Teaching WWI in real time (a hundred years later)

I’m developing a new undergraduate course for the fall, one that, in a very real way, can only be taught in the fall of 2014: The First World War in Real Time (A Hundred Years Later). I came to this idea a few months ago after spending, as anyone aware of my social media presence knows, a lot of time reading about the war over the last year or two. The plan is, after starting with The July Crisis and the outbreak of the war, the topics of the course will be dictated by what, exactly, had been happening that same week (roughly) one hundred years before: from Tannenberg and the Battle of the Frontiers to First Marne, from the strains of coalition warfare to the setting of war aims, and from the link between war and diplomacy to the domestic politics of mobilization and popular support. And that’s not even getting into all the alliance politics, logics of preventive war, decisions about war expansion, and the politics of the laws of neutrality, etc. that the course just begins with.

Can you tell I’m excited about this?

You might also notice that I’m posting about it well in advance. Part of the motivation here is to blog about my progress in preparing the course, to share ideas about the war, to work out possible paper topics that come out of it (War and Peace in East Asia, after all, did lead to my latest stuff on the laws of neutrality), and to get used to blogging regularly enough that I can maintain the commitment throughout the semester. So I’m hoping that these posts will be about teaching, research, the link between the two, prepping and developing courses, and, as well, a way to do something useful with my fascination for The Great War. If it works, there are certainly follow-on courses—1915 and the stabilization of the Western Front, 1916 and the Battles of Verdun and the Somme, 1917 with Russian implosion and American intervention, 1918 and war termination…you get the picture.


So I’m embarking on this project a little publicly, and hopefully it won’t just be me promoting a class about a war that most of my friends are probably (and rightly) tired of hearing me go on and on about. Should be fun.

More thoughts on academic writing

While “academic” might not be as accurate as “social scientific” in this statement, I like the notion enough to give it a sort of permanent self-retweet here:


It’s tough to remember—and even tougher to put into practice when you think you’ve found a way to say something that turns out to be too clever by half—so let’s just call this another public commitment for my own work.

Three arguments that impacted me

Phil Arena started this exercise of answering a few questions about what ideas or concepts have had an impact on us as scholars (and as people), and I think it’s a good idea—as evidenced by the fact that I’ve been thinking way too hard about my answers. Without further ado, let’s jump into it.

Q: Of all the arguments/findings/concepts you’ve learned in political science, which one has had the greatest impact on how you think about the world in your daily life? 

I’d say it’s sequential rationality, which gets us to ideas of subgame perfection and the credibility of promises or threats. The idea here is that I shouldn’t expect someone else to react to my actions down the road in a way that wouldn’t be in her interest. Sounds almost trivial when you put it that way, but the idea is that we’d like our theories of political action to rule out incredible threats. In other words, we would find an equilibrium implausible if someone threatened to blow us both up with a hand grenade if I don’t cough up a dollar and, as a result, I give her the dollar. If I say no, and she has to weigh the option of not having a dollar versus being dead, well, she’s unlikely to choose the latter.

Why is this useful? For me, it was instructive in my thinking about how politics works—say, why certain bargaining situations end up the way they do—and also how I thought about causality. What happens off the equilibrium path—every dog that doesn’t bark, every war that doesn’t happen (like World War III in the 1960s, the Second Korean War of 1994, the war between Russia and Wilhemine Germany in 1935), every election in the 1990s not involving Ross Perot—has a lot to tell us about what actually does happen, and breaking out of the linear A-follows-B narrative mode of thinking about political history was a big one for me.

Q: Of all the arguments/findings/concepts you’ve learned in political science, which one has had the greatest impact on your own research

This one’s tough. Thanks, Phil.

But I think it’s going to be my realization, some years ago, that “assumption” isn’t a four-letter word (it’s a nine-letter word, if you’re keeping score at home). Rather, assumptions are either useful for a particular question or not—no more, no less. They’re the means by which we keep track of what’s a moving part and what isn’t, by which we can isolate the effect of one thing we’re interested in from others. In fact, since the rules of logic are pretty much set, assumptions are about all we have in terms of contributions to theory. They’re nothing more than the premises of the arguments that make up our theories, but they’re also the the entry point for creativity and insight. They simplify, they restrict, and in so doing they give us power, leverage, and answers—as long as we’re explicit, everywhere and always, about what they are.

And once I realized that, I think I got better at writing down models, at tailoring them to my questions, and at understanding what they taught me. No small thing, that.

Q: Of all the arguments/findings/concepts you’ve learned in political science, which one did you most underestimate at first

I’m agreeing with Phil on this one. The unitary actor assumption. It’s easy to over-complicate a model with realism, but some theories—like most of my newer stuff on coalitions and multilateral bargaining—can be pretty powerful even as states are treated like billiard balls. (They’re also much easier to solve and explicate, but that’s another issue entirely.) But for the rest, I’ll direct you to Phil’s prior discussion.

Keef…and the November mix CD

Since (roughly) my senior year of college, I’ve made a monthly mix CD (February 2002 might still be the crowning achievement), capturing what I was listening to, where I was, and what I was into at the time. Well, almost every month: a few months here and there I’ve slipped, but only, of course, to ensure that the next month’s mix was all the more glorious. Of course. And, inspired by my recent purchase and early reading of “Life,” Keith Richards’ autobiography—which, a few chapters in, is the most facemeltingly badass thing I’ve ever read—I’ve decided to grace this space with an account of my monthly mixes, with contemporaneous commentary on their construction, as appropriate.

Before we get into the down and dirty, though, I might as well (like any honest mix CD connoisseur) lay out the ground rules. First, it must clock in at less than 80 minutes. Thus, it must be burnable. Second, it must contain a significant number of recent finds, whether new songs or rediscovered ones, yet it must also reflect that month in the life of Young Master Wolford with as much fidelity as possible, whether lyrically, musically, or both (note that track 10 below falls squarely in the “musically” category, not the other two). Third, repeats across months are admissible (witness the shockingly frequent recurrence of Uncle Tupelo’s “Gun” from 2004 to 2005), but they must be significant (as in, my brief fascination with Kid Rock’s “I am the Bullgod” likely won’t result in frequent appearances). Fourth, the title must be both absurd and devoid of relation to the common thread of the songs themselves; it must be awesome, yet make no sense (sort of like my research agenda, no?). Finally, the sequencing must be flawless: to quote an old friend, anything less than the best is a felony.

With that said, here’s the October 2010 mix CD, entitled “Free Enes” (Google it if you’re curious, and if you’re a basketball fan, well, Free Enes) in all its glory:

  1. The End – Kings of Leon
  2. Rebels – Drive-By Truckers
  3. All Your Lies – Soundgarden
  4. Road Cases – Drive-By Truckers
  5. Church on Tuesday – Stone Temple Pilots
  6. No Money – Kings of Leon
  7. John the Baptist – The Afghan Whigs
  8. What Are You Willing to Lose – Lucero
  9. Wolves (Song Of The Shepherd’s Dog) – Iron & Wine
  10. No One Loves Me & Neither Do I – Them Crooked Vultures
  11. 3’s & 7’s – Queens of the Stone Age
  12. Shot Shot – Gomez
  13. (Bang a Gong) Get It On – T. Rex
  14. You Wreck Me – Tom Petty
  15. Bring Your Lovin’ Back Here – Gomez
  16. Low Light – Pearl Jam
  17. No Hidden Path – Neil Young

All in all, a great month musically, but it’s certainly dominated by the Kings, yet punctuated by my recent re-discovery of how much of a badass Greg Dulli is (expect some Twilight Singers in November, folks). And, in the interest of full disclosure, track 2 (as well as Pearl Jam’s “Corduroy”) could be on every mix CD I ever make. It just happened to be on this one…and, perhaps, the next nine. November’s shaping up well, showing at this point a healthy dose of The Dead Weather and Pink Floyd…but we’ll see where it ends up…

…oh, and long live Ben Nichols. Just saying.