Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Making sense of academic nonsense

Since students were not beating down my door this morning to take advantage of my office hours, I decided to go through some of the papers, files and unopened mail that occupies my desk. And lo and behold, I didn't find much of anything useful in these assorted piles. So in the trash they went . . .

I left undisturbed a pile of books that sits next to the most recent copies of the American Political Science Review, the leading scholarly journal in my academic discipline, and Perspectives on Politics, a recent spin-off of the APSR started by political scientists who believed our flagship journal had become over-specialized, methodologically obtuse and unwilling to publish scholarship that did not fit into a tight, usually heavily quantitative methodological box. Perspectives states its philosophy on the journal's masthead -- "Each article must be accessible to and meaningful for readers with much general knowledge of politics but with no specific knowledge of the issue of hand." Sounds like a fancy, schmancy description for Political Science for Dummies. Honesty compels me, however, to admit that I have never made it more than 2 or 3 pages through an article in Perspectives. And that is 2 or 3 pages more than I have read in any article published in the APSR since I was in graduate school. Since publishing in the APSR is the political science equivalent of winning a Grammy Award (I'd say Emmy, but academics do not like to admit that they watch television. If they do, they usually preface their confession with something like, "24 is really a metaphor of the stateless, border-free global network that reflects the post-material status of our interdependent world." Me? I am less complicated. I watch The Office, sports, The Simpsons and, when it returns, The Sopranos because I like them . . . a lot!).

So indifferent am I to what goes on in my discipline that I couldn't even get excited about the Centennial Issue of the APSR, which was published in December 2006. Another confession: I didn't even open it until last week, when I found it sitting on top of a copy of the Jazz Times, which I needed so I could order a couple of CDs I didn't know had just been released. Half the issue is devoted to the evolution of political science as an academic discipline, and the other half to essays commenting on the "Top 20" articles published in the APSR over the past 50 years or so. The status of these "classic" articles was determined by the frequency of scholarly citation to them. Imagine my professional disappointment when I quickly figured out that I had cited none of these articles in anything I have ever written, not even, "What to Do (and Not to Do) with Time-Series Cross-Section Data." That made sense, since I don't remember reading any of them at any point in my graduate training or thus far in my professional career. I know that says something about me; but what it says isn't clear.

Done with the APSR and Perspectives, I turned to the books sitting on my desk. A couple of them actually looked familiar to me, and when I leafed through them I noticed that my name was in the acknowledgments of a couple of these books. This was a pleasant surprise, since I didn't remember reading any of the prior versions of the published manuscript. Maybe I did; who knows? My surprise turned to shame when I looked at the back dust jacket and discovered that both books were "essential reading" for anyone interested in judicial politics.

Got that? Anyone -- except me, I guess, because I haven't read either one and don't plan to between now and my retirement. Just looking at these books was stranger than fiction, since I was acknowledged as helping to bring someone's thoughts together to write a book that I haven't read and do not plan to read. But my embarrassment began to recede when I found out that I had nothing to with the other four or five books I have stacked up on my desk. These books, too, were, according to the back dust jacket, "essential reading" for "anyone" interested in, among other things, "how American politics works." Two were deemed "classics" in their fields. One promised to "change the way we viewed and understood the Supreme Court." A prominent scholar, at least according to my colleagues who read his work, heralded another book as so important that "no need exists for a further biography" of this particular Supreme Court justice. Imagine that . . . 2007, and there is not a single person out there toiling in the fields of American constitutional studies, constitutional law, political science or law and society that can offer any additional insight into this justice.

And finally, one dust jacket promised a "major contribution to the past and present dialog that will define America's future!"

Wow! That is some heavy stuff . . . and to think I got that one off the Amazon bargain bin.

The more I think about it – and I do think about things, sometimes even very important, serious things, like whether the Caps were going to move Dainus Zubrus today as the trading deadline approached in the NHL – I cannot even remember the last time I read a professional journal article of any kind in my field or labored through one of the books deemed “essential” for anyone interested in judicial politics, the Supreme Court, American politics, the future of humankind, the preservation of the Earth or the future of political science. And, yes, you can find books available about the future of political science, and there are at least two or three dozen people in my profession who actually debate where the field is going. I generally don’t find myself involved in these debates because I don’t where the field is now or even where it has been. The future of political science? Dude, count me out!

Last September, I attended the annual American Political Science Association meeting in Philadelphia. I had no paper to present, no panels I wanted to hear, no manuscript to hustle and no real reason to go. I did need to see an editor and colleague with whom I work on a book series that is published by a distinguished university press. I know the press is distinguished because several young assistant professors pulled me aside in the hotel lobby to ask me if we (the “distinguished university press” mentioned above) would be interested in taking a look at their proposals in the hope that we would consider their manuscripts for publication. One such ambitious, newly minted Ph.D informed me that he was working on the “cutting edge” of “comparative judicial behavior in European courts of last resort” using one the “sexier” approaches available. He then told me that, since I’d probably heard “through the grapevine” what he was working on he wouldn’t take up anymore of my time.

Boy, did I feel dumb! Not only was I completely unaware of who this young man was, I had never heard of his dissertation. And I was completely flabbergasted that political science, even such a seductive comparative studies of judicial voting behavior, could be sexy. I think Sandra Bullock is sexy, and I would also throw Julianne Moore, Sheryl Crow and Julia-Louis Dreyfus into the mix. But political science? Jee-zus!, I must be getting old. Right in front of me for almost 18 years and I didn’t give the sexy, come-hither side of political science the attention it needed. I had stopped seeing political science as a sexual discipline and starting taking it for granted as a way to make a living without working too hard. No wonder it stopped finding me interesting a long time ago.

I left the convention after four hours. Up in the morning and back in the afternoon. On the train ride home, I browsed through some the convention papers I was going to miss – “contextual analysis of roll-call voting in three-dimensional space,” “game theory as a tool in terrorism,” “revisiting controversies over the use of Box-Jenkins analysis . . .” and then the next thing I knew my train was pulling into the Baltimore station and the woman sitting across the aisle was tapping me with her magazine to see if this was my stop. Oh, well . . . with all the unread “essential reading” still on my desk that I had no plans to read, I would never have had a chance to give all those papers the serious look I'm sure they deserved.

I have no idea how many millions of words political scientists have put to paper since the formation of the professional discipline at the turn of the century (hence the Centennial Celebration that I admittedly did not know about). But I am pretty sure that the amount of time that political scientists have devoted to talking and writing about their specializations, arguing about dependent variables, clashing over interaction problems in multi-variate analysis, fighting over what we know compared to what we simply think and convening in hotels to present and listen to research papers that offer little more than a "window" into a "much bigger project" that is part of the "further research" demanded by an earlier "tentative conclusion" is inverse to the actual contribution that our field has made to understanding politics. When you can write about the professional life of your field and have it read like a parody, is it any wonder that people outside our field find so little "essential" about what we do?


Nathan said...

Novotny and a low first rounder -- fair value, do you think?

Matt Bennett said...

Then why did I have to read all those books in your classes?

Oh wait, because those books actually had real information and not theory so abstract it would take Jackson Pollack to interpret it.

By the way, this is a great post.

Matt Bennett
(Still thinking campaign finance reform can work).

Nathan said...

And she's even a hockey fan: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/multimedia/photo_gallery/0709/caught.in.the.act.0921/content.9.html