Tagged: academia

Daniel Clausen

Finding Creativity

Isaac Asimov (1965), via Wikimedia Commons

The subject of creativity has been on my mind lately. As part of my dissertation research, I had to look at theories of policy entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are said to be many things — risk-takers, charismatic, disruptive.

But they are also said to be creative. They have insights on resources and constraints that lead them to act differently than their peers.

Diligence Contra Creativity?

We could say the same about scholars. Some scholars are like entrepreneurs, trying to revolutionize their discipline with bold new approaches. Some of these insights work, while others flare out.

Other scholars are less adventurous. They prefer to work within well-defined research traditions and grind out modest contributions. Even within this group of scholars, however, I often find that — at least in their own minds — they see themselves as creative.

But all researchers, no matter what field, soon find that diligence is the key to success. Without it, you get nowhere. Coding data, writing and rewriting, formatting bibliographies — without the ability to handle the minutiae of research and scholarship, you are nowhere. You have nothing.

And perhaps all this diligence does something to your creativity. Perhaps it makes you more guarded, less bold. You learn to write and think defensively. And perhaps these habits of mind inhibit your ability to make new breakthroughs.

Finding Creativity

I’ve been trying to rediscover my creative self. I’ve also been trying to write something meaningful on creativity. It’s hard. And perhaps it’s something I haven’t been attacking creatively enough (or shouldn’t be attacking at all).

Many things have been written on creativity (some of them not all that creative). But my favorite quotes on creativity come from an Isaac Asimov essay I was recently introduced to. The origin of the article itself is fairly interesting. It was the result of an official, government-sponsored project to think creatively about a very difficult problem. I encourage anyone reading this to check it out.

What’s interesting about the 1959 essay is its cynicism toward government-sponsored creativity sessions. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, there were all sorts of reports and media condemnations of the intelligence community’s failure to connect the dots — in a broad sense its failure to be creative. It’s bizarre to charge a government bureaucracy with a failure to be creative — as if creativity can be produced through a bureaucratic process. And in the aftermath of the attacks, the government sponsored a slew of workshops with “creative types” (novelist, actors, directors, and other eccentrics) in order to “red team” more possible scenarios.

Thinking about these sessions in light of the Asimov article is interesting because Asimov is skeptical that creativity can ever be the product of a governmental process. But he does have a few key sections where he suggests some ways that creative outputs may occur through government funding. Again, I encourage you to go right to the source material.

Eccentricity and its Limits

Here is one quote from the article that got me thinking:

“A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.”

My first thoughts on this quote have to do not with creativity but with the limits of rational judgment. Let’s say we are able to get a bunch of eccentric/genius types together. And let’s say one out of twelve has a very useful idea. Would we be able to pick out the one good idea successfully?

My answer: I don’t think so.

This is based on observation. We frequently see someone who is right about the next big event or who was warning us about some danger that was about to occur. They are usually columnists, commentators, think tank scholars, or something of the like. But typically we only find out who is right after the event has occurred.

So, not only can we not know which eccentric is the right eccentric, but we (or they) only benefit from their eccentricity if they are willing to put their ideas into practice or risk something they have to make their eccentric ideas work or to get noticed — as entrepreneurs do.

Since entrepreneurs often fail, they need to have either extraordinary insight or they need to be people of “considerable self-assurance” who take risks in spite of the consequences of being wrong.

Isolation and Unconscious Thought

Here is another quote that got me thinking:

“My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekulé working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)”

Isolation? I’m not sure isolation is necessary. Especially in my research on political entrepreneurship, the eccentric types need lots of exposure to their natural environment. Insights come from “continually working at it,” but usually in a social context. For some types of breakthroughs, isolation might be necessary, but for myself I prefer to work with others, especially when I’m stuck on a problem. Isolation might make people weird, but not necessarily in a way that provides useful insights about things in the world.

The part that rang most true for me was the idea of the mind shuffling information, even when “not conscious of it.” I’ve become a true believer in defocused concentration. N.N. Taleb, the famous thinker on antifragility, has talked about the benefits of walks. I find that menial tasks often have the same effect. When I am doing something that requires little thought, but involves lots of motion, I can often have a mental breakthrough. (There is actually an episode of the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon put this theory to work by trying to come up with a breakthrough by working as a busboy at Penny’s restaurant.)

For some reason, I get insights right before I go to sleep. Actually, I get them at the very moment where my mind begins to relax and slip into unconsciousness. This has become so annoying that I’ve just left a notebook by my bed so I don’t have to get up again and walk to my laptop.

Brainstorming Sessions — Real and Fake

A while ago, (I can’t say particularly where or when) I read about a certain government department holding brainstorming sessions. I tried to picture what this must have been like. My mental image was not of a real brainstorming session, but of a bunch of government bureaucrats sitting around, floating mildly interesting ideas with little risk, moments of uncomfortable silence, some obligatory back-slapping, and then calling it a day.

Again, I don’t think a real brainstorming session can occur in a place like a government bureaucracy, or even a large corporation for that matter. Eccentricity in those kinds of contexts can be dangerous. (Maybe if it was a corporate advertising agency. Maybe.)

So here is my last quote:

“But how to persuade creative people to do so [get together for a creativity session]? First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness. The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad. Even to speculate in public is rather worrisome. The individuals must, therefore, have the feeling that the others won’t object.”

This is where academia often fails. Conferences, peer review, and other such academic conventions work against creativity. Usually, the only way around these inhibitors is to avoid them for a while. You have to find a context where genuine creativity is rewarded, and that can be difficult. An academic conference of like-minded individuals looking for a breakthrough might work better than some of the conferences I’ve been to (where scholars spend more time avoiding being wrong).

Like-minded scholarly communities help. Parties help. Talking with sympathetic friends helps. I’m also encouraged by the number of forums that have opened up for scholars to do “official bull-shitting” like blogs and web journals that have more flexible editorial requirements and allow speculative essays.

Another idea, keep a journal with ideas only you’ll ever read. (I guess isolation can be productive!) Then when something is ready to come out of the journal, let it out.

Creativity Finds You

Here is my simple definition of creativity: the mental state of childlike wonder.

If that is the case, then you need to find ways to put yourself in mental states where it’s okay to be odd, unique, experimental — and just plain wrong. It’s difficult to find those spaces as an adult, but not impossible. The problem is that many places within the university are not such spaces. Many places in public life are not such places. They are places of adulthood and consequences. They are places of diligence.

Creativity is what happens when you stop trying so hard.

Sören Stapel

German-speaking political science and social media

Social Media Bandwagon
Source: Matt Hamm / Photopin / cc

Two months ago, the German-speaking blogosphere organized a blog carnival, directly following the Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen’s symposium on the web 2.0. and social media in the International Relations profession. In the symposium, social media were approached as both an object of study, and a professional means to network and reach out to the general public. The symposium called for a reaction from the various German-speaking bloggers. And we got them. My initially planned contribution to the carnival never materialized when the work plate simply got swamped with editorial work on an edited volume, reviews of a book chapter, a data collection project, the preparation of field research, and me actually being on field research mission. So, this blog post should be considered a late addition to this little party.

Some of the contributions fleshed out part and parcel of bloggers’ experiences in general. Others reflected on the late arrival of German speakers to the use of social media for professional concerns and possible (negative) consequences (see Ali’s intro and collection of links, in German). Yet, it strikes me that an important question has been missing from the discussion: How much social media engagement of German-speaking political science researchers is out there? Continue reading

Mathis Lohaus

Introducing the DIY Standing Desk

Last year, political scientist Chris Blattman wrote about his attempt to reduce back pain by working with a standing desk:

That eminent scientific outlet, LifeHacker, informs us that sitting is killing us. My ridiculously good back doctor and the Columbia ergonomics office assured me this is not all hype, and that a standing desk would probably be a good move.

It has been. I enjoy the standing more than I expected. I do not get tired. My back has never been better, though weaknesses with my home desk option do bother it a little. Crucially, I discovered a trick for ensuring my feet never hurt (…).

In his blog post on the issue, he discusses the pros and cons for a number of desks costing between a few hundred and a couple of thousand dollars. But what if you’re looking for a very cheap way to see if a standing desk works for you? After all, back pain can become an issue long before you have tenure the financial means to buy specialized office equipment, and not every employer will be willing to help.

As an inspiration for grad students around the globe, here is the “Do-it-yourself Standing Desk”, as created by my colleagues Patrick, Maurits and Zoe.

The DIY Standing Desk in action… all you need (in addition to the regular desk) is two crates and a surface for mouse and keyboard.
Mathis Lohaus

Marginal Costs in Intl. Affairs

Zero Marginal Costs SocietyLast week, Jeremy Rifkin presented his current book here in Berlin. In The Zero Marginal Costs Society, he argues that the marginal costs of production in many sectors are moving (close) to zero, leading to economic shifts on the scale of the industrial revolution. Three forces make this possible according to Rifkin:

  • a truly integrated global internet (communication + logistics + sensors)
  • abundant renewable energy
  • 3D printing as extremely cost-efficient mode of producing physical goods

No matter how you think about the details of Rifkin’s predictions, he makes persuasive points on what very low marginal costs can entail. This is obviously true for the areas he addresses (the economics of production, welfare, labor, automation, consumption).

But in addition,  marginal costs are worth  attention when we think about international relations and and transnational political affairs more generally:

  • If we buy Rifkin’s arguments, IPE scholars and others who care about economic power and growth prospects will put less emphasis on traditional metrics of factor endowments. If the Netherlands are just much better at making use of renewables than Russia, size is a bad predictor of success. How do you model something like the political will to embrace the future?
  • The marginal cost of reaching one more pair of eyes applies to political mobilization. No matter how high your PR budget, you can reach millions of potential recruits if you’re willing to be excessively cruel and upload an execution video. And how does having a single “viral” idea (involving buckets of ice) measure up against having a more traditional structure of supporters?
  • I’ve covered intelligence activities here on the blog, in particular the  large-scale surveillance conducted by the NSA and other agencies. Consider the logic of technology-driven surveillance: The marginal cost of targeting one more person is virtually zero. Keeping that person’s data for one more unit of time is free. And there is no physical or technological limit in sight.
  • Similarly, I suspect that “cyber war” skills probably scale at close to zero marginal costs. Once you managed to infiltrate a crucial bit of IT infrastructure (and still have plausible deniability to mitigate political repercussions), deciding about the amount of damage you want to inflict will not be a matter of costs.

I’m sure there are many more examples. And if you’re willing to bear the cost of adding one more book to your reading list, consider Rifkin’s.

Mathis Lohaus

International Relations & New Media


In the current issue of Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen (ZIB), four authors discuss International Relations and New Media. To complement the series in ZIB, we’re running a so-called “blog carnival” that deals with the topic. Please head over to zoon politikon to check out what our colleagues have written [in German].

Here, I would like to address two of the four ZIB articles. The first was written by Ali, a former colleague in Berlin, who is a very experienced blogger (and Twitter power-user).

Under the heading “The Republic of Scholars 2.0” [PDF, in German], he argues that academic discourse in less formalized settings (such as social media and blogs) is the modern equivalent of the exchange of letters among scholars in the 17th century. Thus, German-speaking academics should overcome their shyness and catch up to their American and English colleagues, who seem to be more active users of new media. You can find a summary of Ali’s argument on his blog.

Based on conversations Ali and I had last year, I have argued in the same direction:

Does this lead to shared cultural understandings or at least mutual tolerance? Or does the web merely offer a cheap and anonymous way of reinforcing prejudices and being angry at each other? As any self-respecting political scientist will tell you: It depends…

Academic blogging is probably a “most likely” case of a positive effect. After all, we’re talking about a group of people who share similar ideas and practices, are used to cross-border exchange, and have a lot to gain from talking to each other. Yet I am also cautiously optimistic for non-academic political blogs that speak to a general audience. Whenever people are exposed to voices from outside of their well-established “filter bubble”, this is a great chance to learn and understand new perspectives. The internet certainly offers a huge potential in that direction.

The second article is called: “Teaching IR with New Media” [PDF, in English]. Kimo Quaintance (who has a blog, too) advocates the use of tools such as Wikis and blogs in teaching, but also cautions that not all optimistic assumptions about digital natives should be taken at face value:

While students may possess broad experience with e-mail, social networking and mobile devices, this doesn’t necessarily translate into the kind of information literacy or knowledge creation skills useful in academia.

Kimo has some very good, constructive points on how to foster information literacy, collaboration and outreach. I recommend you read the whole piece.

Here I just want to echo his words of caution. Take the following as me playing the devil’s advocate: Under some conditions, I think that the usage of “new media” in teaching can feel artificial or forced. Blog posts instead of essays, web sites instead of presentations? That might work, but we should be careful not to be too optimistic based on our own enthusiasm for the medium.

First, and most generally, if the core elements of the discipline are old-fashioned, teaching might not be the best venue to change things. If the #1 skill to master is writing formal papers, that should be what you (are forced to) practice. But of course this is subject to change and should not be used to kill all kinds of innovation, so I don’t want to over-stress this point.

Second, think about the value added. Model UN and other simulations are useful because they are inductive tools to experience dynamics that might be difficult to understand based on theory alone. Spending many hours to set up a mock NGO website might be interesting, but we have to be sure that it really adds something that could not be learned in a more efficient way. Also, depending on the class, the experience should not overshadow the contents: If after three days of mock conference / web design I only remember how much fun the negotiating / coding was, but nothing about policy issues, maybe that’s a problem…

Finally, how many people do you know that were born in the 1990s and maintain a blog (in the “traditional” sense)? It might be that blogging is completely passé by now and  we’re beating a dead horse. Maybe the easiest way out would be to ask people about their media habits and productivity tools first, see how much desire for change there is, and then make suggestions. Or let people experiment in groups?!

To wrap up: Ali and Kimo have made a number of very good points on the usefulness of new media in the exchange between scholars and for teaching, respectively. I highly recommend both pieces! Again, please consider looking at the other blog posts dealing with New Media and International Relations, and of course the rest of the ZIB issue.

Daniel Clausen

Some Advice on Writing Your Dissertation

Dan Drezner has written a compelling article on the reasons why and why not to pursue a graduate degree in IR. This article is a must read for anyone considering a PhD in the social sciences. Perhaps it’s sufficient for me to say that I didn’t know much about the completion rates of PhD students in the social sciences (about 41 percent finish within 7 years) when I decided to enter my program.

There are many “facts of (IR) life” that need to be explained to beginning graduate students–those regarding professional development, comprehensive exams, publishing, etc. But I don’t think I’m alone when I write that the biggest hurdle to finishing the degree is the dissertation.

What (meaningful) advice can I give graduate students about the dissertation stage? By no means am I an expert on the dissertation process, but listed here are a few things I wish I could have told myself early on.

Continue reading

Zoe Williams

Links: The Postdoc Edition

I don’t remember when I first realized there was something else I might have to do after  my PhD, but before I got an actual job academic job. And though I now know what a postdoc is, and that I might have to do one, a lot about postdocs remains shrouded in mystery.  As one on the topic notes – being a postdoc is like existing in “some kind of institutional purgatory” and numerous Google searches haven’t been terribly illuminating. One common element to many of the blog posts and articles on postdocs that I’ve read, however, is a certain negativity that is common to disenchanted academics. Some titles I’ve come across include: “The Postdoc: A Special Kind of Hell” , “Before Professor Comes Postdoc: Lower Career Rung, Just as Much Job Stress” and “The Postdoc Experience: High Expectations, Grounded in Reality”

What I have gleaned substantively is that there is no set definition for what a post-doctoral position actually is, and the importance varies from discipline to discipline as well as country to country. Moreover, what you do in the postdoc may be somewhat dependent on what you did during your PhD – for example, if you did not produce enough publications, you may spend some time publishing work from your dissertation. Another important distinction is if your postdoc position is part of a larger research project, or essentially just funding for you to do your own research (and perhaps a bit of teaching).

However, a survey of postdoc positions identified some common characteristics: the recent completion of a PhD prior to the postdoc position; the position is temporary; the appointment involves substantial research, with a goal towards further training; there is an expectation that work will be published; and the postdoc works under the supervision of a senior scholar.

Continue reading

Mathis Lohaus

Links: International Law; Mali; Rwanda; Blogs in Germany

With a couple of bloggers back from ISA and MPSA, I hope we’ll be able to do some follow-up work in the next days. Meanwhile, here are some links to start the week:

At e-IR, Eric Lenier Ives writes about international law as the “permissive promise”:

[I]nternational law reflects a real-world distribution of power such that nations are free, in a sense, to test the will of other nations, to stretch the law and assert their own sovereignty. (…) Though international law may allow for this elasticity, and though it may be abused, it is precisely this relaxed approach that allows international law to act as both a codification of appropriate norms and a growing, living system.

Kim Yi Dionne takes a look back at what happened in Mali since 2012. In particular, she points to a discussion of a recent Afrobarometer poll: “In a complete reversal of opinion from one year earlier, two out of three Malians say that their country is moving in the ‘right direction’ at the end of 2013.”

Laura Seay has put together a very instructive reading list 20 years after the incident that triggered the Rwandan genocide. These are her opening remarks:

Everything that has happened on and since that day twenty years ago is under dispute. From the question of who shot down the plane, to which members of the regime were involved in planning and executing the genocide, to the number of people killed overall, to whether and how revenge killings unfolded, to the continuation of Rwanda’s civil war on the soil of Congo/Zaire and the tremendous suffering that has occurred there, too, to whether the Rwandan government’s success in poverty reduction is justified by its repressive authoritarianism – all of it is contested.

On a completely different note: Now we have some backing for my perception that German scientists don’t really use Twitter. In this recently published survey [in German], 15% of respondents said they use microblogs, and 61% of that subgroup then said they actively post. 30% of all respondents said they use blogs, with a third of that subgroup saying they write posts themselves. Overall, male respondents were much more likely to report an active use of (micro)blogs.

A rather curious finding: The number of people saying they don’t know what a blog is was higher than the number of people saying they don’t know what a microblog is. I guess there really is a lot of hype around Twitter. (The questionnaire mentioned Twitter as an example of the latter category, but did not mention WordPress or any other recognizable brand name for the former.)

Finally, the list of links curated by our colleagues at the Bretterblog [in German] is worth checking out as usual. (Uh, I’m doing meta-links now, I guess!?)

Mathis Lohaus

Links: Grad School Pros and Cons; Job Search; Understanding Putin

He studied law, but seems interested in IR. (Source: Kremlin.ru via Wikimedia)
He studied law, but seems interested in IR. (Source: Kremlin.ru via Wikimedia)

In an article from 2011, Karen Kelsky (who works as a consultant to graduate students) criticizes academic supervisors. According to her, professors often fail to advise their grad students on planning publications and their career choices.

Another more recent piece introduces a new approach for university career centers. Basically, the idea is to break up the division between the job markets inside and outside of academia: “If graduate students are to maximize their efforts, then academic departments and career services need to pool theirs and work together”.

But should you even be working towards a PhD? Foreign Policy just published a very interesting discussion with people from American IR departments and foreign policy schools. The subtitle: “Do policymakers listen? Should you get a Ph.D.? And where are all the women?” It also has a fascinating graph on which IR scholars are valued by foreign policy practitioners, which reminded me of last year’s discussion about IR and the public sphere.

Dan Drezner wrote about whether to go to grad school in 2012. His piece focuses on women in academia, but also has a couple of interesting links to the discussion in the American blogosphere.

OK, so (against a lot of good advice) you have decided to pursue an academic career. The bad news is: from now on, your writing style will be terrible. The good news is: nobody will notice, since most papers are hardly read after publication. [Note that the article implies that the number of citations equals the number of readers, which is not fully convincing.]

Now, to something completely different. I enjoyed these two pieces about Vladimir Putin: First, Tyler Cowen offers four different ways to “model” Putin’s behavior, pointing out that “[a]ssumptions about Putin’s rationality will shape prediction”.

Second, Eric Posner analyzes the claims made in the Russian president’s speech to the Duma: “Vladimir Putin, international lawyer”. The crucial bit of analysis: Putin has signaled that “the United States claims for itself as a great power a license to disregard international law that binds everyone else, and Russia will do the same in its sphere of influence where the United States cannot compete with it”.

Mathis Lohaus

CfA: 2014 Berlin Summer School

I just received the call for applications for the 2014 Berlin Summer School in Social Sciences. It’s run by Humboldt University’s Graduate School and the Social Science Research Center (WZB).

The call for applications is on their website, and if you click again you can find the program in more detail. Sadly, the site is not as pretty as the poster: