Saturday, 8 May 2010

Once more into the cesspool

P.J. O’Rourke once said that giving money and power to politicians was akin to “giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” But that pales in comparison to the effects of giving an anonymous forum to mentally-teenaged political science graduate students and their hangers-on.

There was a point a few years ago—perhaps even a few months ago—when I believed having a job rumors forum was a necessary corrective to the fundamentally broken hiring process in our discipline. I firmly believe that if we are going to share a discipline of a few thousand people, and if we’re going to work with these people for decades in the future as peers, we ought to treat those starting out on the tenure track with the basic standards of decency we would expect from our own colleagues—and that requires honest, up-front information about the job market and search process as it happens, rather than a few summary statistics a year or two down the road from the hiring season. It is a principle I tried to uphold when we successfully searched for a colleague last year—and given that I still have a job, it was a pretty costless one. Although not one that many of my fellow political scientists have decided to follow, alas.

But whatever the hell is going on over at the rumor site has very little to do with fostering collegiality and openness today. Instead, the site seems to have been captured by an element of jealous, petty individuals who resent the success—or, seemingly more often, revel in the apparent lack thereof—of a small number of graduate students from leading political science programs. Perhaps these students are, to borrow a phrase from a former American president, major-league assholes. Maybe they pick on little kids at playgrounds. I suspect not, but I really don’t know these people (with the exception of Facebook inexplicably offering some of them as suggested friends to me on a regular basis—even though I’ve never met them); it’s rather beside the point regardless.

I freely concede that I am a minnow. I am a threat to no one in the discipline. I get interviews when there’s 13 applicants for a job, not 130. I don’t neatly fit any of the little boxes that define political science as a discipline either—being an “applied methodologist” who studies political behavior seems about as popular as being an H1N1 carrier. On paper, my position is probably just one or two steps above a community college job in the political science hierarchy; in practice, some days it feels like one (albeit without the fun paintball fights). I aspire to jobs that many of these snot-nosed brats wouldn’t even deign to apply for. So maybe I just don’t get why some graduate student’s success at an Ivy would be so personally threatening to anyone else.

I don’t know what the solution is here. Required registration drove down traffic, but it also drove up the level of discourse substantially. Perhaps the only solution is an economic recovery that lessens the perception of the market as being a totally zero-sum game. All I’m certain of is that a website like PSJR as currently constituted that makes me feel the need to shower after every visit isn’t one that’s doing our discipline—or anyone else, for that matter—any good.