Repetition in Advising: 1st Year Students

One thing that often strikes me is the extent to which the advice, counsel, what have you that I give is generic, and thus something that I want to deliver via a FAQ or a digital recording, or something.  I am sure many of you who teach have the same thought.  So I decided to post this not only in the hope that somebody finds it useful, but also in the hope that somebody points me toward a solution that improves the status quo.
Below is an email exchange I just had with a 1st year PhD student (indeed, one who has been in our program for 5 weeks).  Our students have received their first year paper assignment, which is standard: find an article, then replicate and extend it by revising the theory in some fashion and testing the new hypothesis (or something like that).  First year students have pretty much the same questions; struggle in very similar ways with the material they are trying to ingest (I like to refer to it as drinking from a fire hose), and so on.  This exchange illuminates only a couple of those issues: types of causal arguments and (un)conditional relationships.
Perhaps if a bunch of us toss up (bits of) email exchanges like this we could crowd source a useful FAQ?  That sounds pretty Pollyanaish too me, but what the heck.  The student’s portion is “quoted” and my responses are not (apologies for the tiny font–not sure how to change that…)
Since we have talked today, I have thought about my argument for Reynal-Querol’s article “Ethnicity, Political Systems, and Civil Wars.” Mostly, I agree with Reynol Querol’s argument that “religiously divided societies more tend to ethnic conflict than those whose people conflicts based on interest groups or language divisions.”
On the other hand, there is something that bothers me in this argument. Not all countries in which have different religious groups are prone to ethnic conflict because of those discrepancies.
Yes.  And of course, though she (probably) does not explicitly say so, her argument, like all arguments, is about the average effect in the domain of cases her theory covers (empirically, the average effect in her sample).  
There should be something additional to the religious differences, which drives the groups into the ethnic conflict.
OK, here we need to introduce the difference theories that posit necessary and/or sufficient conditions and probabilistic theories (we could also delve into work on what are called fuzzy sets, which try to occupy a space between what I have set up as a dichotomy, but that work has gained little traction in social science, and is not something to pursue until one has these basic down).  Are you arguing that religious differences are necessary, but not sufficient, to produce ethnic civil war?  Or are you arguing that while religious differences will raise the likelihood of ethnic CW, she is leaving out other variables that also have an impact?  If the latter, then you are making an argument using a probabilistic notion of causation.  That is by far the most common for of causal argument in poli-sci. That said, when making probabilistic arguments, one has to consider whether the two X vars are independent of one another, or whether the value that one of them takes changes the impact that the other has upon Y.  You might be arguing this last bit, which is to say that the impact of religious difference upon the onset of ethnic CW rises when some other X is present.  Note that if you argue that the impact of religious difference upon the onset of ethnic CW is zero when some other X is 0, but rises as that other X take a positive value, then you are effectively making a necessary and sufficient argument about those two X’s.
Reynal-Querol states this situation and investigates political institutions and the proportional representation systems of countries. However, she argues that the proportional representation systems operates as a preventive for ethnic conflicts.
In this regard, I would argue that in countries that have had a top-down nation state building processes religious groups tend to stimulate ethnic conflict. These lately independent states usually have artificial borders, and in those borders different ethnic groups have been forced to deal with each other under a new political system -mostly democracy.
OK, so you are introducing two new X’s here: artificiality of borders, and polity type.  Or are there three (i.e., type of nation state building, top down v bottom up)?
Since they did not have bottom-up nation state building processes as Western states have had, there would be no modern understanding of citizenship in those countries, which promotes artificial bonds that extend beyond basic kinship ties.
OK, so the real issue here is the extent to which the political system is able to socialize citizens (which is a function of the two or three new X’s you have introduced).
Due to the fact that there is no modern type understanding of citizenship, religion still would be a good glue to unite people from different backgrounds. Thus, one group’s endeavors in order to build hegemony over the other group or groups in the country would lead different religious groups into the conflict through polarization.
In this way, I think that I would reiterate Reynal-Querol’s theory -religiously polarized societies more tend to have the ethnic conflict- and extend it by adding a variable that shows whether those countries have bottom-up or top-down state-building processes.  


OK, so the impact of polarization upon ethnic CW onset depends upon the extent to which the state socializes citizens to identify with their nationality.  Is that right?  Or do you prefer to go with the type of nation state building (top down v bottom up)?

Revised 1 Oct: I tried to improve the formatting.

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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2 Responses to Repetition in Advising: 1st Year Students

  1. Sean says:

    This is a really neat way to introduce your new grad students to political science. I teach my methods class (at least for the last several semesters) as a replication course, though with a much higher level of supervision. My experience doing this in grad school (oh so many years ago) was pivotal for my understanding how quantitative research progresses.

    Your department may consider this to be advising, but I argue that what you are doing is teaching and for that reason you get the “repetition” you want to try to avoid. It seems to me that there is no way to avoid covering the same ground with students because they are learning the important lessons you are teaching them. No standard FAQ, video, lecture, or anything else will cause students to not cover this same ground with you every time. It is not to say that creating a new resource for students will not be helpful, but I think it will do little to reduce repetitive questions.

    BTW, it was a pleasure to see a student thinking so deeply about her assignment. You don’t find that everywhere.

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