3 July 2007

Excellent news if you do politics like we do

If you’re a regular reader in the academic blogosphere, you may have noticed that there are a fair number of blogs out there, either written by economists (and which present economic research) or that simply present the results of economic research that the general public might find accessible and interesting.

Henry Farrell has done those of us who study politics a favor by trying to get us to do some of the same. He’s started a blog that posts the abstracts and links to papers and articles that the average, educated reader might find interesting and thought-provoking.

I have no illusions that what we in the academy do has much, if any, effect on the vast majority of what goes on in this world, at least at the time we do it. But one of the failings of the American polity in the last 20 years or so has been a failure to imagine and envision the necessity of political engagement. And good research well-presented might be some small contribution toward showing how politics matters in every aspect of our lives, no matter how mundane it might seem on the surface.

Now for a shameless plug: How about highlighting my paper (previously published in a collection) on the political theory inhering in The West Wing?

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Posted in IvoryTower, OnTheWeb, Politicks on 3 July 2007 at 9:52 am by Nate
20 September 2006

Negative results

I’ve often complained to my colleagues that we pay far too little attention to negative results. Negative results from our data don’t tell us as much as positive results, but that hardly means that we learn nothing from them. At the very least, we can learn what directions have not worked out in a research program and what efforts not to repeat.

Thus, the following from over at Crooked Timber caught my eye this morning:

Now, if you write a paper describing negative results—a model where nothing is significant—then you may have a hard time getting it published. In the absence of some specific controversy, negative results are boring. For the same reason, though, if your results just barely cross the threshold of conventional significance, they may stand a disproportionately better chance of getting published than an otherwise quite similar paper where the results just failed to make the threshold. And this is what the graph above shows, for papers published in the American Political Science Review. It’s a histogram of p-values for coefficients in regressions reported in the journal. The dashed line is the conventional threshold for significance. The tall red bar to the right of the dashed line is the number of coefficients that just made it over the threshold, while the short red bar is the number of coefficients that just failed to do so. If there were no bias in the publication process, the shape of the histogram would approximate the right-hand side of a bell curve. The gap between the big and the small red bars is a consequence of two things: the unwillingness of journals to report negative results, and the efforts of authors to search for (and write up) results that cross the conventional threshold.

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Posted in IvoryTower on 20 September 2006 at 9:07 am by Nate
10 May 2006

Useful to academics

An old post from Crooked Timber on successfully gaining a spot on panels at academic conferences. Possibly useful as we begin to head into proposal season again.

Posted in IvoryTower on 10 May 2006 at 6:37 pm by Nate
4 May 2006

How lovely

This is my first time at Princeton, so I thought I’d walk around the campus a bit today.

It’s absolutely lovely. This is very much a college town, and the campus has a coherent, idyllic feel to it in a way that Harvard does not. Lots of trees, big fields and open spaces, and variation in building style. Princeton reminds me of UC Davis, in an Ivy League way. (THAT might be the first time those two schools have been linked in that way.)

And dinner tonight before our workshop begins tomorrow was also quite fun. I do enjoy getting together with these people; they’re the very few with whom I can talk about HIV as a political scientist, using our language and analytic methods. Plus they’re just generally nice, congenial, and collegial.

Posted in IvoryTower on 4 May 2006 at 11:11 pm by Nate
17 March 2006

Ladies and gentlemen…

I am now officially All But Dissertation.

Two more years to go, I hope.

Posted in IvoryTower on 17 March 2006 at 8:40 am by Nate
10 March 2006


I’m here in Berkeley, for a conference related to my dissertation research. It was four younger scholars, moderated by a senior faculty member in the sociology department at Berkeley.

What was great about was that it got me a bit out of the bubble of my friends and committee at Harvard. They’ve been enormously helpful of late, but the Berkeley group of people travel outside those circles and haven’t seen what I’m up to of late, so the aspects they notice are different.

It’s also nice to have a bit of validation that what I’m doing is worthwhile and that my ideas aren’t completely cracked or crazy. People found my basic model persuasive and possibly useful.

Anyway, I walked away from it all feeling quite positive, buoyed, and ready to get a bit more work done. Six days to the prospectus conference….

Posted in IvoryTower on 10 March 2006 at 5:19 pm by Nate
13 June 2005

But I worked really hard

Alicia Shepard writes about being a teacher in an era of grade inflation.

John Watson, who teaches journalism ethics and communications law at
American, has noticed another phenomenon: Many students, he says,
believe that simply working hard — though not necessarily doing
excellent work — entitles them to an A. “I can’t tell you how many
times I’ve heard a student dispute a grade, not on the basis of
in-class performance,” says Watson, “but on the basis of how hard they
tried. I appreciate the effort, and it always produces positive
results, but not always the exact results the student wants. We all
have different levels of talent.”

It’s a concept that many
students (and their parents) have a hard time grasping. Working hard,
especially the night before a test or a paper due date, does not
necessarily produce good grades.

“At the age of 50, if I work
extremely hard, I can run a mile in eight minutes,” says Watson. “I
have students who can jog through a mile in seven minutes and barely
sweat. They will always finish before me and that’s not fair. Or is it?”

This resonates.  I can’t tell you how often students come to me
to express disappointment with a grade, saying that they worked really
hard.  I offer to find out the number of hours everyone in the
class worked and assign grades based on who spent the greatest number
of hours.  Generally, they look puzzled as to why we might do it
that way.  But it’s the same as if I give credit for “effort.”

I’m diappointed to say that I think my average grade works out to
being between a B+ and B, which I think is high.  But since the
mean grade at Harvard College is 3.4 (where a B+ is a 3.3), I’m still
somewhat tough for this milieu.  I’d like to be tougher, but I’m
not really in charge of the grading standard.

And then there’s consumerism, he says. Pure and simple, tuition at a
private college runs, on average, nearly $28,000 a year. If parents pay
that much, they expect nothing less than A’s in return. “Therefore, if
the teacher gives you a B, that’s not acceptable,” says Levine,
“because the teacher works for you. I expect A’s, and if I’m getting
B’s, I’m not getting my money’s worth.”

Rojstaczer agrees: “We’ve
made a transition where attending college is no longer a privilege and
an honor; instead college is a consumer product. One of the negative
aspects of this transition is that the role of a college-level teacher
has been transformed into that of a service employee.”

argues that we “service employees” are doing students a disservice if
we cave in to the demand for top grades. “One of the things an
education should do is let you know what you do well in and what you
don’t,” he says. “If everybody gets high grades, you don’t learn that.”

I hate having to tell students that their $28,000 buys them a right
to sit in a class and be taught by the people who know the most about
what they are teaching of anyone in the world.  But nothing more
than that.

Finally, I haven’t been able to find an effective way to tell
students that failing to get an A does not mean they did anything
“wrong.”  They want to know what they lack, and now that I think
about it, my grading comments have often focused on what their papers
lacked.  But a non-A grade does not mean one has done wrong, but
rather that one’s work was not of the highest quality.  Any grade
is like a movie review, in a sense.  It’s (or should be) an
indicator of how a particular paper measures up to a standard of
ideals, and if the student comes close to those standards, s/he should
get an A.  Few students get to this standard.  Which is all
right.  Some students are Mozarts, but many, many more are

And lest one think that our standards are capricious whim, they are
not.  Most of the grad students and professors I know work very
hard, talking with colleagues and teaching staffs and thinking on the
matter, to establish some sort of grading standard.  I’ve spent a
lot of time in teaching staff meetings talking about what should get
what grades.  We take this seriously, and many of us want to be
rigorous, because we want the best for our students.  We want them
to work hard at thinking and writing, even if the grade doesn’t account
for that, because we want them to learn habits that will allow them to
do the best they can do.

Posted in IvoryTower on 13 June 2005 at 9:56 am by Nate
9 May 2005

The IR Rumor Mill

One of the problems with the academic world is that you never hear from
fellowships and job applications who received the position(s). 
Prurient curiosity plays a role, but it’s also useful to know, so that
you can have some idea of what the selection committee was looking for
(They may claim that they weren’t looking for anything in particular,
but if that were entirely true, they wouldn’t have selected someone).

Some intrepid person(s) have begun to solve this for my subfield, with the “IR Rumor Mill.” 
Here, you can post anonymously if you know who has received particualr
fellowships and jobs.  You can also post jobs that you know are
out there.

A bunch of my friends are listed getting fellowships for next year, at
all the high prestige places.  Which makes me think I need to push
for a pre-doc next year.  Which re-lights the fire under me just a
bit.  I’ve been feeling bedraggled by this paper, but I have got
to get it done so that I can finish up my proposal (which my committee
sounds like they’re ready to approve soon–so many conditionals there!)
and get cracking on a data set this summer.

I like my work, but it does sometimes worry me that it never
ends.  One member of my committee seems to be working absolutely
every waking hour, and I don’t think I’m cut out for 14 hours of work
per day.  Sounds too much like the “iron cage” of the “spirit of

Posted in IvoryTower on 9 May 2005 at 10:46 am by Nate
2 May 2005


I am in the beginning/middle stages of a paper on Max Weber.  It’s
pretty workmanlike, and I’m not sure it’s really good for much,
frankly, but I need to do this thing to get rid of an incomplete from
last semester in the social theory class I took.

I enjoy thinking about the things that Weber thought, but my heart’s
not in a seminar paper right now.  It’s more toward my own
work.  So I’m trying to decide what tasks Weber was setting for
himself in The Protestant Ethic and how well he did it.  The first question is where I am
now, and I hope this picks up a bit on the second question.

Light blogging (like that *hasn’t* been the trend of late) to ensue.

Posted in IvoryTower on 2 May 2005 at 5:32 pm by Nate
29 March 2005

Harvard undergrads unsatisfied? Never!

Apparently, Harvard undergrads are unhappy about several features of the educational experience.

One thing I hate to tell them, but Harvard is a research
university.  Research universities are not really oriented toward
the undergraduate experience.  They exist to create, support, and
disseminate new knowledge, and all other goals are pretty secondary to
that.  I’m not sayng it should be this way, but it is, and the model is much larger than simply Harvard.

But right now, students can go through four years on campus with
limited contact with professors. They often take large lecture classes,
divided into sections headed by graduate student ”teaching fellows.”
Small classes are frequently taught by temporary instructors instead of
regular, tenure-track professors. And in many cases, advisers are not
professors, either, but graduate students, administrators, or full-time

”I’ve definitely had great professors, but most of the time you have
to chase them down and show initiative if you want to get to know
them,” said Kathy Lee, a junior majoring in psychology. ”I’ve had a
lot of trouble getting to know enough faculty to get the
recommendations I need for medical school.”

This is pretty much the same as at Berkeley and every large university
of my acquaintance.  You have to work hard to get what you
want.  Faculty do not chase after students.  They do not
generally take an interest in that way.  Faculty expect that
students who want to work with them will come to them, taking
initiative.  From what I can tell, most faculty would prefer to
work with the motivated students who come to office hours, who
demonstrate that they are reliable, and who can do independent
work.  Faculty work is fairly independent, lonely stuff, and
undergrads who work with faculty should expect that they will do lots
of independent work by themselves.  And, to be honest, with so
many demands on the faculty’s time, I think that faculty often want to
make sure that their interactions with undergrads (and grads, too) will
be high quality and high intensity.

Look, faculty may have 500 students a semester, if they teach a large
lecture course.  Even if they teach a moderate one of 150
students, there’s no time to interact with those students.  Say
you gave 5 minutes of interaction to half of that 150 person class each
week.  That’s 375 minutes, or more than 6 hours a week in student
contact time.  That’s six fewer hours to prep lectures (and
faculty can spend hours writing each one), six fewer hours to do
research, six fewer hours to interact with colleagues, via e-mail,
meetings, or conferences, and if you think that faculty should simply
do this on top of normal duties, six fewer hours with
family/friends.  And none of this enhances faculty professionally,
in terms of tenure or advancement.

Also, I know faculty who have indicated their willingness to spend time
with students, eating lunch with them in the houses and such, and it’s
a fairly small percentage of any class that takes advantage of this
chance.  Maybe ten percent, from what I have seen so far.

“Chasing faculty down” serves as the self-selection mechanism, so you
can see who’s serious about knowing or working wiht you.  When I
was in college, I got to know two of my professors quite well. 
Both Gary and Scott gave
me increasing contact and mentoring as I progressed in showing them
that I was up to the work put before me.  And neither of them
sought me out–I had to go to office hours, ask if there was anything
that I could do to do research for them, and keep showing
initiative.  Faculty contact is, in my experience, something
earned.  And in addition, some faculty, just by dint of
personality, are more generous with their time, just as some undergrads
will or won’t come to office hours, based on their own personalities.

Students’ experiences also vary widely from department to department.
Some of the most popular — and thus overburdened — majors, such as
economics or government, have fairly low ratings on internal student
surveys, while small majors like classics and philosophy get better

On the social front, students complain that Harvard lacks places where
students can socialize and has so many rules that it is difficult to
hold a party on-campus, where almost all undergraduates live.

The Harvard administration has also been working hard in the last few
years to improve social life. The school has been experimenting with
popular ”pub nights” on some Fridays, and has allowed campus parties
to stay open an hour later, until 2 a.m. They have tried other novelty
programs from dodge ball tournaments to speed dating, and doubled the
amount of athletic equipment in the main gym used by undergraduates.

Hey, in the large majors, we do our best.  But here in
government, we have about 600 students (excluding frosh).  There’s
only so much that can be done.  I’d venture that it’s easier to
dislike the government experience, since it’s bound to be less
personal.  In a small department, you know the people, and so you
can probably think of specific experiences to base your opinion upon;
in a large program, it’s more likely to be impressionistic and

Socially, I can think of one improvement we could use here–a student
union.  I can see how students find it hard to socialize across
houses.  And perhaps the party regulations could be loosened
(although in my examination of them, they seem no more strenuous than
those at my undergraduate school; again, the rules seem to create a
minimum of motivation and organization necessary on the part of the
students, so parties will be well-planned and organized).  And I’d
be interested to see how much student-initiated social activity is
going on.  If the administration is getting in the way of good
stuff that the students want to do, then we need to loosen up to foster
students’ creativity.  But students still need to initiate most of
the content of their social lives.

Posted in IvoryTower on 29 March 2005 at 11:39 am by Nate