To Networking & Beyond: Strategies for Successful Networking

By James Steur, a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Networking

As MPSA 2020 fast approaches, my colleagues have talked to me about the part of conferences they dread more than their presentations: networking. Someone I know remarked, “I feel like an inauthentic version of myself networking, and the person I’m speaking with also feels like an inauthentic version of themselves.” Although networking can feel uncomfortable—especially for highly introverted people—there are ways to make the process more comfortable and authentic.

Scheduling a Meeting
The first step to make networking more comfortable is scheduling your meeting in advance: I suggest six to eight weeks of notice. One advantage of scheduling a meeting in advance is that you’re more likely to successfully meet busy scholars with full schedules. More importantly, more notice means more time to prepare what you’d like to talk about, which can help make the meeting feel less uncomfortable. That said, there are multiple ways to schedule a meeting with different people at MPSA.

1). Email
Email is a simple and powerful tool to connect with scholars. If you want to meet with a faculty member or graduate student whose work you admire, check to see if they are on the MPSA program and email them. When you send the email, introduce yourself, provide some context about why you’re reaching out (e.g., similar research interests), and see if they’d be open to meeting for 15–30 minutes at MPSA. If you don’t get a response within a week, send a reminder email to check-in with them: people can get busy. If you don’t feel comfortable cold emailing someone, ask around your department and see if there’s a common connection to the person you’re emailing. Perhaps a faculty member or graduate student in your department went to the same school—establishing a common connection helps build rapport.

2). Twitter 
Twitter is a great (and often underutilized) way to meet with folks. Currently, there is a “take jr folks to lunch MPSA” Twitter thread with many senior and junior faculty members offering to take groups of graduate students to coffee or lunch to discuss the profession. Other faculty members and graduate students are tweeting outside the thread to meet with people and discuss topics like publishing, teaching, imposter syndrome, and other important topics. Keep your eyes peeled on Twitter before the conference, and reach out to meet with someone if a particular topic interests you. Last year, I reached out to a faculty member, got lunch with him and another grad student, and had a great time chatting. Alternatively, you can post your own tweet asking if anybody would like to meet for coffee or lunch at the conference and see who responds.

3). MPSA Networking Opportunities and Mentoring Panels
Beyond scheduling your own meetings, MPSA offers mentoring opportunities. You can attend the MPSA Mentoring Reception (held on Friday, April 17, from 6:30–7:30PM at the Palmer House) to meet with different scholars whose research interests align with yours. You need to sign up as a mentee to participate in the Mentoring Reception by March 16, so look at the mentor bios and sign up sooner rather than later. Another option is participating in the Academic Year Mentorship program. Both are excellent options for graduate students who feel less comfortable reaching out to network, and are great opportunities for faculty members to connect with younger scholars.

If this is your first time attending MPSA, I highly encourage you to attend the First Time Attendee Reception and Tour on Thursday, April 16, from 4:45–6:15PM. You can make great connections with others who are also new to the conference by signing up here.

The Meeting
Your meeting is scheduled: now what do I do at the meeting? How should I act? There are a few easy things you can do during the meeting to make a good impression: be on time, thank the person for meeting, ask how they’re doing, and bring a notepad to take notes if it seems appropriate. If you’re meeting in a group with multiple people, be respectful and let everyone speak. Domineering a group conversation can be disrespectful to others who may want to speak or ask questions. Relatedly, many people make a common mistake and act like they are meeting with old friends—remember you’re establishing a professional relationship. Perhaps the relationship can become a friendship, but the context of the meeting is at a professional conference to discuss research and other professional topics.

But how do I make this meeting less uncomfortable? My personal strategy is to ask myself, “Why was I interested in reaching out to this person?” The answers vary depending on the person: some people have written academic articles that shift how I think about the world, and I want to talk about how they come up with their ideas. I may be interested in a new method they used, or I’d like to learn more about how to engage in public scholarship. The bottom line is that I respect some aspect of their work, and I’m interested in learning more about them. Once I express my genuine interest in them and their work, the conversation and relationship feels more authentic and less uncomfortable.

After The Meeting
Like I mentioned in a post at last year’s MPSA, it is easy to lose touch after meeting. My strategy is to keep a professional network spreadsheet that reminds me who I have met, what we talked about, and their contact information. If you want to follow-up on something you discussed with them, you should feel comfortable sending an email or reaching out. That said, I would also be aware of how busy they are and not send too many emails.

In the end, networking doesn’t have to feel uneasy or uncomfortable. People are usually more than happy to meet with you and discuss professional topics like research if you reach out. The more you put yourself out there, the easier it becomes to network. So take the first step and reach out to chat with somebody at this year’s MPSA to establish an authentic connection and build your network.

 

James Steur

About the Author: James Steur is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include political psychology, political behavior, and the role of emotions in citizen decision-making. He is a first-generation student, passionate coffee drinker, and excited to be blogging (for a second time!) at MPSA. You can find James on Twitter at @JamesSteur 

Study the Humanities: Articulating Career Pathways

By Scott Muir, Study the Humanities Project Director, National Humanities Alliance

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Commentators have offered a variety of explanations for the widely observed decline in humanities majors and enrollments. Evidence suggests the primary cause is a dramatic reordering of student priorities away from existential educational aims toward pragmatic financial goals, beginning around 1970 and accelerating after the financial crisis of 2008.

Herein lies the greatest opportunity for reversing the decline, for the problem is with students’ perceptions more than reality. It’s not that the humanities don’t prepare students for career success; humanities majors’ career outcomes are in fact quite strong. But in the absence of clear pathways to a sustainable career, students and parents whose confidence has been shaken by the Great Recession and rising student debt fill the void with their fears. To restore confidence in the humanities, we must replace a cloudy picture of uncertain outcomes with a brighter vision of expansive possibilities. But how?

At the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), we have gained a unique perspective on this challenge and the opportunity it presents. Over the past two years, we’ve assessed the field of undergraduate humanities recruitment efforts, including a recent survey of more than 390 faculty and administrators at nearly 300 institutions. We’ve collected a wide variety of promising strategies for recruiting students with the goal of sharing these strategies to benefit the whole community. Many involve clarifying career pathways for humanities majors, ranging from efforts aimed at persuading prospective students to those that help graduating majors successfully navigate the job market.

For prospective students and their parents, many faculty and administrators have reported that presenting the national employment data featured in our Study the Humanities toolkit helps confront widespread misconceptions concerning career prospects. Additionally, data and success stories drawn from one’s own institution provide a more concrete and accessible picture of the possibilities. For example, at Brandeis University, the School of Arts and Sciences has partnered with the Hiatt Career Center to present outcome data by major, which Dean Dorothy Hodgson reports “shows the tremendous placement success—and overcomes parental and student anxieties.” At Lebanon Valley College, the English Department researched their graduates’ career outcomes and created a brief video that presents the actual job titles of alumni to prospective students and their parents.

Once on campus, general education courses provide crucial opportunities to demonstrate the practical value of humanities skills to broad populations of students. At the University of Missouri, the College of Arts and Sciences appointed a Career Readiness Faculty Fellow to help faculty across the college incorporate modules explaining how the liberal arts equip students for long-term career success into their gen ed courses. And at the University of Minnesota, the College of Liberal Arts developed a pedagogical tool to help students identify the skills developed through their assignments and translate them to non-academic settings. Importantly, they also implemented incentives to encourage faculty to incorporate the tool in their courses, as well as identify transferable skills on their syllabi. As a result, more than 10,000 students completed the translation assignment last semester.

Other initiatives help ensure humanities majors preparing to graduate are equipped to transition to the workforce. For example, the English Department at West Chester University created a poster series and annual event entitled “What can you do with an English major?” to help students explore a variety of career pathways. Furthermore, the department created an internship course and a series of six workshops that help majors translate academic accomplishments for job application materials. At Hendrix College, John Sanders redesigned the Religious Studies Department’s capstone course to help students articulate transferable skills gained through previous courses and capstone projects. Meanwhile, students work with career center staff to hone their resumes and interview skills.

Finally, humanities faculty and administrators are developing new ways to engage alumni and employers to identify opportunities for their students and increase demand for their skills. For the past decade, Duke University has hosted an annual weekend of programming that brings together arts and humanities majors interested in working in a wide variety of media-related fields with alumni who have found success there. And at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, the Humanities Network and Consortium has partnered with career center staff to bring employers and recruiters to campus for regular events that highlight the professional advantages provided by the humanities.

Together, these initiatives present models for identifying transferable humanities skills and illuminating career pathways, helping to correct misconceptions and provide a clearer, more accurate picture of humanities majors’ career prospects. Of course, there are many other benefits to studying the humanities and strategies for highlighting them. Several campuses are experimenting with cohort programs to help students forge deep connections. Others are developing or revising courses to demonstrate how the humanities can help address a wide variety of contemporary challenges.

In the coming year, we will be working to ensure the lessons learned on individual campuses benefit the whole humanities community. To better understand which recruitment strategies are most effective, we have developed survey instruments to measure their impact on students’ perceptions and behaviors. We are partnering with directors of compelling initiatives to implement customized surveys. And we will distribute resources that provide an overview of various strategies faculty and administrators across the country are employing and highlight particularly promising models. We invite you to partner with us in these efforts by sharing your strategies via our survey.

Scott Muir leads Study the Humanities, an initiative that provides humanities faculty, administrators, and advocates with evidence-based resources and strategies to make the case for studying the humanities as an undergraduate. Prior to joining NHA, Scott pursued training at the intersection of the humanities and social sciences, earning a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Duke University, an M.T.S. from Emory University, and a B.A. from Dartmouth College. He has taught at Duke, Emory, and Western Carolina University, and his work has appeared in Sacred Matters Magazine and the Journal of Religion and Society. He can be reached at smuir@nhalliance.org.

Beyond the Hat: Will the Trump Coalition Hold in 2020?

by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University 

2020 Election

Will President Trump’s Coalition hold in 2020? Hardly anyone seems to be asking this question, at least in public these days.  It is up to us political scientists to remind voters that some of the conventional wisdom still holds, when analyzing elections.  Trump’s voters are not a monolith but a coalition, and his key to re-election rests upon his ability to hold together that coalition.  Like any motley crew, Trump’s coalition includes a range of supporters, from rock-solid to undecided to those who decided, early on, that they made a mistake.  He must hold his coalition together to win four more years in office, just like a more conventional President seeking a second term.

These insights are not mine—or rather, they are not mine alone.  I found this conclusion to be the emerging sense of the meeting a few months ago, when serving on a roundtable on the 2020 Presidential election, at the Great Plains Political Science Association annual meetings.  Colleagues Kim Casey and Bronson Herrera of Northwest Missouri State, Nicholas Nicholetti of Missouri Southern, and I bounced around numerous ideas, from rigorous and research based to purely impressionistic, during our lively exchange.  Ultimately, one thing we could all agree upon is this:  President Trump’s supporters are not a single, monolithic group.  Many do not wear “MAGA” hats or visit alt-right websites.  They run the gamut from evangelical Christians to hardcore religious skeptics, war hawks to isolationists, traditional Republicans to independents and ex-Democrats.

In popular culture, the focus is generally placed upon the ways in which Trump’s coalition does not appear to be diverse.  They tend to be white and non-Hispanic, middle-aged or older men and married women, heterosexual, and reside in suburban and rural areas.  The vast majority identify as Christian.  Yet even this conceals some diversity.  Twenty-eight percent of Hispanic voters, for example, supported Trump in 2016—about the same percentage that backed Mitt Romney.  The conservative news/editorial media is abuzz with early reports that African American voters support Trump at higher rates than previous Republican candidates—though they still prefer the Democrats by a substantial margin.

Trump’s continuous stream of Tweets, outrageous quotes, and confrontational behavior can easily confound observers into thinking that the old political campaign playbook has to be discarded this term.  Add in the fact that some in academia—and many more in the news media– blew the call for the 2016 election.  Yet we political scientists are notorious debunkers of the conventional wisdom—and that includes the so-called insight that Trump completely rewrote the way we view campaigns.

One group that already knows this, is Trump’s campaign staff.  Trump brought a lot more to the table than MAGA hats and campaign rallies in 2016.  His staff developed a sophisticated microtargeting operation, much more advanced than Hillary Clinton’s.  Expect this to be back for 2020.

Microtargeting—a concept popularized by journalist Sasha Issenberg in his 2012 book The Victory Lab—is a powerful reminder that Trump’s campaign has to do a lot more than hats and rallies.  Just as would a more conventional politician, Trump must hold together key blocs of supporters to stay in office.  Otherwise, his razor-thin margins in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin may disappear.

The value placed upon “swing” votes may be overestimated.  A recent Politico article featured a rather overhyped synapsis of Dr. Rachel Bitecofer’s research.  Bitecofer made dead-on predictions of the 2018 midterm elections, which featured a dramatic turnout surge compared to 2014.  Democrats will undoubtedly seek to capitalize on this, particularly among young voters.  Bitecofer argues that elections today are turnout battles with heavy emphasis on negative partisanship—that is, voting against, as opposed to voting for.  Other analysists agree that swing voters are diminishing.

Still, a presidential election is not a midterm, and Democrats will be looking for whatever cracks they can find in the Trump coalition.  These will be more apparent in some constituencies than others.  Again it must be borne in mind that even slight shifts in states such as Wisconsin can shift their electoral votes, since the vote there was incredibly close in 2016.

The Trump coalition includes the following:

1. The alt-right

This group dominates perceptions about Trump, particularly by his opponents.  With their MAGA hats and boisterous rallies, Trump’s so-called “alt-right” supporters cut quite a figure.  Trump’s early decision to appoint Steve Bannon of the alt-right online publication Breitbart.com to a key White House position further energized this group, as do his staunch opposition to illegal immigration, his attempted (and partly successful) “Muslim ban,” and of course his speeches and tweets.

Yet just as most Democrats are not yoga-posing, Prius-driving vegans, the stereotypes of Trump supporters as being exclusively made up of these vocal and visible alt-right voters are highly misleading.  Most voters for Trump—as for nearly all candidates—have never been to a political rally and have no desire to go to one.  This is why turnout tends to be dramatically lower in caucus states than in primary states, for example—most voters don’t want to invest the time, nor publically disclose who they are backing.  While alt-right voters are active on social media, the bombast of their words may cause us to overestimate their numbers.  These voters aren’t going anywhere, but good political analysis requires us to push past this group and look at the rest of the President’s coalition.

2. Evangelical Christians

Trump does not speak for all Christians, as many passionate dissenters have made clear.  Critics of faith object to Trump’s treatment of immigrants, hawkish stance on Iran, environmental policies, cuts to social programs, and non-cooperation with Congressional investigations into his own behavior—including the impeachment trial.  Yet among the rank and file, most evangelicals remain fiercely loyal to the President.  Supreme Court appointments and the possibility of overturning the Roe v Wade court decision are of course front and center, but there is more. Trump’s recent authorization to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani is widely supported by evangelicals, and it reinforces a narrative that Islamic extremists are a danger to the western world, and to Christianity in particular.  Trump’s hawkish stand on Israel is also much more popular with evangelicals than it is with most Jewish Americans, the latter of whom still overwhelmingly back Democrats, and play a key role in battleground Florida.  Progressive Christians like Jim Wallis cite anecdotal evidence that Trump’s evangelical supporters are having doubts, but it is unlikely that Democrats can peel away more than a small number of them, particularly when they are re-energized by actions such as Soleimani’s assassination.

3. Regular Republicans

I was one of the analysts who blew the call in 2016.  My prediction of a Clinton victory was based largely on my assumption that many traditional Republicans—of the sort who backed John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012—would defect from the party over Trump’s nomination.  Not only were Trump’s comments often shocking, he also defected from longstanding Republican precedent by advocating for tariffs—which had not been discussed openly in American politics for about a century—in place of the party’s longtime support for free markets and free trade.  I thought many Romney supporters would switch to Clinton this time.

What happened, was that I forgot about the fundamentals that my mentors taught me in grad school.  As documented in John Sides and Henry Farrell’s excellent ebook The Science of Trump, these fundamentals apply just as much to Trump, as to more conventional candidates. Most voters simply are not ideological—not liberal, not conservative, not even moderate.  Their attachment to parties and candidates comes from other sources like family, race, and religion.  Trump shifted the Republican Party on some key policy issues, but many of their voters did not care.  If these voters did not leave the party in 2016, it is highly unlikely they will do so in 2020.

And as for my own mistake in predicting the 2016 election:  fool me once…

4. Obama-Trump voters in general

Yes, they are a thing.  Estimated at about six million nationwide, they are particularly concentrated in the Great Lakes “firewall” states that flipped in 2016 and put Trump in the White House.  These voters have policy views remarkably similar to other Democrats on issues like abortion rights, health care, and the DACA program for undocumented immigrants brought here as children.  Yet, these voters are notably more conservative on other immigration issues, including Trump’s border wall, and are more likely than other Democrats to believe that people of color and feminists are making too many demands of white men.  These issues will be tricky for the Democrats to negotiate and have received a lot of coverage in the press, but in the end showing some empathy for their belief that working-class whites are being left behind may prove to be pivotal for Democrats seeking to win back some of this group.

5. Auto industry voters

The data presented in last article hyperlinked above also shows something not discussed by the article’s own authors—a huge gap between Obama-Trump voters and other Democrats on the Paris Climate Agreement.  The former group is much less supportive, and I have a pet hypothesis as to why.  These voters are heavily concentrated in states where the auto industry has a large presence:  Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and to a lesser extent, Iowa.  Two more auto industry states, Missouri and Indiana, shifted over just 8 years from a near-tie between Obama and McCain back in 2008—Obama actually won Indiana the first time—to double-digit Trump victories in 2020.  Why?

The American auto industry today includes many factories run by overseas-based companies like Toyota, Nissan, and Volkswagen.  Most of these are non-unionized, and many are in the South.  Yet the traditional “Big Three,” UAW-organized auto industry remains a strong presence in the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley states, and two of these three companies—and an estimated 1.5 million jobs– were rescued from bankruptcy by Obama Administration policies.  Obama’s advertising from 2012 highlighted Mitt Romney’s notorious “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” editorial headline, while another commercial featured a cartoon Romney putting company logos into a wood chipper.

If Democrats seek to renew their support for the workers and retirees of U.S. auto industry, they are going to have to confront a big problem:  fuel economy.  Environmental advocates, who overwhelmingly favor Democrats, want more of it, for example hailing California’s strict new gas mileage standards and support for electric cars.  Yet the traditional U.S. auto industry does not excel in the market for these cars.  Instead, they dominate the market in larger SUVs and pickup trucks, which tend to be gas guzzlers.

Many of these auto industry voters are members of the United Auto Workers, which traditionally supports Democrats, and they agree with their old party on issues like health care.  Yet in order to win them back, the Democrats will have to convince them—as did Obama—that their jobs, and their pensions, are not at stake, without losing the staunch pro-environmentalism supporters to nonvoting or to third-party candidates.

Donald Trump’s behavior as candidate and President is anything but conventional.  For one thing, he just became the first President in U.S. history to seek re-election while being impeached.  Yet it is incumbent on us political scientists to cool the hype—in this case, the overblown case that traditional approaches to political analysis are no longer relevant.  Nothing could be further from the truth, and operatives working quietly but effectively in the campaign organizations of both parties already know this.  Now it is time for the rest of us to realize it, too.  In order to get re-elected, the President must hold together his coalition.  In order to defeat him, Democrats will have to simultaneously turn out new voters, and cut into Trump’s coalition, targeting those who are most cross-pressured.  Neither job will be easy, and it would be very premature for either side to throw out all those old campaign playbooks.

Michael Smith

Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter

Can Gerrymandering be Measured? Here Come the Mathematicians

By Brian Hollenbeck and Michael Smith of Emporia State University

Just weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court acted to sharply limit the role of the courts with regards to partisan gerrymandering. In Rucho v. Common Cause, the Court majority upheld the Davis v. Bandemer case of 1976, reaffirming that partisan gerrymandering is a “political question” and refusing to intervene. In Rucho, the Court found that “None of the proposed ‘tests’ for evaluating partisan gerrymandering claims meets the need for a limited and precise standard that judicially discernible and manageable.” They also noted that racial gerrymandering may be held to a different standard, because “race-based decision making…is ‘inherently suspect’ [as per] Miller v. Johnson [1995].”

Are they right? In recent years, mathematicians and mathematically-trained political scientists have begun to weigh in on the gerrymandering question. While the struggle to identify and analyze instances of potential partisan gerrymandering is more than 200 years old, new insights and computer models move it into new territory. Was a state’s congressional district map intentionally drawn to favor one political party?

There are four main criteria one can check to determine if a district map should be flagged for potential partisan gerrymandering:

  1. Does a district contain significantly more or fewer voters than another?
  2. Does the shape of a district appear to be unnatural and thus indicate manipulation?
  3. Does the distribution of voters among the districts negatively affect one party more than another in an election?
  4. Does the outcome of a potential election for a particular district map drastically differ from the expected outcome of a non-partisan map?

Measuring Compactness

The first criterion is known as “one-person, one-vote” and is simple to check. This criterion requires each district contain approximately the same number of voters. In a hypothetical community of 100 people, to be divided into 4 equally-populated districts, there are 1.6 x 1057 possible configurations!

The second criterion stems from the original case of gerrymandering, where the bizarre shape of a state senate election district in Massachusetts provoked a now-famous political cartoon mocking its likeness to a salamander. States have tried to combat this by requiring the shapes of districts to be “compact.” Intuitively, this means the district should not zigzag unnecessarily around the state. But extra constraints such as county lines, rivers, mountains, and population centers necessitate the need for exceptions. Thus, deviation from perfection is to be expected for most districts in most states. To quantify the magnitude of this deviation, mathematicians have created several definitions for compactness.

One perimeter-based definition is known as Polsby-Popper, introduced in 1991. The Polsby-Popper score uses the ratio of the district’s area to the square of its perimeter. This method is advantageous because it is simple to understand and penalizes any shape that meanders a lot. However, this means any district with long borders due to rivers or other physical obstacles will also be penalized.

A second definition makes use of the convex hull of a district. The convex hull can be thought of as the shape a rubber band would make if it were wrapped around the boundary of the district. The score is calculated by finding the ratio of the district’s area and the area of its convex hull. This score can sometimes be easier to calculate than a perimeter-based score since the hull “smooths” convoluted edges. However, this feature could minimize the impact of gerrymandering on a district’s score. Convex hull scores often reach similar overall results as perimeter scores, when comparing districts for compactness.

A third definition of compactness, known as Reock, compares the ratio of the district’s area with the area of a circle that circumscribes the district. This is both simple to calculate and understand. However, the Reock score can be misleading since a district with a large distance in one dimension will automatically require a large circle to contain, thus scoring low for compactness. This is true even if there are natural formations such as a coastline, which may offer a nonpartisan explanation for why the boundary meanders.

In short, there is no one, best standard to use in measuring compactness. Real-world geographical boundaries often complicate matters too much to reach a final conclusion.

Measuring Partisan Bias

These attempts to measure gerrymandering via the district’s shape have led us to a muddle. Perhaps it is time for a different approach, one which focuses on the outcome of an election based on voter distribution, rather than the shape of a district. In this case, we are trying to identify maps drawn in which voters from one party have been spread out among several districts (known as cracking), or grouped together in a few districts (known as packing).

The efficiency gap was introduced by Stephanopoulos and McGhee in 2015 and is calculated by finding the number of wasted votes for each party. A wasted vote is any vote that did not contribute to a party winning its district. Any votes above the minimum needed for a party to win the district are considered unnecessary and therefore “wasted.” Likewise, all votes cast by the losing party in a district are also wasted. The efficiency gap is calculated by finding the difference between wasted votes for the two parties and expressing this difference as a percentage of the total number of voters in a state.

One cannot assume that a high compactness score will always correspond to a low efficiency gap. Alexeev and Mixon have concluded in some situations, “a small efficiency gap is only possible with bizarrely-shaped districts.” In fact, they proved that every districting system will be flagged by at least one of our first three criteria.

Furthermore, convoluted attempts to undermine the minority party can have unintended consequences. The Court’s majority opinion in Rucho noted, “Democrats also challenged the Pennsylvania congressional districting plan at issue in Vieth. Two years after that challenge failed, they gained four seats in the delegation, going from a 12-7 minority to an 11-8 majority. At the next election, they flipped another Republican seat.”

Best Outcome among Many Possibilities

Criterion #4 requires simulation to find the most common outcomes for thousands of random maps. A map could be deemed “gerrymandered” if its election outcome does not fall into one of the expected distributions of seats. This is what the dissenting opinion proposed in Rucho: “Suppose now we have 1,000 maps, each with a partisan outcome attached to it. We can line up those maps on a continuum – the most favorable to Republicans on one end, the most favorable to Democrats on the other … And we can see where the State’s actual plan falls on the spectrum – at or near the median or way out on one of the tails?”

So, that is exactly what we did. Here at Emporia State, we randomly chose 100,000 possible maps for a hypothetical district of 100 people, divided into four districts. In this district, one party has a 52% majority, the other 48% supports a second party. For the sake of simplicity, these maps did not require the districts to be contiguous. While such districts might not be practical in reality, it does guarantee the most non-partisan maps possible since “urban electoral districts are often dominated by one political party-can itself lead to inherently packed districts” (Rucho). This simulation shows that for a state of 100 voters, about 54% of non-partisan maps will lead to the majority party winning two seats. Another 40% will yield three seats to the majority, while 5% will give the majority one seat.

However, results change dramatically when the parameters for a state are tweaked. As the table below shows, the expected distribution of seats quickly changes if the advantage of the majority party increases.

Number of votes out of 100 for Party X (the majority party)

Seats won by X 50 52 55 60 65 70
1 17% 5% 0% 0% 0% 0%
2 66% 54% 24% 2% 0% 0%
3 17% 40% 63% 43% 14% 3%
4 0% 1% 13% 54% 86% 97%

These trends become more pronounced as the population of a state increases. As the next table indicates, even a slim 52% majority will eventually guarantee Party X wins all four seats if the population is large enough. This fact was recognized by the majority opinion in Rucho: “[i]f all or most of the districts are competitive … even a narrow statewide preference for either party would produce an overwhelming majority for the winning party in the state legislature.”

Distribution of random map outcomes for various populations when Party X has 52% of the vote

Seats won by X 100 voters 1000 voters 10000 voters
1 5% 0% 0%
2 54% 19% 0%
3 40% 64% 5%
4 1% 17% 95%

A more sophisticated simulation will generate different results. The fact that states generally do not have all their districts vote in favor of a single party indicates that contiguousness of districts affects the outcome. In other words, party affiliation is not randomly distributed across a state. Thus, the minority party is likely to have enough votes concentrated in one region of a state to win at least one district. Simulations that take into account contiguousness, county lines, or other state-specific restrictions will be less random and more likely to benefit the minority party.

North Carolina 2016 House Districts Map

Now let’s try a real-world example. Consider the 13 congressional districts of North Carolina. In the 2016 election, 49.8% of voters selected the Republican nominee for President while 46.2% chose the Democratic nominee. Despite this slim difference, ten of 13 districts voted Republican. Using the given percentages from 2016, suppose we assign each of North Carolina’s 2,706 precincts a voter preference – Republican, Democrat, or neither. We next randomly distribute those precincts into 13 districts of approximately the same size. We repeat this experiment 1000 times.

The next table shows the results of this simulation, assuming any tied districts went equally to Republicans and Democrats. Notice about 40% of these maps will result in Republicans winning at least 10 seats. On the other hand, a less random simulation, conducted by an expert witness that takes into account North Carolina districting criteria, had zero maps out of 3000 give Republicans a 10-3 advantage or better (Rucho). In other words, the state’s districting criteria actually lead to a smaller Republican advantage than would be predicted by a random simulation.

Simulation of percentage of North Carolina districts won by Republicans

# of districts won by Republicans 7 or less 8 9 10 11 or more
% of maps 5% 18% 36% 30% 10%

Conclusion

Instead of viewing gerrymandering as a tool to pad the majority, it may make more sense to view it as a tool that may be used to increase minority representation. Furthermore, as political scientists have noted for years, multimember districts with proportional representation—while not required by the Constitution or Court rulings—remains by far the more effective method to ensure fair representation for minorities. However, this method is rarely used in U.S. Congressional or state legislative elections.

About the Authors: Bran Hollenbeck is a Professor of Mathematics at Emporia State University and 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 from Smith on his blog and follow him on Twitter.


The views and opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Midwest Political Science Association, MPSA staff, and/or other site contributors.

Show Me the Money: Securing Research Funding

By Charmaine N. Willis of University of Albany

Word map with various currencies scattered around edges
One of the most important parts of conducting any research project, regardless of its methodology, is securing research funding. The recent MPSA conference offered several roundtables dedicated to research funding; in this blog, I cover the roundtable co-sponsored by the Midwest Women’s Caucus, the Gender and Politics section, and the Professional Development section. The panelists offered several useful pieces of advice when considering where and how to apply for research grants that are applicable for researchers at any stage, including graduate students.

Explaining Your Research

A key theme that the panelists touched upon was the importance of being able to explicitly and succinctly summarize one’s research. While this is a piece of advice that many of us have heard before, the roundtable provided some specific suggestions on how to do it. Firstly, a grant application should provide the bottom line up front (BLUF). Grant reviewers must review hundreds or thousands of pages-long grant applications for funding. Therefore, it is important for applicants to succinctly present key information about their projects such as what the project is, what it will do, and why it is important in the first part of the application. Relatedly, a researcher should also think about a keyword or key phrase that summarizes their research. For example, my dissertation examines the causes of variation in anti-US military protest mobilization in Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. Keywords and key phrases would include “mobilization” and “anti-US military protests”. Identifying the keywords allows a researcher to tease out the core of their research project, and in doing so, may make it easier to communicate their research to funders who may not be familiar with the broader research area.

Contextualizing Your Research

A related roundtable theme was the importance of contextualizing one’s research. Researchers need to be mindful of the fact that funding sources vary widely, and, in many instances, may come from outside one’s discipline. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that funders may not be familiar with disciplinary jargon or literature and researchers should write their applications accordingly. Even for those funders who are familiar with the discipline or the research area, grant applicants need to spell out the significance of their projects. Questions to consider include:

  • How does this project fit and contribute to the broader disciplinary literature?
  • How does this project aid or advance the sciences?
  • How does this project help people?

The ability to highlight the importance of one’s research to the discipline and society at large may mean the difference between receiving funding or not.

The panelists also emphasized the importance of understanding funders’ priorities.

  • What are the goals of the funding organization?
  • What projects have received funding in the past?

Researchers should use these cues to emphasize the aspects of their project that align with organizational priorities to improve their chances of getting funded.

Research Collaboration

Finally, panelists emphasized the importance of collaboration in securing research funding. First, researchers in search of funding should consider public sector partners who may be interested in their research and accordingly, may be willing to provide some research funding. Public sector partners may include municipal, state, or national governments or public non-governmental organizations. Second, researchers may want to consider collaborating on a research project. Collaborative proposals, especially cross-disciplinary or cross-university projects, tends to be more likely to be funded. Additionally, adding contributors from different disciplines or institutions may open up the types of grants for which researchers can apply. While it may be difficult to identify potential collaborators, the panelists suggested that graduate students and early researchers contact their advisors or other faculty mentors for recommendations.

About the Author: Charmaine N. Willis is a PhD Student in the Department of Political Science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her research focuses on civil society and contentious politics. Her current project examines the role of framing in anti-US military contention in East Asia. You can also find Charmaine on Twitter and her website.


Fieldwork: Ethical Considerations, Funding, and Data Collection Methods

By Charmaine N. Willis of University of Albany

Photo by Ryan Tauss on Unsplash

The recent MPSA conference offered many valuable roundtables related to professional development for a variety of populations including graduate students. I had the opportunity to attend the roundtable about how to do fieldwork, an important one for any researcher needing to travel to a particular place to collect data, whether in one’s home country or abroad. The roundtable offered several useful insights for graduate students, many of which I have found helpful during my own fieldwork.

Ethical Considerations

First and foremost, researchers needing to collect data from the field must consider the impact of their research on their subjects. Of course, this need applies more to researchers conducting interviews, focus groups, surveys, participant observation, or using other ethnographic techniques than archival work. Many vital questions in social science involve vulnerable populations, which can include marginalized communities, survivors of sexual assault, former members of a terrorist organization, and many others. It is the researchers’ responsibility to consider the ways in which their research may impact the lives and safety of their subjects. Considerations might entail keeping the subject’s identity anonymous in the publication of the research or even where an interview takes place.

A consequential question raised during the roundtable was what to do if an interviewee reveals something unexpected that might be damning to a public figure. Should a researcher publicize everything reported to them by their interviewees? While it might be tempting to drop a proverbial bombshell and provide a surprising insight, the panelists cautioned against rushing to judgement about such revelations. One should carefully consider the ramifications of making that revelation public. It may or may not be true; the researcher should try to verify the claim through other sources. Even if the claim is true, the researcher should consider the implications for their interviewee. Will it put the interviewee’s safety at risk? Will it otherwise harm the interviewee (i.e. reputational costs, employment impacts)?

The Logistics of Fieldwork

The panelists on the roundtable also brought up several logistical considerations important for researchers going to the field to consider, from funding to how to get the data. Most of the panelists did their fieldwork over the course of several trips (the majority did research abroad). Many began their projects with a preliminary trip of a few weeks and then returned to their site; most of the panel stayed in their research site consecutively no more than a year, often less.

An audience member also asked about one of the most imperative parts of doing fieldwork: getting it funded. As one panelist noted, it is difficult to get funding for fieldwork, depending on the type of research one is doing and the institution with which one is affiliated. Fortunately, there were a few roundtables in the #MPSA19 program dedicated solely to research funding, one of which I will cover in a future blog. One tip that a panelist mentioned was one that I have heard from many experienced researchers; for researchers staying at their research site for a semester or more, it is sometimes possible to draw an income by teaching at a host university. Those doing research outside of their home countries often seek institutional affiliations for a variety of reasons, including access to resources such as libraries or teaching opportunities. Researchers not affiliated with a local university or college can also contact nearby institutions about teaching opportunities.

The roundtable also included various points about collecting the data itself. The panelists cautioned against “parachuting” into a research site. Researchers (should) go to the field not to quickly gather data and leave (“parachuting”) but to go to the field to get a better sense of the area and the culture. Understanding the research site, of course, should begin long before one actually arrives. At the same time, understanding the research site through secondary sources cannot substitute for firsthand experience. In my experience, immersing yourself in the culture, sometimes called “soaking and poking”, is as important to the research as the data collection is itself. Understanding the context is essential for understanding the data one collects: how do the insights from the interview fit into the big picture? Furthermore, gaining knowledge about the area through experience may make interviewees more likely to open up; it shows a respect for their home country and community.

Preparation prior to each interview is integral to data collection as well. The panelists emphasized “doing one’s homework” to get the most out of each interview. Are there questions for which a certain person can give better insights than others? Not only can preparation maximize the utility of the interview, but adequate preparation also signals to the interviewee that the researcher is serious and knowledgeable about the topic of interest, which may make them more comfortable to share information.

The format of the data collection may also influence how open interviewees are. One panelist mentioned that their experiences with focus groups yielded some insights that a one-on-one interview may not have. The researcher interviewed military personnel, a group from which it may be difficult to garner unfeigned answers, and found in a few instances that when one person was candid, the rest of the group also opened up.

The roundtable on fieldwork was one of my favorite sessions at #MPSA19, offering insights from researchers who have valuable firsthand experience in conducting fieldwork from which graduate students and researchers at all levels can benefit. I hope that similar roundtables continue to be offered at future MPSA conferences.

About the Author: Charmaine N. Willis is a PhD Student in the Department of Political Science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her research focuses on civil society and contentious politics. Her current project examines the role of framing in anti-US military contention in East Asia. You can also find Charmaine on Twitter and her website.

How to Thrive in Graduate School (Whatever That Means)

By Colleen Wood of Columbia University

Photo by Charles DeLoye on Unsplash

In addition to thematic panels, the 77th Annual MPSA Conference offered a wide range of roundtables on professional development including practical discussion of fieldwork and research tools and bigger debates on pedagogical practices and public engagement. Here I want to focus on the “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series and highlight common themes and advice that came up across panels.

Research

Coming up with worthwhile research questions, conducting research, and writing up results is a major draw to the academic lifestyle. While many political science PhD programs offer coursework in research design and methods, it’s not exactly clear how to ask a good question and make sure people hear the answer. Allison Quatrini of Eckerd College assured the audience that there’s no single best way to do research, but that when choosing a dissertation topic, it’s better to pose a big question than to show off methods skills to address a narrow topic.

To figure out what the big questions are, several panelists suggested keeping either a digital or analog journal with ideas that come to mind while reading for coursework and comprehensive exams early on in the Ph.D. process. Cynthia Duncan Joseph from the University of South Carolina explained that she writes a daily “wonder list” where she jots down anything she’s wondering about – academic or otherwise. She mentioned coming back to her wonder list every so often for research ideas.

For those who have found their question and have started collecting data, panelists discussed the best ways to promote their findings. While some are concerned that political scientists aren’t doing enough to communicate their research to the public, strategies for becoming a public-facing academic were a popular topic throughout the series. Gregory Collins from Yale University said that translating academic research for the public or policymaking communities is important, especially for theorists.

But how to do that? No format is necessarily better than the rest, according to Kimberly Turner from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Op-eds, academic blogs, and podcasts can all be excellent platforms for sharing your ideas. “You get to tinker, so play — enjoy yourself and explore different formats to see what grabs your attention,” she told the audience at the Friday morning session.

Teaching

While research is often the focus of conversations about graduate students’ work life, panelists agreed that teaching is just as important and deserves as much attention.

When it comes to deciding whether to pursue a Ph.D. at all,  Allison Quatrini suggested asking what the teaching assistant (TA) experience looks like. There is a wide range of potential teaching assignments, from only grading assignments for a professor to organizing recitation sections or building your own class entirely.

At the graduate students’ perspective session, multiple panelists emphasized the need to pursue your own professional development. Luisa Turbino Torres from the University of Delaware explained that she is proactive about sitting in on undergraduate lectures and asking professors she admires to share their syllabi. Turner agreed and suggested that graduate students attend teaching and learning conferences, whether organized specifically around questions of teaching or sessions contained within bigger conferences like MPSA or APSA. Turner said she learned a lot about writing a syllabus and learning how to control a classroom, both of which she described as “crafts no one teaches you to do.” These skills are especially crucial for political scientists, given that we are talking about “something as incendiary as politics.”

Mentorship

Panelists across the sessions agreed on the importance of triangulating mentorship. They spoke about developing vertical and horizontal ties, emphasizing the importance of diversifying the range of perspectives and opinions. When it comes to picking an official advisor and building a committee, panelists recognized the need to balance department politics with interpersonal dynamics. “You don’t have to pick the obvious person,” Hannah Alarian from Princeton assured the audience. “Choose a mentor and be willing to fire them.”

In the Friday morning roundtable highlighting graduate students’ perspectives on succeeding in a Ph.D. program, panelists mentioned building relationships with grad students at other universities. Twitter and MPSA working groups like the Midwest Women’s Caucus, the Midwest Latino/a Caucus, and the Caucus for LGBTQ Political Science provide a great space for horizontal networking and creating a feeling of home in the discipline.

Mental health

The psychological stress of balancing imposter syndrome, teaching loads, research projects, and side hustles takes a serious toll on graduate students. Collins said that there are less frequent validations of success in graduate school, compared to other professions; this adds serious psychological weight to completing graduate study, he said.

The conversation about mental health continued into the Friday morning panel. Michael Widmeier from the University of North Texas lamented the stigma surrounding mental health challenges in academia. The energy and vulnerability required to communicate with one’s advisor and department administrators about mental health make it especially difficult to accommodate. Turbino Torres agreed and said she felt a huge relief after meeting other students and professors who are open to talking about anxiety and depression.

Success

With so much advice about conducting research, teaching, and taking care of your mental health, anyone in the audience should be able to thrive in graduate school just as the series title promised, right? But success is hardly a fixed concept, and panelists stressed the importance of setting your own terms for flourishing in a Ph.D. “Success looks different for everyone,” Alarian. “But shared tenets exist.”

One of those shared tenets: building a personal life and identity beyond your department. Widmeier’s comment that “Personal life is… a thing” was met with laughter, but the panelists tried to offer concrete suggestions for developing a healthy work-life balance. Pursuing hobbies, making friends outside the university, and focusing on family can all offer perspective and alternate sources of validation.

The “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series was certainly not the first time these conversations were hashed out, and it hopefully won’t be the last. Open discussions about struggles and success like this are crucial for uncovering academia’s hidden curriculum, and it is reassuring that MPSA continues to revisit these questions year after year.

About the Author: Colleen Wood is a Ph.D. student at Columbia University. Her research focuses on identity, migration, and the state in Central Asia. She writes about Central Asian society and politics for The Diplomat and is also a blogger for the 2019 MPSA conference in Chicago. Get in touch with Colleen on Twitter at @colleenewood or email at c.wood@columbia.edu.