Thursday, April 30, 2009

Women Love to Huck!

In Ultimate, a long pass is called a huck. In today's NY Times, there is an article that discusses women's ultimate. The basic idea is that this is a fun, competitive sport that is growing in popularity, especially among women. The article does a nice job of discussion the evolution of the sport from hippies to a worldwide competitive sport. I'd like to highlight two aspects of the game:

a) the article underplays the "spirit of the game" that is key to the ultimate experience. The game is largely self-refereed and contact is accidental, not purposive. Kind of like basketball but even picks are illegal in ultimate. The point is simply that the game, due to its hippie roots, largely fosters a fun, friendly environment. True, it can get a bit less positive at the highest levels (I remember playing in a summer league twenty plus years ago in New York against members of the NY Club team that was winning championships--they didn't get the spirit of the game). Still, the spirit largely remains, making it not only a source of physical fitness (the article is in the NYT fitness section), but also emotional and mental fitness.

b) the article omits a key form of ultimate experience--co-ed or mixed ultimate. In college, I played only in open (or men's) division, but since then, I have almost played entirely on teams composed of men and women. Other than softball, I have a hard time thinking of a sport where this happens often. In Montreal, the leagues are composed of co-ed teams, with the traveling/competitive teams taking three forms--men's, women's, mixed. Teams that are sexist and do not use their female players effectively are punished--by the competitive environment--four against seven (usually the mixed game has four men and three women on a side) is going to lose more often than not, even if the four guys are terrific players.

One of the happiest developments in my life over the past year or so is that my daughter is now sharing my love for this silly but amazing game. She is learning my creed: more ultimate is more ultimate!

Professing to Generalize or Generalizing Professionally

In recent days, there has been much discussion about the profession of professor. Whether it is Joseph Nye arguing that we political scientists are not policy relevant (see also this) and punish those who try; or Francis Fukuyama asserting that we need to get rid of tenure. My first instinct is to think and say that we ought not generalize about all professors or all political scientists. But then I realized, my job is to generalize about political events, including how politicians, military officers, bureaucrats, and even voters behave.

So, I guess I am stuck with the generalizations of others about what I do. Turn about is fair, after all.

Still, to start my blogging career/hobby/new form of not-working, I gotta say that it is funny that these two, with very non-traditional careers, standing at the commanding heights of the profession, may be taking a key nugget of truth and running way too far with them.

First, regarding Nye, political science aspires to be a science, which is pretty arrogant perhaps, but the idea is to create a better understanding of the political world. If physicists and biologists range from those who do very basic research that appear unconnected to today's problems to those who are directly involved in policy-making, what is wrong with those who study politics having the same range. We have scholars doing all kinds of work that seems obscure to the layperson, but actually may provide the foundations for those who are closer to the policy world.

My own perspective may be somewhat unique, as I was lucky enough to get a fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations in 2001-2002 to hang out in the Pentagon in the Strategic Planning and Policy Directorate of the Joint Staff on the Bosnia desk. I learned a great deal from that experience, some of which ran directly counter to my theoretical orientations gained through graduate school and beyond, including the importance of personality and process. It also opened up a new set of questions that is now occupying much of my research time (civil-military relations, how countries manage their military when operating in alliances/coalitions), etc. While this opportunity is somewhat rare, political scientists of all stripes interact with voters, interest groups, media, policy-makers and other relevant audiences all the time. And, fundamentally, we interact with citizens in democracies (most of the time) who then vote. So, we are not entirely excluded from the policy realm and most of us do care about such stuff, if I am permitted to generalize. Of course, much of our professional incentives point away from policy relevance and public engagement, towards academic journals and the like. But we are all ego-driven and want more people to hear us, rather than less, as the existence of this blog suggests.

Regarding Fukuyama, I will be briefer--ours is a strange profession with complete job security--after a harrowing start with a very difficult job market and a probationary period. He may be concerned about the stultification that may come with job security, but there are other solutions to that problem, mostly focused on developing incentives for continued good performance. Merit pay is the obvious answer that exists at most places. The job market is another one, as any effort to move before or after tenure requires a record that resonates beyond one's locale.

And this gets to the heart of the challenge. Academia is rewarding in many ways, but it requires a great deal of sacrifice as well:
  • 5 plus years of minimal income in graduate school,
  • followed by a very stressful and uncertain job market (see the various rumor blogs to get a quick taste of this not-so-quiet desperation),
  • then having to move somewhere that may not be entirely desirable (I spent six years in Lubbock, TX, which has good points, but has undervalued housing and a near zero population growth for more than a few reasons),
  • wages that are generally not competitive with professions with similar levels of education.
So, if you want to eliminate tenure, then you will have to come up with some other way to compensate those who thirst for greater knowledge but have to live in the real world.

PS See Dan Drezner's take on this debate.