This Academic Life
  Running with a knee brace
I. It's gotten very cold in the mornings around here lately; yesterday when I went out it was 19 degrees Fahrenheit, and there was a bit of wind. Brrr. But it's amazing what an extra pair of nylon pants and a good pair of running gloves can do for you -- not to mention a nice hat made of synthetic insulation material. Cold at first, but gradually it gets okay, and the even more pronounced absence of people because of the cold is also very nice. (I don't like seeing people around when I run. I'd rather run in as deserted a landscape as possible, like that nice beach in Den Haag…)

Not sure if it's the cold or what -- maybe it's the exercises -- but my knees are doing much better than they were previously. My routine now is to put on a brace (the left knee is getting that support these days; it was the right knee before, but they seem to tag-team from time to time) when running, ice afterwards, and do leg lifts and such in the intervening time between runs. Yesterday I was able to run harder for longer than I had in a while, and didn't feel significant pain. In fact, I felt so good that I considered taking off the brace altogether. Running without a brace. I hardly even remember what that is like. I've gotten so used to having the brace on that sometimes it feels weird to be walking around campus without feeling that pressure underneath my kneecap.

So just for the heck of it I took it off. Tentative step. Two. Three. Then a brisk jog. And a little bit of a run…ow, ow, ow. Slow to a halt, put the brace back on. Stretch my leg muscles again. Walking; a little pain but not too bad. Jogging is okay. Running -- not speedy, but certainly faster than a walk or jog -- also fine. A little twinge, some soreness, but nothing horrible. And no real pain afterwards, either.

So my running will be brace-assisted, at least for the foreseeable future.

II. Working through my book manuscript, trying to meet the 1 March deadline for the final copy -- and to meet the word length restrictions. I'd actually never put the whole book together and done a word count, so I figured that I should probably do that to give myself an idea about how much flexibility I had with the Conclusion. So I dutifully unformatted the EndNote bibliographies, to avoid inflating the word count with each chapter's references, and then totaled up the count for each one. Hmm. 12,000 here; 16,000 here…19,500 for one of the heavily archival chapters…grand total: 110,000. 110,000.

Panic. Contract says 90,000. I have to lose 20,000 words??? How the heck am I going to accomplish that, especially since the conclusion still isn't done?

Hurried e-mail to editor at Big University Press. His reply: 110,000 is too long; try to cut about 10,000 words at least; and oh yes, the intro chapter that I slaved over last weekend still sounds like a dissertation to him, because it features too much discussion of existing accounts and not enough of my own original stuff. My first reaction is to dash off an e-mail about how the reviewers wanted me to locate myself in the existing literature, which requires some discussion of their work. Then on the drive home I think it over.

After dinner I discuss it with my wife, who provides a reality check in the following two ways: first, my editor is not trying to ruin my book, he's actually trying to help me get my stuff out there, and after all he's a professional so his advice should be taken seriously; second, reducing the discussion of other literature actually would produce a more readable book. (My wife is not an academic, so she can provide reality checks like this, pointing out that not everyone in the world wants to wade through a longish discussion of why IR realists, liberals, and liberal-constructivists are actually on the same side of some social-theoretical debates about the location of causal mechanisms, as opposed to evolutionary realists who are more like structural or even Gramscian marxists…okay, I get excited by these things, but the rest of the world? Even the rest of the field? Perhaps not quite so much.) After some resistance on my part (telling an academic that some of her or his work is really interesting, and some is just internecine warfare of interest only to technical specialists, is always a tricky operation; major bonus points to both my wife and my editor for undertaking the operation :-) I decided that they were right, and came up with a radical suggestion:

Delete the second chapter. That's the "IR theory" chapter. Don't bother trying to revision the field in this book; save that for elsewhere. When I pitched this to my editor, his reaction was better than I could have hoped for: since he has an option on my next single-authored book, he proposed that we make that an IR theory textbook of sorts, and put the excised material (suitably rewritten) in that book instead.

Still feel a little weird about doing this. IR theory is a very comfortable set of props for me, a cast of characters with whom I'm pretty familiar and in terms of which I can most directly characterize those debates in which I'm engaged. I do not think that my stuff is going to be all that exciting for non-specialists, so the principal impact -- initially, at least (I do have these delusions of being read one day in general social theory classes, much like Weber is … hence my username …) -- is likely to me among IR theorists and other IR scholars. And if I don't point out explicitly what I am doing, how do I avoid being mistakenly assimilated into positions with which I disagree?

My editor says that I have to stop reaching out for other literature as something to lean on. I may have developed my stance by arguing with these people and their writings, but it does not follow that I have to lead my readers through that whole process in order to make my point.


III. Right before the conclusion of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein comments that readers should discard his chain of reasoning after following it: "He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it" (§6.54). The process of achieving an insight, especially an insight about the process of achieving insights, is not essential to the subsequent communication of that insight -- or even to having the insight itself.

Then again, Wittgenstein did publish the Tractatus. And it withered away about as much as the post-revolutionary Soviet state did. So maybe the ladder remains useful? Maybe we do need markers of process, traces of the twists and turns that a train of thought took? (Of course, they needn't be right in your face all the time; footnotes are perhaps sufficient, along with brief discussions at more appropriate points in the text, and something short in the conclusion about where my book might fit.)

So was Wittgenstein wrong? Can one run without a brace?

If we could always remember the insights, then maybe. But we fall back into the world, with its metaphysical commitments and its essentialist restrictions. And we forget. The theory, the process, the brace: these keep us healthy, stop us from straining too much, and make it possible for us to keep on running.

In a sense we are marked by how we got to where we are. And it's important not to forget that. But not everyone has to be led there by the same pathway. The knee brace helps me run, but what matters here is the running, and the openness to which it gives rise. The rest is filler, in a way, and can be safely cut in order to make a 250-page book: still hefty, but manageable.

[Posted with ecto]
  Oh, come ON
If I hadn't read it in the paper -- and seen the pictures, for crying out loud -- I wouldn't have believed it:

Dick Cheney, Dressing Down

Please. Who wears a ski cap and a parka to a ceremony commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz??

Having just been at Auschwitz six months ago, I can confidently say that it is not the kind of place you want to wear informal clothing to in general. It's far too somber for that; too many ghosts still on active duty.

This is the kind of thing that gets the U.S. in image trouble with the rest of the planet. Empires are supposed to at least be dignified; what's the point of overwhelming power if you can't at least be ceremonial and impressive about it?

Yet another example of the incredible bipolarity of this Administration: they are very sensitive to nuances of image at home, and almost completely tone-deaf abroad. One wishes that they'd be a little more balanced.

[Posted with ecto]
  Expand and Contract
After two years, I think that the search committee here has finally found a candidate whom we want to hire. I've not been on the committee, not officially, although I've been keenly interested in their deliberations and have often made my opinions and preferences known to the members.

Last year there was a split in the committee, with two candidates -- one of whom was my favorite, and would have made a great colleague who would have underscored a particular substantive and theoretical direction for the program; the other of whom was a real piece of work, someone who didn't understand their own argument, and someone who would have been a real methodological imperialist to boot -- receiving support. I intervened as forcefully as I could to stop my least favorite from being hired, making my displeasure known as bluntly as possible (even saying at some point that it would be preferable to hold the search open for another year than to hire that person); from later reports I guess that my efforts had something of an impact, allowing those on the committee who also opposed this character to cite my issues with the candidate as evidence that the candidate would not be a good fit for us. Of course, in fighting a rearguard action I did rather undercut some of my effort to hire the other candidate, I think, but at a certain point it was clear to me that my favorite candidate wasn't going to be hired (opposition from higher up the food chain too -- and we can't make hires without the support of those holding the administrative reigns) so preventing things from getting worse seemed preferable to trying and failing to make things better.

Now, the subtle politics of intra-departmental maneuvering seems to dictate that such an intervention should be avoided if possible, but I felt very strongly about not hiring someone who would make it harder for me to do my job on a daily basis. However, I knew that since I had basically blown my reserves on last year's search, I would have to be more careful about intervening this year. I resolved only to fight defensively -- i.e. to only make a big deal about a candidate if it was a similar situation to last year. Fortunately, it wasn't (although there was apparently a move to put the same person back on the short-list again this year -- I mean, really, the chutzpah of some people! You lost already; deal with it and move on. Sheesh).

This year three candidates were brought in for interviews and campus visits; all three came last week, one after another. Quite a whirlwind. I attended meals with all three, and one job talk (couldn't make the others due to prior commitments); I figured that would give me enough information to determine whether there were any really bad eggs in the bunch (to mix food metaphors a bit). There weren't. We had one candidate who really didn't have much in the way of theory in the project, and who couldn't really engage in theoretical debates; seemed like much more of a policy activist, and Lord knows we don't need any more of those around here. And then there were two, and quite a contrast they made: one intellectually fascinating, mind rushing in many directions at once, with a big-think project about reconceptualizing the nature of the international system; the other a more "normal science" type, doing work that synthesizes some extant stuff rather than really breaking/creating new ground. but extremely well-published and a nice person to boot. Also, neither were anything like methodological imperialists; both were intrigued by my description of the proposed new year-long Ph.D. "multiple methodologies" course, and I got the sense that both would be allies in that fight.

So the choice became: do I support the more intellectually interesting candidate, or do I support the more mainstream one? Do I actively support the mainstream one, or just sit back and let it happen without objecting? Politics, politics. Given last year's events, I decided that I needed to support the mainstream candidate, especially since it looked like the committee was going that way anyway. (Had it been evenly balanced I might have thought about the issue differently -- but not necessarily. One must conserve one's resources for really important battles, after all, and in this case the mainstream candidate was hardly the worst thing that could have happened.) So I wrote a note to the committee expressing what I thought was a balanced opinion: I liked the big-think candidate on intellectual grounds, and the mainstream candidate's argument was somewhat incoherent, but the program could use someone as professional as the mainstream candidate to underscore our direction as a scholarly program instead of a policy-recommendation shop or a haven for sloppy ideologues. Getting the "social science" aspect of what we do solidified seems to me to be quite important, given the ways that I think that such a commitment can be utilized to create space for rather radical, but still systematic and empirically-focused, work -- both in the local context and in the wider discipline as a whole. So in that sense the mainstream candidate might be a good choice even if I didn't have this specific history here with respect to search committees.

Hence, my vote: hire the mainstream candidate, despite some of that candidate's logical and theoretical problems. (The candidate's discussion of teaching also won me over, as we saw eye to eye about a classroom being a place where students should be encouraged to grapple with the material on their own. Always nice to have a supporter on that score as well.)

So the department is about to expand.

In other news, I got my book contract in the mail on Friday from Big University Press; I have it on good authority that this makes tenure a virtual lock for me next year, so hooray me! Now to re-negotiate the number of free paperback copies I will get upon publication, and see if something can be done about those foreign royalty percentages…

[Posted with ecto]
Had a dissertation proposal defense this morning -- student doing an interesting project on mechanisms of social service provision in conflict areas. My interest in this is because of the methodology (go figure), which is processual all the way through: different social arrangements of brokerage affect the shape of the conflict. The student had a reasonably sophisticated way of describing the contexts within which social service provision takes place, although the mechanisms could of course have been more clearly specified; this kind of research operates interpretively, inasmuch as empirical research is expected to inform a better formulation of the analytical categories in a kind of process of hermeneutic updating.

The problem is that people who aren't familiar with this kind of approach assume that an initial specification is some kind of testable hypothesis -- as though the point of an analytic were to compare it to reality and see whether it corresponded. Please. These are very different methodological approaches; hypothesis-testing is a dualistic conception whereby empirical facts are thought to falsify initial guesses, whereas analytical interpretation is all about developing categories that make sense of complex situations by deliberately oversimplifying and abstracting. Trying to shoe-horn approaches into boxes where they don't fit annoys me to no end, and this did happen this morning to some extent -- both on the verbal level, as examiners kept referring to "variables" and "hypotheses" when such terms weren't really appropriate, and on the more serious conceptual level, as when the student was asked how he could draw conclusions from four data-points or whether brokerage or autonomy was the more important causal factor. The student defended himself okay, but I wish he'd been better equipped.

Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. In my work I am often quite aggressive trying to prevent readers from interpreting my work as participating in a methodological project that I find deeply problematic; I prefer to have those issues front and center, so that the status of empirical results I produce will be understood correctly. Perhaps this isn't always appropriate in all contexts, but it is the way I (aesthetically?) prefer my academic debates.

After the defense I went to an event I was hosting as coordinator of a speaker series here; we had a State Department guy in to talk about US-Russian relations. Obviously, questions about methodology would be out of place here -- we listened as the speaker discussed current tensions in the relationship, and then began asking him questions about whether the US government was worried about the dissolution of Russia, or what kinds of things might be done to advance non-proliferation, etc. Not looking for findings, so much, as trying to get a sense of how things appeared from the inside of the policymaking apparatus -- the whole thing was more like a piece of primary-source research.

One interesting finding, though: I pressed him on the reasons why the US held Russia to a higher standard when it came to democracy and human rights and the like, especially since his narrative about the tensions in the relationship was all about essential characteristics of the way things work in Russia (and sprinkled with references to Russian history -- they've been like this for centuries, never had an Enlightenment, etc.). And after a couple of rounds of that he admitted that the framework within which people at State thought about Russia was that Russia was a "Western" country and should look more or less like "the West," and that the weight of history was something that could be overcome through intelligent policy. Liberal empire in action, buttressed by a civilizational narrative: all "Westerners" (ignoring the whole slavophile/westerner controversy in Russia, and also the ongoing debate throughout 'the West' about whether Russia really was a "Western" country or not) are alike, deep down, even if they need a little help to realize that status.

So now if asked I have additional support for the enduring character of such enframing assumptions as exercising a shaping effect on policy writ large. One more story to help defend my way of worlding, as though ways of worlding could be empirically defended…

[Posted with ecto]
Let's take a quick look in the "Outlook" section of the Washington Post this morning (free subscription required). There we find this editorial on the aftermath of the tsunami that devastated communities all around the Indian Ocean this past week, in which the author -- who used to be a "manager of disaster education" (fascinating job title; I wonder how the position differs from, say, "press secretary" or "public relations coordinator") for the Red Cross -- opines:
But I'll wager that 5, 10, 15 years from now, the single word "tsunami" will trigger in any who hear it a near-total recall of the fearful events of Dec. 26, 2004. … That's because the scale of death in that catastrophe, occurring without warning and in a matter of minutes, and striking so many nations, has catapulted it into a class of its own. In my experience, the single factor that most underscores the significance of any disaster is the number of lives it takes. News reports of constantly changing, rapidly rising numbers in South Asia have made the deaths hit home, and our psyche is responding to the further suffering we know these lost lives will cause. … That's why we have such a deep-seated need to know how many people died in South Asia. That's why relatives of the victims search so desperately for information about what precisely happened to their loved ones.
The article then goes on to discuss, in illuminating detail, the technical obstacles to generating this kind of definitive count of casualties: the lack of a good baseline population count to begin with, the absence of bodies because of the sheer force of the water, different national accounting systems for reporting dead and missing, and so on.

The article makes a good point that obtaining such a count will likely be impossible, even concluding that "Every life counts. But sometimes, tragically, not every life lost can be counted." But what strikes me is the fetish for numbers that animates the piece, as though an "objective" count could tell us precisely how bad the tsunami had been and justify its place in our collective memory. [I am leaving aside for the moment the whole issue of the causal narrative that blames "the tsunami" for the mass death and destruction, and leaves aside the issues of poverty, overpopulation, shoddy construction, and the absence of a reliable early-warning system; there's a whole politics of disaster-construction implicated in the personating of natural events (like hurricanes, which are even more obvious examples since they get names, unlike this tsunami) which allows us to ignore the complicity of our social arrangements in making these disasters possible in the first place … but I digress.]

Two points.

First, I question the linkage between numbers and the presence of a disaster (or any event of mass death) in our collective memory. Does anyone remember a minor event about three years ago in which about 3000 people died as a result of some airplanes crashing into three buildings on the East Coast of the United States? Hmm. We remember the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe, along with other "undesirable" categories of the population; we even have museums devoted to remembering it, and it is taught in classrooms throughout the world. Quick show of hands -- how many people remember, really remember, that Stalin killed more people in the gulags? Or that the Khmer Rouge emptied whole cities and buried their inhabitants in mass graves? 150,000 or so dead as a direct result of this tsunami is certainly a large number, but five million children a year die of malnutrition, and 852 million people world-wide suffer from chronic hunger. Something more than numbers must be going on here; temporal duration is probably implicated, but I doubt that suffices to explain why some events stick in our collective memory and others don't. [Arguably, the error here is thinking of "our collective memory" as a kind of large filing-cabinet or bulletin-board in which "events" are simply recorded; if we shift to thinking about "our collective memory" as a field of contestation, a site for ongoing efforts to produce and reproduce a way of worlding, we can get out of this problem.]

Second, the universalizing of the desire for hard numbers seems decidedly unfortunate. The "deep-seated need" that the author refers to applies to us, the inhabitants of a post-industrial world in which statistics popular equate to Truth and "coping" means constructing a detached, unshakeable picture that allows us to comprehend the event. And yes, I mean "comprehend" in both senses:

  1. To take in the meaning, nature, or importance of; grasp. See Synonyms at apprehend.
  2. To take in as a part; include. See Synonyms at include.
Comprehending an event thus means both understanding it and subsuming it, both grasping it and in a way disposing of it by distancing ourselves from it: mastering it, getting a grip on it, processing it. Numbers represent a good technique for doing this, since one no longer has to operate in the realm of immediate and personal details; numbers transmute the event into a "disaster," a big systematic happening that we can wring our hands about and make solemn promises about how it will never happen again -- at the cost of the immediacy of the personal stories of suffering and survival.

I'm not saying that such comprehension is a bad thing. There is probably an upper limit to personal stories that any one person can read before becoming very numb to the whole thing; my limit seems to be about one a day. But we need to be more self-conscious about what is involved in such a strategy, and what kinds of remembrance it yields -- and above all we have to remember that this is a strategy, and not something that flows self-evidently from the dispositional character of "the disaster" itself.

In other news, Ralph Nader (yes, that Ralph Nader) offers what seems to me to be an eminently sensible proposal for the ownership of the new D.C. baseball team: let the team be publicly owned.
The District could find the financing to buy the Nationals by selling 49 percent of shares publicly, as the Cleveland Indians baseball team and the Boston Celtics basketball team have done. The District also could float Class B stock or sell small-denomination -- of say, $100 -- bonds redeemable only for face value. The idea would be to tap into regional enthusiasm for baseball, and let the fans pay for -- and own a chunk of -- the team. … The Green Bay Packers -- one of the most venerated and successful teams in professional football -- is community-owned. The nonprofit Packers is financed through the issuance of stock, and more than 100,000 people own shares in the team.
Go Ralph. Public ownership might help to prevent the potential disaster of a taxpayer-funded giveaway to cover overage costs of stadium construction and the like, and there's more than enough local enthusiasm to sustain such a program; folks in the district have been waiting long enough for a baseball team that I suspect that many of them would rush out to buy a share or two. Where do I sign up?

[Posted with ecto]
"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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