At Poli Sci Convo, Even The Wonks Are Bored

Posted September 2, 2005 at 5:44pm

Only an hour into the start of last week’s annual gathering of the American Political Science Association, Henry Kim, a doctoral student at the University of California at San Diego, is already playing hooky.

It’s “5 a.m. to us,” harrumphs a bleary-eyed Kim, as he hunches over his Starbucks coffee in the lobby of the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. After a cross-country flight and little sleep, Kim has no intention of attending any of the morning’s first slate of panels. Nor for that matter do his buddies Justin Phillips and Nathan Batto.

Around them mill thousands of very serious political scientists, who descended on three Washington, D.C., hotels Thursday for four days of scholarly panels and roundtables, not to mention the endless schmoozing with colleagues and publishers that most say make the event worthwhile.

Immersed in discussions on civil society and regime cycles, few of the nation’s political scientists seem to care that for the most part their subjects — the actual lawmakers — aren’t even in town, with the exception of those who returned for a special session Thursday and Friday to approve funding to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina.

“We are like the scientists studying the rats in a glass box, and the politicians are the rats,” says Kim. “Quite frankly, we don’t want to be the rats or be associated with the rats.”

If the rats in question feel the same way, they aren’t saying. An official-looking man in a suit with a flag pin on his left lapel — who turns out to be Barry Jackson of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives — declines to shed much light on whether the APSA confab wields much influence with the denizens at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Steven Schier, who convened the panel, invited us, and that’s why we are here,” Jackson finally says after an uncomfortably long silence. He slips into a ballroom where he’s scheduled to be a panelist at a discussion on the 2004 elections and Bush’s second term.

But back to Kim and his buddies, who don’t appear that enamored with their fellow political scientists, either.

“It’s a boring crowd,” says Phillips, an assistant professor at Columbia University. “It can be a little on the dry side.”

Case in point: When Batto, a classmate of Kim’s at UC San Diego, points out a late-morning session on “Advances in Roll Call Analysis,” Phillips just rolls his eyes and laughs. “I will not be going to a panel on roll call votes,” he cracks.

Their sentiment is shared by prominent political scientist Stephen Wayne, who first started attending the 101-year-old conference in the 1960s as a graduate student. “I’m a glutton for punishment,” he quips, adding that he has no intention of going to any of the “proliferation” of mainly “boring” (and often sparsely attended) panel discussions, opting instead for a roundtable on political psychology.

As for the relevance of the yearly political scholars’ powwow, Wayne says most lawmakers or media types aren’t paying much attention.

The wide-scale destruction caused by Katrina, which decimated parts of the southeastern United States, including New Orleans, means that the tail-end of Congress’ August recess was no longer a slow news time, Wayne says. (A quick scan of the Marriott Wardman Park’s deserted main-floor press room seems to prove his point. Neat stacks of political science journals sit untouched, bottles of Pepsi and water undrunk, and not a laptop is in sight. Still, David Broder, dean of Washington’s political correspondents, does make an appearance Thursday and says he plans to write something, at some point, about the conference.)

But at least one political scientist thinks that some politicos may be paying some attention.

David Crockett, an associate professor at Trinity University in San Antonio (not to be confused with the city’s other famous Crockett), concedes that the discipline can be “very arcane and microspecialized” — “The politics of ‘Star Trek,’ no one cares about that,” Crockett says, referring to one paper title — but he believes some panels such as one on “voting behavior trends” are relevant to “some people in the White House.”

At noon, two political scientists, Jeremy Elkins and Andrew Norris, who just finished headlining a heated panel on theoretical perspectives on the 2004 election, head into the book exhibition hall — “This is the fun part of it,” laments Elkins — and Norris makes a beeline for the Duke University Press stand. He starts needling Elkins to buy a copy of his book, “Politics, Metaphysics, and Death: Essays on Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer.” Norris helpfully describes Agamben as being “an Italian Heideggerian.” Elkins counters that he’s happy to just give Norris a few dollars if necessary.

When it comes to the cool department, Elkins says, most political scientists are woefully lacking, opting for spectacles and conservative suits. The wannabes, Elkins says, “dress in all black” or wear “workshirts” like his pal Norris. “You can be cool in political science and in the rest of the world you are just a big dork,” he adds. “Here, if your pocket protector is mauve you are cool.”

Within minutes, as if on cue, another friend, Joe Mink, a professor at Mount Holyoke College who hails from Texas and is clad in all-black, heads over to shake hands with Elkins. Mink describes his style as “alt-country” and shows off his stingray cowboy boots. “They sparkle in the sunlight,” he notes proudly.

But Mink appears to be in the minority when it comes to shining shoes.

The attendant of the hotel’s shoe-shining stand, Perry Ross, sits idly, with few immediate hopes of a customer. There may be no scarcity of shoes “that need service,” Ross says, but “they won’t come over. It’s the worst [conference] I’ve ever seen. … I don’t think I’d be a political scientist after seeing them.”

Some attendees see the lack of sartorial diversity through a different lens.

“There’s a lot of suits,” says Cathleen Tetro of the Westview Press as she sits chatting with a former high school classmate, Jocelyn Shadforth, a political scientist at Stockton College. And by suits, Tetro means men.

Five hours into the confab and not a single female political scientist has approached her with a book proposal, says Tetro, though five males have.

The days when all the female attendees knew each other are clearly a thing of the past, but “it’s still very much male-dominated,” says Shadforth, who admits she was a bit intimidated by the “wall of gray [male] suits” that confronted her at the 1992 conference when she first came in search of a job.

According to Cambridge University Press’ Lewis Bateman, a bow-tie wearing veteran of the annual gathering, the meeting is also light on diversity when it comes to conservatives, with the “left of center” paradigm predominating.

“I don’t believe in unbalanced histories,” he asserts, adding that regardless of the sometimes negative reactions he receives from other members of the profession, he continues to publish everything from “Marxists to free marketeers … as long as it’s quality scholarship.”

“You do have some academics with an ax to grind,” agrees Crockett, pointing to a panel he attended earlier in the day on the Bush presidency, which was almost uniformly critical of the 43rd president.

But others disagree.

“Can you imagine these guys at mass rallies or going to Meetups?” asks Elkins. “Most of these guys are fairly straitlaced.”

Even New York Times columnist and author David Brooks seems to think the gathering could loosen up a bit. At a panel discussion Thursday afternoon, he quips to a near capacity crowd that if political scientists want to improve civic participation, maybe they should start by switching to “Tommy Bahama shirts.”

Or maybe they could consider dropping opaque references to “neo-institutional perspectives” and “persistent hierarchies.”

But if some of the esoteric subjects discussed at the conference (and at a pre-conference held the day before) seem to bear little relation to the actual practice of governing, that didn’t seem to bother Judith Stiehm, a political science professor at Florida International University.

“You have to be ordinary” to get elected, says Stiehm after one pre-conference panel.

Meanwhile, Shervin Malekzadeh, a third-year Ph.D. student in comparative government at Georgetown, sits in a corridor of the Omni Shoreham, one of the other hotels hosting the conference, waiting to present a paper on the role of teachers and schools in postrevolutionary Iran and Mexico, and ponders how to make his lingo more accessible to the audience.

“There is no point to it if a smart person can’t understand it,” he says, referring to “how nerdy these talks” can be. “I could say hegemony or I could just say the state wants to be the big cheese.”