1) What is your degree and your dissertation title?
PhD. “Leashes or Lemmings? Alliances as restraining devices.”
2) What is your current position/title?
Professor of Political Science and Director of Middle East Studies at the University of Connecticut. Co-director of the Crowd Counting Consortium.
3) As is often the case for SSP/IR alums, when you finished your dissertation you had an important choice to make between a position in the policy world and an academic career. What inclined you toward the option you chose? Do you have any advice to share with current SSP students as they weigh their career choices?
I came to MIT after working for five years at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. When I started graduate school, I intended to go back to DC. But somewhere along the way, I realized I could continue to do research and add in teaching and mentoring students if I followed the university track. Looking at the previous sentence right now, I guess it sounds kind of basic or even cliché, but I don’t have a more nuanced or complex explanation for my shift.
I have come to appreciate the control of my time and research agenda that I have as a professor. When five years ago I unintentionally pivoted toward studying protests in the United States, I didn’t have to ask anyone for permission. At the same time, I miss some of the day-to-day interactions and teamwork that comes from working as part of a larger project with others. Academia can be more isolated and self-driven than most professions.
4) Would you say that your experience at SSP and CIS has continued to influence your current position? What key concepts or values from SSP and CIS have served you well in your current position?
One value I took away from SSP/CIS – but maybe really the whole MIT program – was the centrality of asking tough questions. Most guest seminars or dissertation-related events were not a cakewalk. In some ways, we each know our own work the best; we know the shortcomings and the short cuts that might open us up to criticism. But that said, feedback from others often is so rich and insightful and almost every article or book I’ve written is much better because of that.
Is it always fun to hear what’s wrong or missing? No. Just the other day, a draft article I wrote with an undergraduate student was rejected. The review was hard to read. But if I’m honest, it made some good points. Maybe our re-write can be that much better because of it.
The other thing that comes to mind is the real world. CIS is open to acknowledging its existence in our work. Talking and writing about it was not considered lesser work. I saw it in the PhD graduate students as well, some of whom came from the policy world and/or went there from MIT.
5) What is the part of your current position that you think allows you the most satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction and why?
When my work breaks through to the community, I am satisfied. What exactly that means can vary. I’ve given many public talks at eldercare facilities, faith institutions, public libraries, and schools, for example. People appreciate that kind of translational work. I have expertise on such and such, and I’m willing to share it with those who don’t but are interested.
In other settings it is more about contributing to the public debate or, dare I say, the policy debate. (I do wish I could contribute the magic policy solution to the Israel/Palestine debate.)
The feeling of seeing my research in print has never gotten old
In terms of dissatisfaction, I think of the feeling of research ideas falling flat. Sometimes my judgment of what research should be of interest and what others (including journal editors) think is of interest are at odds. Perhaps one-third of the papers I write end up only on my computer. It has something to do with my bias toward description even without much front-loaded theory. You might think every paper will find a home. I’m not so sure every paper will or should. All that said, it is useful to have a good sounding board for your new-ish ideas and research proposals. Networks.
6) What in your career are you most proud of and has SSP/CIS been a part of that?
Conversations with Stephen Van Evera, my dissertation committee chair, helped me with one of my favorite articles, “Visions in Collision” on the narratives of the Camp David summit (2000) and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. I’m proud of graduate mentoring and public engagement awards I have received at UConn; the SSP/CIS influences I already mentioned, as well as role models on the MIT faculty, certainly contributed to that.
7) What, outside of SSP/CIS and your work here, has been the factor that has most influenced who you are now, and what your current research interests are?
The family that raised me. The fact that my family was, and is, Jewish and engaged with the question of Israel. I studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem during my junior year of college, which I imagine helped me get a job on the Middle East project at the Carnegie Endowment, which helped shape what I researched in graduate school etc etc.
Also, I think of two of the senior faculty who mentored me when I arrived at UConn, Elizabeth “Betty” Hanson and the late John “Garry” Clifford. They gave of their time, shared wisdom, and offered friendship. I hope I can do the same for today’s assistant professors.
8) Looking back, what, if anything would you do differently?
I might have found a way to continue studying the Arabic language; since it wasn’t necessary for completing my dissertation, I set it aside.
9) What is the key piece of advice that you would pass along to current SSP graduate students, or those just beginning their careers?
Be conscious of how often even social scientists are actually projecting from their own experiences and values rather than some empirically-grounded position. And take all advice with a grain of salt.