Entries tagged with “academia”.
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Wed 6 Feb 2013
Eric Cantor’s recent call to shift funding from the social sciences to the hard sciences (“Funds currently spent by the government on social science — including on politics of all things — would be better spent helping find cures to diseases”) reflects a profound misunderstanding of the complementary role these two epistemological arenas play. John Sides has covered a range of reasons why the social sciences should not be seen as superfluous to needs, all centering on the fact that social phenomena are central to human well-being and happiness. As he notes:
My problem with this laser focus on the hard sciences and on medicine is that it pretends that people’s quality of life simply depends on physical phenomena—how fast computers are or how much their knee hurts and so on. That’s simply not true. Much of people’s happiness—indeed, including whether they have access to computers or can endure a physical malady—depends on social phenomena.
Even more compelling is Mark Slouka’s 2009 article in Harpers, which offers one of the clearest defenses of the humanities I have ever read: simply put, without the humanities it is very difficult to be a functional citizen in a democracy (but in their absence it is very easy to produce a docile population of workers).
Let me take Slouka’s argument past what really read like something of an either/or tradeoff between the humanities and what he called “mathandscience” and toward a point of complementarity here: simply put, science is a way of seeing the world that enables particular understandings of that world. Science has facilitated spectacular changes in the way we live, from household technologies to medical advances. But science is but one way of seeing the world, one that does not tell us what we should do, or what else we should do. Those questions are the province of ethics, justice, and empathy. Science is poorly equipped to address any of these.
This is why science and technology require the social sciences and humanities. They help us separate what is possible in the world from what should be done in the world. Remember, history is littered with examples of highly rational, scientific projects that killed huge numbers of people in the name of a greater good or a logical goal (anyone remember the Soviet collectivization of agriculture under Stalin? How about the far less brutal, but still problematic ujamaa collectivization in Tanzania?). Without the arts, humanities, and social sciences, we are left with a tool (science) and no guidance about how to use it. Further, the growing field of science and technology studies shows that the capacities of particular technologies, in and of themselves, tell us little about who will adopt them and why. Trevor Birkenholtz’s work in India, for example, demonstrates that farmers continue to use tubewells, even though they know that this practice contributes to groundwater depletion, because the use of tubewells is closely bound up in one’s identity as a good and prosperous farmer. Without such insights, how can we work with farmers in this region to identify locally-appropriate alternative water-supply technologies?
Cantor, and those like him, live in an odd world where technologies and commodities are social goods unto themselves with universal and obvious value. Existing social scientific work already demonstrates this to be untrue. Defunding such work will not make his beliefs more true, it will just make it harder to make the world a better place with the scientific tools we have and will develop in the future.
Wed 16 Jan 2013
A great deal has been written about the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, so much that I considered remaining a reader and observer without offering comment. But the Swartz case has me thinking again about access to academic research. Not one academic author of those articles was negatively impacted by Swartz’s act (downloading millions of scholarly articles from JSTOR with the intent of posting them online for free) – the more easily accessible the article, the more likely it is to be read and cited…and that is why we write articles. It seems to me that most people don’t understand the fundamental absurdity of copyright in academic publishing.
I quote from one transfer-of-copyright document I recently had to sign:
In order to ensure both the widest dissemination and protection of material published in our journal, we ask Authors to transfer to [Journal Name] the rights of copyright in the articles they contribute. This enables our publisher, on behalf of [Journal Name] to ensure protection against infringement.
The whole point of publication is to get people to read and use my ideas – the very idea of infringement is pretty vague here. I do not receive a cent for any academic article I publish, so infringement won’t affect my income. Anyone who plagiarizes me and gets caught will lose his or her career – I don’t need copyright for that. So there is no reason for me to sign this document. But what the document leaves vague is the fact this is not a voluntary transfer – the journal will not publish an article without such an agreement, and without publications the typical academic will have a pretty short career. In short, the average academic is forced to sign away their rights to their work if they want to have a career (no publications means no tenure). I don’t care about my rights, honestly, except when my work then ends up behind a paywall, downloadable at $30 a pop, nobody who needs to access it (i.e. colleagues in the Global South, or even colleagues at most development donors) can access it. Somebody is making a lot of money of my work and the work of my colleagues (see this article too), but it isn’t me.
However, there does seem to be an out here, at least for employees of state institutions, or those whose research is funded is funded under a federal contract. From the same agreement I just quoted:
I hereby assign to [Journal Name] the copyright in the above specified manuscript (government authors not transferring copyright hereby assign a non-exclusive license to publish)… [my emphasis]
While I am sure this is not how it was intended when written (it is a clause to allow federal employees to publish publicly-funded research), I wonder if those of us either employed by a public entity, either directly or under a contract, can invoke that status to shift our copyright transfers into “non-exclusive licenses to publish.” This would remove the copyright infringement argument used against Swartz, thus making it easier to pull articles from behind paywalls into the public sphere. In short, we need to stop transferring copyright to for-profit entities any way we can…but this needs to happen in a manner that doesn’t blow up everyone’s careers. Until the senior faculty in each discipline decide to intervene and shift emphasis to low cost, open-access journals, this could be a useful first step. And low cost can be done – see Simon Batterbury’s comment about the Journal of Political Ecology on the post in the last hyperlink.
In short, academics need to step up and start resisting an academic publishing machine that makes serious money off of our job requirements, but provides little in return. If we do so, perhaps we won’t need folks like Aaron Swartz to liberate our work – we can do it ourselves.
Mon 24 Dec 2012
Posted by Ed under Academia, policy, research
I’ve been acutely aware of the rising tide of complaint/whining about rising tuitions at universities over the past few years. As a professor at a research university in a relatively poor state, I am sensitive to this problem. As a father of three small children of my own that I hope to one day put through college, I am personally concerned that the continuation of current absurd rates of tuition increase will make this goal impossible.
I grow tired, however, of continued complaining about this issue that refuses to address the reasons for this trend. Alan Jacobs’ piece on The American Conservative website is just the latest example. The sighing tone of this piece, and it’s total lack of discussion of the causes of tuition increases, damns universities and their employees by implication. This is just a disingenuous version of more overt attacks out there. I am sick and tired of hearing that faculty are overpaid (we must be the only sector of the economy where paying for excellence in the labor force is seen as a vice, not a virtue) and that universities are full of fat that could be cut.
This. Is. Garbage.
You want to know why your children’s tuitions are rising? There are two reasons. For those of you worried about public university tuitions, the math is simple – state appropriations have been cut dramatically over the past decade, and universities have to make the difference up somewhere. In short, those of you who insist on paying less in taxes are the drivers of tuition increases. Considering that personnel costs make up more than 80% of most institution’s budgets, when you cut the state appropriation to a public university by, oh, about half (such as has happened at the University of South Carolina) the result is inevitable: raising tuition to cover the missing revenue, and hiring fewer faculty to replace retirees…so students end up paying more while getting less and less face-to-face with faculty.
This is not because public universities are “fat and lazy.” It’s because higher education, like so many other things in our society, has become a site of “user pays” mentality. Instead of seeing higher education as a societal good (educated workforce that brings/creates better jobs, more informed citizenry, more vibrant arts, etc.), we now see it as something that only the student should pay for. Of course, all of those collateral benefits still exist – the economic multiplier for universities remains pretty impressive – but now society gets those “for free”, as it burdens the creators of the multiplier with staggering debt, weighing them down. Actually, we probably get less of those benefits now than we did, given that crushing debt doesn’t typically engender opportunities for risk taking and innovation. In other words, all of you who think that you shouldn’t have to pay for universities or other forms of higher education because you are not using them, recognize that you are leaching off of those of us who work for those institutions, and the students who go to them – you are reaping the benefits of the university without making any contribution. This hardly strikes me as personal responsibility. If you want to pay for what you get, pay your damn taxes so the innovative class leaving universities can actually spend some time, you know, innovating, creating jobs, broadening the tax base, and enriching the community…instead of paying off crushing debt.
Now, for private universities the story is rather different. I do not claim to know the financial situations of every private university in America, and I know a good number are in serious financial trouble…often because their endowments were crushed by the 2008 economic downturn. But if you want to see what drives a chunk of the increase in the private university realm, read this article by Julia Edwards. Basically, a number of private schools have been raising tuitions because we are suckers…if it more expensive, it must be good. I have no idea what these institutions are spending their money on – though I am sure some of it is salary (if only because average salaries, in most disciplines, are higher at private institutions than public institutions). Whether that extra salary really equates to extra quality…honestly, I have no idea. I can say that in Geography, which has no graduate presence in the Ivy League, and which is dominated by big public institutions, I strongly doubt the cost/quality equation holds – at least on average*. It seems to me, then, that a lot of people are paying a lot of tuition for the illusion of higher quality, but nobody will admit that, because if we don’t go along with the polite fiction then a lot of people would be forced to admit that they incurred a lot of debt for nothing (which, of course, they did). And look at that, we are back to personal responsibility – don’t complain about rising tuitions you helped stoke when you decided that a higher price tag was a good proxy for higher quality education.
The chart in the middle of the Edwards article says it all – you can see the debt of students at private institutions start to take off in the early 2000s, as our ballooned economy enabled more people to behave like suckers and overpay for a product they assumed was superior. At public universities, it shoots up right at the end of the series, in 2009-10. Why? Because this is when the first students to experience the remarkably steep tuition hikes that accompanied the decline of public spending after the 2008 fiscal crisis started to graduate. Two different drivers. Same outcome. And to some extent, the same problem – a total lack of personal responsibility on the part of the citizenry of this country when it comes to higher education. People decided they could free-ride on college students and their families, or chose to make uninformed consumer decisions about higher education. And now people are reaping the consequences, and having the gall to refuse to look at themselves as the cause.
It’s your fault. Deal with it. And then go fix it. Stop paying for prestige’s sake. Stop electing people who tell you that you can have all the benefits of a leading public university for little or no public cost. Start taking responsibility for the things you want. Stop blaming everyone else.
*That said, I know of several faculty at private institutions in my discipline who are flat out amazing, including a significant segment of the department at Syracuse. These folks are worth every dime. But a few exceptional people at private institutions does not invalidate the larger point that most of the time the difference in quality between a public school’s and a private school’s education is less than the difference in the price tag.
Fri 9 Nov 2012
I’ve long hated the term “poverty traps,” development shorthand for conditions in which poverty becomes self-reinforcing and therefore inescapable without some sort of external intervention. They made no analytic sense (nobody ever defined poverty clearly across this literature, for example), and generally the idea of the poverty trap was hitched to a revival of “big push” development efforts that had failed in the 1950s and 1960s. Further, it was always clear to me that the very idea of a poverty trap cast those living in difficult circumstances as helpless without the intervention of benevolent outsiders. This did not align at all with my experiences on the ground in rural sub-Saharan Africa.
This is not to suggest that there is no such thing as structural inequality in the world – the running head start enjoyed by the Global North in terms of economic development has created significant barriers to the economic development of those residing in the Global South. These barriers, perhaps most critically the absurd and damaging regime of subsidies that massively distorts global agricultural markets, must be addressed, and soon. Such barriers generally result in perverse outcomes that impact even those in the Global North (anyone who thinks the American food system makes any sense at all really needs to read more. Start with Fast Food Nation, move to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and work out from there. And don’t get me going on the potential climate impacts of structural inequality).
But this enduring focus on structural problems in the global economy has had the effect of reducing those in the Global South to a bunch of helpless children in need of salvation by the best and most noble of those in the Global North, who were to bring justice, opportunity, and a better future to all. If this isn’t the 21st Century version of the White Man’s Burden, then I don’t know what is. Bill Easterly makes a very similar point very eloquently, and at much greater length, here.
I am a social scientist*, and I believe that the weight of evidence eventually wins arguments. And today it occurred to me that in this case, this long line of arguing that those who insisted on talking about poverty traps were a) generally misrepresenting the world and b) inappropriately infantilizing those living in the Global South now has that weight of evidence behind it. Andy Sumner’s work on the New Bottom Billion basically blows up the idea of the poverty trap – he demonstrates that since the 1990s, a lot of people that were thought to be living in poverty traps have improved their incomes such that many have moved out of poverty (at least if one defines poverty on the basis of income). People who were thought to be trapped by structural inequality have been defying expectations and improving their circumstances without clear correlations to aid or development efforts, let alone the “big push” arguments of Sachs and others. In short, it looks like we don’t really understand what people are doing at the margins of the Global South, and that the global poor are a lot more capable than development seems to think. Poor people attached to the anchor of structural inequality are dragging it to improved incomes and well-being in thousands of small, innovative ways that are adding up to a massive aggregate change in the geography and structure of global poverty.
In short, the Global South never needed the most enlightened of the Global North to clear the path and push them up the ladder of development (if you want to get all Rostow about it). Instead, what is clearly needed is a new, substantial effort to better understand what is happening out on Globalization’s Shoreline, and to work with the global poor to examine these efforts, identify innovative, locally-appropriate, and locally-owned means of transforming their quality of life, and find means of bringing those ideas to (appropriate) scale. Anything else is just hubris at best, and subtle class/race bigotry at worst.
The data is speaking. Anyone ready to listen?
*Well, I am a qualitative social scientist which means my work is more generative and humanities/arts flavored than is typical in the sciences, which generally value the reporting of observations in the framework of already-established biophysical processes.
Tue 6 Nov 2012
Posted by Ed under Academia, policy, research
It is a sad commentary on the state of the media when student newspapers become a critical source of investigative reporting on the finances of the university, but that said, thank you Daily Gamecock! It is about time someone put a spotlight on the administration-heavy structure of the university (I have colleagues from other institutions who are stunned by our administrative structure, especially the sheer number of associate deans) and the shocking pay of administrators. The story is here. The administration’s defense of these salaries is weak, at best…mostly because a lot of these pay packages aren’t really defensible given faculty and staff pay rates. Find me a VP of anything that is worth three times what I am to the university…yeah, show me how you can quantify that.
But one word of caution to the Daily Gamecock. Not all “bonuses” are created equal…or are actually bonuses. The research supplements you all reported on are not what you think they are. First, most faculty at the university are on nine-month contracts. Yep, we get paid only 9 months a year. When we get a grant or contract, we can pay ourselves salary for the summer (at the same rate as our monthly pay during the contract period). Further, with special approval, we can do contract work during the year and be paid up to 30% on top of our base pay. These are not bonuses, these are salaries that we earn through our work. The money does not come from the state or the university (via tuition), it comes from the organization providing the grant or contract. Further, you probably don’t want less of these, as the university charges overhead on those salaries. 45%, to be exact. So if I get summer salary worth $20,000, the university is making $9,000 from that salary. In short, you want more research “bonuses”, because they raise faculty salaries without costing the state (or students, in terms of tuition) anything, and they bring revenue to the university.
So please do keep reporting on the administrative structure and pay rates at the University. It is an important story that needs more attention. But do be careful how you characterize pay and bonuses – a bunch of the stuff you were decrying doesn’t cost students or taxpayers a cent – it is the outcome of hard work on the part of the faculty, and it adds to the University’s coffers.
Thu 25 Oct 2012
Posted by Ed under Academia, research
Vincent Calcagno has a fascinating piece up at the LSE impact blog, in which he looks at the review and publication histories of an absolute pile of articles. There are whole set if interesting findings there that are well worth the read. For example:
But, surprisingly, we found that about 75 per cent of all articles we declared to have been submitted to the publishing journal on first intention. Even assuming that, for some reason, authors were less likely to respond in the case of a resubmission, we still find that a majority of published articles are first-intent submissions. This suggests that authors are, overall, quite apt at targeting a proper journal and, conversely, that journals make sure they have a sufficient public: no journal was found to be entirely dependent on resubmissions from others.
However, the finding I found most interesting was this:
in a given journal and a given year, an article that had been resubmitted from another journal was on average more cited than a first-intent submission. Resubmissions were less likely to receive zero or one citation (about 15 per cent less, controlling for publication year and journal) and more likely to receive several (e.g. 10 and 50) citations, shifting the mean to higher values. This intriguing result suggests a “benefit of rejection”. The simplest explanation would be that the review process and the greater amount of time spent working on resubmitted manuscripts does improve them and makes them more cited, although other mechanisms could be invoked.
I wonder, though, if there is another factor that should be considered. Peer review is inherently conservative – there is a lot of thought policing that goes on through this process (I’ve gone on about this before, here and here). I wonder how many of the “resubmissions” were rejected not because of insufficient quality, but because they were doing interesting work that threatened one or more reviewers, leading to rejection. This makes sense, as new and edgier work will eventually get cited more than middle-of-the-road replication of old results – at least, that has been my experience. So perhaps Calgano has given us empirical evidence for the intellectual policing function of peer review.
Sat 20 Oct 2012
I just witnessed a fascinating twitter exchange that beautifully summarizes the divide I am trying to bridge in my work and career. Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, the head of research at Oxfam GB, after seeing a post on GDP tweeted by Tim Harford (note: not written by Harford), tweeted the following:
To which Harford tweeted back:
This odd standoff between two intelligent, interesting thinkers is easily explained. Bluntly, Harford’s point is academic, and from that perspective mostly true. Contemporary academic thinking on development has more or less moved beyond this question. However, to say that it “never has been” an important question ignores the history of development, where there is little question that in the 50s and 60s there was significant conflation of GDP and well-being.
But at the same time, Harford’s response is deeply naive, at least in the context of development policy and implementation. The academic literature has little to do with the policy and practice of development (sadly). After two years working for a donor, I can assure Tim and anyone else reading this that Ricardo’s point remains deeply relevant. There are plenty of people who are implicitly or explicitly basing policy decisions and program designs on precisely the assumption that GDP growth improves well-being. To dismiss this point is to miss the entire point of why we spend our time thinking about these issues – we can have all the arguments we want amongst ourselves, and turn up our noses at arguments that are clearly passé in our world…but if we ignore the reality of these arguments in the policy and practice world, our thinking and arguing will be of little consequence.
I suppose it is worth noting, in full disclosure, that I found the post Harford tweeted to be a remarkably facile justification for continuing to focus on GDP growth. But it is Saturday morning, and I would rather play with my kids than beat that horse…
Fri 12 Oct 2012
Posted by Ed under Adaptation, Africa, Climate Change, development, Development Institutions, environment, Food Security, Higher Education, Livelihoods, research, sustainable development
Man, has there ever been a less enticing blog post title? But it pays to be direct – so there it is. I have funding for a Ph.D. student, starting in January, to help me on my USAID-funded work on climate services for development. So, without further ado, the ad:
Graduate Student Opportunity for January 2013
University of South Carolina, Department of Geography
Ed Carr is seeking a Ph.D. student to support ongoing work on climate services for development in sub-Saharan Africa and develop an independent research program in this broad area of inquiry. The funding for this position is attached to USAID’s Climate Change Resilient Development (CCRD) program, and the candidate will have specific responsibilities supporting the the development of field methods and the analysis of preliminary data, as well as conducting extensive fieldwork in one or more Malian communities in May-July 2013 as part of the project “An Assessment of Mali Meteorological Service’s Agrometeorological Program.”
- Candidates will have to be admitted to the geography graduate program at the University of South Carolina
- Candidates should be from a country in which USAID operates. Preference will be given to candidates from West Africa, then other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, as this is the current target region for the project.
- Candidates should have experience in one or more of the following: climate change adaptation, rural/community development, rural agriculture, climate science
- The bulk of initial project work will focus on community-level information needs, and therefore preference will be given to those candidates with experience conducting qualitative research in rural settings.
- Candidates should hold a Masters degree in Geography, Anthropology, Planning or another closely related field
- Excellent written and spoken English. French language ability is preferred.
The duration of funding is January-July 2013, with likely continuation through July 2014. The candidate will receive tuition, a living stipend, and salary/research support for work to be conducted in May-July 2013. Candidates who meet departmental expectations of progress and excellence will be eligible for additional semesters of support to complete their degrees.
Please note the very short lead time for this opportunity – viable candidates will likely have to have a visa in hand if they are to start in January 2013. Candidates who cannot make this deadline, or who are not selected in this round, should stay tuned – I am hoping to open up a few more slots in the fall.
Prospective candidates are encouraged to contact Ed Carr at email@example.com. Applications are due on 1 November, 2012 via the instructions on the departmental web page: http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/geog/academics/admissions.html
Tue 25 Sep 2012
As I mentioned a few posts ago, I am working through James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed (my endorsement is in the linked post). In the course of my reading, I have been thinking about what Scott calls the State Accessible Product, which he sets in contrast to the Gross Domestic Product. To Scott’s thinking, the states/kingdoms he is discussing in Southeast Asia were motivated not to maximize the value of all goods and services in their realms, as such maximization might include the production of goods that could not be transported/taxed/otherwise used to enrich the state. Instead, it was in the state’s interest to maximize the production of things it could see, count and move – in other words, to push the growth of a State Accessible Product. Two things resonate for me about this idea:
1) It scales. Just as states pushed for the production of SAP, so too the households I I discuss in Delivering Development tend to divide up livelihoods roles and activities in a manner that maximizes not individual well-being, but activities that only make sense when bundled with the activities of other members of the household – a sort of Household Accessible Product. In an uncertain economy and environment, it makes no sense to focus one’s entire agricultural production on market sale, or to focus entirely on subsistence reproduction of the household. Yet this is just what we see men (playing the former role) and women (playing the latter) doing in some of the households I examined in Ghana. They do this for a lot of complex reasons, but certainly there is something to the idea that these roles force the members of the household into the production of a HAP that certainly does not maximize all possible production and income, but does a lot to reproduce social roles and social stability.
2) It explains why my argument that a lot of farmers on globalization’s shoreline strategically deglobalize was both surprising and, at least to some people, threatening: the opting in and out of global markets is exactly the sort of thing states fear, as it means that the production of these farmers goes in and out of legibility from year to year – making it hard to extract value from that production. In short, there is a GDP that is not coterminus with an SAP along most of globalization’s shoreline – and that non SAP production is critical to the well-being of those engaged in those activities.
It strikes me that a key question here is whether or not our focus on governance in development has led us to inadvertently emphasize activities, projects and programs that render greater and greater percentages of GDP as SAP – certainly, without access to the financial resources produced by the control of a SAP, states are in a weak position. But if many of the activities that actually keep people alive on a day-to-day basis are non-SAP activities, what are we to do? Are we to wipe out/make legible these activities so the state can profit from them? If we do, are we going to enhance the vulnerability of the populations whose livelihoods we alter? Is the enhancement of vulnerability an appropriate trade-off for the creation of a state-legible economy? Can addressing vulnerability and building a strong state be made to rhyme at all?
Wed 29 Aug 2012
So, given the twitter/blog/social media/whatever response to my post expressing shock at my students’ lack of awareness of the Horn of Africa drought, I did a little follow-up with them today. This was the first day of real lecture content in the class, and as it happens one of the first examples I hit on (while trying to demonstrate the concept of interdependence – how every part of the world is inextricably linked to other parts of the world, for better or for worse) was the food price spikes of 2008 and 2011 (and the imminent spike coming this fall as a result of the drought that has devastated the US maize crop). Since we were on food insecurity, I pivoted a bit and decided to just talk to them directly. A summary, for those of you interested in how the hell a bunch of college students/college-bound high school students could have missed a crisis of this size:
1) The crisis was horribly branded: I think talking about the Horn of Africa confused the few people who did know something had happened. When I started casting about (around this time last year, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, starving African babies…) a few students did remember seeing something on the news. As one student put it, he saw it on a major network, but the anchor wasn’t reporting. I suspect more of the students were briefly aware of the crisis at the time, but it has since been lost to time because of the sheer volume of calls for help/mentions of crisis to which they are exposed (see point #2).
2) In general, the students disliked most current “disaster messaging.” Yes, it grabs their attention…and then it overwhelms them. First, there are a lot of bad things that happen, and therefore a lot of news stories/PSAs/etc. coming down the line all the time. They become hard to differentiate, such that students just tune out the PSAs entirely. Second, the messaging largely seems to be a competition to horrify people even more…but the explanations for the problem are simplistic or, worse, nonexistent. The students don’t understand why the crisis is happening, and they are turned off by “solutions” that amount to “send me $5 and I will fix it.” These are young, idealistic, energetic people – this particular constituency has a greater interest in acting directly than many others. To summarize: screaming “IT’S A DISASTER!!! SEND ME MONEY TO FIX IT!!!” is rarely going to generate deep interest and engagement (and we need both, for a lot of reasons – see below). Most messaging around the Horn was of this genre, and as a result it quickly receded into the daily noise of news feeds and celebrity weddings.
3) Students (or at least some students) don’t need to be spoken down to – they can handle hearing that a crisis has complex causes, that it is often difficult to identify anyone who is to blame. In short, they are looking for the opposite of the FWD campaign, which shied away from the really complex, big causes of the Horn crisis. Complexity, unto itself, will not scare students off. Instead, if you can get people to give clear, concise, interesting reviews of the complex causes of the crisis, this group of people will get more engaged. Think about it – not everyone is into Africa, or into food security, or into relief work. So when we yell “African famine!”, we are yelling to a small but dedicated fanbase. If, however, we unpack the causes of the Horn crisis, we find out that we have to address climate change/climate science, global markets, the politics of failed states, the regional geopolitics of East Africa, the workings of the US Government, the international politics of aid, etc., etc. In short, when we engage complexity, we find there is something that can draw in almost anyone on their terms. After the conversation with the students today, it seems really clear to me that they would like to be engaged in this manner – stop treating them like apathetic idiots who just don’t/won’t understand. Why?
- Crowdsourcing: folks, there is a big world outside the aid and development community, and some of those people actually have interesting ideas. Maybe those ideas can only address part of one of the many causes of the crisis (i.e. adjusting a market’s function for one commodity in one part of the world), but with a lot of people acting in this manner, it becomes possible to identify a wide range of potential options to address a given crisis/prevent its recurrence.
- Politics: not one person in my classroom, or really any person anywhere who has a clean bill of mental health, wants to see 100,000 people die for any reason. I believe that the vast majority of them would support spending tax dollars to prevent this from happening. But when we fail to explain what needs to be done, in all its complexity, we are turning off a key constituency that can be mobilized and can make its voice heard – they have something that all politicians want. Votes. I can’t guarantee that my students would use those votes to shape policy, but they can’t do this until someone gives them a reasonable, actionable explanation for the events in the world that we would all like to address.
4) Message management is anathema to social media: let me state the obvious – in the social media era, controlling the message is only possible if the message is so insipid that nobody cares about it at all. A lot of the Horn messaging was about controlling the message, which is the equivalent of lecturing people via social media. Ugh. One student who wrote to me after class argued, more or less, that our role should be a catalyst for social media – we light the fire, but count on the fire to catch and build in its own way once it is started. Social media that tries to message top-down, instead of evolving with a viral situation, will fail…it will be ignored. I just realized what I am going to assign my students to do in my absence next week – I am going to make them follow a few official twitter feeds and critique them…oh, the horror! This will be fun…
5) Explain why the crisis at hand is important to their self-interest. Yes, this sounds crass, but self-interest is a broad thing that can be mobilized with decent messages. To pull an example from my own work, I can sell using development dollars on forest conservation because it has an important impact on the functioning of ecosystems that limit the pace of climate change – climate change that is raising sea levels along the South Carolina coast and producing drought across the state, and eventually will negatively impact the tourism industry in South Carolina (one of the few sectors here that is going well). The students got that right away. But nobody really did this for the Horn. Which is pathetic. Hell, I did an off-the-cuff 2 minute explanation of why they care about the failed state in Somalia in terms of piracy in class today, by referencing the various ways in which piracy is raising shipping costs and therefore commodity prices…which hits their pocketbooks, impacts job growth, etc. From there, it is easy to get into a reasoned conversation about the relative cost of the development and aid work that could change things in Somalia and end piracy as a viable livelihood versus doing nothing and bearing the cost of piracy. It is all about entry points and catalysts, folks.
There were several other points that the students made – the one that sticks with me now is one student’s observation there is real experiential distance between their lives and what is happening in a famine that limits their engagement. While we cannot bring students to a food crisis, we need to start thinking about how to create this experiential engagement. For me, this happened when I became a parent…I will never again be able to objectively stomach an infant mortality statistic, because I flash to one or more of my children lying dead on the ground and I start to get the shakes. I’m not sure what would do that for an 18-22 year old, but that sort of visceral connection spurs action.
To summarize: I think I was right in my initial post. My students’ failure to recall the Horn of Africa crisis was not really their fault. The messaging went awry in all sorts of ways because it assumed a lot about the audience (they had no interest in the issue, and only wanted simple stories with simple solutions) that was simply wrong. Not everyone is going to care about every crisis – everyone has limited bandwidth – and so bad messaging just fell back into the everyday noise of social and old media, another data point among many, but nothing new or engaging. Good messaging won’t make everyone care about every crisis, but it could engage enough of the right people each time to get us different outcomes, and fewer crises in the future. That alone should make the effort worthwhile – so I guess I am disagreeing with J over at AidSource. Or the hopelessly realistic optimist in me is just winning out again…