Recently in the Times: the social sciences

Yesterday, Savage Minds Backup  (SMB) posted an excellent response to Nicholas Cristakis's recent op-ed in the NYT on the need to "shake up"  the social sciences. In it, he countered Cristakis's argument that we need less of the traditional social sciences and more cross-disciplinary work with the argument that in fact we need more, much more,  of the traditional social sciences. SMB marshaled some horrifying stats on the funding of the social sciences. We all knew they were low, but we didn't know they were that   low.

SMB uses the NSF as an example case. Of the organization's 5.5 billion USD to spend on research, the social sciences and behavioral sciences split  242 million USD, or four percent. Of that, the social sciences receive just 92 million USD (less than 2 percent of the NSFs budget). SMB concludes that for more innovative social science, we need much more funding. Beyond that, he barely mentioned that the discipline of Political Science has been deemed "not a science" by Congress and therefore no longer can receive NSF funds (95 percent of the discipline's federal funds).

SMB's point is well taken, and the lack of funding is certainly the greatest challenge facing the social sciences in the twenty-first century. But there are aspects not considered by Cristakis why individual social scientists may not want to risk inter-disciplinary work, as he suggests. I would ask him the following questions,

1. Are the natural sciences under attack from their own universities? A huge number of social science positions have been transitioned to adjunct, assuming that their only duty is to teach students, not do research. 

A 2007 article from the NYT reported: "Three decades ago, adjuncts — both part-timers and full-timers not on a tenure track — represented only 43 percent of professors, according to the professors association, which has studied data reported to the federal Education Department. Currently, the association says, they account for nearly 70 percent of professors at colleges and universities, both public and private. " Today, post financial crisis, the numbers are surely higher.

Scholars who are not neatly situated in their discipline risk losing their positions to adjuncts. 

2. Are there more opportunities for natural scientists who cross disciplinary boundaries? Certainly it is the opposite for social scientists. Despite the lip service to inter-disciplinary work, those scholars who do it will struggle to find venues to publish, and will therefore struggle in their tenure and promotion processes.

3. Are the teaching loads similar for social and natural scientists? I'd like to meet a biologist who does research at the same time as teaching a 4-4 course load with no TAs. Most natural science courses at universities at the undergraduate level are massive affairs, stocked with TAs and multiple choice exams. The professor need only show up and give a lecture he has given many times before and manage his TAs. He probably never grades a page in his life. I'm sure working with graduate students is more hands on, but still, it highlights the very different daily responsibilities that detract from work beyond just the course load.  

There are other questions to ask, but a blog post is not the place to do it. SMB's main conclusion, that Cristakis really doesn't know the history of social science nor understand the current conditions is certainly evident, but what does that say about social science's efforts at PR for themselves? We have to find a way to make our contributions and challenges  better understood by others both inside and outside of the academy or the situation will certainly not improve.

Undergraduate Education and the Prestige Economy

This article from Policymic discusses the relationship between the recent ruling on internships in a federal court and the "prestige economy." The article highlights a set of tweets that summarize the issue written by Sarah Kendzior, a popular writer at al-Jazeera English.

One tweet in particular "Tell young people they have no skills" highlights an issue that I deal with frequently among undergraduate students. Kendzior suggests that students are taught that they have no skills and that they need fancy unpaid internships as evidence that they have skills. I remember feeling this way, and it is one of the reasons that I chose to do a PhD instead of joining the Peace Corps. It felt like I did not have tangible skills to offer and that doing a PhD would be developing a set of research skills that would be marketable.

The students I work with frequently have a similar mindset. They suggest to me they have no skills when really what they have is NO TANGIBLE EVIDENCE OF THEIR SKILLS. There is a significant difference between not having skills and not being able to prove  to someone that you have skills. Of course, grades and research papers are evidence of skills, but if students would just take one step beyond doing the bare minimum, they would have much more to market.

Faculty and mentors need to encourage students to have TANGIBLE EVIDENCE OF THEIR SKILLS . There are a host of undergraduate journals, newspapers, and lower level policy journals that would accept contributions from undergraduate students. Many students are waiting for someone to confirm legitimacy on them.  This is why I take every possible opportunity to say to my top students "you should publish this" and to help them find outlets to do so. At the end of the day, however, students need to take more initiative and get things out there. Over the next year I'll be compiling a list of places for students to publish their work. Let me know any that I'm missing. 

The 3-hour max

Young academics struggling with a heavy teaching load and the need to "get the book out" may be relieved to hear that many of the great artists of the twentieth centuries suggest that it is difficult to do more than three hours of creative work a day. 

I take this conclusion from a book by Mason Currey that I blogged about earlier this week. It profiles artists and their daily routines, which Currey refers to as "rituals."  

A few examples of these working hours:

Morton Feldman 7-11am

Mozart 7-9am, 6-9pm

Strauss 10am-1pm, 3-4pm

 While many maxed out at three hours, others were able to do two three-hour sessions each day though this did not necessarily mean that they were more productive. Many told horror stories of writing only a few good sentences on some days. Gertrude Stein wrote that she could only do about a half an hour of writing a day, but claimed "If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year. To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day" (Currey, 2013:51). Young academics take heart!

Most who worked longer hours (and even some who worked only a few hours each day) had either a wife who managed EVERYTHING or a servant. Sigmund Freud's wife "laid out Freud's clothes, chose his handkerchiefs, and even put toothpaste on his toothbrush" (p.38). Under such circumstances, couldn't we all write a masterpiece?

Professorial duties and cyber attacks

The NYT recently reported on the rise of cyber attacs against universities. Besides the suggestion that academics not take their laptops on international travel, the article provided very little advice for academics on how to prevent a loss of data. The issue is complicated by policies making it risky or even illegal to possess student's personal data on a laptop. My thoughts are to keep communication with students and their grades on university computers, but my personal research on my own machine. I welcome further suggestions.

Getting Things Done, part II AKA "The Secret Weapon"

I've decided to try The Secret Weapon system for time management.  I was initially skeptical about it because their instructional videos and descriptions  WASTED SO MUCH OF MY TIME. However, if you skip the instructional video and just cut to the instructions (here), it does not take long to set it up. The main idea is that it integrates David Allen's Getting Things Done with Evernote, the information app for all of your devices. You basically create an inbox for all of the items on your to do list. Rather than using your email inbox, email is immediately processed out of your email inbox and into your time inbox where it can be managed by when and where it should take place.

My only complain about the system so far is that it privileges the urgent over the important, since it encourages you to organize your to-do list by due date. The system needs to be combined with Allen's Getting Things Done because that system teachers you how to break down bigger goals into action items (that can be processed by Evernote). More soon.  

Getting Things Done, part I

Of late I have been considering various time management systems. 

I found this article helpful as a beginning. This article contains a review of several systems.

The most popular system in the business world appears to be "Getting Things Done" by  David Allen. It seems to rely on a few general principles. For starters, do a "brain dump." Get everything you know you need to do on a piece of paper. Then, design a system to input these to-dos. From here on out, do anything you can to enter any task that you need to accomplish into the system so that it does not get forgotten. Within your system, you need to be constantly assessing how much time that you are spending on particular tasks, making sure you are living out of your priorities (focusing on the "important" before the "urgent"), and constantly identify the "next step" of any task.

I'll let you know what I figure out. 

What I'm reading now: Daily Rituals

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work 

Mason Currey's blog turned beautiful-little-hardback is a fun and easy summer read. It contains 166 brief bios of artists and their daily rituals: what time they wake up, how they get into the vibe, when and what they eat, and how they relax. The book's small size and brief sections make it an ideal book for the metro, the beach or the backyard.

Some artists (or "Writers, composers, painters, choreographers, playwrights, poets, philosophers, sculptors, filmmakers, and scientists" ) cannot accomplish anything after noon, others do not rise until then. Some are high maintenance (Mahler), others discreet (Austen). Arthur Miller has no routine at all. He explains his experience of inspiration as baffling: "The only image I can think of is a man walking around with an iron rod in his hand during a lightening storm" (p.56).

The most interesting part of savoring this little book, however, is not hearing the routines of the rich, famous, dead, talented or pampered. It is reflecting on one's own routine and how well it serves one's needs. Even a casual perusal of these brief vignettes will force the reader to think about which times of day (if any) bring a special inspiration or work ethic. It is only logical to then assess whether one is taking the necessary steps to defend and guard that time. It is this exercise that makes this an ideal book for academics and anyone whose professional or personal goals call for creation. I highly recommend it.

Today in the Times... An education editorial

Today, the Times editorial board suggested that the American system of education overtests its students and undertrains its teachers. 

Most will agree with the assessment that the current model of education puts too much emphasis on testing student performance, but I think teachers in Ohio and New York would balk at the assessment that teachers are undertrained. In these and some other states, potential teachers are subject to a litany of trainings and certifications, (unless of course, they are affiliated with Teach for America, in which case they are welcomed with open arms after very little preparation). The NYT editorial makes no mention of the great variation in teacher preparation between states, and does not suggest if any of the individual states' models might be an appropriate one for the wider system. 

Instead, the editorial suggests looking to Finland as a model, where it is highly competitive to get a job as a teacher and where teacher training is free and supported by a stipend. Additionally, in the Finnish system, students must pass only one standardized test in their career, there is a lower teacher-student ration, and they pay experienced teachers more. It seems likely this editorial is in response to a book, popular in DC, called Finnish Lessons: What can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?  For more on the Finnish model, see this article in the Guardian.

What is surprising about the editorial, is its endorsement of the Common Core as a means of moving away from memorization toward critical thinking and writing.  I guess I'll have to give the Common Core another look.


How to conference, AMW style.

All academic conferences can be improved by embracing one or more of the following tips: 

1. Consult the New York Times "36 hours in {conference city]" article to find out the names of interesting neighborhoods. 

2. Find small family owned hotel in neighborhood identified in #1 above. 

3. Excuse yourself from the conference for a few hours to visit the local museum. 

4. Consult Design Sponge city guide for conference city. 

Anti-enthography bias in political science?

Samer Shehata was denied tenure by Georgetown this year. There are various explanations for this reproach, but one that is receiving a lot of attention is whether or not his ethnographic approach  influenced his chances. I am politely ignoring the possibility that his political views may be to blame, a horrifying prospect for any academic. May heaven's own fury punish me if I ever judge a colleague by their political views rather than the quality of their work.

I believe strongly in ethnography as a method, particularly for scholars working in contexts where they were not raised, and particularly for a first project. Although it brings a level of complexity that is not appropriate for all scholars, it protects them from making assertions that are too grand for their britches. Anyone who uses ethnography is humbled by the complexity of their subject matter and aware of their inability to truly capture every aspect of any question or research topic.  It also creates skepticism for many about other scholars parsimonious theories, which contributes to contention between those who do ethnography and those who prefer rational choice methods.

One criticism of his work is valid though: his decision not to integrate his ethnography of Egyptian factory workers into the larger study of labor politics. All political scientists owe it to their colleagues to do the work of explaining why their work is relevant to non-area specialists. There is just simply to much work to do to not offer your colleagues that kindness. As I have not read his book though, I won't make further remarks.


The Scientific Method and the Artistic Method, part I

I had a disagreement with someone recently. It was a couple, actually. They insisted that the scientific method was responsible for all advances of human knowledge and that ALL things can be measured. I'll admit to being a bit shell-shocked.  To put it mildly, I disagree. What a narrow vision of human knowledge! I thought to myself. And then it hit me, this is exactly the type of ideology that has seeped into most political science departments.

A little background: 

There are two kinds of knowledge. Ideographic knowledge is knowledge of the particulars. Nomothetic knowledge is  theoretical or abstract knowledge. So, for example, if a scholar collects information about a party system in one country, they are producing idiographic knowledge. If they are working at a more abstract level, assessing multiple party systems and thus still using idiographic knowledge but for the purpose of uncovering a larger theoretical relationship, then they are doing nomothetic knowledge.

The scientific method offers a highly organized way of assessing theoretical (nomothetic) knowledge.  But it is limited since it privileges the theoretical over the particular. This is not an issue as long as idiographic knowledge is also being produced. And, in our age, data is being produced in record quantities. So it makes sense that some people  argue for a hegemony of nomothetic knowledge within the discipline of political science. They think that there is so much data out there in the world that we don't need scholars out digging in the trenches. We need scholars doing meta-theorizing. I think this is a tenable position, but it is not one that I hold.

I see serious risks of a discipline solely examining the theoretical:

First, all nomothetic knowledge is grounded in idiographic knowledge. In order to build a dataset of party systems, a scholar will refer to a huge body of idiographic knowledge. In and of itself, this is not an issue. All scholars build on other scholars.

The issue is that  the economy of knowledge is beginning to look a lot like our market economy. People who do a tremendous amount of work to make the whole enterprise function are denied grants, publications, positions, tenure and a host of other goods in order to privilege those who do idiographic work. Even those who do idiographic work have to (or at least do) pretend they are doing nomothetic work. I see it all of the time. It is silly.

Secondly, I frequently see the tyranny of the method. People are wowed by fancy methodology. They are impressed when new tools are brought to bear on the study of politics. Once again, in and of itself, this is not an issue. It is exciting when a new tool is identified and it yields important advances in the study of politics. The issue arises when there is a lack of quality control on a publication because it uses a fancy methodology. Regardless of how you measure it, you must first start with conceptualization and you must defend your conceptualization to your audience. You must then convince the audience that your methodology is appropriate for your concept. This step is too frequently skipped. 

Third, there is also the opposite issue. There is sheer obsession with methodology in political science, and scholars approach one another's work with a huge degree of skepticism. Even collegial departments approach individual scholars' work with the intent of figuring out how they are being misleading. There is an assumption that the scholar presenting his or her work intends to exaggerate their conclusions. Why? Because scholars frequently do! And they frequently have to due to structural reasons that are totally beyond the scope of this enormous blog post. This has to stop.

Scholars ought to give one another the benefit of the doubt in certain matters. Some data just cannot be collected. It does not exist. Some data is not worth using, a government made it up. A nomothetic scholar is much more likely going to be faced with access to data that they know is hogwash. It is their perogative if they choose not to use it. A nomothetic scholar may also have access to information that she is  not privileged to share, or that it is unwise to share. She may also have close relationships with people in the field that encourage her to trust certain people over others. There is no way for the nomothetic scholar to communicate some of these points.

These risks are intimately rooted in the bias toward nomothetic knowledge in the discipline. If it were really acceptable for scholars to focus deeply on one case, there would not be pressure to exaggerate the extension of one's findings.

What about solutions? 

For over a year now, I've been mulling over the idea that the social sciences need to return to looking at the arts as a reference. Remember when you got your Bachelor of Arts in Political Science? There was once recognition of the relationship between the study of human beings and the artistic process, but our undergraduate classroom, graduate training, research design process and publications suggest a much stronger emphasis on understanding politics through the lens of the sciences.

I will certainly agree that much has been learned, and will be learned, from reference to the scientific method. What I'm suggesting is that this emphasis is narrow, and has risks (inadequately enumerated above) and discourages good people from the study of politics, people who would make strong contributions and have innovative approaches to the examination of nebulous and abstract concepts. I'm suggesting that people within the discipline already feel sidelined and many are taking their round selves and trying desperately to fit in a square hole. I know, because I've done this before.

An examination of the artistic process as an alternative foundation for research design, will open the discipline to more scholars, encourage creativity and innovation in research design and could change the culture of skepticism that pervades political science departments. 

I intend to harp on this issue on Fridays. So, if you're interested in learning more, y'all come back now, ya hear? 

Today in the Times... need, the new affirmative action?

Universities Show Uneven Efforts in Enrolling Poor

The NYT continues its trend of reporting on foreign and domestic educational politics. Today's article is on a new form of affirmative action that favors poor students. It assesses which universities do the best (and worst) job of attracting and enrolling poor students. The article appears to have an axe to grind with the University of Michigan, at whom it directs most of its criticism.

It seems to me the root of public universities enrolling few poor students is the uneven quality of lower levels of education and particularly high school. Many disadvantaged students don't even apply to the more prestigious institutions suggesting they are receiving poor career counseling or that they don't see entrance into these institutions as a possibility. Of course, universities can expand their visibility through outreach efforts.

Opportunity for PhD funding: Jewish, Christian, Muslim Relations

An email I received this morning:

The Woolf Institute in Cambridge, UK, has been dedicated to the provision of graduate and postgraduate study for 15 years. In partnership with the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust / Cambridge Overseas Trust, the Woolf Institute has established the Woolf Institute Cambridge Scholarships. These scholarships are intended to support outstanding research students at the University of Cambridge who have the potential to become exceptional leaders of the future.
Scholars will be selected from amongst applicants in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Their research must be relevant to the focus of the Woolf Institute - the multi-disciplinary study of relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims.
The Woolf Institute and the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust / Cambridge Overseas Trust will co-fund the successful candidates. Each scholarship will cover the full cost of studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge, and will be tenable at any of the thirty-one Cambridge Colleges.
Applicants are required to apply to the University in the normal way, and by the published scholarship application deadline []. Applicants must show evidence of excellence in their field of study and formulate a coherent research proposal. Applicants are encouraged to contact the Woolf Institute prior to submitting their application to discuss whether their research proposal is relevant to the Institute’s focus.
For further information, contact:
Woolf Institute ( Dr Emma Harris at or +44 1223 741038      
Cambridge Trusts ( Claire Lambert at or +44 1223 760607

Unrelated Rant: the NRA and the commodification of communication

Someone in North Carolina doesn't know their email address. They think they do, but they mistype it and end up signing me up for all sorts of things. I know they are doing this unintentionally because I receive receipts from their online purchases (dresses for the grandkids), their tee times, updates from their yoga studio. I am able to escape most other emails by unsubscribing immediately from whatever she signs me up for, with one exception: the NRA.

It is IMPOSSIBLE to unsubscribe from the NRA. The reason is, the moment that you subscribe to their listserv, they put you on fifty list servs. Even if you unsubscribe from their Special Action Alerts ("Dear Patriot..."), and the latest updates from their newsletter, they will find another way. I have unsubscribed from at least six NRA listservs recently, and today I got another email.

The fine print read: "If you no longer want to receive future Special Edition Book offers" please click here. They are so blatant about it! They do not even allow you to unsubscribe from the NRA! I can't even unsubscribe from their book offers! I can only unsubscribe from their "special edition" book offers. It is never ending!

Today in the Times... teaching math vs. reading

In raising scores, 1 2 3 is easier than a b c

When I first started mentioning articles that interested in me in the NYT, I did not anticipate it becoming a daily phenomenon. But lately the newspaper has been doing a lot of interesting reporting on educational politics and pedagogy, and that is one way I'm hoping to use this blog: to collect interesting articles on education. Hence the frequent NYT posts.

Today's piece is not surprising, but the situation it highlights is surely an interesting topic for conversation, debate, and certainly research. The article discusses how it is easier to catch students up in math than in reading.

Part of that is certainly because reading teachers aren't teaching reading anymore, are they? They're teaching reading and critical thinking and rhetoric and grammar and five paragraph themes. At a fundamental level, math teachers teach students a certain kind of logic, while reading teachers are expected to teach students how to think.

And this is where education collides with politics. All subjects are not equally politicized and for good reason. How students think will influence future political contexts. Authoritarian regimes have an interest in having skilled mathematicians and engineers. But are critical, engaged, informed citizens a goal of authoritarian regimes? I don't think so. Sometimes I don't think they are goal of democratic regimes either!

The other issue, highlighted by the article, is that math proficiency is much less influenced by your home environment than reading. As Geoffrey Borman, a UW professor and one of the interviewees in the article said, “Your mother or father doesn’t come up and tuck you in at night and read you equations.” Your ability to use language is influenced by your exposure to it, and school is simply not enough. Your language will reflect those you hang out with and what you read. Your math skills are much more determined by your teacher at school.

My first instinct about this is that much more time should be spend in school on language-related skills than math skills but that is obviously not enough of a solution. My second thought is, boy was that Dorothy Sayers on to something with her article "The Lost Tools of Learning."

I'll just leave it at that for today and perhaps write on Sayers tomorrow!

Today in the Times... Reforming Education in Thailand

Thailand considers reforming its authoritarian educational system.

My dissertation examines how education has been used for authoritarian ends in Morocco, so I read with interest an article this morning in the NYT about Thailand's current conversation over educational reform. The article highlights several significant points:

1. Educational reforms have path dependent effects: changes made to educational curriculum can continue shaping individuals long after the conditions in which those reforms were made have passed.

In the Thai case, educational style is rooted in the military dictatorship established in the country in 1972. The country experienced a period widely viewed as democratic in the mid-2000s, but returned to military dictatorship after the coup d'état of 2006. Its curriculum is deeply rooted in authoritarian values, even as the country's political space opens.

2. Education in authoritarian contexts is distinctly undemocratic: I know this is obvious, but I think the political science literature has done very little to examine this. Sometimes I get the impression some political scientists think any education is better than no education. I'm not sure how I feel about this.

In the Thai case, students are beat with bamboo canes, can have their hair cut or dyed publicly at school if it does not meet rigid dress code standards and the curriculum is rooted in rote memorization. “School is like a factory that manufactures identical people,” one student said.

3. Schools are the training grounds for citizenship: again, obvious. But in a system where students are expected to "bow, bow, bow" to their teachers, and never articulate their own arguments nor learn to evaluate others' arguments, how can a democracy function? where else do people learn to be critical?

In Thailand, the new education minister, trained in the US, is interested in moving towards letting students think more independently, though his support seems distressingly conditional. He remarked, "We want them to be individuals, within reason.”

4. You can't always get what you want, and neither can the regime: The Ministry of Education can change the national curriculum, but whether its implemented on the ground depends on its relationship to teachers, principals and other bureaucrats.

In the Thai case, one vice principal interviewed in the article seems likely to ignore reforms if he thinks they are too drastic. He was clear with his views, “The military needs guns; teachers need sticks. Sometimes you need to hit them a little bit, but only on the bottom.”