Thursday, March 6, 2014

Choosing Sides?

In the classroom I have generally preferred to draw a strict line between my own personal views and what I teach my students. But as a Jewish scholar-blogger who works on the Middle East, and particularly on Israel/Palestine, it is getting harder and harder to maintain that wall. Mostly that’s because a series of external developments combined with an intensifying rhetorical war between those who call themselves “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestine” have forced one to either “choose” a “side,” or face mockery, insult, and disparagement across the new and the old media. As Steven Cook has confessed regarding the study of Turkey, it just makes studying the region “no longer fun.”

I think that applies to more and more Jewish academics who study the region these days. The question now is what to do about it: embrace the blurring of the lines, or continue the fight to keep them? I think it’s time to blur the lines and take a firmer position on the issues.

It’s not a suddenly-new problem. Debates over academic freedom and what it means in practice are as old as academia. Middle East studies, specifically, has been wrestling with how to balance personal preferences and opinions, external pressure, and scholarly objectivity for quite some time.

But contemporary developments in academia, in public policy, and in the world are merging academic responsibility and ethical responsibility. The growing profile of the BDS movement, the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and the new and urgent appearance of workshops, conferences, and debates on Israel/Palestine taking place directly in academia mean that short of simply retreating into the ivory tower, I’m not sure there’s much we can do to stop it.

At the same time, the American Jewish community in particular is undergoing big changes, particularly when it comes to questions about the position of Israel in our communal identity and the appropriate vehicle for advocacy on it. Whether one identifies with the Zionist right, the Zionist left, the anti-Zionist right, or the anti-Zionist left, the combination of all these developments have meant that demands for the public expression of our views are growing.

Embracing an ethical-activist position might be the best response. As an IR scholar, I can also say this fits well with the history and nature of IR itself. Silly arguments that political scientists aren’t doing enough to influence policy notwithstanding, IR has long been about making the world a better place. The debate between the idealists and realists that characterized the emergence of the field wasn’t just about explaining world politics; it was also about what we should do regarding contemporary conditions of world politics. Constructivist, critical, Marxist, and gendered approaches are all also about the role of scholars in improving the human condition.

Using our scholarly knowledge to explain and to prescribe to policymakers and the public is one critical facet of our work. But at least when it comes to studying Israel/Palestine, the very issues at stake (human dignity, human rights, security and safety, national identity, self-determination, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Arab bigotry) seem to behoove us to take something like a more activist position on the issues.

For some of us that means signing petitions; for others, it means joining organizations that promote one side over the other or dialogue between them; and so on. Doing any of this will, of course, earn the opprobrium of those opposed to our actions. But that will be inevitable anyway. Why not start doing some good anyway?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Multi-Tasking for Multiple Audiences

Nicholas Kristof wrote a column that regurgitates a tired old argument drawn from a few headlines and without any sense of the topic on which he writes. Unfortunately it’s served as another vehicle for people to kick us academics around, as though our “misguided” work is at fault for the continuing problems the United States faces, unlike—presumably—the relevant work being done by journalists, government officials, and think tankers.

It’s fairly easy to point out the bubbles many journalists, government officials, and think tankers live in. For example, the surface understanding of the issues they write on; the short-term, narrow view of policy problems they have; and the partisan and normative preferences that undermine their claim to provide “objective” policy options. But that’s for another piece.

I wish we could ignore Kristof’s claims, but given his public perch, we can’t. There have been plenty of smart responses to the inaccurate assumptions that permeate his column: Tom Pepinsky, Steve Saideman, Erik Voeten, Erica Chenoweth, Corey Robin, Adam Elkus, Jeremy Pressman, and Karl Sharro, to name several. An important theme underlying all their comments is the recognition that, certainly, academia has problems; but we are working on them, and indeed there have been plenty of improvements over time. A second theme is that Kristof simply didn’t do his research on academia before writing his piece.

The problem is that none of our efforts to explain the reality of academia will matter to people like Kristof. The bottom line is that he and other detractors want academia to be only one thing, serve only one audience, aim for only one goal.

But that’s not what academia is for. We serve multiple audiences, exhibit and teach multiple skills, and aim for many goals at the same time.

An incomplete list would be comprised of the following: We serve as administrators in our universities and colleges; we write policy papers for policymakers; we write scholarly papers for other scholars; we write short op-eds for the general public; we consult for the private sector, government, humanitarian groups, and international organizations like the United Nations or the World Bank.

Perhaps most importantly, we teach students basic skills and pass on information. These are the people who become leaders and officials of states, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, think tanks, media enterprises, and firms. We teach the students who become politicians, activists, journalists, think tankers. There is a place, a need, an audience for every aspect of the work we do.

None of us are naïve enough to think that every student remembers every skill or piece of knowledge we pass on. Nor do we think that every academic does all of these things, and does all of them equally well. But that’s the other problem with taking academia to task: it is composed of many, many individuals at many, many institutions working in many, many different fields and areas.

And our work manifests itself in many different, sometimes un-measurable, ways. Steve Jobs took a class in calligraphy. It’s not that the Mac wouldn’t have been developed without that class. Rather, Jobs was very clear about the long-term benefits the class provided to the design of the machine. And most of us are very happy it turned out that way.

My own work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might not have gotten off the ground without a history course on the Byzantine Empire, which I’d bet few policymakers think is relevant to proposing solutions to the Syrian civil war today. But it led me to study the Middle East, which led me to study the contemporary Middle East, which led me to social media and the public sphere.

Our job is to be multi-dimensional, not to be one-dimensional. To multi-task. These are the things to be proud of, and to flaunt. An external push to be better is welcome, and we certainly should not retreat to an ivory tower and sulk. But we need to bear in mind that people like Kristof will never be satisfied, because they’re asking us to d-o something we aren’t supposed to be, and that the world would miss sorely if we tried. Let’s celebrate our diverse work instead.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Institutionalizing Blogging Norms at ISA

The reaction among bloggers and online academics to the ISA's proposal to stop its editors from blogging has been very positive, in that it has helped mobilize the academic blogging community (the proposal itself isn't positive). But that is to be expected; we wouldn't be opposed to the measure if we weren't bloggers, and vice versa.

I'm happy to see that a movement has begun out of this reaction to institutionalize within the profession--that is, within the International Studies Association--online academic activity. This effort will bring the ISA as an organization in line with the emerging norms of the field, and will help explain and promote the benefits of blogging (and other online academic activity) to those who don't.

So, consider signing this petition to establish an Online Media Caucus within the ISA. This will make blogging and participation in social media and other online activities more "normal" and accessible and familiar to the ISA's members. It will also, importantly, give online academics a say in the organization's governance; every caucus has a representative on the Governing Council.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Academic Blogging Is Part of the Profession

The scholar-blogosphere is rightly upset about a new proposal by the ISA’s Governing Council to prevent editors of ISA journals from participating in blogging in any way (see Steve Saideman’s post for the specifics and for a good critique).

It’s hard to see what possible benefit such a restriction would bestow on ISA members. Not only does it push back against the emerging norm in Political Science and International Relations, it completely ignores the value blogging has provided to scholars and to our research, to the profession, and to the broader public.

The particularly problematic statement is this:
The purpose of this document is to provide an authoritative statement regarding the expectations for professional conduct for all who participate in ISA meetings and conventions….All editorial members, both the Editor in Chief(s) and the board of editors/editorial teams, should maintain a complete separation of their journal responsibilities and their blog associations.
It’s a puzzling claim to make, that blogging undermines professionalism in the discipline. It’s certainly true that participation in social media does sometimes encourage scholars to say things that are questionable, leading to unpleasant consequences. But there’s no evidence that this is widespread, that it has affected the ability of scholars to continue with their work, or that it’s devalued academia beyond what some had already thought of it. Moreover, it’s not like academics haven’t acted unprofessionally at conferences, in personal correspondence, in advising junior scholars, in editing and reviewing journals, in organizing workshops and speakers on campus, or any other facet to our work. If the point is to enhance professionalism, then propose standards of professionalism for all those who work for the ISA, across all of its activities.

Finally, does the ISA really want to join university administrators trying to regulate and constrain academic participation in the public sphere by controlling who can say what and where?

On a personal note, though I’m not an editor at an ISA journal, I can specifically say that blogging and participation in social media more generally have enormously enhanced my professional network; introduced me to people I now collaborate with; given me more sounding boards to bounce ideas off of; and facilitated the spread of my analyses to non-scholarly audiences.

To my mind, then, all the negatives inherent in the proposal contradict every element of the very mission we are supposed to be engaged in.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Blogging Identities on Israel/Palestine: Public Intellectuals and Their Audiences

In the January 2014 issue of PS: Political Science & Politics, Mira Sucharov and I have a piece on scholar-bloggers and how they might engage in the public sphere. Here is the gated copy, and here is the ungated copy. Below is the abstract.

This article was originally published as: "Blogging Identities on Israel/Palestine: Public Intellectuals and Their Audiences," PS: Political Science & Politics vol.47, no.1 (January 2014): 177-181.
Drawing on our research and blogging on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we make three claims about the role of scholar-bloggers in the social media age. First, as scholar-bloggers with some degree of ethno-national attachments related to our area of expertise, we contend that we are well positioned to issue the kinds of critiques that may resonate more deeply due to the very subjectivity that some perceive as a liability. Second, through the melding of scholarly arguments with popular writing forms, scholar-bloggers are uniquely poised to be at the forefront of public engagement and
political literacy both with social media publics and with students. Third, the subjectivity hazard is an intrinsic part of any type of research and writing, whether that writing is aimed at a scholarly audience or any other, and should not be used as an argument against academic involvement in social media. Ultimately, subjectivities of both consumers and producers can evolve through these highly interactive media, a dynamic that deserves further examination.

Friday, December 27, 2013

How Erdoğan Has Reshaped Turkish Politics

Over at The Monkey Cage I have a piece on what the corruption scandals in Turkey mean for Turkish politics. A brief snippet:
Leaders who see themselves as infallible and who have no institutional constraints on their ability to make policy don’t leave power willingly. This can include leaders elected democratically. They weaken political institutions in their campaign to fend off challengers and remain in office. So whether or not Erdoğan survives is less important for Turkey than the damage being done to Turkish institutions, which in turn poses a real challenge for American interests in the Middle East that depend heavily on a strong Turkey.
Follow the link for more.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Normative Implications of Academic Boycotts

I haven’t said much about the ASA boycott of Israeli academic institutions, though I do oppose it. There are plenty of arguments out there both for and against; most of them are tendentious and clearly designed to further an ideological or political agenda. At +972 Dahlia Scheindlin takes stock of the main ones on both sides, and her post is well worth reading.

One of the arguments put forward by pro-boycotters, though, strikes me as a bit naïve or disingenuous, or perhaps just very tactical: that the boycott isn’t against Israeli individuals, but rather only against academic institutions. Thus, one can target institutions of the state (since the state is complicit in and an active promoter of, for instance, the settlement enterprise) without targeting individuals. In this way, accusations of anti-Semitism or of attacking individuals on the basis of their national identity can be avoided.

Dahlia concludes that this is a fair point. I’m not so sure. Boycotts have normative effects. They impose on members of a group, who might otherwise not share their community’s official support for a boycott, pressure to conform. They establish expectations, attitudes, and unfriendly atmospheres.

Individual ASA professors, departments with ASA professors, and student organizations with ties to ASA professors are more likely to think about the boycott—it’s a good thing to think about the issues that led to the boycott—but they are also more likely to be concerned about backlashes from peers, their departments and programs, and so on. How, for example, will leaders of an American student group react when they tell their professor they want to bring an Israeli scholar in for a public lecture and that professor warns the students she supports a boycott of Israeli academic institutions?

In addition, we should think about how Israeli academics will react. Will they feel uncomfortable attending workshops run by ASA professors? Will they self-censure when thinking about which journals to send papers to or which conferences to send proposals to? 

We don’t have enough evidence to indicate either outcome is likely to follow from the ASA boycott. But we do have several anecdotes that suggest such an outcome is at least plausible in some cases. It’s enough, I think, that the issue shouldn’t be ignored. Actions have consequences.