Tag Archives: Jason Heppler

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 Heppler of Stanford University 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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Academia, Science, and Anti-Science

Dr. Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s anti-scientific critique of rational choice theory made me think more of Academia, and its relationship to Science.

Academia and Science are not the same thing. Indeed, for a long time most U.S. government science funding was channeled thru the Department of Agriculture. Many of the great scientific advancements in the United States were likewise made outside the typical academic environment, such as Bell Labs, General Electric, the Manhattan Project, and the Apollo Program. While academia were involved in these places to varying extent, none of them ran on the basis of academic freedom.

How Academia works is not the only way of how Science works. Science already has too many enemies to be dragged down into the political muck with Academics who themselves attack science in addition to creating political enemies. Academia is already under too much attack — such as from teachers union attempting to harvest profits from the public school system – to stay healthy under the anti-Scientific strain.

The proper role of non-Scientific academics is teaching, service, and research that builds useful things. The digital humanities are an amazing and lucrative example of such useful, non-Scientific work in Academia. Jason Heppler of Stanford University runs an awesome blog on such things, Likewise, the cool Geographic Travels blogs emphasizes the utility of spatial and cultural geography. There’s plenty of room for such activity in Academia, too.

But that space is threatened by the anti-scientists — especially elite anti-scientists — who simultaneously attack Science and also generate political enemies. Dr. Jackson’s post titled “The Society of Individuals,” for instance, is an attack on Rational Choice research programs while also attacking politically relevant philosophers for being sexist and morally repugnant.

Science in the Academy is too precious for those who attack Science and the foundations of the Academy. It is a tragedy such parasitic rhetoric is found in the system. It is a waste of resources all around.

A further tragedy is that when non-scientific academics engage in tangential political debates, the (natural) political reaction can be ineffective, counterproductive, and chaotic. Dr. Jackson’s piece is surely an example of the sort of research that Senator Coburn hoped to put a stop to by taking away National Science Foundation support for political science.” But the NSF supports actual scientific work, so the consequences of the defunding are to weaken the Academy, weaken Science, but previously strengthen the voices of those anti-scientific talking heads who might otherwise be drowned out by scientific Academics.

Over at gnxp, Razib Khan has surged that anti-science cultural anthropology “be extirpated from the academy.” More generally, anti-scientists of all types should be too. But there’s no easy or obvious way to do this without risking the Academic Freedom that anti-scientists use to attack science

In conclusion, anti-science should be extirpated from the academy. But I have no idea of how this should be done.

Professional Jobs and Graduate Degrees

In earlier posts, I dissed the humanities ghetto and wrote this in particular about International Relations:

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.

Because professors are driven by power, influence, and money, they harvest the few good job openings for those without useful skills into patronage networks, and push others aside.

Stephen J. Mexal, who Jason Heppler pointed me towards, apparently agrees:

SO SHOULD YOU GO to graduate school in the humanities? Yeah, sure, if you really want to. Why not? Just don’t expect it to have a predictable professional outcome. You cannot go to graduate school in the humanities and be placed into a job as a professor, a financial analyst, or as anything else. But graduate school in the humanities has always been this way.

So if you decide to go to grad school, remember that it’s not a place to escape the larger marketplace. You may think you are uninterested in capitalism, but capitalism is interested in you. The years that most students spend in graduate school are also prime years for building a career, and the opportunity costs of graduate school—the resources that could be spent pursuing other things—are steep, and must be taken into consideration.

Graduate school is a lot of fun. I have a PhD. I have many friends with advanced degrees in numerous fields.

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But protect yourself. Get useful skills that you enjoy using. And get paid for using them.

The Progress of the Humanities

Over on Facebook, my friend Adam Elkus linked me to an article by David Lake, titled “Theory is Dead, Long Live Theory: The End of the Great Debates and the Rise of Eclecticism in International Relations. [pdf]” The piece is extremely strong, and describes International Relations split into two camps: one engaged in normal science capable of progress, and the other a tiresome collection of “Great Debates” that are never answered.

There’s a lot to love in Lake’s paper — it really is very high quality — but the most evocative image from it is the threat that International Relations will split into two fields that do not even study the same phenomenon. What if the scientists focus on experiments (and quasi-experiments) that can be conducted in the here and now, while the Great Debaters retreat into history and just-so stories?

To me, the best hope to save International Relations from such a fate lies in the “digital humanities.” The digital humanities are not just a method for those interested in the past to escape the “humanities ghetto of low employment and low wages
— rather, the “Digital Humanities” use Big Data techniques to understand our common past, in the same way that companies like Facebook use many of the same techniques to understand many private pasts. (Some more information on the digital humanities is available on the personal site of Jason Heppler of Stanford University.)

As an example, take Lake’s discussion of Zara Steiner‘s Triumph of the Dark, a narrative history of the outbreak of the Second World War. Lake notes the rigor of the book, but sadly states such a work can generate no hypotheses or tests. But a digital humanities approach — say working from the massive newspaper, magazine, book, and census corpora at our disposal, is not so limited. It is easy to imagine hypotheses that explain the reason for the motives of leaders with that amount of data to work with. Perhaps the degree to which “Hitler wanted war” can be tracked by measuring the day-to-day bellicosity of the written works of those he met with? Or might the locations that we knew Neville Chamberlain spent certain parts of his life be linked to pro-peace inflections in the lives of others?

International Relations is the science dedicated to predicting, controlling, and improving the behavior of States. This should be done through hypotheses testing, modeling building, and including the methods of the digital humanities. There are many ways to advance science.

In the chaos of old boy networks – in stagnant fields with no progress – it sucks to be young. But in all those areas where science and technology march hand-in-hand toward progress, it is a joy to be young!

Escaping the Humanities Ghetto: Definitions and Paradigms

In both Political Science and the Humanities, the old boys network which prevented progress is collapsing, though it is hard for those who have lived in a field without progress to describe this.

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Earlier I criticized, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer for saying that International Relations work capable of progress is “non-paradigmatic”

Indeed, some senior IR scholars now rail against the field’s grand theories. In his 2010 ISA presidential address, for example, David Lake described the “isms” as “sects” and “pathologies” that divert attention away from “studying things that matter” (Lake 2011: 471). Thus, it is not surprising that “the percentage of non- paradigmatic research has steadily increased from 30% in 1980 to 50% in 2006” (Maliniak et al 2011: 439). Of course, one could advocate for middle range theories while disparaging grand theories, and indeed Lake does just that. The field is not moving in that direction, however. Nor is it paying more attention to formal or mathematically oriented theories (Bennett et al 2003: 373-74). Instead, it is paying less attention to theories of all kinds and moving toward simplistic hypothesis testing.

But if I am fair, I need to also mention that my friend Jason Heppler of Stanford University made a similar claim, about the Digital Humanities:

Those doing digital humanities tend to agonize over how we define the field (or is it a methodology?). Matt Gold’s edited volume Debates in Digital Humanities nicely sums up many of the ways people have tried to define digital humanities and what we mean when we say we do digital humanities. Certainly there are some common characteristics within the broad range of approaches, but the work itself is broad: it’s interpretation, coding, building, archives, theorizing.

Why define digital humanities? The enterprise is somewhat pointless. The promise and excitement of digital humanities lies with what we can do with it, not how it’s defined. But the queston is inescapable.

I don’t believe that the new International Relations work is apardigmatic, or that Digital Humanities is undefined. Rather, like other useful areas, these fields are defined by their tools and methods, not by ancient theoretical battles that can never be won. Chemistry is not the science of phlogiston, it is the science of titration and fission. Likewise, International Relations and Digital Humanities are increasingly defined by the tools they use to make progress, not connections in an old boys network.

This is a good change. Yesterday I mentioned the ghetto of the humanities, those fields whose graduates (a) can’t do math, (b) can’t conduct useful research, (c) can’t stay employed, and (d) can’t get paid.

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The adoption of useful tools and progressive science is the best way to turn this around. The emerging paradigms of International Relation are embedded within statistics and modeling. The emerging definitions of Digital Humanities are embedded within text mining, semantic networks, and big data. What do these have in common? Useful tools designed to provide answers and enable progress.