Many of my students in the MA in Conflict, Security, and Development at King’s College London have come directly from the policy world. They are diplomats, military commanders, NGO workers, social activists. They bring with them diverse knowledge and skill sets to the classroom, but they also bring with them particular ways of communicating that are very different from what is required of them in academia. Key to this is academic writing.
For people who worked as practitioners, it is hard to understand what could possibly be more important than deriving policy recommendations from a piece of writing. What is the point of writing about something if you can’t decide what to do about it? This is a common complaint of academic writing.
The first thing practitioners should appreciate is that deciding what to do is not the goal of an academic essay or article. The goal usually has to do with understanding the nature of the problem. With a proper diagnosis/analysis/explanation of the phenomenon, policy recommendations will follow.
So, how can practitioners-turned-students learn to write academically? The key point that needs to be appreciated is that what matters is not the impact of the argument on the real world, but rather, how this argument impacts upon the existing literature. The foundation upon which an academic essay is constructed is the literature.
First you need to build comprehension. Start your academic writing journey by reading deeply and understanding how the literature fits together. How are the debates constructed? On what ideas do they build? Where are the agreements and disagreements? How are leading thinkers grouped? What are the big ideas? You need to synthesize these ideas for yourself to figure out what fits where and who is arguing against whom.
Once you fully grasp the importance of the literature, the next task is to mimic the form. The goal here is to learn to write academically (tone, style, word choice, format, methods, presentation style, terminology, citation practices). This is like learning the grammatical rules of a new language. The goal is to look and sound like others in the discipline. If you are writing a sociology paper, you want your work to mimic the way that other sociologists write.
Once you’ve mastered the form, then you need to be able to meaningfully ‘engage with the literature‘. What does that mean? Well, you have to be able to play with it, to dance with it, to critique it, to comment on elements where you agree and disagree. When you’re able to do that, then you’ve found your ‘voice’ and you should put your own ideas into this form.
Once you’ve mastered the form and learned how to engage, you can subvert academic form- if you want. This is the fun part. Now, you can disregard the rules- up to a point. Having developed the confidence to express your ideas in your own style, you can start to improvise, and decide whether you’d like to continue using existing formats, or whether you’d like to create hybrid forms, or whether you’d like to create your own forms of academic expression.
Think about Picasso. He first had to learn classical drawing techniques. He began by copying traditional forms. Then he had to master them, and find his own style within a classical tradition. Finally, he was able to question existing forms, and discard them in order to create new styles and modes of expression.
1. Build comprehension.
2. Mimic the academic form of your discipline.
3. Engage with the literature and find your academic voice.
4. (Optional) Experiment with new forms of expressing your ideas.
Today’s election win for Muhammadu Buhari is a watershed moment in Nigerian politics. The results deserve comment because Nigeria was at a crossroads- and it seems like the citizens made a decision that is going to benefit not just Nigeria itself, but African politics as a whole.
Since Goodluck Jonathan officially took power in 2010, he has run Nigeria into the ground. For a taste of these problems, there has been the firing of central banker Sanusi, the mishandling of the Chibok kidnappings, the government’s incompetence in dealing with Boko Haram, and the staggering corruption problems within the Jonathan administration, including $20 billion that went “missing from the account of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC.”
I never thought I would say this, but I’m actually happy that a former dictator has won this contest fair and square (thanks to new biometric voter’s cards). Here’s why it’s good for Nigeria, and good for African politics:
1. Nigeria now has a viable opposition party. This will hopefully mean a more inclusive, and more stable political system.
“This is the first time an opposition party with a diverse national support base has taken on an incumbent party: it is the end of a long period of elite pacts in national politics,” said Africa Confidential. This is extremely significant because there has long been a power-sharing pact in place within the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP)- this saw the Christian south and the Muslim north alternate the presidency every four years. This was an informal elite pact and voters in each region stuck to the rules of the game- for a period. Then in 2010, when Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim northerner, died part way through his first term and Goodluck Jonathan formally assumed the presidency.
The election of Buhari has ended this pact and proven the viability of an opposition that can harness widespread geographical, ethnic, and religious support. In this way, it becomes an important step for consolidating democracy.
2. Jonathan’s willingness to give up power signifies that he is not above the rule of the people, and that he respects the election results, even when these rules don’t work out in his favour.
It will be the FIRST time in Nigeria that an incumbent president will have lost to an opposition candidate. This is a rare moment on the continent- we have just witnessed a relatively peaceful election, followed by a graceful admission of defeat from an incumbent. Watching Jonathan concede is critical to democratic consolidation not just in Nigeria, but across Africa.
To get a feel for how truly momentous this was, read Yetty Williams’ Huffington Post piece:
Up until now, the average Nigerian was not sure whether his or her vote really counts, wondered whether votes can actually make a difference or cause a change. Till this most recent elections majority of the nation had only heard about the idea of free, fair and violence-free elections….There are people still in shock that change happened! We were able to vote out the sitting president and guess what? The sky is still intact. Life is going on! And to top it off our outgoing president called the president elect to concede prior to official announcement of the results…We are suddenly in a new era, an era where the old are hopeful that things can actually change in their lifetime — free and fair elections… Can I repeat, it was largely violence-free, free and fair — we do not take this for granted.
3. If anyone has a chance of changing Nigeria’s culture of corruption, it is Buhari.
Several years, I attended the UN Convention Against Corruption conference. I met a civil society leader there who told me about General Buhari’s rule in 1984-85. At the time, what I found fascinating was that he seemed to imply that there was a brief ordering of society. He told me that people started queuing up for buses, and that petty corruption seemed to have briefly plummeted. Until Buhari left office. Then it went back to business as usual. This civil society leader recognized that there were a lot of problems with Buhari’s rule (see his human rights record), but corruption was not one of them.
Fast forward several years to a recent Wilton Park conference on African peacekeeping: What was interesting was listening to the Nigerians express their appreciation for Buhari’s clean record when it came to corruption. My sense is that a good part of Buhari’s election win was due in part due to this contrast between a Jonathan government that has been perceived to be extremely flashy and corrupt, and the relatively modest lifestyle that Buhari has consistently lived (and has promised to maintain). Buhari, hardliner though he is, has been pretty honest about who he is, and what he has accumulated. That is rare in a country of political leaders who are renowned for corruption.
And if you believe Sarah Chayes’ thesis on how corruption contributes to the conditions that drive religious extremism, then Buhari may be also be good for dealing with Boko Haram- but not in the way that the West thinks. In searching for purity and consistency, Boko Haram has argued that the West is a corrupt and contaminating influence- if Buhari shows that he will not live the flashy life of previous leaders, then Boko Haram loses an important narrative for driving recruitment.
The right leader can have a transformative effect for a country (Mandela), a cause (Martin Luther King), or even a religion (Pope Francis). Without wanting to set expectations too high, it’s the first time in a long time that I’ve felt this hopeful about Nigeria’s political prospects. It’s been less than 24 hours since the election, but I’m already hoping against hope that Buhari doesn’t disappoint.
On Friday 19 Dec 2014, I talked to the BBC about allowing women women to take on frontline combat roles in the UK military. The Ministry of Defence has been reviewing its policy on this matter, and the BBC asked me for some thoughts on this issue. For a whole variety of reasons, I think women should be allowed to take on combat roles.
I have a lot more to say about this topic- hopefully I’ll be able to expand on some of the points from the clip when things are less busy. But to begin this conversation, I’ve posted the BBC interview clip below.
Some of my ideas are also summarized here in this Independent article.
Academia, Incentives, and The Secret to Unleashing Intellectual Capital- Responding to Nicholas Kristof
In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof has just thrown down the gauntlet for academics:
Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.
Academics used to matter, but they don’t matter as much as they used to. The question is why? I think there are three sets of reasons. Partly, this has to do with the incentives within professional academia, partly it is related to the recruitment pool for academics, and partly it has to do with the ever-widening range of non-academic sources of deep knowledge that has been made accessible through new technology (think tanks, rise of NGOs, blogosphere, free access to high quality information). I’ll say something about the first two since the third is pretty obvious.
Incentives Within Academia
The core problem is one of incentives within academia: Academic prestige/tenure/promotion is based purely on publications. On the surface, this seems like a fair way of gauging merit. But it means that everything else that professors do tends to run a distant second (teaching, administration and service, public engagement). Given the fierce competition for academic posts these days, no one is going to give up their research time for public engagement (unless s/he enjoys doing it) if they don’t already have tenure. (For adjunct professors/temporary lecturers who live from paycheque to paycheque with no job security, the situation is even more precarious. See Corey Robin’s excellent post on this aspect of the problem.) Writing specialized journal articles will win every time because our careers depend on it.
“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”
If the powers that be really want public engagement then they need to explicitly include this in their criteria for tenure & promotion. Even requiring a token op-ed in a newspaper would send an important signal. Of course, there is the caveat that public engagement is not relevant for all disciplines or within a discipline- but for disciplines like politics, you would think that most of us would want to engage with a wider audience beyond the boundaries of specialized journals.
The Recruitment Pool for Academia
Regarding who is most likely to become an academic these days, there are a couple of important trends. First, in my own discipline of politics, fewer “public intellectual” types are being drawn to academia than used to be the case. Instead of doing a PhD, many of these people are joining think tanks, opting to work for NGOs or international organizations, heading to tech start-ups or management consultancies, or occupying the social entrepreneur space. These are options that just didn’t exist twenty years ago. The bottom line is that many of those with the inclination and the smarts to become academics have chosen to do other things now that there are so many interesting (and well-paid!) career options. Second, the culture of politics as a academic discipline has also changed significantly in the past twenty years.
A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.
If you think about academia as an exclusive club that many, many people want to join, it becomes possible to see that key gatekeepers (journal editors, tenured faculty at the Top 10) hold a lot of power. If gatekeepers want to set an exclusive and difficult-to-penetrate research agenda for the discipline, they can readily do so in choosing the kinds of articles that get published in top journals, the kinds of PhD projects they are willing to supervise, and the kinds of work that they consider to be “groundbreaking”. This isn’t just about rebels being crushed or driven away, as Kristof alleges, but rather that the rebels are no longer drawn to academia in the first place because the kinds of narrow research questions that are being asked today don’t excite them. Further, the pressures to publish can be severe enough that if your research falls outside of disciplinary norms, your work risks being marginalized- with all of the consequent career implications. Namely, you’re highly unlikely to make it into the profession in the first place. These dynamics shift the academic recruitment pool in a certain direction. [See this post comparing academia to drug cartels from a King’s colleague, Alexandre Afonso.]
Academic Superstars & the Hyper-Engaged
For younger scholars, I would say that even though Kristof is mostly right about the broad lack of public engagement, he has also omitted the story of the superstar academics. Just within the realm of politics and international relations, Twitter, MOOCs, the blogosphere, and TED talks have created academic superstars out of people like Anne-Marie Slaughter, Chris Blattman, Daniel Drezner, and Saskia Sassen. I can also name dozens upon dozens of hyper-engaged academics who blog, tweet, and engage in policy-making. (Here are just a few: Laura Seay, Lesley Warner, Roland Paris, Severine Autesserre, Susanna Campbell, Rob Ford, Thomas Rid, Lawrence Freedman, Jeff Colgan, Stephen Saideman, Jennifer Welsh, Dominik Zaum, Jeni Whalan, Daniel Drezner, Lee Jones, never mind widely read blogs like The Monkey Cage, Political Violence at a Glance and Duck of Minerva. The list goes on and on. Did I mention that half of my department at King’s is active on Twitter?)
As with the rest of the labour market, those who go the extra mile to engage publicly will mean that they can reap the reputational returns on a global scale. For these hyper-engaged academics, the rewards are more likely to come in the form of public and disciplinary influence rather than pay increases.
Academic Rigor and Relevance
A few more thoughts: I don’t think you need to give up academic rigor in order to do interesting, accessible, and relevant research. We shouldn’t conflate rigorous with being inaccessible/uninteresting/irrelevant. There does not need to be a trade-off here as implied by Rubin Ruiz-Rufino. The problem may be more in how “rigorous” is defined- an altogether separate discussion. Disciplinary “rigor” could still mask other problems:
After the Arab Spring, a study by the Stimson Center looked back at whether various sectors had foreseen the possibility of upheavals. It found that scholars were among the most oblivious — partly because they relied upon quantitative models or theoretical constructs that had been useless in predicting unrest.
Separately, we need to gauge “relevance” with caution. Just because a subject is obscure today does not mean that it should not be studied nor does it mean that the quality of scholarship is poor. Way back in 2000, how many politics scholars in the West could even pick out Afghanistan on a map, never mind offer us insights into Afghan politics, culture, and society? Afghanistan was about as obscure a subject as you could imagine, and yet Barnett Rubin had persisted in following Afghan politics for decades…. Another example: Back in 2007, Shadi Hamid presented his doctoral project on the Muslim Brotherhood at Nuffield College’s Graduate Politics Seminar in Oxford. At the time, it seemed like an interesting if slightly obscure topic. And then came Tahrir Square.
If obscurity is not the problem, neither is the impenetrability of the discipline in and of itself (as Steve Saideman argues here). The problem is the MIX. Right now, the obscure and impenetrable seem to dominate many of the discipline’s key institutions. As I said to Steve, I think that rigor is still being prized over relevance. In short, it is more advantageous to formulate an airtight argument to a narrow and mildly interesting research question rather than to offer a thoughtful (but not airtight) argument to a much more compelling question. [Interestingly, I think the gap between academia-policy-public is much smaller in the UK as compared to North America.]
Unlocking Academia’s Intellectual Capital
While my sense is that younger scholars in my discipline of politics are happily engaging more with the public via social media and other forums, it’s clear that there is a tremendous amount of intellectual capital that is trapped within the ivory towers because the incentives aren’t strong enough to unlock it. For politics departments, I have one small recommendation: Require extended abstracts for all publications that are submitted as part of tenure and promotion/probation processes. Ask for 750 word executive summaries with key findings in layman’s terms. This minor addition would make scholarly studies much more useful and readily accessible without changing what people study or how they decide to study it. In the long run, this is the kind of change that will tilt the balance in favour of public engagement and put politics scholars back at the heart of public discourse- where they belong.
I wrote this email when I was 23 years old, in my final year of my systems engineering program at the University of Waterloo. Even though the Montreal Massacre happened so long ago that many of you may not have even heard of it, I hope that we can still take the time to remember the women who were killed, simply because they were women. Let those fourteen young women never be forgotten.
After our conversation last week, I sat back and thought long and hard about what we’re trying to do with this event, because like it or not, it has become an “event”. The members of the organizing committee are trying to de-politicize it by making it personal, but we can’t deny that it is a public event for a reason.
1989 seems so long ago . . . that was the end of Communism and the height of the real estate boom. Nine years later, here we are: so much has changed and yet, nothing has changed. You said to me that it seemed like just yesterday that the killings took place, but nine years is a long, long time. Especially when you’re only 23, like me. I was 14 years old and in grade nine on December 6, 1989. I did not completely understand the killings and why they had happened. I had no idea I would end up, five years later, studying to be an engineer. And for those of us in first year at UW, these students would only have been 9 years old, and in the middle of grade 5 — how can you relate to this experience at this age?
I understood at the time that the gunman was a sociopathic killer, but I had no explanation as to how this could have possibly happened in the world that I had grown up in. His irrational behaviour didn’t fit into my model of how things worked and I had no reason to think of him as anything other than an extremist, someone who would not and could not listen to reason. My solution was to exclude him from my world, to cast him out. I guess this also meant that, to some extent, I ignored the impact of what he had done and the hatred that he represented. There was nothing in my social conditioning that allowed me to understand his deep-seated despisal of women, and in particular, of feminists.
Now, nine years later, I have a slightly better sense of the methodically rational side of his actions. After all, it was not in a rage of passionate fury that he committed these murders. A virtual hit list was found on his body consisting of fifteen high-profile women: these included the first woman firefighter in Québec, the first woman police captain in Québec, a sportscaster, a bank manager and a president of a teachers’ union.
Society recognizes that he was a psychopath — but to what extent was he a product of social influences, and how much of it was sheer and utter isolated madness? The two of us talked about the continuum and where this event would sit on this continuum. I don’t have an answer for this. What I do know is that it was and still is, to a greater or lesser extent, a reflection of society’s attitudes towards women.
So we must ask ourselves: How do these attitudes filter down through the rest of society? When a male classmate jokingly says to me that I won my scholarship because I am female, how am I supposed to interpret that? How does that relate to the fact that the killer felt that these women got into engineering because they were female? He certainly felt that they were taking up his “rightful” place in the program. Am I taking up the “rightful” place of another disgruntled male in systems design engineering?
He committed an extreme act, but society is at a crossroads right now — we value women’s equality, but the lingering effects of centuries of discrimination is not going to disappear overnight and we have to recognize that together. We are valued in the eyes of the law. But in practice, systematic discrimination still goes on, even if it isn’t as obvious as it used to be. Women are not equal. If we were, everyone would understand that December 6, 1989, was just an aberration, a blip in the stats. But obviously, the need for an event like Fourteen Not Forgotten implicitly underscores the fact that there are many of us who still harbour a milder version of the killer’s views. How else to explain the fact that women are more likely to be killed by their spouses than by an outsider?
Also, we have to remember that fourteen women were killed, but hundreds, maybe thousands of people were affected, men and women. What could my male classmates have possibly done if I was being shot at? Not too much. And how can we accept this conclusion: that we are helpless in the face of irrational evil? That is why we remember December 6. Hopefully, by speaking out against these attitudes and these acts of violence, we are helping society address these issues to make sure that it never happens again. Men and women who survived the massacre still have to bear the burden of the death of their classmates. These people will live in fear all their lives. How do we collectively deal with that? What about when these fears are conveyed to their children and grandchildren? All it takes is one gunman to spread his hatred, and the effects are felt far and wide. This memorial is, in many ways, a show of solidarity against everything that killer stood for. That is why we mourn, and why we must continue to remember.
A version of this article was first posted on Al Jazeera on 26 September 2013.
Yesterday, the Special Court of Sierra Leone upheld Charles Taylor’s conviction for aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone’s civil war. The Appeals Chamber also rejected his request for a reduction in his 50 year sentence, pointing out that he had not shown ‘real and sincere remorse’ for his actions. On the face of it, this decision appears to be another victory for transitional justice: the international community succeeded in locking up another brutal dictator, and now, it has also thrown away the key.
For those who follow international war crimes tribunals and the workings of the International Criminal Court, the Special Court’s decision would not have come as a surprise. On the one hand, it was certainly theoretically possible that the Appeals Chamber could have set Taylor free by adhering to the precedent in the Mom?ilo Periši?. Yet this outcome seems fantastical in light of the political context in which this seven-year trial has taken place. The conclusion was foregone before the ink was even dry on the appeal documents. The reason is simple and has nothing to do with the merits of the case: A free Charles Taylor would have entailed too many risks to the region.
After many years of civil wars and border skirmishes, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire are finally stable. For the moment. As the driving force behind the region’s conflicts through the 1990s and early 2000s, setting Taylor free could have upset the fragile balance in West Africa. Even though Liberia’s civil war ended over a decade ago in August 2003, Charles Taylor remains a powerful force in the country- despite not having set foot on Liberian soil since 2006. The Special Court could not afford to let him go free, not without the possibility of risking Liberia’s security and undermining the integrity of the tribunal itself.
Still, it would be unfair to say that the Appeals Chamber is not impartial. There is no evidence that this is the case. The justices appear to be qualified and of international repute. Nevertheless, as independent as the judges themselves may be, they are appointed by political bodies with political interests. Valerie Oosterveld shows how deeply political considerations affected many critical aspects of the Special Court, from the drafting of the SCSL’s statute to its judgments to its decision to physically close the court. It would be naive to think that any shortlisting process of the Appeals Chamber justices would not have been shaped by these political dynamics, or that the justices themselves would be unaware and unaffected by the desires of those who appointed them.
In fact, we already know from the work of Ruth Mackenzie, Kate Malleson, and Philippe Sands that selecting judges to international tribunals is a fraught process. Ultimately, Sands has asserted that ‘the horse-trading and politicking is endemic.’ He also claims that ‘vote-trading, campaigning, and regional politicking invariably play a great part in candidates’ chance of being elected than considerations of individual merit’. While their study was conducted on the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, there is no reason to think that the same political dynamics would not hold true of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Bear in mind too that the Special Court received most of its funding from the West (US, UK, Netherlands, and Canada), and Western countries have contributed billions of dollars in humanitarian aid and reconstruction to the region. In addition, the UK has offered Sierra Leone an ‘over-the-horizon’ security guarantee. Effectively, this means that the UK is committed to responding to a national security incident within 72 hours. Given these considerations of national interest, it is hard to imagine how the desires of the UK and the US would not have influenced the environment of the court. Keeping larger political influences and geopolitical considerations at bay in a case like this would have been near impossible.
Westerners might wonder how any of these factors could affect the final decision of the justices. After all, justice should be blind. And yet, we can see that it is not. None of these revelations would surprise Sierra Leoneans and Liberians. In Africa certainly, war crimes tribunals are widely acknowledged to be deeply politicised institutions. In fact, the African Union has recently called a special summit to discuss a mass withdrawal from the ICC in October because international justice is seen as baldly biased against Africans.
I have argued elsewhere that the ICC is perceived by many as a tool of Western powers. Other UN-backed tribunals also suffer from this problem, including the Special Court of Sierra Leone. Others have made similar arguments. Guardian columnist Seumas Milne has asked why Western leaders have not been indicted for aiding and abetting war crimes when they too supplied arms and assistance to Libyan militias in the fight against Gaddafi— just like Charles Taylor did for Sierra Leone’s rebels. International legal scholar Richard Falk has questioned why American leaders have not been charged for the systematic abuses that have been widely documented at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
The facts are clear: justice is applied selectively depending on what country you are from and whether you are in favour with the West. By nudging, suggesting, and sometimes coercing international courts to serve political interests, Western powers manage to achieve desired political outcomes. But these tactics are putting delicate norms of transitional justice at risk.
If international war crimes trials are ever to achieve genuine global justice— for the weak as well as the powerful— there must be some acknowledgement that these tribunals are currently being used as political instruments of the powerful. Only when this premise is accepted by the West can the ICC evolve into an institution with real international legitimacy.