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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