Sunday, 05 September 2010

The short answer to Yglesias's question is "Yes." But as I'm incapable of short answers, let me provide a slightly longer one. In this post, Yglesias shares his experience of having learned that it’s not merely that taking time to help inform a non-specialist audience about political science findings isn’t specifically rewarded, it’s positively punished. And not simply in the sense that doing less research and more publicizing is punished; I was told that holding research output constant, getting more publicity for your output would be harmful to a junior scholar’s career because it would feed an assumption of non-seriousness. That’s pretty nuts. It is. I won't speak for political science as a discipline, but I can speak to the problem as it exists in mine. The basic logic is that sharing work with the general public is a means of circumventing the "serious" peer review process, and as such is necessarily "unserious." The problem with that explanation is that the peer review process is itself a monument to unseriousness: There are numerous examples one could cite of plagiarism, or poor practice, that seem to slip right through the peer review process. Add to this the fact that many, if not most, journals are famous for vetting processes that are as slow as Cream of Wheat going down the kitchen drain. Graduate assistants and faculty editors who lose track of manuscripts; readers who are given six months to complete the review and have to be pushed to complete it anyway; and the capacious use of "revise and resubmit" rather than bluntly saying the article is poor and needs to be completely rewritten—all of these things and more are acknowledged problems with the academic publishing process that make many people reluctant to send work to journals. The other downside to publishing exclusively in journals that live behind pay-walls is that, while the articles contained therein are totally serious, no one ever reads them. As my advisor once told me, if I want an idea to die, the best thing to do is publish it in a flagship journal. He wasn't being serious, obviously, but neither was he being completely unserious. To paraphrase what I believe this fellow once told me, but which I can't seem to locate, my discipline's flagship journal is treated like issues of The New Yorker: they live next to the toilet or in a pile forever awaiting the day in which we have nothing else to read. It's prestigious to be published in it, but it's a means to be hired or promoted, not start a conversation. It hasn't always been this way—or, at the very least, we once made a concerted effort to appear otherwise—but as it currently stands, the choice is between being a "serious" scholar who engages no one or an "unserious" scholar whose work is read by many but, because of that, counts for nothing. I'm obviously not endorsing this model, nor am I saying it's the same in all disciplines, as I would love to be in a discipline in...
War Is Boring I [I'm breaking this review into separate posts. Part II will be up tomorrow.] David Axe's War Is Boring belongs, in a very general sense, to the grand tradition of American road trip narratives. Unlike Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, in which the Nobel Laureate set out to reconnect with an idea of America; or Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which the good doctor set out to obliterate that notion altogether; or Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which a creative writing professor ignores both the country and all notions of it in favor of calling attention to his own profundity—that is to say, unlike those nonfictional account of road trips by American authors, the travel narrative that frames War Is Boring is not aimed at an American audience. I mean this literally: Axe recalls the past five years of his life as a United Nations van and its driver, Adrian Djimdim, shepherd him across Chad. That he tells his story to someone who has experienced life in a conflict zone is significant because it allows him the sympathetic space required to recount the intimate moments and minor worries of combat life without seeming a solipsist. The wars to which he flashes back in conversation are not about him in the way that Salinas is about Steinbeck, Las Vegas about Thompson, or Pirsig about Pirsig. They are not an extension of himself because War Is Boring partakes of no Emersonian "upbuilding of a man" and Axe refuses to serve as a delegate for our moral improvement. For example, later in the novel, after being mistaken for former U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, he informs Djimdim that: As Djimdim is presented as an observant listener, he must have recognized that Axe had fed him a similar line earlier: Note that the difference is not in growth, but simple addition: Axe doesn't correct him, he merely adds the names of his actual employers, committing what could be called a sin of omission by addition. He presents himself here not as a model to be emulated, but a person for whom old, successful habits die hard—that is, as a sympathetic example of our flawed species.* But War Is Boring is always as much about the narrative as it is the narrator, even when the stakes of the conflicts narrated are not altogether clear. While that might seem a criticism of the book, I don't mean it as such. The view from the ground will always be more chaotic than its aerial equivalent, as Axe himself argues via juxtapositions like those that open his chapter on East Timor: The helicopter is as isolated from the events below as it is in Axe's camera, but for the moment, so is Axe. That first panel fails to inform us whether the narrative is in its Chadian frame or East Timor, and the second one only provides visual clues as to when and where we are. Moreover, the perspective Axe and, through him,...

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