This Academic Life
It may be a failure of understanding on my part, but I cannot for the life of me wrap my brain around the concept of a terminal MA degree in international relations. This despite the fact that I teach in a program where the MA program is the center of gravity, both in terms of population and in terms of our intellectual life; we hire faculty to teach MA students, get speakers who are largely practitioners and government officials rather than scholars, and generally devote more resources to the MA program than we devote to either the undergrad or the PhD program. In fact, both of those other programs are often folded into the MA program in various ways: many of our undergrads are basically doing pre-MA work, with a not insignificant proportion of them deciding after three years to enter the five-year BA/MA program and this end up with an MA anyway, while about half of our PhD students in any given year are actually doing MA work -- policy analysis, advocacy, etc. -- instead of PhD work (academic research, negotiating theoretical debates within the discipline, and so on). So I find myself in the rather odd and sometimes uncomfortable position of teaching in a program that I do not really understand, and teaching students who I understand even less.

This is a constant feature of my daily life and work, but sometimes it is sharper than others -- such as around registration time, when students are choosing classes for next semester and seek my advice. I seem to have had the following conversation three or four times in the last week with MA students:

Student: I don't feel like my classes are really teaching me anything useful for my career.
Me: In what way?
Student: We read IR theory, but that doesn't seem relevant to what I do at my job/internship.
Me: Theory doesn't really tell you what you should do in your job/internship; nor does it instruct you how to get ahead in your career. it's at a higher level of generality.
Student: And we do academic research. But at my job/internship, we do policy analysis according to a whole different set of standards. No one wants to hear about academic work.
Me: There are different standards for knowledge-construction in the two domains.
Student: Is knowing how to engage in debates about IR theory, or how to do academic research, going to help me in my job?
Me: No.
Student: So what am I doing here?

This is a classic case of something that has a meaning for one group and in one context having a very different meaning for a different group in a different context. It is exacerbated by the fact that the two groups have to keep interacting. The whole notion of a "professional MA degree in International Relations" is an odd fit with IR as an academic discipline, and as long as the differences are not made clear, this kind of conversation is probably going to keep happening. And I cannot shake the feeling that our MA students are being hoodwinked, inasmuch as they come in expecting to gain something that I am not at all convinced that we can provide to them.

Now, part of this has to do with particular subfields. We have programs in "international development" and "conflict resolution" which are basically practitioner programs through and through; students in those programs take courses which are oriented more directly towards their careers, as the content of the courses involves a set of skills and rules of thumb that they will need to master and command in order to make their way in the worlds of development and conflict resolution. In that way, those programs are more like JD or MBA programs: the boundaries between contemplation and execution are much more porous, and it is not unusual for faculty members to be practitioners at the same time as they are academics. Indeed, the best instructors in programs like that are practitioners, since they can give the students a sense of "how things work" in the professional world and make sure that they get both the skills and the network connections that will improve their career prospects.

Those MA programs I understand, sort of. I understand them in the sense that I can see how they might actually help someone who was aiming for a career in that respective subfield. What I don't understand is what such programs are doing in a university setting. I mean, I understand it historically; I understand how universities got into the business of professional certification, and why they stay there (the term "cash cow" comes to mind). I don't understand it intellectually. As an IR theorist I am not convinced that I have much of anything to offer professional practitioners; my work is devoted to trying to understanding what goes on in the world, not necessarily to doing anything in particular in the world, and I am baffled as to why a practitioner would benefit from being exposed to my particular construction of knowledge about the world -- given that it is largely influenced by disciplinary debates and practical-moral value-commitments in a way that undermines any claim to definitiveness.

If I thought that my work produced definitive results, I could offer those results to the MA students as parametric constraints within which they should be working in their careers; but I don't, so I can't. Some of my colleagues have no such hang-ups, and are perfectly happy to do precisely this. Indeed, they would be happy with the label "experts," since they consider speaking truth to power to be some if not most of their jobs. It surprises me not a bit that many of our MA students gravitate to those members of our faculty, as long as they agree with what those "experts" are saying, because this allows them to deploy the label of "more knowledgeable" within their particular debates with other practitioners. The "experts" give them ammunition to use when trying to get the upper hand in their local context. And this is their interest. Knowledge is a means to an end, rather than the ground from which their action proceeds. And having an MA degree serves the same function: it allows the practitioner to claim to be operating from a position that needs to be taken more seriously. [Now, granted, this has been routinized in the usual manner, so that I doubt that most MA students are aware that this is what they are doing by getting an MA; to them, it seems to appear to them simply as a card that they need to have punched in order to advance in their careers.]

So, let me clarify: I think that the clash of understanding between myself and many (not all -- there are MA students with whom I get along very well, but they are generally either those students who are of a more scholarly inclination, or those students who are willing to play the scholarly game for a time) of our MA students is both epistemic and practical-moral: epistemic in that it involves the status and purpose of knowledge, and practical-moral in that it involves rather fundamental life choices and orientations towards the world. Indeed, this second aspect is probably more important than the first, since the meaning of the terms of the epistemic debate -- terms like "theory" and "knowledge" and "practice" -- changes depending on where one stands with respect to the broader question of whether one is primarily interested in contemplating the world or enacting programs and agendas within it. But as Andrew Abbott has argued, a major distinction like this one has a tendency to "fractalize," which is to say, to repeat itself within subdivisions. Thus we get the contemplating-enacting debate repeating itself within the group of contemplators (who basically all go into academia) and the group of enactors (some of whom end up in academia as "scholar-activists," others of whom do not, but simply stay in the field of daily practice).

I can't yet figure out how to draw this and make it display properly in html :-( But here's a table that captures a little bit of what I mean:

contemplatingCc: scholarsEc: scholar-activists
enactingCe: expertsEe: practitioners

MA students are Ee. They come into the academy seeking certification, and find themselves in the company of contemplators. Frustration ensues on both ends. But looking at that table also reveals alliances and points of overlap; Ee practitioners can learn from the expertise of the Ce faculty, and can learn from the practical experience of the Ec faculty. But the major conflicts of interpretation would be along the diagonals, especially between (say) Cc and Ee. (The Ec-Ce conflict is another matter, I think, because of certain kinds of positional similarity that show up better in different kinds of diagrams: both Ec and Ce represent a way that the initially opposite positions come closer together. I need to research how to draw this in html so my readers can see what I mean.) And that's the situation I find myself in with most of the MA students.

Of course, as a Cc, explaining the conflict is an important way that I process it. Not sure how helpful this exercise will be for Ee MA students, or for my Ce and Ec colleagues. But at least it helps me make sense of the dialogue of the deaf that often seems to take place when I talk to MA students -- and also to make sense of my unease with the certification function that the MA degree plays in an Enacting context (or at least with my own role in that function).

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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