Academic Role Model (ARM) is The Political Science Club’s latest series in which various professors, researchers, and academics from the field of political science, international relations, and any related inter-disciplinary social science, are being interviewed by the members of our community with the sole purpose of presenting a potentially-inspiring life story that shows just what it takes to succeed in the world of the academia.
Our newest Academic Role Model is Dr. Ronald King, holder of the Bruce E. Porteous endowed chair in Political Science at San Diego State Univerisity, and also a scholar who was awarded a honorary title from the Babeş-Bolyai University’s Faculty of Political Science (Cluj, Romania).
The interviewer is Vlad Costea, founder of The Political Science Club and master student in comparative politics at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Bucharest (currently studying at Sciences Po Paris as an exchange student). He has had the pleasure of being introduced to Dr. King through the series’ former guest, J.D. Eyassu Gayim – and in the meanwhile has found out that the introduction could have also been made through common acquaintances from Romania.
Vlad: Professor King, I can’t describe into words what a pleasure and privilege it is for me to interview you as our latest Academic Role Model. Furthermore, after having read your resumé, it’s hard for me not to display amazement and appreciation towards the body of your academic work, which tackles a very diverse range of topics including American politics and elections, the implementation of public policies, and even dimensions of Romanian politics. Is this assortment the result of your very diverse interests, or would you say that it is in the nature of political science to be inter-disciplinary and consequently employ a compulsory comparative perspective?
Ronald King: Vlad, it is equally a pleasure to be interviewed and to share my thoughts about Political Science as a profession. Let me start with two general comments relevant to the scope of my interests. First, I strongly believe in curiosity. It is hard to teach, yet easy to undermine. For me, there is nothing more exciting than to encounter a young mind filled with wonder about the complexity of the world and energized to help solve theoretically important intellectual puzzles. There is nothing more terrible than the student who feels constrained to follow in the path of his or her advisers, offering little more than what Thomas Kuhn once called a “mopping up operation.”
Second, I believe in rigorous research methods, whether qualitative and quantitative. It is our methodology that makes us scholars, rather than mere informed commentators. The best graduate programs devote nearly half of their efforts to methodological training in various forms, guiding the next generation as they practice the craft of social science research. If by inter-disciplinary you mean without clear discipline, then I do not favor it. However, if by inter-disciplinary, your mean that we must pursue our questions without restraint, across ordinary academic thresholds, using the entire range of theories and methods available, then inter-disciplinary research is fundamental.
Personally, I have been consumed by questions relating to the tensions between democracy and inequality in capitalist society, the extent of the social obligations essential to political community, the complexity of democratic representation and democratic rights, and the incentive effect of contrasting rules upon the results achieved. Over my long career (I am now 66+ years old), I have published in journals affiliated with political science, public policy, history, sociology, law and economics. I have written papers using multivariate regression, non-linear logistic estimations, ecological inference, and stabilized time series, as well as using focus groups, process tracing, illustrative cases, analytic narratives, and matched comparisons – because curiosity always comes first, and the pursuit of a rigorous and sustainable answer will then dictate the kinds of techniques employed.
Vlad: As previously established throughout the series, there will be three different sections of the interview, which regard your life before becoming an academic, the experiences you have had as an academic, and the advice you have for to the young ones who might follow a similar path. First of all, since you received your bachelor degree in political science from the University of Pennsylvania in 1970, I will ask you a series of questions that are directly linked to this experience: At which point in your life did you decide that it is political science that you wanted to study? Also, were there external influences or series of events that might have encouraged you to pursue studies in the field?
Ronald King: I grew up in New York City. Looking out from my bedroom window, I could see both the high towers of Manhattan and the subsidized low-income housing where many of my classmates lived. Issues of inequality – of income, status, and power – were always visible to me as a child. Also, I was a student during the late 1960s / early 1970s, and I was quite active politically opposing the American invasion of Vietnam. The main dilemma for me, at the time, was whether I would be an activist who was also interested in intellectual questions, or an intellectual who also engaged in social activism. I suspect I made the right choice.
Vlad: Was there anything different about the way in which the science of politics was taught when you were a bachelor student? And if so, how would you describe the changes?
Ronald King: I have to admit that I was not an ideal student until I was half way through with university. I got very good marks, but I was often not especially interested in what was taught. There was a lot of rote learning of detail, regarding topics that I considered somewhat mundane. Things shifted for me when I discovered that I could go beyond the assigned materials, pursuing further questions and spending all night in the computer lab generating data. I would like to think that university education has been reformed over the decades, but not as much as I had hoped. There now should be extensive opportunity for participatory student learning, supported by technology and implemented by instructors trained in effective pedagogy. The field of political science has gained much sophistication over the past 40 years, but the strategies of instruction have not changed as rapidly.
A wonderful scientist, Lewis Thomas, once wrote that our textbooks are written wrongly, consisting of hundreds of pages of listed facts and at the end they conclude with encouragement to experience the fascinating world of scientific discovery. Instead, he argues, our books should start with all the big puzzles for which we have no secure solutions, then the middle-level theories that seem to be supported by data, then the on-going academic controversies and their importance, and then the array of relevant observed facts. This seems the right way to go about learning a subject.
Vlad: For the next stage of your studies, you went to Oxford and transitioned from political science to philosophy. What were the considerations behind this shift? Did you know at the time that you wanted to become an academic in political science, or were you pursuing a different vocation of yours?
Ronald King: Some very clever advisers convinced me that I did not know as much as I thought I did, pushing me toward further study away from the United States in order to gain a wider perspective. I read Moral and Political Philosophy at Oxford to acquire greater depth of understanding and clarity of mind. I proved an adequate philosopher and earned a decent degree, but my real interest always remained with contemporary politics and struggles of real individuals seeking to establish communities of justice and democracy
Vlad: For the PhD studies you have switched back to political science. Yet how would you say that your previous research on Albert Camus’ political philosophy (which led to a thesis on his absurdity and revolt) help you pursue the science of politics?
Ronald King: I have not thought about Camus in many decades. I believe in democracy because so many fundamental issues are essentially contested. The main task of politics, contrary to Plato, is not to effectively steer the ship of state, but to determine together what port we wish to steer toward. Democracy as a practice affects our understanding of the public good and our capacities as members of the public community. I was attracted to Camus because of his insistence upon moral compass in a world without transcendent wisdom. It was an important stage in my intellectual development. In the end, however, I concluded that Camus’s general approach to thinking was more interesting than any of the specific (and sometimes contradictory) positions he adopted.
Vlad: According to your resumé, you have taken up a teaching assistant position for the first time in 1977, in your 4th year as a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago. What were the considerations behind getting involved in pedagogy?
Ronald King: I am a strong advocate for the engaged teacher-scholar model. We do socially relevant research, we instruct about research ideals in the classroom, and we use the latest research findings when we act in the community, whether as commentators and consultants or as ordinary participants in the political process. So much of modern social science cannot be read by untrained individuals. That is to be expected, as the sophistication of our theories and methods has grown over time. And so we have an additional obligation, beyond the technical papers that few can understand, to translate complex findings into common language for students and citizens to utilize. We also have the obligation to broadly disseminate the social science way of thinking – challenging received wisdom, doubting even those assertions that make us psychologically comfortable, thinking in terms of alternative possible explanations, basing one’s conclusions on the best available data, and treating all findings as probabilistic and temporary, subject to debate and revision. Social science education, to me, is therefore a critical element of democratic education. I have some a few awards for my teaching, and think I do pretty good job in the classroom.
Vlad: By comparing the length of each study cycle, one can observe that you have spent an extended number of years for each phase. Nowadays students can get a bachelor degree in 3 years, a master in 2, and a PhD in another 3 – which almost amounts the number of years you spend for your B.A. and B.Phil. degrees. Do you think that this reduction is beneficial, or is it just a mark of wide-scale commodification of higher education?
Ronald King: The academic world has become far more commodified. Young scholars are pushed to accumulate random publications and brag about the number of their international citations. My first question, when interviewing a possible job candidate for our department, concerns what they care about and not what they have already achieved. My personal feeling is that graduate education should take just as long as necessary, and no longer. This sentence is not as silly as it sounds. The goal is to train young scholars with the ability to make lasting intellectual contributions over a full career. We are not training accountants. There are few clear hurdles to be jumped and no fixed schedule for progress. I would have a serious conversation with any student who takes more than five years, MA plus PhD. (Undergraduate education in the U.S. always takes four years, as it did in parts of Europe pre-Bologna). I would also change two practices common in Romania. First, I would restrict internal hiring; most first-rate universities do not hire their own PhD’s, for the goal is to bring in new voices and extend the conversation. Second, I would institute a probationary period for faculty – PhD students can and should teach, but without faculty appointment; new faculty members must, within a designated period of years, demonstrate a developing record of teaching, research, and service sufficient to merit permanent status or else automatically be released.
Vlad: How did you finance your studies? Did you obtain scholarships or funds? Did you rely on your own or on your family’s financial resources? Did you ever take a job that wasn’t related to your qualification just to be able to support yourself?
Ronald King: I was very lucky. I obtained just enough scholarship support to survive during the tough years. I spent summers as an undergraduate working for the Columbia University Bureau of Applied Social Research, coding surveys and cleaning data. In graduate school, some of my faculty mentors obtained major grants and I worked as their research assistant. In addition, I often worked a few hours per week just to make money. This included joining a typing pool; in the days before desk-top computers, people would sit row-by-row typing out the same basic letter, changing only the name and address of the recipient and the amount overdue to be paid.
Vlad: Probably the most surprising mention from your resumé is your interest in Romanian politics. How did you acquire this taste?
Ronald King: I first came to Romania on a Fulbright grant to teach empirical research methods to the first graduating class in Political Science at Babes-Bolyai, where I am now Profesor Onorific. At the time, Political Science was not even a department, but instead a program within the Department of Contemporary History in the Faculty of History and Philosophy. I then became senior consult to the multi-year IREX curriculum development project that helped produce a modern Political Science Faculty in Cluj. I should add that my wife is Romanian (she is a linguist, not a political scientist), which provided an extra incentive to return here. I also have many friends, colleagues, and co-authors in Romania. Gradually, under their tutelage, I moved from methodological adviser to participating scholar on Romanian topics. Largely in collaboration with Cosmin Gabriel Marian, I have published papers on corruption, minority representation, electoral law reform, mass political ideology, incumbency effects, and institutional semi-presidentialism. With Paul Sum, I co-edited a recent volume of scholarly findings, Romania Under Basescu. I visit Romania almost once per year to teach, consult, and meet with co-authors. I review applications for the Romanian Fulbright Commission and for the National Research Council (CNCS). One of my greatest pleasures is to work with young Romanian scholars, to help mentor their progress, and to encourage the formation of cross-university academic collaborations.
Vlad: What is your assessment regarding the current state of political science research in Romania? From your understanding, what topics merit greater attention? How do you decide what projects are worth pursing and which are most likely a waste of time?
Ronald King: Scholarship regarding in Romania has improved enormously over time. The first generation of scholars, right after the Revolution, predictably focused on the communist regime, the complexities of transition, and the residues that hindered meaningful reform. The second generation of scholars, reacting to Romania’s expanding linkages to Europe, read extensively in comparative politics and inquired whether and to what degree the standard empirical propositions in the literature also apply to Romania. Young academics thus examined public opinion and trust, parties and elections, participation and civil society, leadership characteristics and institutional structures. The third generation, just beginning, has recognized that politics matters primarily because the policies produced affect the lives of average citizens. They are thus looking beyond the thunder of everyday headlines, focusing instead on actual policy outcomes, both relative successes and failures, and the systematic factors that explain them. I am confident that the fourth generation will be even more original, offering notable contributions to the general theories and methods of political science, focusing beyond Romanian society to address problems that reside at the core of human self-governance.
Personally, I have little idea how research topics find me. The great philosopher of science, Imre Lakatos, spoke of progressive and degenerative research programs, in which the former grows from its central assumptions with increasing explanatory power. I strongly believe in three-legged social science, in which the core hypothesis is theoretically relevant, examined with methodological rigor, and tested with data that are empirically interesting. I generally find projects when the accompanying theory, method, and/or data issues nag incessantly at my mind.
Vlad: From your experience, is the academic world entirely meritocratic in the sense that it gives proper credit and recognition to those who work hard?
Ronald King: I think it is somewhat of a mistake to associate merit and hard work. (For instance, I have had students tell me that they worked very hard on a paper for my class, but I had to reply that the paper was still not especially insightful or clever.) The goal for an academic meritocracy is to reward smart work. Personally, I tend to work hard. When I begin a new research project, I read and digest just about everything written on the topic, and I pursue comprehensive data and various ways of analyzing those data. That’s what becoming an expert means.
The academic profession is cruel. The top journals, those truly worthy of respect, have article acceptance rates under 10%. Peer review should be uncompromisingly strict. One must get used to criticism and to disappointment. I wish I could say the system is entirely fair, but it isn’t. On the one hand, there is a natural predisposition to favor the latest academic fads and newest technical tricks. On the other hand, there will always be antiquated faculty who blindly reject anything they do not understand. We are all filled with biases and limitations. No solution is perfect, but the best one available is to insist upon multiple double-blind external peer reviews, in which the referees do not know who wrote the paper and the author does not know who does the refereeing, aside from the fact that they highly reputable international scholars in the field. Along these lines, I would largely eliminate in-house university journals, which heavily publish papers from their own faculty and often do not go outside a narrow circle for paper evaluators.
Vlad: If I were to tell you that I want to become a researcher in the field of political science, what are the first three pieces of advice that you would give me? What about advice for teaching?
Ronald King: Regarding research: 1) Start with a serious intellectual puzzle and pursue it as best you can. Do not start with a preferred method (to someone with only a hammer in the toolbox, everything must be treated as a nail); or with a strict theoretical predisposition (to someone with all the answers, research consists merely of asserting confirmation); or with a fixed focus on certain data observations (I know you are Romanians, but you should avoid the temptation to believe that all serious puzzles arise from the Romanian situation or that all studies must include Romania as a legitimate case). 2) Be curious. Do not necessarily respect accepted wisdom or eminent authority. Do not be afraid to pursue your own, fulfilling intellectual agenda. 3) Be rigorous. The careful application of the appropriate research methods allows you to sustain a conclusion against the plausible skeptic. The proper strategy is to privilege the null hypothesis – that there is no relationship to be found – and to hold onto a belief in null until overwhelming evidence convinces you to abandon it.
For teaching: 1) Think about your students. Remember that your job is to promote learning, not to deliver teaching. We must attend to what students receive, not merely what we project. Of course students should have to earn their marks. But we are equally responsible for overall student performance, and for what they are getting out of the instructional process. 2) Be creative in the classroom. The old pedagogy of the instructor in front of the room reading his lecture notes to a hushed auditorium is long obsolete. Instead, invent exercises that push them to engage the material and force them to think critically. 3) Listen to your students. Implement a system of teacher evaluations and pay attention to the comments. Let them evaluate you, just as you evaluate them. Of course, student opinions are not perfect. But they do provide a useful guide regarding our classroom successes and failures.
Vlad: There are many university students who disregard the option of becoming researchers or professors, and prefer to settle for occupations that do not require further attainment of knowledge. If you could present to them one argument for becoming academics, what would it be?
Ronald King: There are three parts to my answer. First, many professions have both pure and applied dimensions – physics and engineering, for example, or economics and business forecasting, or probability statistics and actuarial insurance. The same applies for Political Science. It is natural for those with a more practical inclination work for the government or the parties or an NGO. The important thing is to keep the lines of communication open, so that learning goes both ways. Second, there are many students who are happy with their degrees and have comfortable lives, earning their living at a wide range of occupations. Nevertheless, they have been trained in the close reading of texts, in analytic reasoning, and in critical thinking and writing. Those skills, which are quite possibly more important than any particular course content, we also teach at university and are essential to producing an educated person. Thus, third, the academy is a calling and it should be appealing only to those whose thoughts and temperament lead them there. Unfortunately, a high number of students begin their PhD training simply because they have earned high marks up to that point. We should always remember that there are many intelligent, cultured, and interesting people in this world, and only a small percentage work in the academic profession.
Vlad: Is there a publication of yours (be it book or article) that you would recommend to us?
Ronald King: I think one is always fondest of one’s first major project. For me, it was an asymmetric, non-zero-sum game theoretic model seeking to explain why democratic governments, regardless of ideology, limit redistribution and consciously award lucrative subsidies to corporate investment, illustrated empirically with archival data from the U.S. and published in book format by Yale University Press. I am also quite fond of the work that Cosmin Marian and I are now doing regarding Romanian politics, examining the considerable gap in the development of procedural versus substantive democracy. Attention to process had not been matched by an equal commitment to responsive and responsible policy-making, resulting despite the aggressive competition for votes in a system of representatives without extensive representation.
Vlad: What would you say is your highest accomplishment as an academic?
Ronald King: The highest accomplishment is recognition by one’s peers. I am very proud to have been named to an endowed chair at my home university. My official title now is, “Bruce E. Porteous Endowed Professor of Political Science.”
Vlad: Do you think that succeeding in the field of political science is harder for my generation?
Ronald King: If succeeding in the field means finding an academic job, then success depends largely on the number of young people in a society and the percentage of them who attend university. If succeeding in the field means the increasing ability to attack meaningful problems with sophistication and skill, then it is certainly easier, not harder, for the present generation – given rapidly advancing technology, the sweeping globalization of the academic conversation, and gradual yet ever-diminishing restraints upon the freedom of inquiry.
Vlad: If you were to turn back time is there anything that you would do differently?
Ronald King: Should I be tempted to say, had I done things differently, I would have been able to cure world hunger and institute international peace and justice? This is often a terrible world, in which we humans inflict upon each other war and torture and rape and starvation and oppression. It is an idle dream, viewed in the aggregate, to imagine that our intellectual efforts can have anything other than a marginal impact upon it.
Personally, however, looking in retrospect, I am somewhat pleased by the career choices I have made. I have worked at three excellent universities, made strong friendships, pursued interesting research questions, learned some things, and taught energetic students in a number of countries. A very smart commentator once wrote that the successful academic is one who has contributed two or three innovative ideas that advance our understanding of complex problems. I hope that can be said about me.
Vlad: What are your future plans – both on the short term and on the long run?
Ronald King: In the short run, I am very excited about the new project, on the politics of anti-commons, undertaken with colleagues in Hungary and Romania. There is an extensive literature on the tragedy of the commons, in which entitled actors have the right to use but not to exclude others from use. There has been far less work done regarding anti-commons, a reciprocal tragedy in which entitled actors have the right to exclude from use but not initiate use absent permission from all the others. There are some lovely derived implications, damaging to theories that place excessive reliance upon the marketplace, and some important empirical applications that explain the persistence of certain systematic political inefficiencies.
In the longer run, formal retirement is not that many years away. I intend to continue to write and to collaborate with and mentor talented young scholars, but possibly at a slightly reduced pace. There’s the beach in San Diego, and my dog, and my red convertible automobile.
Vlad: Mr. King, I would like to thank you very much for having the patience and benevolence of answering all these questions. It was a pleasure to have you as an Academic Role Model, and I hope that your story and insights will help present and future political science students who look forward to similar experiences.