Tag Archives: humanities ghetto

Get sad. Then leave the ghetto.

Writing for Slate, Patrick Iber suggests giving up his dream of being a history professor. It’s good advise. In other words: can’t be a pimp? then leave the ghetto.


This post may seem familiar because I wrote a similar in in January, because reality is similar: if you’re not doing something you’re great at, that you love doing, that you get paid for doing, you may be doing the wrong thing. You may be living in the ghetto.


There are four types of people in the academic ghetto: pimps who are full professors, disaster tourists from rich families who are just having fun, hos who are exploited by pimps, and escapees who gtfo.
The pimp is a pretty fun place for pimps, sufficiently amusing for disaster tourists.

Patrick Iber’s post was especially moving because it so closely tracks my experience in academia (though he also dragged his children thru it). This part of his piece brought tears to my eyes:

[My mother] was released from the hospital on Jan. 1 to recover at her brother’s house. I flew to Washington, D.C., the next day. When the plane landed, I had multiple messages waiting for me, telling me to call home. My mother, age 64, had died in her sleep. Her youngest grandson was 7 weeks old.

The [academic conference] was a daze. I walked the streets between conference hotels in tears. I told friends. I told strangers. To others, with no logic to it, I said nothing. I might have gone home, but the severe weather in the Northeast scrambled routes and made it nearly impossible to rebook my flight. As a lecturer with no research support, I had spent half a month’s salary to travel there anyhow. My mom had wanted me to give my paper, so I did: to an audience of three. I shook hands at mixers. I had no interviews.

I also lost a parent while in academia. I also gave presentations to audiences of three.

Academia was fun for me. It’s a great place to be a pimp. But if you’re not a tourist and you’re not a pimp, become an escapee.


Closing off the Ghetto

The teaching ranks are loboomized. Administrators are bullies. We interpret and give tests in the wrong way. Our test scores are stagnant, and our bad schools trap parents in stressful jobs and expensive neighborhoods.

Our low performing students (low-socio-economic status and under-represented-minorities) do very badly, but others are merely average. Helping low-performing students is a different tasks, but we can help mediocre-performing students by fixing not just K-12 education, but also colleges.

One reason mediocre students get mediocre outcomes is the presence of the humanities ghetto: a nowhereville of few jobs and little income where most political scientists, historians, and sociologists end up. High school students are famously stupid, and see this ghetto as a promised land where they will make more money than they do in high school, have a socially acceptable job, only have to do fun stuff, and (most importantly) can actually reach.


So our goal should be to dissuade students away from the humanities ghetto, and into outcomes with greater return-on-investment that are more socially beneficial (or at least less socially harmful), like marijuana distribution or go-go-dancing.


To do this, we need to make the on-ramp to humanities ghetto a ghost ramp. It’s already a road to nowhere, but if we can severe it we can divert the flow of students to other places.


We need to decrease the visible attraction and increase the visible costs of getting onto the humanities ghetto on-ramp. To decrease attraction, we should make any humanities courses in high schools optional, and allow students to work in those hours instead. To increase costs, we should either end federal student loan all together, or at least for non-STEM majors. (Both of these approaches are imperfect, but they definitely tilt the playing field away from ghetto majors).

Education reform isn’t merely about better teachers and better tests, but changing the context in which education takes place. Demagogues like Diane Ravitch are right when they say teachers can’t do it all. Policy makers need to do their part, too.

No Freedom in the Ghetto

The academic ghetto (composed of the humanities, International Relations, sociology, and so on) is a place of low-employment and low-wages. There are four types of people in the academic ghetto:

  • Pimps who run the game. They are the professors.
  • Escapees who are about to get out. They are (graduates who leave the field but use their skills.
  • Losers, who those sucked into the system until their time, youth, and money desert them. They are non-tenure track instructors.
  • Disaster tourists, who get a thrill out of the place. They are students or others who for whatever reason don’t need the degree for employment.


Pimps are in zero-sum competition with each other. This conflict leads all pimps to give up freedom in exchange for safety.

Pimps act tough, but only because they are in a dangerous environment.  They are prisoners of the lack of jobs and opportunities.  There is no freedom in the ghetto.

A pimp may lord it over losers and strut for disaster tourists, but his life is essentially one of fear. Signs of weakness are pounced on. The only safe approach is to stay within your square block, not venture outside, and avoid conflict (while appearing not to). Original thinkers are weeded out, punished, or otherwise compelled to keep their heads down.

A sad example of this occurred this year at the formerly interesting group blog, Duck of Minerva. As I described it in a post from August

An example of this was at The Duck of Minerva, a blog dedicated to celebrating one alley in the academic ghetto (International Relations). A humorous post on identifying and infiltrating old boys networks by a professor at a research university, Brian Rathburn, entitled “Intellectual Jailbait: Networking at APSA” was taken down, all comments on that post were deleted ,Brian was forced to issue a self-criticism, Brian’s post became a non-entity (substantively replaced by Steve Saideman‘s post “Networking is Hard Work“), and two thinly veiled attacks on Brian were posted, (Daniel Nexon‘s “Sexual Harassment in Political Science and International Studies and Laura Sjoberg’s Let’s talk about sex). .

To go back to the analogy, Brian, Daniel, and Laura were pimps who engaged in a turf war. Steve instead gave in to the system, avoiding conflict with the most generic post possible.

The results?

But Steve — who wrote a generic and grey post, who kept his head down — he’s still there. He even said he likes his job. Brave stuff.

If you are young and thinking of entering the humanities ghetto — don’t. If you’re already there — run.

Who wants to live in the ghetto?

Who wants to live in the ghetto?

Four kinds of people
1. Pimps (they run it)
2. Losers (they don’t know any better)
3. Disaster tourists (it’s kind of fun to frolic amid decaying dreams)
4. Escapees (they are there until they aren’t).

pimp hat4

Those are the same types of people in the ghettos of academia.

Consider this in the context of the defenestration of Brian Rathburn. After writing (and deleting) a since-reconstructed post, Brian issued a self-criticism, and then a second-self-criticism that doubled as a resignation from Daniel Nexon‘s group-blog, Duck of Minerva.

Over at American Power, Donald Douglas reacted thusly:

Academe nowadays (more than ever) is the egg-shells realm of the perpetually aggrieved. Who wants to be around it? I mean seriously. You can’t speak your mind. And you especially can’t speak your mind if you’re a man. There’s nothing you dare say that won’t be spun into something so objectionable by the leftist thought police that you won’t be on your knees begging for absolution, if not your job. It’s just depressing. Or, it’s depressing if you fall for that sh*t.

As a conservative Donald is particular aggravated by the casual attacks on conservative that are typical in the ghettos of academia, but ultimately this view is a provincial as that of a ho in the ghettos of Detroit, who becomes embittered against the casual misogyny of pimps. The casual and insular attacks against the weak is not the central problem, it’s a symptom of the problem.

The real problem is the ghetto.

The ghettos of Detroit, and the ghettos of academia, are places of low-employment and low-wages. Only the formal education, race, and job title change. But a professor at in the academic ghetto is a petty tyrant exploiting losers, servicing tourists, and indifferent to escapes as surely as is a manager of & security contractor for sex workers in the City of Detroit.

If you are young and thinking of entering the humanities ghetto — don’t.

Practice normal science.

Or at least least a useful skill.

And run.

Pimpin’ the ghetto

Many of my academic friends are upset at the American Historical Association’s suggestion that dissertations not be posted online for free reading. Jason opined that “The AHA is neglecting the public value of history”, Razib Khan‘s writes “The American Historical Association seems nuts to me,” And over at The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen says “Ultimately, what is so frustrating about the AHA’s stance is that it seems to view the purpose of historical scholarship narrowly, as a means to securing employment.

But the only one of the criticisms I agree with is this: Patrick Wyman is the only one who gets is:

It’s a cruel irony that the historians whom this policy hurts the most — everyone other than the students of the best-known historians at the top 5-10 institutions, who are massive favorites to get jobs anyway –“ would actually benefit professionally from the exposure that open dissertation access provides. If this policy becomes the norm, the vast majority of the research that’s conducted will never see the light of the day

Remember that the humanities is a ghetto of low-employment and low-wages. There are four kind of people in this ghetto — four kind of humanities scholars who get their PhDs


1. Disaster tourists who are getting the PhD because its fun — these are the same sort of people who enjoy Detroit ruin porn — and after graduating will go back to whatever world they are from. In other words, people who got a PhD because they love the humanities.

October 2011 Coalition rally

2. Losers who spend a decade getting a worthless degree and have nothing to show for it. These are the kind of people who actually live in Detroit. In other words, they are just more foolish variants of the sort of folks who joined Occupy Wall Street because they were surprised their college vacation from reality cost money.


3. Escapees who got out, and are stronger for it. The digital humanities is one way of escaping the humanities ghetto, by combining employable skills with domain and research expertise. These are the people who get to the top outside the ghetto.


4. Pimps who run what little economy exists in the ghetto. They control the humanities ghetto, have old boys patronage networks to fall back on, and have a great deal in a slummy part of town. In other words, folks who get tenure-track PhDs at research universities.

The American Historical Association is run by pimps for pimps — by professors at research universities, for professors at research universities. That their policy does not help the public or most PhD graduates of history programs is besides the point. They are an old boys network protecting themselves.

The AHA isn’t out to protect disaster tourists, or losers, or escapees. The AHA is by, for, and of pimps.

This isn’t too criticize pimps — if you actually love the ghetto, why not be successful in it? — but to say that not everything they do is in your best interests.

If you are in the AHA, here is your choice: You can like that, or you can get out.

Money, Power, and Normal Science

Fabio Rojas has a post up titled Theory Death in Political Science. It links to a post by Stephen Saideman, “Leaving Grand Theorists Behind,” which was published as Saideman’s Semi-Spew. (A companion piece was also published at Duck of Minerva and discussed by me earlier.)

Here’s the beginning of the post:

A definition: theory death is when some intellectual group tires of theory based on armchair speculation. Of course, that doesn’t mean that people stop producing theory. Rather, it means that “theory” no longer means endless books based on the author’s insights. Instead, people produce theory that responds to, or integrates, or otherwise incorporates a wealth of normal science research. In sociology, theory death seems to have happened sometime in the 1980s or 1990s. For example, recent theory books like Levi-Martin’s Social Structures or McAdam and Fligstein’s A Theory of Fields are extended discussions of empirical research that culminate in broader statements. The days of endlessly quoting and reinterpreting Weber are over. 🙁

Now, it seems, theory death is hitting some areas of political science.

What Fabio Rojas calls “theory death” is the “normalization of science.” That is, the establishment of methods that allow for progress in the prediction, control, and improvement of behavior of some object of study (molecule, person, State, etc.) over time.

The next line is particularly important:

Science becomes normalized when the power the Old Boys network achieves through limiting competition is overtaken by the money available for creating progress.

There have been two great flowerings of science in American history. Both emerged from the establishment of the great American University System in the late 19th century, but they accelerated at different times. As I wrote previously:

Following the Second World War science boom, the federal government accelerated the rise of the American research universities. From the Second World War to the Vietnam War, physics was a favorite area for funding. From this we received many new physical inventions, such as a transistor. After the Vietnam War, medicine is a favorite area for funding. Now we have great medical breakthroughs.

While social science research funding is only a fraction of medical research, the federal academic complex ensures that there is bleed through from health sciences to the social sciences as well. The bureaucratic momentum for peer-reviewed scientific research funding. Such funding requires that researchers seek to achieve progress in some areas, which of course privileges normal science (which is capable of achieving progress) relative to non-paradigmatic science (Which is not).


The reason that Political Science is late to normalization — why it is experiencing “theory death” later than other fields — come from the obvious exception to this general rule for how academia works:

Professors, like most people, respond to the incentives of power, influence, and money.

The institution of tenure reduces uncertainty regarding money, and focuses the incentives on power and influence.

Power in academia comes from the number of bodies a professor has under him. These bodies might be apprentices (graduate students he advises), journeymen (post-docs who have a PhD and work at the lab, or staff researchers), or simple workers (lab technicians, etc).

Influence in academia comes from the extent to which one is successful in influencing one’s peers. This is typically measured in terms of influence scores, which are a product of how often the academic is cited, weighted by how important of a publication he is cited in.

Unlike other places in academia, professors hope to influence national policy makers, and so are relatively immune to academic discipline. This actually hurts scholarship. For instance, Victor Cha’s otherwise great book on North Korea, The Impossible State, is pretty much ruined by his analysis of Kim Jung Il, which was basically a job application. Likewise, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer (who began this discussion by defending the Old Boys network) basically produce political propaganda for the Old Right (pessimistic, Army-focused, and anti-Zionist). The lack of academic discipline has allowed political science to get away with graduating students into the “humanities ghetto” — because skills don’t matter in political science as much as connections, those without connections are left with high unemployment and bitter job prospects:


The way forward is probably for grant-funding organizations to support normal science in political science research, and for political agitators to coalesce within agenda-driven “think tanks.” Educational sciences have already experienced this split. It’s time for Political Science to normalize, too.

The Language of Theory, or, How to Escape the Humanities Ghetto

This morning I read an article by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Daniel Nexon, titled “Paradigmatic Faults in International-Relations Theory.” This piece originally appeared in a 2009 edition of Internaionl Studies Quartlerly.

I like when people agree with me, so when I saw my words echoed across time (it’s as if Jackson and Nexon read my post, built a time machine, and told their former selves what a great idea they read on tdaxp). Yesterday, I said it was riduclous to describe the International Relations cliques of “Realism,” “Liberalism,” and such as paradigms. I wrote:

The highlighted passage, originally by Daniel Maliniak simply means that empirical research is increasing, and that non-empirical research is declining, within political science. But Maliniak, and thus Walt and Mearsheimer, bizarrely use “paradigmatic” to refer to less paradigmatic (that is, less capable of progress) fields, and “non-paradigmatic” to more to more paradigmatic (that is, more capable of progress) fields.

Political science has been in the fever swamp for so long that the notion of progress as an outcome of normal science has almost entirely been lost. If Walt and Mearsheimer had their way, it might be lost, and the field simply divided into a stationary oligarchy of old boys network.

As Jackson and Nexon write:

The terminology of ‘‘paradigms’’ and ‘‘research programmes’’ produces a num-ber of deleterious effects in the field. It implies that we need to appeal to criteria of the kind found in MSRP in order to adjudicate disputes that require no such procedures. In order to do so, we spend a great deal of time specifying the ‘‘boundaries’’ of putative research programmes and, in effect, unfairly and misleadingly holding scholars accountable for the status of theories they often view as rivals to their own.

Perhaps the most well-known instance of this kind of boundary-demarcation occurs in the debates surrounding ‘‘realism’’ in international relations theory. The proliferation of countless lists of the ‘‘core commitments’’ of a realist ‘‘paradigm’’—by adherents and critics alike—shifts the focus of scholarship away from any actual investigation of whether these commitments give us meaningful leverage on the phenomenal world, and instead promotes endless border skirmishes about who is and is not a realist (Legro and Moravcsik 1999), whether predictions of balancing are central to the ‘‘realist paradigm’’ (Vasquez 1998:261–65), and so forth. Such debates and demarcations not only distract us from the actual study of world politics, but also harm disputes over international relations theory by solidifying stances that ought to remain open to debate and discussion.

So I enjoyed Jackson’s and Nexon’s takedown of the so-called “paradigms” in International Relations.

But they don’t go far enough.

Their piece ends with an appeal to Max Weber (how non-progressive can you get?!?) and an unfalsifiable taxonomy that I won’t go into


A more useful conclusion to the paper would have been to recognize that statistics is the language of theory, the language of modeling. Instead of inviting international relations scholars to chase their own tale and bow to Max Weber and the dead, how much more useful would a positive theory of research programs in International Relations have been? For instance, consider a citation indexing method, such as PageRank [pdf] to determine if they are “clusters” PageRank sets in which certain articles were influential (exemplars?) and others were not. Did Jackson and Nexon really have no one availability to sketch even a proposed methodology for testing their claim?

The answer is probably “no.” My purpose isn’t to pick on Jackson and Nexon, but to point out the weakness of International Relations as a whole. In a related post by Patrick Musgrave, titled “The Crass Argument for Teaching More Math In Poli Sci Courses“, the following diagram showing is shown:


Which clearly displays a “humanities ghetto,” that includes political science.


How can this be, if International Relations is the disciplined extraction of meaning from data, which is the same focus as the high-paying, well-employed fields?

The obvious answer is that International Relations does not teach actually useful methods for the disciplined extraction of data. It does not teach critical thinking or logical reasoning. It teaches something that apes these skills, a rhetorical ability that impresses old scholars and does not help society.

International Relations is a non-progressive field where, by and large, it sucks to be young.


In an evocative comment that ties the article and the blog post together, Patrick Thaddeus Jackson states:

I don’t think that it is our job as university faculty to increase students’ future earning potential. Nor do I think that it is our job in teaching PoliSci undergrads to make sure that they can read APSR in the 1980s and 1990s. Our job is to teach students to think critically about politics, and while I am perfectly fine with the suggestion that some statistical literacy can be useful to that end, I am not prepared to give that higher pride of place than things like reading closely, writing cogently, and disagreeing with one another civilly.

The dichotomy that Jackson notes is entirely false. In his own piece, he was not able to express a constructive critical thought about paradigms — the original Nexon and Jackson article is devoid of the model specification or operationalization that would needed to turn his criticisms and taxonomy into something capable of progress. Any competent graduate from the humanities ghetto can read “closely” or write “cogently.” That’s needed is to think usefully, and for this statistical literary is required.