Column: 100 times we tackled the world’s big problems | Columnists

Today’s column marks 100 columns for this article. Over the past two years of writing, I have sought to provide insight into current affairs drawing on political science research, analysis of contemporary trends in politics, sports and other areas, and an informed opinion on current issues. I hope my columns have been informative and interesting to the general public.

I don’t know what others may have taken away from reading my comment. What I do know, however, is that I learned a lot, not only about the subject I wrote about, but also about the writing process and the differences between writing about the news and doing university research.

One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to others. This can be done in class, but also in writing or in other contexts. Having a good command of a particular subject is a necessary prerequisite for teaching it effectively to others. Learning is the first step in the teaching process.

For some of what I have written, I have been able to rely on previously acquired knowledge. Studying political science as an undergraduate and graduate student provided me with a general base of knowledge from which to write about politics.

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But political science is a vast field. It includes the subfields of American politics, comparative politics, international relations, political philosophy, public policy, and public administration. Knowing everything about discipline is not possible. Applying political science research to topical issues therefore sometimes requires doing some reading at the beginning.

In seeking to write about current events over the past two years, I have learned a lot about things like economic sanctions, democratic backsliding, and civil wars. I also learned more about prominent public figures such as Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, and Sarah Palin, among others.

In addition to learning more about politics, I learned more about writing. There are several ways, I have found, that writing a column differs from doing academic research.

The news of the day goes by quickly. Being relevant therefore requires being effective. Almost as soon as the news is out, comments start popping up online and in print.

Academic research, on the other hand, can take months or even years, often requiring a lengthy process of applying for grants, collecting data, and/or conducting experiments or research in the field. Even if a researcher is able to complete a project fairly quickly, the pre-publication review process can be lengthy, lasting months or even years. And once something has been approved for publication, there is usually a significant delay (which again can be months or even a year or more) before an academic article appears in print.

Academics are often insular, writing for an expert audience on a topic of narrow interest. Rather than defining every concept or explaining every research method used, scholars use in their writings terms for which there is a shared understanding among experts (otherwise pejoratively called jargon).

Newspapers are intended for a general audience. Avoid using academic terms without defining or explaining them.

Academic research is carefully sourced. Studies on which researchers draw are cited in footnotes and/or on reference pages. This allows readers to better understand how a research project builds on and advances previous studies.

News articles generally do not include citations (although online articles sometimes provide links to other relevant articles or documents). Sources are generally those related to, or having knowledge of, a topic or event from which journalists are gathering information and obtaining quotes (rather than sources being academic studies).

Scientific researchers seek objectivity. Academic research should not reflect the personal values, opinions or beliefs of those involved in a study.

Journalists also strive to be objective.

The columnists, however, offer interpretations, personal opinions or reactions in an often non-objective way. The articles reflect, in part, the beliefs, and perhaps even the prejudices, of the columnist.

This is not a criticism of editorial writing. Expressing an opinion is what columnists are supposed to do. Criticizing an editorial writer for expressing a personal belief is like criticizing someone in church for expressing their faith.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be a voice in the community over the past two years through the Hickory Daily Record. For those of you who have read and hopefully will continue to read my column, whether you agree with me or not, thank you.

I recognize that I don’t necessarily always have the answers to the problems we face. And that questions can often be answered in more than one way (any answer I provide is not necessarily the only one).

What I do know, however, is that as we engage, we learn more about ourselves and others. And it is in this spirit that I look forward to continuing to explore the world together as we tackle important questions in pursuit of greater knowledge and understanding.

David Dreyer is a professor of political science at Lenoir-Rhyne University.