I am concluding a semester-long experiment in incorporating a theory/policy writing simulation of sorts into my doctoral level “Human Security” seminar. This struck me as important both because my own doctoral training left me unprepared for writing for practitioners, and because the divergent socialization of academic professionals into scholarly versus non-scholarly writing has been cited as a key impediment to successful communication with those to whom our ideas and knowledge could conceivably matter.

In fact since “human security” is both an academic field and a policy domain this question about the role of epistemic communities in human security policy-making was an important intellectual touchstone all semester. We began the term with a bunch of readings on the theory/policy divide. But I wanted to make it more concrete by showing them precisely how the intellectual and editorial process differs across these two communities, giving them some practice at navigating that tight-rope, and allowing them to observe first-hand the trade-offs in their own intellectual process – especially since this is a big part of what we claim to be doing here at UMass in the IR field:

 We encourage applied research and help students develop the skill-sets necessary for interacting effectively with scholars and with policy practitioners at local, national, and global levels. 

To do this, instead of asking them to write research papers, my students were required to go through the process of convincing Foreign Affairs Magazine to publish their analysis of some policy-relevant topic on the basis of existing research. Their essays were required to be timely, accessible pieces bringing to bear the latest relevant knowledge from the academy on a important policy problem. (They chose things like how to implement the responsibility to protect, and whether international law should go after states who support dictators.) This required them not only to actually know where to find, interpret and articulate the latest relevant social science knowledge on human rights, humanitarian affairs and international law compliance, but to master a different kind of technical writing and editorial process than what we were otherwise teaching them. (The bigger writing assignments in class were critical reading reactions and practice comps.)

By all accounts, it has worked pretty well: students have claimed to have (mostly) enjoyed and learned from it, and on balance they did as well on the assignment as on more standard scholarly papers.* So I am here to share the recipe with the rest of you (plus what I learned along the way), in case you want to try it or provide feedback as I retool for next year.
Here’s what I put in the syllabus:

The purpose of this assignment is to a) demonstrate mastery over a particular topic in the human security literature b) demonstrate the ability to summarize what is known by social scientists on that topic and c) practice communicating one’s findings in the context of a policy-relevant argument in a style intelligible to lay readers and foreign policy elites. The student must also make a short, empirically informed presentation of the argument (15 minutes) at the end of the semester.

Here’s how it worked:

1) The Pitch. Students were asked to start by pitching their idea as a 3,000-word essay to Charlie Carpenter, a fictional FA editor. (They worked from the pitch template Jon Western and Joshua Goldstein used to sell their article on humanitarian intervention to the magazine, which Jon and Joshua were kind enough to share.) Students selected a topic, identified and studied the scholarly literature with a bearing on the causal claims in question, formulated a policy argument on that basis, and made the case that as an academic they had a contribution to make to the debate.

2) The Rejection. Upon sending in their pitch letters, each student received a terse note from Charlie Carpenter rejecting the idea for the print magazine, but offering them a chance to write 750-word op-eds for the website instead. The students were now tasked with doing all of the above but in even fewer words. The “editor” also reminded them to avoid jargon, use lots of examples, and to mention (but not belabor and definitely not footnote) the relevant social science studies supporting the argument, and gave a very short deadline – a turn-around time of about a week. Where needed the editor gave a few bits of substantive feedback as well, especially pushing students on their causal claims.

3) The Web-Essay. After scrambling for a week to formulate their argument and turn in their web essays, students received an optimistic note from the editor, accepting their piece and promising to “work on it” and send them a revised copy “for their approval” shortly.

4) The Copy-Edits. A few days later, students each received their essay back as an attachment, with significant editorial changes introduced: throat-clearing excised, sentences shortened, jargon reworded, superfluous paragraphs stricken, footnotes omitted. In brackets, students were instructed to add in illustrative examples here and there, a supporting reference to some study the editor is only guessing might exist, or a clarification. Often the student’s argument had been radically reworked. And in every essay at least one significant substantive error was introduced by “the editor.” [NOTE: I made sure to send these letters back on Friday, so the students had all weekend to panic, react in shock to having their writing tampered with by the prof, and wonder if they were misunderstanding the assignment. But in the following class session, I made it clear what the expectations were going forward: to work within the structural constraints suggested, but to push back enough that the resulting argument was the author’s own, and that the resulting prose was consistent with the author’s own understanding – and with all relevant facts. We also had a very fruitful illustrative discussion of how different this hands-on editorial approach – common in beltway journals – is from the norms of academic peer review and feedback, and what that means structurally for the production of knowledge among foreign policy elites.]

5) The Revisions. Students turned in a second version with many but not all edits accepted. They also had to write an email explaining what they were pushing back on and why. The final essays were graded on content, organization, structure and style according to this rubric. Finally, students made pithy, visually engaging presentations of their projects in class.

Based on both their feedback and the quality of the outputs, I found all this worked well at achieving a number of learning objectives. It impressed upon students the importance and difficulty of weighing in as scholars with some knowledge of social science evidence relevant to foreign policy debates. It gave them a sense as to what types of editorial norms they’d encounter and skill-sets they’d need to deal with beltway editors effectively; and when coupled with some intensive socialization in academic writing throughout the rest of the course, it helped them understand what was distinctive about both these different styles and the editorial process at academic journals. It made them write more concisely, which will also help them in scholarly writing. And it gave them at least a simulated understanding of the dynamics they had read about.

But I’ll do some things differently next time.

First, I think the projects will benefit from doing more than one iteration of editorial tug-of-war, especially since students are ultimately being graded on how well they manage this set of interactions to produce a well-written piece that improves through editorial feedback but is nonetheless still theirs after various attempted direct edits from the prof. This means intentionally introducing changes that they will reject, and starting earlier allows more time to be creative in this. For the extra work, the assignment probably should be worth more points, though it’s important that the grading criteria reflect the student’s active and skillful participation in the editorial tug-of-war process as much as the final output.

Second, when sending back the edits, I’ll accept all the changes first and let the students figure out what I did. Sending them back with track changes on was (I was told) unhelpfully psychologically jarring.

Third, on presentations day, the students simply presented their projects as students, but next time I’ll have us dress up and role-play a CFR not-for-attribution panel discussion on the various topics.

What else should I continue, change or add? Comments from colleagues or other profs are welcome, but I’d especially like to hear from graduate students and also non-academic editors about how we can best prepare the next generation of political scientists to communicate effectively across the theory-policy divide if they choose – while using exercises like this to generate a discussion about whether, and how much, that’s our job as social scientists.

*The student with the highest grade in the class has been invited to submit their essay as a guest post here at the Duck. Stay tuned.