07 October 2005

institutional design

i feel so meta today: large meetings each day this week with a group of faculty who are investigating "departmental reforms," and the process is all about the incentives that our course sequences and exams create. so of course the question becomes one of institutional design: how do we design institutions that unify the goals of smart, creative scholarship and cool, marketable professional political scientists?

my own answer is that you get people who are very intelligent and very excited about research-writ-large (whether or not they know that they are going to work on projects x, y, z, or be the proteges/lapdogs of professors a, b, c). then you direct their excitement to particular projects, which you support both methodologically and conceptually, at the same time as you force a large amount of general field knowledge down their throats. finally, you take your scholars with their gobs of knowledge and their kick-ass projects, and you make it clear that they cannot succeed unless they know how to behave in a job talk. the end.

easy, right? well, no. consider the exams. we all know that i had a very bad experience with my comparative politics exam. what i guess i didn't realize was that i had only one of many possible bad experiences. there were people who studied strategically, learned very little, and did ok, but still don't feel as if they know comparative politics. there were also people who studied hard and did well and don't feel as if the exam covered the right materials.

but exams are actually the easy part. i just fired off a two-page letter to the reform committee in which i discussed the current mismatch between our recruitment (no need to specify; just be creative!) and our guidance structures (based on individual advising, but without a formal structure for that advising, so that people who come in as b's lapdog working on z do best and others tend to get lost).

it's funny, though, to think about how marginal all of this institutional stuff is in the end. the quality of your work and your self-presentation will win or lose you the jobs, and your talent and industry are what largely determine quality and self-presentation. no matter how smart and industrious we all are (very, very, very), some are smarter than others; some have cottoned on to research projects that 'catch on;' some have invested in skills that happen earn a large return.

but institutions are what the department can control, and given the current state of the political science job market, i'll take a five- or ten-percent bump in my chances any day.