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The biggest losers from the Suleimani strike may be America’s Gulf allies

Depending on your Twitter addiction, you either went to sleep or woke up with the news that America had assassinated Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds force. Suleimani was one of the most powerful men in Iran, and the driver of its activities in the Middle East, so this is a big deal. People are debating whether this was just and necessary, and what happens next. But I wanted to raise a different point: what this means for America’s Persian Gulf allies.

Many would suspect these states–particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)–to be the biggest winners in this strike. Both states have a history of antagonism with Iran. Both were also the victim of strikes against their oil industry likely orchestrated by Iran (likely by Suleimani himself). And both have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen against Iran. So removing him from the region would be a good thing for them.

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The Russian Enigma

On an ice-cold winter evening I arrived in Moscow to untangle the riddle that is Russia. After reading two op-eds by Anne Applebaum and Bill Browder I knew what this country was about but I just wanted to see it for myself. The eyes of the border control guards reflected the thousand years of Russia’s repressive regime. I was half-expecting the KGB to arrest me there and then because four years ago I posted on Facebook that I didn’t like Vlad, but they let me through. My Moscow adventure had begun. 

The shadow of Stalin still looms large over this sprawling city. As soon as you approach the Kremlin you can see his doppelgängers entertaining tourists that shows the profound admiration Russians have for this tyrant. The beautiful Christmas lights mask the darkness that lurks in the hearts of the people that have no hope for the future or French cheese. While checking into my Ritz-Carlton room I couldn’t help but wonder, is the master of the Kremlin checking in on me too?

I didn’t find a Pizza Hut on the Red Square and realized that capitalism has failed here. Russian economy has not really become free after all. Gorbachev brought opportunity to this country, but instead they settled for Lenin’s mausoleum where you can still smell the rotting corpse of Bolshevism. After a decadent dinner in Doktor Zhivago restaurant, I could see that Russians are still trapped in the past, longing to resurrect their Soviet legacy, unable to open themselves up to new experiences (they do accept Apple Pay though). 

On my way to the Bolshoi theatre I got lost and a young lady directed me in English. Her surprisingly not blue eyes and not blond hair, as well as passable language skills will stay in my memory forever as a glimmer of hope that still flickers in this country of slaves. Pogrom, kompromat, troika, kalinka, babushka, gulag, vodka. If you know these words, you will see right through the mysterious Russian soul as did I, after a day and a half stay in a five star hotel in Moscow city center.

On my ride back to the airport, I realized that the East will never understand the West. Our values of the Enlightenment, human rights, liberty and democracy are lost on these people who don’t speak much English. They will never comprehend what it’s like to live in a free country and speak a language that doesn’t have 6 cases and 7 declensions.

Russia is no longer an enigma for me. I riddled me this. 

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Russians Love Their Children Too

Sting said it best

What kind of questions do you usually expect from a Town Hall meeting in the US? Healthcare? Climate change? Pensions? Schools? Roads? You would be surprised, but these are also the kind of questions journalists asked President Putin last Thursday at his annual presser (his 15th one, no less). Apart from the recurrent theme of the Great Patriotic War, it was your run of the mill, banal Q & A session; just instead of concerned citizens you have a room full of 1895 journalists from Russia and abroad with varying level of sanity and servility. 

The range was big to say the least: from icon-waving crackpots and terrified young reporters reading out encomiums about Putin’s involvement into youth programs to BBC correspondents asking about his daughters’ business ventures or about Boris Johnson’s comparing Putin to Dobbie the Elf from Harry Potter. The ones playing annual Putin bingo probably got everything down during the over 4-hour exercise in democracy and transparency: a bunch of mostly correct statistics, a traditional jab at the US, a signature lidded cup with (allegedly) tea, record numbers in agriculture, a snarky exchange with a Ukrainian journalist, as well as a couple of lessons in history.

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The Same but Different: US vs UK Higher Education

Four years ago I accepted a job at a university in the UK. When I took the job I didn’t think a whole lot about how working in the UK might differ from my previous academic posts in the US. I’m an American, and though I have British friends who work at UK universities–one of whom warned me “not to be fooled by the fact that we speak the same language”–I was woefully underprepared for just how distinct the two higher education systems are. Brits and Americans do speak the same language, but there are significant differences in their use of terminology. It’s not just that we use different words to mean the same thing, it’s that we use the same words to mean different things. For instance:

Are you alright? 

Let’s start with the simple stuff. If a Brit greets you and asks, “You a’right?” it is the equivalent of an American saying, “Hey, how are you?” However, I spent my first couple weeks in the UK wondering if there was something wrong with how I looked. I would immediately check to see if I was bleeding or if I had spilled coffee on my shirt.

Dissertation vs Thesis

In the US the dissertation is what you write to earn your PhD. In the UK it’s what an undergraduate or master’s level student writes as a capstone assignment. I learned this fact only after a couple of rather confusing conversations with my advisees. To sum it up: A dissertation is a thesis and a thesis is a dissertation.

Course 

In the US what would be called a “course” is called a “module” in the UK. So, for instance, where students select their classes from a course catalogue in the US, they browse a module catalogue in the UK. However, this use of terminology becomes extra confusing because in the UK they use the word course to describe what in the US would be a degree program. In other words, a module is to a course in the UK as a course is to a program in the US.

Lecturer 

When I was hired on in the UK, I was hired as a lecturer. I knew it was a “permanent” position. Yet the fact that in the US a lecturer is usually a contingent or adjunct employee caused confusion for my friends back home. In the UK a lecturer is the first rank on the academic promotion scale. In some ways it is equivalent to being hired as an assistant professor in the US, except that in the UK there is no up-or-out tenure system. Once you pass a cursory probation period you are hired on an open-ended contract. Though rare, technically, you could spend your entire career as a lecturer.

Reader

In the US the term reader is generally used to describe someone who enjoys reading. In the UK it is also a rank on the academic promotion scale. The rank of reader does not have a US equivalent in the sense that there are three rungs on the US promotion ladder, whereas there are four rungs in the UK. The promotion ladder in the UK is lecturer, senior lecturer, reader, professor. A senior lecturer is generally considered to be equivalent to an associate professor. A reader is equivalent to the junior ranks of what would be a full professor.

Professor

Adding to the confusion is that in the UK there are differences in title attached to the differences in rank. In the US all tenure-track and tenured faculty are addressed as “professor.” In the UK, until you reach the rank of professor you are addressed as “doctor” rather than “professor.” My students call me Dr. Harrington, or at least that’s how I ask them to address me. I still get plenty of emails that start out with “Hi” or, more unfortunately, “Miss Harrington.”

Staff 

In the UK the term staff refers to all academic and administrative employees. In the US “staff” usually refers to administrative support and “faculty” denotes the academic personnel. Moreover, rather than working directly for academic faculty who have taken on administrative positions, as they usually do in the US, administrative staff have a career track and promotion hierarchy that sits parallel to the academic track. This then touches on another, broader point about the extent of UK bureaucracy, but that’s a story for another time.

Marking

Marking is what in the US is called grading. This is not a particular source of confusion as marking and grading are more or less synonymous terms in the US as well, but I am including it here because the culture of marking is quite different than it is in the US. It is a much more involved process which includes the practice of moderation in which a colleague reviews a sample of the marked essays and comments on the consistency of the grades and the quality of the feedback.

Scheme 

What in the US would be called a program or plan Brits call a “scheme.” There’s a scheme for almost everything in the UK. There’s a pension scheme, a postgraduate funding scheme, a publication scheme. To an American it manages to make even the most banal plan sound like an underhanded plot. Take for instance the Beacon Scholarship, which my university’s website describes as “a lucrative scheme..open to all undergraduate courses,” or my university’s bicycle scheme. I pictured a bicycle theft ring, but it turned out to be a completely above-board program to purchase a bicycle on a tax-free installment plan.

This catalog is far from exhaustive, and it only scratches the surface of what are much deeper structural and cultural differences. I’m sure that there are many more terms that one could add, but for now, as they say in the UK, I wish you all “Happy Christmas.”

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Chain-ganging in reverse? Gulf states and US hostility towards Iran

I had a piece in the Washington Post’s “Monkeycage” over the weekend, which you can read here. I noted that many worry Saudi Arabia and the UAE will pull America into war with Iran. But it actually looks like they’re the ones restraining us. The piece was inspired by the famous “chain-ganging” dynamic in IR scholarship, but there was little discussion of that as it was geared towards a broader audience, so I wanted to expand here.

I suspect most readers of this site had to read Christensen and Snyder’s “Chain gangs and passed bucks” at some point. In case you didn’t, the argument is basically that in multipolar systems, alliances tend towards chain-ganging (being dragged into wary by allies) or buck-passing (wars breaking out because no one wants to stand up to an aggressor). The former happens in the case of offensive-dominant systems, the latter in defensive dominant ones.

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This op-ed shows what’s wrong with US foreign policy

Today, Ryan Crocker–career foreign service officer and former Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan–wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post criticizing its criticism of the Afghanistan war he oversaw. He pointed to progress made in Afghanistan, which is fair (and doesn’t necessarily contradict anything in the Post’s reporting), but generally did little to directly undermine worries about the war. Beyond that, as I noted in a frustrated Twitter thread earlier today, he showed off a lot of what’s wrong with US foreign policy.

I spent 11 years in Washington, DC, doing the usual young professional DC thing. I worked for a defense contractor. I joined networking groups. I attended events at think tanks. During this time I saw a lot of speeches either promising a new direction in US foreign policy or defending its current direction. Both tended to be vague and defensive even as they refused to directly engage with the very real problems in our policies. I had a flashback to that as I read Crocker’s op-ed.

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Lessons from Radicalization Narratives on Social Media

This is a guest post from Dr. Sybille Reinke de Buitrago, who is a Researcher and Project Manager of “VIDEOSTAR – Video-based Strategies Against Radicalization” at PolAk Nds, the Academy of Police Science and Criminology, Germany. Her research focuses on processes of identity, perception, emotions and discourse in security policy and international relations.

With the multitude of ‘stuff’ anyone can say online, why does it matter what someone says? It depends. When it comes to extremists posting content, we should be concerned, because spreading hatred online can incite actual violence. Radicalization narratives online then do matter. In the face of enormous challenges regarding digital communication, societal cohesion and political stability, we need to understand such narratives, and we need effective ways of countering them. 

Radicalization is a multidimensional process involving actors, ideas, political aims, means, and an audience. For extremists, social media has become a key tool to convey their ideas and ideologies, but also to recruit followers and to mobilize. Of course, offline contact remains important, but initial contact often comes online, and can be deepened there. Extremists want to create interest and attention; they offer strategic narratives that exploit tensions in society. Picking at those issues that are problematic, they target people who feel disillusioned or alienated from society. They also aim at emotions. They heavily color their claims and demands emotionally, utilizing emotional and identity needs we all have. The emotional framing does not only create interest, it also matters because the emotionalization of Self and Other – of ingroup and outgroup – is a tool to create dichotomy and antagonism between groups. 

How do extremists talk in social media?

An analysis of current radicalization narratives in YouTube focusing on Germany and Europe (Project VIDEOSTAR – Video-based Strategies against Radicalization) sheds some light on this question. The insights point to how extremists attempt to create division, antagonism, and feelings of threat. Islamist narratives tend to portray Europe and the West at large as negative and threatening places for Muslims. They frame the West as bad place to live in for ‘true’ Muslims and as threat to the Muslim community as a whole. The claim is that Muslims cannot be ‘true’ Muslims in the West. 

Islamist narratives heavily criticize Western media, and they portray state institutions as working to weaken a Muslim way of life. Narratives purposefully exploit discrimination experiences of Muslims, aiming to polarize and create antagonism. Such narratives reject any Western identity, and offer and appeal instead to a separate Muslim identity. Even topics of daily concern of young people are exploited, such as difficulties in school or with parents. For complex problems and for any issue of contention in society, Islamists offer as solution a simplified version of what they call the ‘true’ way of life for any Muslim. Linked is the call on all Muslims to defend their Muslim ‘rights’, community, and religion – according to the particular Islamist group’s narrative. 

Right-wing extremist/populist narratives, on the other side, focus on the claimed threat coming from refugees and migrants, and migration overall. Narratives portray refugees and migrants as threat to Europe, its culture, democracy and the Western way of life. An ‘Islamization’ of Europe is said to occur, with the Orient endangering the Occident. The framing is that this ‘Islamization’ threatens the European home and their populations, as well as liberal societies and values. ‘Native’ populations in Europe will supposedly soon feel as strangers in their own land. Narratives claim, for example, that in the case of Germany the German state is already catering to the needs of Muslims and other migrants more than to those of the native population. 

Another key theme of right-wing extremists/populists is the claimed threat for European women coming from Muslim men. By exaggerating instances of sexual violence by Muslim men in number and intensity, they aim to create fear and outrage, as well as mobilization for their ideas. Narratives also strongly criticize media and the state. All critical voices are subsumed under the so-called mainstream media that collude with state institutions. The state is blamed for the ‘chaos’ during the refugee crisis, for ‘out of control’-migration, and for not protecting Europeans. For example, due to its migration policy the German government is held responsible for the claimed new threat to German women. Narratives then call on German women to defend themselves. Not only migrants but also the state ‘become’ the enemy.

Thus, both Islamist and right-wing extremist/populist narratives heavily rely on the creation and use of dichotomies, and on manipulation to create fear. The focus on dichotomies is problematic. The absolute rejection of an identity that is more diverse or open, and the appeal to a more closed and homogeneous identity serve polarization and division. Whereas Islamist narratives call upon all Muslims to join an expanding Muslim community apart from mainstream society, right-wing narratives offer both nostalgic and modern versions of a homogeneous home closed to other influences. When narratives utilize dichotomies to spread fear and hatred, they can foster actual violence – as observable in recent events across Europe.

How can we counter extremist narratives?

We are still learning about how we may effectively counter extremist narratives. Furthermore, the actual effectiveness of counternarratives is hard to measure. The insights above, however, point to some ways forward. There is clearly a need to deconstruct extremists’ interpretations. We need to deconstruct their claims, conclusions, and calls for action. Since extremists try to sow division in societies, policymakers and society must answer with a transparent and sober discussion of existing problems, and authentic solutions. False truth claims must be uncovered, interpretations of an issue from apparently logical responses disentangled, and the misuse of emotional and identity appeals illustrated.

Policymakers and society should engage in making extremists’ narratives and their strategies and objectives transparent. We also need counternarratives that reach various audiences, thus counternarratives in multiple approaches, formats, and aesthetics, even if there are always potential side effects of further marginalization. The use of humor is contested, but humor can be useful in illustrating contradictions in extremist narratives and behavior, and thereby weakening credibility. Effective counternarratives need speakers that transport authenticity, legitimacy and charisma. They should be an expert on the topic in question, or they may be someone popular in music or sports who can garner attention. 

Furthermore, it is significant that counternarratives address audiences on an emotional level. Whereas extremists try to build fear, counternarratives can work with positive emotions and offer an empowering reading of existing challenges. Research also shows that positive messages that are for rather than against something get a better reception among young people. We then need counternarratives within a liberal, democratic frame that speak to young people and that strengthen their sense of capacity and passion about issues.

Strengthening social media competence is a related area for action, as it would strengthen resilience against manipulation attempts. Social media users should be aware of how algorithms work, of the impact of their viewing behavior, and what an echo chamber is. User should be able to reflect when a discussion becomes limited and extreme, and how content is made to evoke emotions. Efforts to foster reflection and debate are also significant for pluralism and diversity. When discussing issues on social media, users should also check with how their friends in the offline space see those issues. Greater social media competence is not only significant vis-à-vis online extremism, but also for how we can address the challenges of social media and the transformations in public and political communication. 

Thus, in countering extremists’ messages and objectives, we can and should work with positive messages in order to foster engagement and participation in the solving of problems. Such efforts, when including all of society, can go some way against extremism. Efforts should also include active engagement of and discussions with young people themselves about what is important for them; this may be done in schools, for example. Mixed approaches of online and offline efforts that include all areas of society would seem to best foster tolerance and cohesion. 

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Is Domestic Violence a Security Issue?

This post is cross-posted at Climate Security in Oceania.

For my course on climate security in Oceania, we read a post on the New Security Beat from Volker Boege from the Toda Institute. The piece is based on a wider report on climate and conflict in Oceania. He writes:

In overcrowded squatter settlements in the few urban centers in the Pacific Islands, domestic violence is increasing. These settlements are also often the sites of violent, sometimes deadly, conflicts between communities from different islands, many of whose members left their home islands because of the effects of climate change.

In the class, we had a vigorous conversation about whether domestic violence constitutes a security threat. Because violent conflict is relatively rare in the region in the contemporary era (the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are exceptions), efforts to think through the connections have led to a more expansive emphasis on other links between climate and security. Here, Boege writes in the wider report:

In Oceania today violent conflict is mostly inter-group in the local context, usually at a relatively low level of intensity, or it is everyday dispersed violence, such as domestic violence against women and children. This everyday violence and these local low-intensity violent conflicts can often be linked to the social effects of climate change, in particular to climate migration.

The conversation about the boundaries of the field of security studies led me to have some further thoughts that I wanted to explore here.

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Exploring Obstacles to Social Cohesion in the Aftermath of Violent Conflict: A Scholar-Practitioner Symposium

This is a guest post by Kara Hooser and Austin Knuppe, Conflict to Peace Lab, Mershon Center for International Security Studies, The Ohio State University

Rebuilding social cohesion—restoring bonds of social trust that bind people together in communities and enable them to peacefully coexist—commonly serves as a central goal for peacebuilders engaging in communities fractured by political violence. Despite a growing consensus about the necessity of promoting social cohesion in the aftermath of widespread violence, questions remain about how scholars, practitioners, and donors can collaborate to implement effective peacebuilding practices.

To address these challenges, we brought together sixteen scholars and practitioners for the inaugural peacebuilding symposium of the Conflict 2 Peace Lab at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at The Ohio State University.  Drawing on lessons learned from similar “bridging the gap” initiatives, we designed a workshop to facilitate exchange and find spaces for building community and mutual learning. Our time together focused on three themes: concepts and theories of social cohesion, effective peacebuilding practices, and monitoring, evaluation, and learning.

Finding Common Cause: Peacebuilding in Research and Practice

Over two days of structured discussion and information conversations, several commonalities emerged.

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Agent. Foreign Agent

Warning! According to the law that the Russian parliament passed yesterday, this post might need to be prefaced with a disclaimer that the following text has been compiled by a foreign agent. An individual can be labeled as a “foreign agent” in Russia if they (1) distribute information, and (2) receive funds from sources outside Russia. I am ticking both boxes here, even as an academic working at a university, and the law intentionally left the “information spreading” extremely broad: you can literally post something on social media. It would be up for the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry to decide who receives a “foreign agent” label. A specific procedure is yet to be established, but if an individual is deemed a foreign agent, they will have to create their own legally registered organization within a month in order to interact as a foreign agent with the Russian government. 

This iteration of the law comes as a sequel to the ‘amendments to the law on non-commercial organizations’ of 2012 that obliged Russian organizations to register as ‘foreign agents’ in case they were involved in ‘political activity’ (even through funding) and received funding from abroad. It has affected by now a large number of my colleagues, including the Sova Center for the Monitoring of Xenophobia that was forced to pay a large fine. As one of the defenders of the law stated on prime-time television and in line with the usual liberal anti-American narrative and a conspiracy theme: 

The purpose of the law is to reduce the influence of foreign countries on the policy. Thus, our law is much softer than the one in the US […]. And at the same time if you engage in politics, that means fighting for power, you must inform the Russian citizens. Those who oppose this law, do this for two reasons: the first – or they want to seize power in Russia in the interests of foreign states and against the interests of Russia, and the second – they get Western money and want to steal it.

Duma Member Sergey Markov

The law on foreign agents was passed in the same session with more restrictive legislation on public rallies undoubtedly taking the cue from Vladimir Putin who remarked during his Direct Line in December 2011 that he was sure that some of the people went to the protest ‘in a foreign country’s interest and for a foreign country’s money’. The notorious usage of the singular as opposed to the plural was telling – the country in question was not named, but it was clear for the audience that he was talking about the only country that could afford financing a protest in Russia, the USA. 

Pervyi Kanal, Russian state TV,  responded to the Direct Line with lightning speed and three days later on Sunday prime time news there was a segment on ‘the history and spread of coloured revolutions’, where it was stated that there is a special American think tank that is active in countries where the US ‘is interested in changing the regime’. One of the Pervyi Kanal’s experts emphasized that ‘there are many symbols and concepts, but the aim and the sponsor is the same – the USA’ (Pervyi Kanal, 18 December 2011). Thus, the Soviet frame about American dollars buying instability and wars was time and again re-articulated both by state officials and TV personalities.

Why pass this new foreign agent law now, one might ask? After all, who doesn’t like that goofball Donald and who is afraid of that barely competent State Department that can’t even fact check a TIME magazine cover? According to a Russian MP, it’s because of Maria Butina’s case:

Very recently, Maria Butina returned to Russia. She was sentenced to a year and a half under a similar law that’s in place within the United States of America because she failed to register as an individual ‘foreign agent.’ […] We’re talking about protection from direct foreign influence on the media market […]. Unfortunately, political forces in our country use tactics like these quite often in order to bring often unreliable and compromised facts forward for discussion.

Duma’s Vice Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy (United Russia party)

For starters, of course the American law is not that similar. Individual foreign agents in the US are supposed to be taking action in the interest of a foreign government or lobbying politicians. You know, like the convicted Michael Flynn or Paul Manafort. But lobbying effort is completely absent from the Russian law. While Butina was portrayed as another victim of “deep state” elite battles that ravage the American establishment, with the impeachment hearings kicking into high gear, who knows who will be the next President in the US and what kind of cookies the next State Department is going to distribute in Russia? In the meantime, “sovereign internet” is coming along and the laws are ready. 

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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Policy Engagement* (*But Were Too Afraid to Ask)

Earlier this year, our team at the Sié Center at the University of Denver announced our program on the three R’s of Academic-Policy Engagement (or R3, if you prefer): Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility. Generously supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, our program is intended to both study and help train early-career scholars around the ethical issues that arise when academics—who face ever-increasing pressures to demonstrate the broader social impacts of their research—attempt to interface with policy audiences. Broadly speaking, our scholarly community is doing a good job of training scholars to engage: initiatives like the Bridging the Gap Project (BtG) have been massively successful in demystifying the mechanics of engagement: how to write for policy audiences, give good interviews, etc. BtG now has over 100 alums who are doing an excellent job of making IR scholarship legible for policy and general audiences.

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IR, it’s time to talk about what the “multiple comparisons issue” really is

As a reviewer and recipient of reviews, I’ve noted a recent trend among IR papers. A study uses cross-national data with regression analysis, and runs multiple models with different variables or sub-sets of the data. Sometimes the results are consistent, sometimes they aren’t. But often a reviewer will object to the study’s validity, pointing to the “multiple comparisons” issue. Multiple comparisons can be a real problem in quantitative IR studies, but I worry we’re mis-diagnosing it.

What do I mean? Imagine we’re writing a paper on interstate conflict. We could measure conflict onset, duration or intensity. We could measure intensity by an ordinal scale, the number of deaths, or other more complicated measures. We could include all dyads, politically-relevant dyads, dyads since 1945, 1989, etc. Ideally these choices would be based on our theory, but our theories are often not specific enough to specify such choices.

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Duck podcast episode 2: Dan Nexon

The second episode of the podcast is now live. Dan and I discuss his recent-is tenure as lead editor at ISQ, insights on the journal article model for career advancement, prophesies for the future of journals in IR, and advice for young(ish?) scholars. The podcast should be available through Apple and Google podcast syndicators, and the RSS feed is https://feed.podbean.com/duckofminerva/feed.xml. As always, feedback is welcome in the comments or on twitter @jarrodnhayes

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A bigger question in the alt-ac debate

I had a kind of unique path to my current tenure-track job, straddling the policy-academia divide. So I’ve followed current discussions on “alt-ac” careers with interest, but found something lacking in them. Nathan Paxton’s recent interview with APSA crystallized that; the bigger question is not how to support alt-ac PhDs but how to counsel people before getting PhDs in the first place.

As I’ve discussed, I sort of followed the “alt-ac” approach in the first part of my career. For those who haven’t seen it, “alt-ac” means “alternative academic,” referring to PhDs who pursue jobs outside of higher education. I worked in DC before grad school, and continued working in “policy” jobs during grad school even as I tried to prepare for an academic career. And I worked in research jobs for several years before becoming a professor.

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All Journals Can, and Should, Provide Decision Letters and Reviewer Reports to Referees

Public Domain — From Pixabay

Note: This is the third post in an occasional series in which I talk about lessons learned (or related stuff) from my time editing International Studies Quarterly. My prior posts focused on “best practices” for writing decision letters (Part I and Part II).

I won’t knowingly review for a journal that doesn’t, as a matter of policy, share anonymized copies of decision letters and reviewer reports with referees.

Once a journal makes a decision and I don’t receive these materials, I usually check to make sure that mistakes weren’t made – that I didn’t accidentally delete the notification or whatever. If there wasn’t a mistake, and the journal confirms that it doesn’t provide referees with the decision letter and other reports, then I’m done. I let the journal know that I won’t review for them again unless and until it changes its policy.

And I do mean “policy.” It’s not enough for the journal to share this material only when prodded.

Why do I feel so strongly about this? There are a number of reasons why, in my opinion, journals are obligated to provide referees with decision letters and reports.

  • It’s the courteous thing to do. Referees invest time and energy into providing feedback; they should know whether and how that feedback mattered to the editorial decision.
  • Knowing how seriously the editors took the referee reports is an important part of the general good of editorial transparency. If the editors want to overrule one or more reviewers, that’s within their rights. But it’s inappropriate to obscure that choice from referees.
  • The field doesn’t invest a lot of time and energy into training people how to be good peer reviewers. Seeing what the editors did with your report, and how other referees assessed the same manuscript, is an important way for scholars to learn how to be better reviewers.
  • Knowing the contents of the editorial decision and the other reports becomes particularly crucial in the context of evaluating a revised and resubmitted paper. Some journals will provide these materials only in the context of an R&R, which is better than not providing them at all – but it’s still inadequate.

I feel so strongly about this that I occasionally make public appeals to other academics to boycott journals that don’t engage in this best practice when it comes to transparency. I made one such call on Facebook and Twitter within the last few days – about the same time that I emailed a journal that hadn’t sent me a decision letter for a manuscript that I’d reviewed. Both an exchange with another former editor and with that journal highlighted something that hadn’t ocurred to me. It isn’t always a matter of not wanting to provide these materials, but not knowing how to do so.

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Has regression analysis shrunk our imaginations?

I realize this is a weird thing for me to ask, since the vast majority of my publications–as well as a few of my works in progress–have relied on regression. But I was wondering this recently based on my own and others’ responses to a new project.

I was presenting qualitative research recently that tried to make the case for ideas mattering in a conventional security studies topic (I’m being intentionally vague). I had a lot of evidence that it did, but the way it mattered was bit more nuanced than the way material factors mattered. An audience member took issue not with my evidence, but with my interpretation; they argued it seems like this shows ideas don’t really matter at all. And I had similar thoughts while writing this paper; not that ideas didn’t matter, but that they fell short of the type of effect we were used to seeing. So I had to decide how defensive I wanted to be in discussing my results.

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Non-Academic Career Paths: The Dirty Secret of Academia?

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the academic job market is tough. Faculty openly warn political science PhD students that there are very few tenure-track jobs available, that they will be competing for those few positions against their most talented and accomplished peers, and that multiple publications and the imprimatur of an Ivy League school have become de facto pre-requisites for the top jobs. The academic job market has changed so rapidly that first-year professors often boast more publications than their tenured senior peers. From their first semester, students are steeped in a culture of scarcity that provokes fear and uncertainty (indeed, it’s not surprising that PhD students suffer from anxiety and depression at “astonishingly high rates”).

Over the past couple of decades, according to NSF’s Survey of Doctorate Recipients, the proportion of PhD holders who find careers in academia has declined precipitously in every field. In 2017, only 23% of PhDs in life and health sciences held a tenure-track or tenured position, down from 33% in 1997. Math and computer science have declined from 49% to 33% over the same period; engineering from 23% to 16%. In the social sciences and psychology, 30% of PhD-holders had a tenured or tenure-track job in 2017. 

Yet given all of this, it is also a universally understood truth that pursuing a non-academic career path as a PhD candidate in political science ought to be treated as a dirty secret, at worst, and a less prestigious alternative to winning a coveted tenure-track post, at best.

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Oh Say Can You Say

You never know when IR is going to bite you in the ass. One minute you are reading a children’s nursery rhyme and the other you realize that the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry Ms. Zakharova read it too, but decided to use it in foreign policy discourse. The rhyme in question is by a Soviet children’s writer Samuel Marshak, a Soviet Dr. Seuss, if you will:

Don’t you stand too close to me

I’m a tiger, not a pussy

Yes, pussy has the same Russian translation and it has both meanings, the one that Marshak used back in the day denoted just a cat, but Ms. Zakharova built a whole Facebook post around the double entendre. The photograph above featured Ms. Zakharova in boxing gloves and the headline read “Don’t you stand too close to me, I’m a boxer, not only pussy”.  The comments to the post ranged between “yes, show those stupid Americans what we are made out of” to pearl-clutching about the use of the word “pussy” to questions whether Ms. Zakharova would attend the protests in Moscow “with the people”. Just so you know, she was planning to stay at home “with the people”.

It’s not the first time that Ms. Zakharova posted something controversial. As a woman in a very male dominated profession (at least, in Russia), her posts and statements often feature metaphors that are not always deemed becoming of a diplomatic protocol – at least not something that I was taught to be appropriate at the same university Ms. Zakharova attended. Back in the day, professors at Moscow State Institute for International Relations (happy birthday, alma mater!), the Soviet and Russian diplomatic talent hotbed, would praise the eloquence and adherence to etiquette of the Russian civil servant upper class. Boys would be sent back home if they were not clean-shaven or didn’t wear a tie and a suit for some classes. And girls… well, we were told at the chair for diplomacy that future ambassadors need educated wives so why the hell not let women study here.

Enter Ms. Zakharova, one of the most high-ranking female diplomats in the Russian Foreign Ministry. She is obviously good at her job of “showing the Americans what we are made out of” and she can dance a fire “Kalinka” away. She is quick on her feet rebutting foreign press at Foreign Ministry Press briefings and has a killer emoji game on social media. Her whataboutist rhetoric is perfection and she can offer it in multiple languages, including Chinese. So, what if Ms. Zakharova talks about meetings that never happened and dabbles in anti-Semitism? In this day and age, who doesn’t?

After all, in the era of diplomatic communication a la “my button is bigger” and “don’t be a fool!”, who can blame Russia for a couple of smudges on the decorum.

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Duck podcast episode 1: Jelena Subotić

The promised reanimation of the Duck of Minerva podcast is now a reality. The incomparable Jelena Subotić stars in our first episode, discussing her forthcoming book Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance after Communism. The podcast will hopefully be available on iTunes and Google Play shortly. If you want to listen now, head to https://duckofminerva.podbean.com/e/episode-1-jelena-subotic/ and if you are into RSS feeds, well, here’s that too: https://feed.podbean.com/duckofminerva/feed.xml

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