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.

Academic Writing: For Better or Worse

People complain about academic writing all the time. In the past day or two, it is has gotten renewed play with Stephen Walt’s piece.  I find Dan Drezner’s older piece and Jay Ulfelder’s new piece more compelling.  Walt does make a sharp distinction:

A second reason is the failure of many scholars to appreciate the difference between the logic of discovery and the logic of presentation. Specifically, the process by which a scholar figures out the answer to a particular question is rarely if ever the best way to explain that answer to a reader.

He is right that this ought to make a difference.  He is wrong that a logic of discovery is the wrong way to go much of the time.  It depends on who the intended reader might be. When presenting research to the research community, it is almost certainly best to show to the audience how one discovered the findings, so that they can assess the question, the proposed answer, the methodology, the findings and the conclusion.  Note his example:

“First we read the literature, then we derived the following hypotheses, then we collected this data or researched these cases, then we analyzed them and got these results, and the next day we performed our robustness checks, and here’s what we’re going to do next.”

Well, if one is doing, dare I say it, hypothesis testing, this is surely the correct way to present the work.  Different kinds of work require different kinds of presentation.  Presenting a dissertation at a job talk is likely to take this format, because the audience cares as much as or more than the journey than the destination.

And this gets to the points raised by Dan and Jay–that much of our writing is aimed at the scholarly community, so we talk in jargon (since these shortcuts are handy) and we focus more on the stuff inside the paper than how it is presented.  Certainly, we can do better.  I constantly encourage my students to focus when reading not just on the stuff in the piece but how it is delivered, especially when they are in the latter stages of their dissertation and are thinking about book-ness.

I also think that Walt is wrong in his argument that academics are deliberately opaque because they fear being wrong.  This would take too much work, and most academics are focused on the task at hand–getting published to worry about such stuff.  Do reviewers reward crappy writing?  Well, they may not punish it, but I doubt that they reward it either.  As Jay suggested, the academic world is a mix of good and bad writers.  Some folks put effort into learning how to communicate better, and others just try to overwhelm the reviewers via quantity or … really interesting questions and answers that can impress despite the lousy writing.

I do think that being articulate does pay off.  I know many folks who have gotten pretty far with rather limited ideas but with a great capacity for articulating them.

As for me, I married an editor.  Sure, that is cheating, but she taught me much before she stopped editing me (she wanted to do her own writing and also we had that pesky time-suck known as a child).  I have found my writing to be less formal than it used to be.  While I try to keep my blogging style and my article/book style distinct, the former has started to infect the latter.  Or at least, that is what my co-authors claim.

What is probably the fundamental reason why academics do not communicate well?  Perhaps a great writer can explain it: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” (Mark Twain).

Steve Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs