Shifting Sands of Academia

The demands of the academy can, at times, appear futile. This malaise is most acute when one’s ostensible “requirements” for continued professional development take them further away from the most inspiring avenues of their field. Reviewing literature for an upcoming essay, I came across a succinct (and edifying) critique leveled by international relations scholars, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.

Worried that IR had abdicated responsibility for developing applicable theories to the world’s changing events, with scholars opting for (needing to adopt) quicker, more reductive and less rigorous “hypothesis testing” (i.e. crunching numbers into regression analysis and reporting on any “miracles”), Walt and Mearsheimer explain how the IR’s incentives have changed:

By contrast, almost anyone with modest mathematical abilities can be taught the basic techniques of hypothesis testing and produce competent research. Similarly, teaching students about research design, process-tracing, and historical interpretation can help them do better qualitative research, but it will not turn someone lacking imagination into an accomplished theorist.

Moreover, because graduate programs are reducing the time students take to complete their degrees, teaching a set of tools that enable them to produce a competent thesis quickly has become the norm. Developing or refining theory is more time-consuming and riskier as it requires deeper immersion in the subject matter and the necessary flash of inspiration may never occur. Once a graduate program is committed to getting lots of PhD students out the door on schedule, it has a powerful incentive to emphasize simplis- tic hypothesis testing. In addition, piling on more and more methods courses (whether quantitative or qualitative) while compressing the time to degree inevitably crowds out courses on theory and on the substance of IR, leaving students ill-equipped to think in creative and fruitful ways about the field’s core issues.

Stasis is a terrifying thing. Thoughts?

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