By Michael Smith of Emporia State University


It was the first day of #MPSA19, and I had just participated in the best conference experience of my life. Fittingly, the topic of our roundtable was academics and civic engagement. And we certainly engaged.

My fellow panelists were each passionate about connecting political science to the world outside academia. Each of us has published our share of traditional, peer-reviewed academic research in outlets such as books and journal articles. But, we do not leave it there. Panelist Gregg R. Murray of Augusta University studies political psychology and writes for Psychology Today. Justin Bullock of Texas A&M  podcasts regularly on Public Problems and Bush School Uncorked. Lara M. Brown of George Washington University served in the Clinton Administration and now writes for The Hill among other publications. Nayma Qayum of Manhattanville College studies Bangladeshi politics and blogs for the Monkey Cage. Session chair Deron T. Schreck of Moraine Valley Community College hosts numerous public forums and utilizes blogging and podcasting in his teaching. I not only blog for MPSA, I also write newspaper columns and maintain the blog for Insight Kansas. We all also speak to reporters regularly.

Audience questions centered on university and departmental expectations for hiring, tenure, and promotion. (You can read more about the audience response to the panel in this post by James Steur.) We all agreed that the academic career model is showing its age. Many universities still reward only traditional research. Tenure and promotion documents will require some adaptation in order to accommodate the newer outlets for ideas, particularly since outlets like the Monkey Cage have become serious, respected places to release preliminary research results and reach broader audiences. Of course, there is the usual resistance from the old guard, but we all agreed that modernizing hiring and promotion guidelines was an essential step to keeping political science relevant.

That is not to say we agreed on everything. Sparks flew when I disclosed that I disclose—specifically, that I acknowledge my party affiliation up-front, have attracted critics, and sometimes choose provocative titles for my work. Several panelists expressed serious concerns that professors who are perceived as party hacks or bomb-throwers compromise political science’s integrity and our discipline’s reputation for putting analysis over partisanship. These concerns are well-founded, but I countered with my own experiences, in which politicos often distrust professors who claim to be unbiased, and prefer those who disclose our partisan leanings up-front and let readers take our comments with a grain of salt. As a Democrat, I maintain great relationships with many elected Republicans in deep-red Kansas, because unlike the politically-disengaged majority, we share an appreciation for political parties themselves. I also argued that today’s students expect professors to have real-world experience with what they teach. No one would trust a technical school professor who taught “diesel mechanics theory” and never touched an engine, so why should they trust political science professors who have no real-world political experience? Most political scientists have political histories, leanings and opinions, whether we reveal them to our students and readers, or not. I maintain that, as with campaign finance, the best policy is to disclose.

Still, the argument in favor of nonpartisanship is a strong one, too, and we did not come to a consensus during our roundtable session. However, what we did do was far more important—we had a lively discussion while keeping it civil. In so doing, we role-modeled the approach extolled by colleagues John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse: not seeking consensus, but instead, learning how to effectively handle our disagreement. We left a spirited discussion agreeing on some things, disagreeing on others, and each appreciating one another’s’ perspectives. Several of us continued into an impromptu hallway conversation lasting nearly two hours. Though nothing is yet official, we discussed the potential for a new MPSA Working Group on Civic Engagement. E-mail addresses and Twitter handles were exchanged, selfies taken,  and follow-up conversations promised.

This experience was conferencing at its very best. It was a lively exchange of ideas, agreement and civil disagreement, and mutual support for colleagues at different stages of our careers. Teaching colleges and research universities, faculty and administration were all represented on our roundtable panel. Most of all, it was a sustained discussion about just what it will take to make, and keep political science relevant both on- and off-campus, in a world that continually changes faster than academia.

About the Author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.