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Patterns and Purpose

Patterns and Purpose

In his introductory essay for Vol. 2, Iss. 3, Frank Gavin, the chair of our editorial board, writes about feeling like a scholar without a home, the challenges of publishing an interdisciplinary journal, and how to adapt best practices from science and…

Reviewing Blues

Reviewing Blues

The chairman of our editorial board, Frank Gavin, introduces Vol. 2, Iss. 2 of TNSR and discusses the joys and pains of the review process, giving some advice for both reviewers and those submitting their work for review.

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                    [post_content] => I have often felt like a scholar without a home. Trained as a historian, I teach historical thinking and publish historical work. While I have spent time in schools of public policy and international affairs, interdisciplinary research centers, and even a political science department and a law school, I have never been employed by a history department. To further the confusion — I care passionately about foreign policy, engage regularly with national security professionals in my teaching, scholarship, and public engagement, yet have never served in government. Nor have I had an obvious methodological or ideological affinity.

In the past, I have looked at this “identity crisis” as a problem. Who was I? At conferences, when people introduced themselves, I was unable to match their pithy, recognizable titles. “Ideologically-uncommitted, methodologically-promiscuous, historically-minded scholar who thinks about strategy and statecraft with an eye toward improving policy” was no match for “political scientist,” “comparativist,” “restrainer,” “neo-realist,” “post-modernist,” “constructivist,” “Europeanist,” “think-tanker,” “methodologist,” “liberal internationalist,” “progressive,” “never-Trumper,” or “national security professional.”

An experience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) changed my view. In 2015, I was asked by the chair of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Science to co-chair a job search in nuclear security. While always up for a challenge, this assignment was terrifying. As someone who is unable to operate, let alone fix, even the simplest appliances, working with the world’s smartest nuclear scientists and engineers to identify and recruit the best faculty was daunting. I remember walking to lunch in Cambridge with a distinguished physicist who was on my committee. When his iPhone rang, he looked at the name, grumbled “not him again,” and hung up. The name on the screen had been Buzz Aldrin, the second man ever to walk on the Moon. “He wants to be on the nuclear-fueled mission to Mars we are building, but I keep telling him — Buzz, you are too old!” I realized this would be a difficult crowd to impress.

Over time, however, I came to appreciate these nuclear scientists and engineers who welcomed me into their midst. They didn’t care about labels or even disciplines and demonstrated a strong curiosity and interest in how a historian analyzed the world. Their ranks included physicists, material scientists, computational experts, chemical engineers, and others whose expertise mixed and matched from a variety of fields. When judging candidates for the faculty position, their first question was not about disciplinary training or method. They focused on who asked the best questions and who could actually innovatively solve difficult, important problems.

To be clear, these professors were not dilettantes. They understood that nuclear engineers need a shared set of knowledge and skills that is difficult to obtain. The MIT Nuclear Engineering and Science Department held rigorous comprehensive exams for their PhD candidates and understood the benefits of specialization and methodological excellence. Nuclear science and engineering has as many, if not more, narrow, obscure, technical journals as any social science field. My nuclear scientists recognized the importance of theory and the powerful, necessary interplay between the deductive and inductive. In the end, however, no one cared about advancing the “discipline” for its own purposes. To them, “disciplines” and academic fields were a means to an end — vehicles to better ask and answer important questions, and to advance understanding and resolving problems in the world. No MIT nuclear scientist was ever impressed by someone demonstrating theoretical or methodological prowess if it didn’t actually identify or solve a problem that mattered. And all of them felt quite comfortable moving between and fostering engagement between the academy, government and regulatory agencies, and the private sector.

As I explored it further, it was clear that these scientists and engineers operated in a different world than I did, with different incentive structures and organizational histories. Writ large, they had no problem adapting, transforming, or even adding new fields and disciplines as the problems they tried to solve changed. The social sciences look much like they did in the late 19th century, when cutting edge universities like Johns Hopkins, Columbia, and the University of Chicago adopted the German model and first created PhD programs in economics, history, political science, and sociology. The story in science and engineering has been much different, as dozens of new fields, disciplines, schools, and programs have emerged, ranging from brain and cognitive sciences to stem cell and regenerative biology to environmental science and engineering to data, systems, and society. While it is probably a vast oversimplification, people from science and engineering are often as likely to self-identify based on the problem they are trying to solve as the discipline in which they were trained.

I have thought about that experience a lot since becoming the chair of the editorial board for TNSR. Is there a way to adapt best practices from science and engineering to the important questions of war and peace? Can TNSR become like the extraordinary journals Science or Nature, publishing the best work, in an accessible way, from a range of disciplines? Or are they fundamentally different undertakings? I am not sure what the right answer to this question is, though it is one we think about. As we encourage scholars to submit their best research on national security, foreign policy, and international affairs — especially those beginning their careers — we are often asked what and who we are. A political science or diplomatic history journal? A platform for policy essays like Foreign Affairs? War on the Rocks with footnotes? We have our own answer to this question, of course.[1] The challenge has been to align our mission with what incentivizes the broad-based, diverse audience for whom we publish and from whom we draw for articles. Perhaps one of our greatest challenges thus far has been to lure smart young thinkers out of their narrow disciplinary or career bands and get them to speak to different communities and to identify and answer bigger, problem-driven questions; to have the political scientist engage with the policymaker, the think-tanker communicate with the historian, and the technologist with the humanist, all without sacrificing the rigor and excellence that mark the best disciplinary journals.

Many have rallied to this mission, and we could not be more pleased with the work we have published thus far. In many ways, the authors in this volume are especially reflective of this approach. Iskander Rehman is a Sciences Po-trained political scientist whose impressive analysis of Cardinal Richelieu engages and connects early modern diplomatic and intellectual history to contemporary analysis. Thomas P. Cavanna is a Sciences Po-trained historian whose essay engages international relations theory and questions from the world of political science. Both have spent time in academic and non-academic positions in different fields. Which one is the historian and which is the political scientist — and more importantly, does it matter? Bruce M. Sugden is a policy and research analyst who has combined historical work, technology assessment, and strategic analysis while working for the armed forces, the private sector, and federally-funded research centers. Jim Steinberg, a Yale-trained lawyer who has served at the highest levels of U.S. national security, engages methods from both history and theory to assess what factors and forces shaped the peace process in Northern Ireland. Jim has a favorite quote from Karl Marx’s Eleven Theses on Feuerbach that reflects his approach to teaching and research that is equally applicable to what we are trying to accomplish at TNSR: “Philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

My sense is that many of these important epistemological questions are in play, and how we organize knowledge around important questions in national security, international security, and foreign policy may change — perhaps dramatically — in the years and decades to come. TNSR will be an engaged participant in these discussions and debates, and will continue to serve as a platform for the best accessible, cutting-edge, publicly minded, multidisciplinary research.

 

Francis J. Gavin is the chair of the editorial board of the Texas National Security Review. He is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and the inaugural director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University. His writings include Gold, Dollars, and Power: The Politics of International Monetary Relations, 1958–1971 (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) and Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Cornell University Press, 2012). His latest book, Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy, will be published by Brookings Institution Press later this year. 

 

Image: Thermos
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                    [lead] => In his introductory essay for Vol. 2, Iss. 3, Frank Gavin, the chair of our editorial board, writes about feeling like a scholar without a home, the challenges of publishing an interdisciplinary journal, and how to adapt best practices from science and engineering to questions of war and peace.
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                            [endnotes] => [1] Francis J. Gavin, “TNSR: Who We Are, What We Do, and Why You Should Care,” Texas National Security Review 1, no. 1 (November 2017), https://doi.org/10.15781/T2513VC68.
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                    [post_content] => “I am sorry to report that I do not like this manuscript much.” As academics, we have all received such a note (and if you haven’t yet, you will at some point). And the negative reactions to our papers and books don’t ever go away, no matter how long you are in the profession or how distinguished your title. This was the first line of a referee report I received just last month for my latest book manuscript.

There is probably no harder part of scholarly life than sending our work out for anonymous peer review. We pour our heart and soul into our work, nurturing, digging, re-shaping our articles and books until we believe they are perfect. We carry around the arguments we make and the evidence we’ve collected in our heads throughout the day, evaluating them at all hours, from when our heads hit the pillow at night to when we get into the shower the next morning. As scholars, our arguments and research both reflect who we are and how we see the world. While we are intellectuals and pretend we are completely objective, we (understandably) become deeply and personally attached to our work. Our articles and books are like our children — we love them fiercely and, at times, irrationally, often blind to the flaws that others see. This is what makes receiving negative reviews so unsettling, especially for the young scholar.

Stay in the business long enough, and you collect stories. Years ago, I submitted an article, “The Myth of Flexible Response,” to a prestigious journal. One “anonymous” review was by someone who said he was involved in the Kennedy administration policy process I was writing on and suggested that I had no idea what I was talking about. The review was handwritten and the journal forgot to remove the initials — “CK” — at the end of the document. Since I had based much of my argument on the papers of Carl Kaysen and was quite familiar with his handwriting, the review was not especially anonymous. The journal passed on the piece. Another review, which I later learned was written by our most accomplished Cold War historian (Note: No matter how hard we try not to, we all attempt to figure out the identity of our reviewers), asked, “Are we sure the author does not suffer from dyslexia?” I have countless more stories like this, but simply recalling them is generating a cold sweat!

At the Texas National Security Review, we have and will continue to think long and hard about how to encourage best practices in the review process. We have incorporated a number of measures, including paying our reviewers on a sliding scale depending upon how comprehensive the review is and how quickly it is returned. This has made these reviews even more rigorous than the typical review. Believe me, I know. You may have noticed that I did not write an introduction for the last issue. You may have also noticed that an article of mine appeared in our pages. This generated a whole lot of discussion and concern in our journal — how would it look for a new journal to publish an article by the chair of the editorial board? Did we have a process in place to treat my article in as demanding, ethical, and thorough a way as anyone else’s?

To my (not always pleasant) surprise, we did. I can honestly say that my article went through the most rigorous review process I have ever experienced in over two decades of academic life. There were four anonymous reviews, each well over two pages long, as well as intense internal review. All of the reviews were sharp and penetrating, with a raft of (not always welcome) suggestions, but one in particular was especially harsh. I confess I may not have handled the criticism in the most mature way. I pouted and suggested I might pull the piece and send it somewhere else, arguing that I had gotten to a point in my career where I shouldn’t have to deal with this. Who was the “obvious” idiot TNSR had found to stand in judgment of my “obvious” expertise? It was not my best moment, to say the least. Ryan Evans — who in addition to being the publisher is also one of my best friends — never blinked. My piece, he stated calmly, would have to address all the criticisms if TNSR was to publish it. And no, I would never find out who had reviewed my piece. After putting the article aside for a few weeks, I swallowed my pride and went through the critiques line by line and made the changes. Ryan and his outstanding team of editors worked with me closely to improve the effort. The piece was much better for it. And I still have no idea who the reviewers were, though I am grateful for their extraordinary willingness to offer me honest criticism and helpful recommendations (although reviewer number four would be an unlikely addition to my holiday card list, as petty as that may be!).

I tell this story for a few reasons. First, the process of being evaluated and assessed never ends, no matter how long you stay in the academy. It is important for young people entering the academy to know this. Criticism hurts deeply and often feels unfair. To have your best work dismissed by an unknown, anonymous voice can be devastating. The key is to remember that, no matter how unpleasant, the reviewer took the time to read your manuscript and take it seriously. No matter how painful and even wrong-headed, almost every review I’ve received has been useful, if only to help me better understand how my arguments and evidence are received. Bear in mind, too, that just because an article is rejected does not mean it is wrong or the scholarship poor. As I think about my own work, it is often the pieces that were rejected once or twice (and in one case, four times before being published) that ended up being much better and more influential works than the pieces that sailed through review on a first pass. While you should take criticism seriously, if you believe in your ideas, arguments, and evidence, and have pursued your quest with rigor, honesty, and integrity, then never give up. Keep plodding, never let the critics get you down, and keep improving and pressing. Do this and you will get published and your work will — eventually — be recognized.

The second reason I have related this story is because TNSR is new and is working to establish its reputation as the best venue for rigorous, innovative scholarship on the most pressing questions of strategy, statecraft, and international relations. We want to be accessible and engage the world beyond academics, to include policymakers, without sacrificing the highest standards of scholarship. It is very easy for a new journal to be seen as an outlet for insiders or close friends. The great journal International Security is often — and to my mind, quite unfairly — seen as an outlet reserved largely for scholars within a certain self-contained network in security studies. It was very important to us that we implement the most demanding standards for review so that we could establish the highest scholarly credentials. My painful, if ultimately enormously helpful, experience with the TNSR review process convinced me we are doing well on this score.

The third reason I mention this is that we all wonder about the efficacy and fairness of the current system. Is the double-blind, peer-reviewed process that has become the norm the best way to advance knowledge? Is the current system too easily gamed, or does it encourage scholars — especially young thinkers at the height of their intellectual powers — to be risk-averse, to play small-ball, to write papers and books with the goal of getting through review, rather than expanding our understanding of the world? We all know the reasons we have the current system, but I think it is fair to ask whether it can be improved. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein transformed our understanding of the world without it. Is double-blind peer review the worst way of evaluating scholarship, except all the others? Or are there ways we can improve the system? At TNSR we don’t know the answer but are very interested in hearing from our audience — both readers and authors. We are willing to break current norms and practices if and when we find better ways of doing things. We encourage you to send us your thoughts.

The final reason is a plea to all future reviewers, for this journal and all others: Be comprehensive, be rigorous, but don’t be a jerk. The benefits of anonymity are obvious, but so, too, are the pitfalls. We live in an age where our social media culture often prizes snark over substance, the witty cut over the empathetic suggestion, the pithy phrase over deep reflection. When writing a review, try to imagine the scholar on the other side of the process, a person who has no doubt invested a good part of their heart, soul, and mind in the work you are reading. This is not a plea to go easy — quite the contrary. At TNSR, we want our reviewers to bring their sharpest, most constructive insights, criticisms, and recommendations. Many reviewers, however, often forget the constructive part. If you are recommending a rejection, ask yourself, was your decision made because the ideas, methods, and evidence are lacking, or because it doesn’t comport with your long-held views (or those of your discipline or field)? Early in my career, I learned from my mentor, Marc Trachtenberg, that evidence and arguments that challenge your deepest beliefs are “like gold in your hands” — they should be embraced, encouraged, and relished. That is how we become smarter. We aren’t in this business to reify our own opinions, but to gain better understanding of enormously complex, often consequential issues. Does the article or book you are reviewing give us more purchase on a new question, new insight, even if the answer does not comport with how you understand the world? Will publication lead to energetic debate and discussion, even if you are somewhat skeptical of the claims? And if the answers to these questions are “yes,” are your critiques and suggestions oriented toward strengthening the piece, to helping the author make their strongest argument in the best possible way? Does your review offer helpful advice, demonstrate empathy, and provide the author with guidance that can help them move their project forward? And if the answers to these questions are “no,” might it be time to ask yourself some hard questions about who you are and why you are in this business? Truth be told, following the adage “don’t be a jerk” involves no sacrifice of standards or smarts or rigor. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Rest assured that the excellent scholarly contributions in this volume went through such a process, and that we at TNSR are committed to embracing the highest standards of scholarly review. Enjoy!

 

Francis J. Gavin is the chairman of the editorial board of the Texas National Security Review. He is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and the inaugural director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University. His writings include Gold, Dollars, and Power: The Politics of International Monetary Relations, 1958–1971 (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) and Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Cornell University Press, 2012).
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            [post_content] => I have often felt like a scholar without a home. Trained as a historian, I teach historical thinking and publish historical work. While I have spent time in schools of public policy and international affairs, interdisciplinary research centers, and even a political science department and a law school, I have never been employed by a history department. To further the confusion — I care passionately about foreign policy, engage regularly with national security professionals in my teaching, scholarship, and public engagement, yet have never served in government. Nor have I had an obvious methodological or ideological affinity.

In the past, I have looked at this “identity crisis” as a problem. Who was I? At conferences, when people introduced themselves, I was unable to match their pithy, recognizable titles. “Ideologically-uncommitted, methodologically-promiscuous, historically-minded scholar who thinks about strategy and statecraft with an eye toward improving policy” was no match for “political scientist,” “comparativist,” “restrainer,” “neo-realist,” “post-modernist,” “constructivist,” “Europeanist,” “think-tanker,” “methodologist,” “liberal internationalist,” “progressive,” “never-Trumper,” or “national security professional.”

An experience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) changed my view. In 2015, I was asked by the chair of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Science to co-chair a job search in nuclear security. While always up for a challenge, this assignment was terrifying. As someone who is unable to operate, let alone fix, even the simplest appliances, working with the world’s smartest nuclear scientists and engineers to identify and recruit the best faculty was daunting. I remember walking to lunch in Cambridge with a distinguished physicist who was on my committee. When his iPhone rang, he looked at the name, grumbled “not him again,” and hung up. The name on the screen had been Buzz Aldrin, the second man ever to walk on the Moon. “He wants to be on the nuclear-fueled mission to Mars we are building, but I keep telling him — Buzz, you are too old!” I realized this would be a difficult crowd to impress.

Over time, however, I came to appreciate these nuclear scientists and engineers who welcomed me into their midst. They didn’t care about labels or even disciplines and demonstrated a strong curiosity and interest in how a historian analyzed the world. Their ranks included physicists, material scientists, computational experts, chemical engineers, and others whose expertise mixed and matched from a variety of fields. When judging candidates for the faculty position, their first question was not about disciplinary training or method. They focused on who asked the best questions and who could actually innovatively solve difficult, important problems.

To be clear, these professors were not dilettantes. They understood that nuclear engineers need a shared set of knowledge and skills that is difficult to obtain. The MIT Nuclear Engineering and Science Department held rigorous comprehensive exams for their PhD candidates and understood the benefits of specialization and methodological excellence. Nuclear science and engineering has as many, if not more, narrow, obscure, technical journals as any social science field. My nuclear scientists recognized the importance of theory and the powerful, necessary interplay between the deductive and inductive. In the end, however, no one cared about advancing the “discipline” for its own purposes. To them, “disciplines” and academic fields were a means to an end — vehicles to better ask and answer important questions, and to advance understanding and resolving problems in the world. No MIT nuclear scientist was ever impressed by someone demonstrating theoretical or methodological prowess if it didn’t actually identify or solve a problem that mattered. And all of them felt quite comfortable moving between and fostering engagement between the academy, government and regulatory agencies, and the private sector.

As I explored it further, it was clear that these scientists and engineers operated in a different world than I did, with different incentive structures and organizational histories. Writ large, they had no problem adapting, transforming, or even adding new fields and disciplines as the problems they tried to solve changed. The social sciences look much like they did in the late 19th century, when cutting edge universities like Johns Hopkins, Columbia, and the University of Chicago adopted the German model and first created PhD programs in economics, history, political science, and sociology. The story in science and engineering has been much different, as dozens of new fields, disciplines, schools, and programs have emerged, ranging from brain and cognitive sciences to stem cell and regenerative biology to environmental science and engineering to data, systems, and society. While it is probably a vast oversimplification, people from science and engineering are often as likely to self-identify based on the problem they are trying to solve as the discipline in which they were trained.

I have thought about that experience a lot since becoming the chair of the editorial board for TNSR. Is there a way to adapt best practices from science and engineering to the important questions of war and peace? Can TNSR become like the extraordinary journals Science or Nature, publishing the best work, in an accessible way, from a range of disciplines? Or are they fundamentally different undertakings? I am not sure what the right answer to this question is, though it is one we think about. As we encourage scholars to submit their best research on national security, foreign policy, and international affairs — especially those beginning their careers — we are often asked what and who we are. A political science or diplomatic history journal? A platform for policy essays like Foreign Affairs? War on the Rocks with footnotes? We have our own answer to this question, of course.[1] The challenge has been to align our mission with what incentivizes the broad-based, diverse audience for whom we publish and from whom we draw for articles. Perhaps one of our greatest challenges thus far has been to lure smart young thinkers out of their narrow disciplinary or career bands and get them to speak to different communities and to identify and answer bigger, problem-driven questions; to have the political scientist engage with the policymaker, the think-tanker communicate with the historian, and the technologist with the humanist, all without sacrificing the rigor and excellence that mark the best disciplinary journals.

Many have rallied to this mission, and we could not be more pleased with the work we have published thus far. In many ways, the authors in this volume are especially reflective of this approach. Iskander Rehman is a Sciences Po-trained political scientist whose impressive analysis of Cardinal Richelieu engages and connects early modern diplomatic and intellectual history to contemporary analysis. Thomas P. Cavanna is a Sciences Po-trained historian whose essay engages international relations theory and questions from the world of political science. Both have spent time in academic and non-academic positions in different fields. Which one is the historian and which is the political scientist — and more importantly, does it matter? Bruce M. Sugden is a policy and research analyst who has combined historical work, technology assessment, and strategic analysis while working for the armed forces, the private sector, and federally-funded research centers. Jim Steinberg, a Yale-trained lawyer who has served at the highest levels of U.S. national security, engages methods from both history and theory to assess what factors and forces shaped the peace process in Northern Ireland. Jim has a favorite quote from Karl Marx’s Eleven Theses on Feuerbach that reflects his approach to teaching and research that is equally applicable to what we are trying to accomplish at TNSR: “Philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

My sense is that many of these important epistemological questions are in play, and how we organize knowledge around important questions in national security, international security, and foreign policy may change — perhaps dramatically — in the years and decades to come. TNSR will be an engaged participant in these discussions and debates, and will continue to serve as a platform for the best accessible, cutting-edge, publicly minded, multidisciplinary research.

 

Francis J. Gavin is the chair of the editorial board of the Texas National Security Review. He is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and the inaugural director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University. His writings include Gold, Dollars, and Power: The Politics of International Monetary Relations, 1958–1971 (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) and Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Cornell University Press, 2012). His latest book, Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy, will be published by Brookings Institution Press later this year. 

 

Image: Thermos
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            [lead] => In his introductory essay for Vol. 2, Iss. 3, Frank Gavin, the chair of our editorial board, writes about feeling like a scholar without a home, the challenges of publishing an interdisciplinary journal, and how to adapt best practices from science and engineering to questions of war and peace.
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                    [endnotes] => [1] Francis J. Gavin, “TNSR: Who We Are, What We Do, and Why You Should Care,” Texas National Security Review 1, no. 1 (November 2017), https://doi.org/10.15781/T2513VC68.
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