Sunday, November 1, 2009

November 1

Yes, I know I’ve done it again: I’ve let another two weeks slip by before writing this entry. And again, it’s Sunday.

Why do I feel guilty about writing this on Sundays? I don’t feel guilty about writing anything else on Sundays. Of course, I haven’t been writing all that much recently. And that's something I feel less guilty about than anxious since the end of the semester is not all that far away.

Although the little papers we’re supposed to do for Asquith’s methodology class are irritating, they’re not hard since he basically tells us what he wants for them. Writing for Trizenko’s class isn’t hard either. But I’d been having a hard time coming up with major paper topics both for Briggs’s seminar and for Saltz’s class at Harvard. And it’s important to me that both these papers be good.

Having Shivvy to talk about this with, though, has helped me reach a breakthrough. I had been seriously considering handing in a revised version of my senior thesis to Briggs, but Shivvy persuaded me that Briggs might not be open to a critique from me during my first semester with him. But she has come up with a brilliant alternative. I should write something based on my senior thesis critiquing Briggs for Saltz, and a paper critiquing Saltz for Briggs! Isn’t she brilliant?

The idea really is brilliant since, in that I’m in both of their classes, I’m becoming quite familiar with each’s thought processes. As a result, I not only have a strong basis for critiquing them each, but also for doing so in a way that the other is likely to appreciate. Yes, after talking this out with Shivvy, I am no longer facing the task of writing these papers with dread, but with relish! Like no other woman I have ever met, she is truly my intellectual soul mate!

Speaking of Briggs’s thought processes: as one might expect, I have learned far more about them by studying directly with him than I ever did studying with Cohen back at Barstow. For Cohen, the key to understanding Briggs (or any other theorist) was a close reading of what he had written. Since being here at Charles, though, I have learned that Briggs does not feel bound by anything that he has written previously. Since he is the “father” of neo-radicalism, neo-radicalism can become anything he wants it to be! God, I’d love to have that power!

What this means, of course, is that sometimes things he wrote in his great book seem inconsistent with things he says now. Craig Hatfield seems to delight in pointing this out to Briggs in class. (I can’t tell whether Craig is brave or whether he’s foolish. Either way, he certainly is irritating with his constant reference to methodological issues a la Prof. Asquith.) But as Briggs invariably responds, his neo-radicalism is not static, but dynamic and evolving. He sees no reason why he shouldn’t refrain from changing his mind about various things. What does not change, though, is the basic, humane tenets of his neo-radicalism. And as Briggs has pointed out, while there may be some small inconsistencies between his past and present statements, there is a larger overall consistency to his neo-radical thinking. That always shuts Craig up.

Briggs himself acknowledges one seeming inconsistency in his exposition of his ideas. Although, as he himself stresses, neo-radicalism is a deeply humane body of thought, Briggs does not hesitate from disparaging or ridiculing the ideas of others. But as Briggs points out: people are all unquestionably equal to one another, but their ideas are not. Nobody benefits by treating bad ideas as if they were in any way the equivalent of good ones. Indeed, bad ideas must be pitilessly exposed as such to stop whatever pernicious effects that adhering to them may result in.

Thus, when Briggs heaps scorn and ridicule on ideas he disagrees with, he is actually exhibiting a profound degree of humanity. For by ridiculing the works of others, he acknowledges his concern for the harm their ideas can—or actually do—cause.

Still, despite the humane nature of Briggs’s ridicule, I would not (as I mentioned before) want to be on the receiving end of it—as was, much to my surprise, Professor Trizenko.

I clearly have much to learn about academia. In my last entry, I wrote about how great it was that Trizenko testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and appeared on ABC News and all. I began to learn just how wrong this assessment was the very next morning in Briggs’s seminar.

Briggs came into class angrier than I have ever seen him. He immediately launched into a diatribe about how the only academics whom the simple minds in Washington and in the news media could understand were “the most primitive descriptivists.” Those who did theory, by contrast, were almost never asked to testify or give interviews.

He then offered a two-part explanation as to why this was the case. For the vast majority of legislators and journalists, he said, the explanation was simple: “Theory was just too damn complicated for their pretty little heads.” But, he insisted, not everybody in Washington was stupid. “Contrary to what you might think, there are some very, very clever people there.” It was these, he explained, who were the most determined to exclude theorists from the policy discourse on international relations. For if the theorists suddenly began appearing on Capitol Hill and on the talk shows, they would unquestionably crowd out the descriptivists. Those who now dominate the Washington discourse on international relations would soon lose control over it, thus paving the way for the adoption of a neo-radical foreign policy agenda.

Briggs never mentioned Trizenko by name. He didn’t have to: we all knew who he was talking about.

Craig Hatfield chose this inopportune moment to ask why it was that a neo-radical agenda would emerge if IR theorists came to dominate the foreign policy discourse in Washington. There were, after all, several contending schools of IR theory.

Briggs stared at him for several seconds and finally replied, “Your question is so ridiculous that it isn’t even worth addressing.” He was that angry!

Craig, though, pressed on. “Surely,” he claimed, “our Senators and Congressmen would mainly adhere to the realist/neo-realist or the liberal/neo-liberal schools, and almost none would embrace neo-radicalism—just as virtually none embraced radicalism in the past.

Briggs just shook his head, saying, “I think it’s time we got to the subject of today’s seminar.” It was clear that Craig had gone too far. He seems to think that he can say anything he wants to just because he’s gay.

Briggs, though, wasn’t the only one whom Trizenko had offended by getting so much publicity in Washington. In the methodology class later that same day, Prof. Asquith also made derisive comments about the “unsound pop scholarship” that Washington seemed addicted to. “The trouble with Washington,” he said, “is that the people there can’t distinguish between good and bad scholarship the way highly trained academics can.”

“I haven’t done a scientific study,” he added, “but I suspect that someone who did would find that Washington tends to lionize those academics who tell them what they want to hear, and shun those who dare to tell them anything different.”

Craig, I noticed, did not argue with Asquith the way he did with Briggs. Indeed, he didn’t say anything at all. [Please note, though, that I make no inference as to why.]

The very next week, I was told, Trizenko’s situation deteriorated dramatically. I don’t know how he knows these things, but Michael Radkowski said that the tenured faculty of the department voted on Trizenko’s tenure application this past Wednesday. According to Michael, the vote was against him by a small margin. And also according to Michael, getting more than one or two negative votes from the department faculty is the kiss of death for a tenure application.

I don’t know how much of what Michael said is really true. Certainly, though, Trizenko was uncharacteristically subdued in class this past Friday.

Even more than Trizenko, Danielle appears to be extremely unhappy. I know that she was planning on doing a dissertation on some aspect of Russian politics, and was counting on Trizenko to be the chair of her dissertation committee. If he ends up leaving, there is nobody else in the department for her to work with on Russia.

Michael says that if Trizenko ends up being turned down for tenure this year (and Michael thinks he surely will be), Trizenko can stay at Charles one more year and appeal. But if he loses the appeal, he’s out altogether.

Here’s the problem Danielle faces: she can still work with Trizenko on a subject she likes and hope that he somehow gets tenure this year or on appeal next year. The risk she runs here, though, is that he might not and so would have to leave one year after she takes her comprehensive exams this coming summer. This would probably not give her enough time to write a dissertation with him. If she began it, she would then have to start working with a new dissertation committee chair, who would undoubtedly insist that she alter her dissertation from whatever she and Trizenko had agreed upon.

But even if she did manage to write a dissertation for Trizenko in less than a year, it would be a wasted effort if he was forced to leave: who’s going to give a job to someone who got a Ph.D. from someone who was denied tenure?

I feel very sorry for Danielle. Michael, though, does not. That’s the risk she ran by attaching herself to someone who hadn’t gotten tenure yet, he argues.

Fortunately for me, I’m not running any such risk in working with Briggs; he’s long been a tenured professor. In fact, he’s a full professor.

Yes, I have certainly learned much about academia during these past two weeks. I wonder what other lessons are in store for me.

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