpened my ability to distill meaning from bad writing but it has not improved the taste.

Some academic writing is bad for bad reasons, too. Professors have to publish to keep their jobs; graduate students have to publish to get a job; and not a few veterans of the theory wars of the 1980s and 1990s learned that outfitting banalities in the latest jargon could camouflage their intellectual weaknesses. So I will not defend them, either.

Most bad academic prose, however, is bad for good reasons. Among them:

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Everyone Is Misreading Burke’s View of Parties

So what are political parties?

Burke’s definition of party as “a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed” is frequently cited (and disparaged) as idealistic. Commager (1950, 309), for instance, preferred “a body of men—and women—organized to get control of the machinery of government.” Dismissing Burke as ignorant of pragmatism in politics requires an overly hasty judgment or a poor reading of the text, however, especially given that in the same paragraph Burke scorns “the speculative philosopher” who seeks to mark “the proper ends of Government” in favor of “the politician, who is the philosopher in action”. Burke’s politicians form their “connexion” to “to put the men who hold their opinions into such a condition as may enable them to carry their common plans into execution, with all the power and authority of the State.”[1] And this entailed a common duty among a party’s members to fight for power and organize each other:

They are bound to give to their own party the preference in all things; and by no means, for private considerations, to accept any offers of power in which the whole body is not included; nor to suffer themselves to be led, or to be controuled, or to be over-balanced, in office or in council, by those who contradict the very fundamental principles on which their party is formed, and even those upon which every fair connexion must stand.

A close reading will show that Burke’s full definition of party as aiming to control “the power and authority of the State” is a definition far closer to Commager’s than he realized. But Burke had already gone beyond Commager in defining the relationship of policy to the party. “Principle”, as Burke employs the term, resembles a party platform aimed rather than some airy and abstract philosophy. Indeed, Burke explicitly recognizes the importance of solidarity and the temptations that might break it (“to accept any offers of power in which the bole body is not included”) and those that would lead to the solidifying of one faction against another (“the preference in all things”)—a more active and experienced concept.

Burke’s view on parties is even closer to that of the “UCLA school” (Bawn et al. 2012, 579), although they also commit the same misreading of Burke as did Commager. Bawn et al argue, contra Commager and even more Aldrich (1995), that politicians are not the center of parties. Instead, as for Burke’s partisans, politicians are the instruments through which “policy demanders” contest for the policy outcomes they desire: “interest groups and activists form coalitions to nominate and elect politicians committed to their common program.” If we remember that for Burke, “politician” was a more general category than “officeholder” or “candidate” and described those who gathered together to “put the men who hold their opinions” into influence in order to execute a common program, then it becomes apparent that the two definitions resemble each other much more than has been recognized. They are not, however, identical: Bawn et al differ profoundly from Burke in their view of the precedence of party and ideology. Whereas Burke believed that politicians gathered along preexisting divisions over “great leading general principles in Government”, Bawn et al describe a process of endogenous ideological formation in which the coming-together of interest groups produces a partisan goal (573-575).

PhD Students Should Think About Publishing From Day One

Accurate view of graduate school socialization. Via Pexels.

Once again, I’ve been invited to give my advice to graduate students about Graduate School and The Market, the two topics that occupy the anxious discussions of years 2 through N in a young scholar’s career. A quick note: I recommend reading my earlier post with job-market advice; this is an update and a companion to that piece.

There’s an inevitable selection problem when talking about how someone’s career succeeded. We don’t see the counterfactual outcomes, nor do we observe the shape of the probability distribution of success given the variables that went into the probabilistic determination of success and failure. It’s likely that the single largest factor in my succeeding in getting a job where and when I did was the composition of the search committee at UMASS-Amherst the year I was first on the market for tenure-track (t-t) jobs, coupled with the specifics of the job ad: a committee with an Americanist chair and a job ad that needed someone who could teach Honors courses in a joint appointment at a public university spoke to several of my key skills and accomplishments unusually well.

So it’s possible that my success is a fluke, and should be judged accordingly. But I have been around; I’ve now been on a search committee; I’ve been through additional searches; and I know a little bit more than I ddi when I was a graduate student. Indeed, I may be at Peak Advice, since my personal experience as a job candidate closely overlaps with my service as a committee member, and I really have seen this market at close hand. I hope, then, that this lets me talk about what worked and what didn’t work for me. I should caveat all of this by bounding my advice a little further: the dynamics of hiring at top-5 research universities and at teaching-intensive universities are very different from “ordinary” R1 jobs.

What Worked

As the title of this post suggests, what worked was publishing. As both an applicant and as a search committee member, this was the single biggest qualification that I found relevant. I had early publications in Comparative Political Studies and American Politics Research (both with fine co-authors!). Publications will not get you a job, but not having publications will make it much harder to get one. It is not uncommon to hear that search committee members won’t even look at CVs that lack publication, and these days committees can be picky enough to insist on publications in good places as well. There are other factors in play, of course, and even an R&R at a good enough journal can be a substitute, but this is the single biggest factor.

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APSA Membership Dues and Annual Meeting Fees in Context

The other day, I wrote about how APSA annual membership fees aren’t quite as expensive as they may seem in the context of other large, primary scholarly organizations in the social sciences and history. Yes, the economists and the ISA may charge a lot less, but it seems like the AEA is a crazy outlier (as they are in conference fees) and ISA isn’t quite a primary disciplinary organization in the same way that APSA, ASA, AAA, and AHA are.

But on Facebook, someone challenged me that this might not be the entire story. In this day, hardly anyone joins a scholarly oranization if they’re not either on the job market or going to the annual convention, and membership fees are largely calibrated to be just about the difference between the member and the non-member registration rate for the annual meeting. So maybe APSA is a bad deal, but that only becomes relevant when we look at the total cost of attending the annual meeting.

I went back to the Web and found some data. I quickly discovered that the economists are maybe the worst possible reference group for social sciences and humanities disciplines. Not only does AEA have relatively low membership dues, AEA also charges very little ($115!) for annual meeting registration. This suggests to me that AEA operates under a very different business model than the other leading social science disciplinary organizations, especially since (inasmuch as a few seconds’ Googling can be held to be research) AEA doesn’t have all that many more members. I suspect the difference comes in Big Science institutional support, probably some wealthy members’ bequests, and (maybe most important) convention hall exhibition fees and a different ownership structure for AER and other association journals.

The bottom line: Don’t compare APSA to AEA. They’re not in the same field.

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Advice for Ph.D. Job-Seekers in Political Science

Unemployed men queued outside a depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone

One surprise of having recently been hired as an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst is that now I’m the guy that Ph.D. students (sometimes) ask for advice. That’s weird, and probably counterproductive for both me and the student. In seriousness, I’m not really seasoned enough to be giving advice–and I have no standing whatsoever to offer advice to anyone outside of the IMRAD-paradigm fields (so I cant say anything about the job market for theorists).

In general, my view on the subject is that students should recognize:

  1. The job market for political scientists is not very good, but also not very bad: eventually, most people from a reasonably ranked Ph.D. program will, if they persist long enough, get a job as a professor of political science at some university.
  2. Many fewer people outside of top-ranked programs will get a job as a professor of political science at a doctoral/very high research university (an R1).
  3. Even fewer people will get what are, in some ways, the even better jobs on offer at highly selective liberal arts colleges (Williams, Wellesley, Amherst, etc).
  4. The limiting factor for almost all programs outside of the community college sector is research productivity. Teaching quality is hardly universal but most programs don’t want excellence: competence is more desirable (and sustainable). And teaching competence is, in fact, becoming pretty common; it will not distinguish you for having it but it may disqualify you if you don’t.
  5. You should discount any individual professor’s recommendations pretty strongly, since all of our advice is merely biography presented as wisdom, and that means you’re getting only a partial (in both the incomplete and the biased sense of the word) view from any individual scholar.

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