Teaching Can Be Fun: Dissertation Proposal Edition

The hardest part of research is starting.  The hardest part of a PhD program, in my humble opinion, is crafting the dissertation proposal.  It means coming up with an original project–which is no easy feat as much good work precedes us.  It means coming up with something feasible.  Oh, and many good questions go unanswered because they are impossible: “hey, could you guys start a war under these conditions, so we can see what happens?”

I have been teaching a seminar that aims at getting the students through the proposal.  This is tricky enough, but is even more complicated by a few key realities at my school:

  • The students are a mix of economists and political scientists, so they have very different research topics with all of the economists and most of the political scientists working on issues and using methodologies that are outside my expertise and often way outside.
  • As an interdisciplinary program, we don’t always have clear understanding of what is to be expected–how much theory?  How much methods?  How specific? How long should the proposal be?
  • The aim is for these folks to work in non-academic settings, but we have no idea what that market is really demanding and most of the profs (nearly all of us) were trained by traditional disciplines aimed at producing professors.

The way I teach this class is workshop the dissertation proposals piece by piece: the question, the possible answers (the dreaded lit review), the theory, the testable hypotheses, the methods.  Scattered along the way, due to various opportunities, we spend time on grant proposals, research ethics, and other stuff.  Each student gives a practice dissertation proposal presentation somewhere along the way.

The fun but challenging part is to try to give feedback on projects that are, as I said, all over place and beyond my expertise for the most part.  The good news is I have fresh eyes.  The bad news is that I have no idea if they are asking original questions (I don’t know the literatures they are reviewing) or if their methods make sense (if they are working on something fairly technical).  Today was the last course meeting, and I realized I have had fun getting inside their projects, providing feedback where I can.  I was able, I think, to provide some useful advice (take it or leave it, no biggie) even to those working on the stuff that is beyond me, and I had fun with some of the ideas that I could plausibly research myself.  The students have made much progress, although their advisers may be horrified by my suggestions.  Ooops.

Anyhow, as much as we complain about reading multiple drafts of stuff and how work in progress is often very slooooowly in progress, in my conversations during and after class, I was reminded that it is fun to work with folks as they are starting out.  The work is really hard, but the creativity is inspiring, and working with them to figure out how to surmount the obstacles can be fun.  I got in this job in part to play with ideas, and I use the word “play” deliberately.  As this is fun stuff, and I am glad to be reminded of that basic reality, which is often lost in the daily grind.

So, thanks to my INAF 6900 seminar for reminding me.


Crisis in US Civil-Military Relations? Not Yet

by Stephen M. Saideman

Yep, no process, no policy, no implementation.  I wrote yesterday that Trump’s transgender in the military “policy” would depend on how the military would feel about implementation.  Well, from the very top, the attitude is: wait and see.  More than that: a smidge of contempt seems to be in the reaction:

Dunford has informed service
members that there will be “no modifications to the current policy until
the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense
and the Secretary has issued implementation guidelines.”

“In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with
” Dunford wrote in a memo to the military that was obtained by
CNN. “As importantly, given the current fight and the challenges we
face, we will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned
missions.”CNN (I would have cited NYT but they don’t let me cut and paste!)

If Dunford were General (ret.) Kelly of Homeland Security, he might have taken the tweet and ran with it, as Kelly enforced an immigrant ban with very little backing it up.  Dunford, like the other active senior officers, has opposed kicking transgender people out even as they hem and haw on how to deal with recruiting.  So, this agent has preferences that are distinct from the principal and, as a result, does not imagine what the tweet actually means, but instead asks for the paperwork to be done.

And, yes, DC runs on paperwork …. or Word docs shipped around town as attachments to emails (yes, on the classified servers mostly).  Since Mattis has thus far been silent (did he say anything while I was at Costco?), Dunford went ahead and interpreted how far he could go and went pretty far.  I had some responses on twitter asking for him to do more.  Such folks don’t understand civil-military relations–that civilian control of the military means that the civilians have the right to be wrong (which they are here), that the military must obey clear orders.  But they can fudge implementation if the orders are not clear or are not handed down through the chain of command.  Dunford could have started a process to weed out the transgender soldiers, sailors, marines and aviators, but chose not to do so.  This is kind of a work-to-rule thing, where resistance of this form is merely following the rules.  Trump would need to find another general who is more enthused about discrimination to get faster action.  Firing a Chairman for this?  Unlikely.

Finally, it is good to see someone indicate that a tweet may be a policy direction but is not a policy itself.

Nuclear weapons and the ‘Letter of last resort’: what my students think

By Jez Littlewood

NPSIA’s disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation course began last week (INAF 5201). Once the administrative side of the first class was completed I began the class with the 2015 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists What would happen if an 800-kiloton nuclear warhead detonated above midtown Manhattan? However, to inject some additional reality into the subject each was tasked with deciding on how the UK would respond to a nuclear attack.

The scenario was simple: each was to assume they had been elected (or appointed) Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and each had to decide the nuclear response in the event of a surprise attack. Pre-reading included Richard Norton-Taylor’s story in The Guardian from July 2016 – Theresa May’s first job: decide on UK’s nuclear response. Thus, sixty minutes after arriving in class task one for my 21 students was the drafting of what is generally known as “the letter of last resort”.

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