Notes from Washington DC

I’ve been in our nation’s capital for the last couple of weeks, to attend the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA) and to conduct some interviews for my dissertation research. Starting with APSA: if you’re not an academic and have never been to one of these conferences, they are kind of hilarious. Formally, APSA (often pronounced ap-sa, which is the name of the association that runs it but is also synonymous with the conference itself—there’s also WPSA/wip-sa for the Western Political Science Association meeting or MPSA/mip-sa for the Midwest Political Science Association meeting) is an annual event where political scientists from all over the world gather to share new research. Over the course of four days, there are hundreds of panels on topics spanning all subfields (political theory, methodology, American politics, comparative politics, international relations, and all of the areas in between). There are also workshops and short courses, business meetings of various area- or issue-oriented groups, and plenty of receptions and speeches. Thousands of people attend APSA every year, so it’s quite a big production.

Looking beyond the mechanics of the event, however, it’s also a time for socializing and networking. Pretty much wherever you look, you see normally serious academic types giddily chatting with old friends, and it’s clear that many (most) people choose hanging out over trying to see a million panels over the course of the four days. Most of the major schools have receptions in the evenings, where current students as well as alumni gather to catch up (and generally revel in how great their school is). Although I’m still a graduate student now, I can easily imagine being happy to run into my current classmates in the future, when we’re spread out at jobs all over the country.

Anyway, I enjoyed myself. I presented a co-authored paper and was happy with the way that it was received; we also got some good feedback from our discussant and various members of the audience, which will definitely help with future revisions. Overall, I managed to work in a good combination of panel-watching and socializing. I have to say though, I enjoyed it somewhat less than APSA 2007 in Chicago. In 2007, someone living in Chicago organized a fantastic dinner for everyone working on Japanese politics, and it was really fun and energizing to feel like I was part of a small but tight-knit community. The representation at the 2010 meeting was noticeably smaller or perhaps just more fragmented—which was fine, but less fun, from my perspective. (Maybe that means I need to start going to the annual meeting of the Association of Asian Studies.) This year’s APSA, however was better in the sense that a large number of people from my cohort (and program, more generally) were in attendance, so there was never a lack of people to hang out with. Here’s a shot of me with some of my cohort-mates:

After the conclusion of the conference, I stuck around for an additional week to conduct some very preliminary interviews for my dissertation research. Over the course of the week, I talked with current and former officials at the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative about the current formulation of my topic. Since this was my first foray into the world of qualitative interviewing, I learned some useful lessons, including:

  • Doing more than two interviews a day is probably a bad idea.
  • Even if people say they only have 30 minutes to talk to you, they’ll probably talk to you for an hour and a half. So, it’s a good idea to leave a lot of time between appointments.
  • Never use the default voice recorder on an iPhone to record anything that isn’t totally trivial. It’s a pain to get large files off the device, and the phone tends to crash a lot when dealing with them. (I have another voice recorder, but it was more convenient to use my phone a couple of times, so the issue came up.)
  • If people try to schedule appointments with you on a holiday, you should verify that they know it’s a holiday. Labor Day caused a bit of scheduling chaos.
  • Having a smart phone and being able to reschedule interviews at a moment’s notice is tremendously useful.
  • If all of your meetings are going to be over coffee, it’s probably better to switch to decaf sooner rather than later.
  • People are generally much nicer and more helpful than they have any logical reason to be.

Overall, it was a tremendously helpful experience. I have some useful things to think about as I prepare to move to Tokyo at the end of the month: some good leads to follow up and some things that I need to ponder a bit more deeply before starting to interview people in Japan full-time. Speaking of which, the move to Japan is just around the corner! In about 2.5 weeks, I’ll have tied up all the loose ends on my U.S. existence and be starting a new life in Nihon (again). I’m leaving DC and heading back to Berkeley today and need to finish up a million things before I take a short road trip up to Seattle, where my family lives. So much to do, so little time!