My Academic Path, Part 2
I ended my first bit of navel-gazing with my decision to go to Duke for graduate school. And a bunch of people asked me to do a Part 2, about grad school and, perhaps, my first job. So … here goes:
All the things I suspected I’d like about Duke turned out generally to be true. The faculty was great … and it got better when Duke hired Peter Euben, who became my dissertation advisor (or, I suppose, co-advisor, with Elizabeth Kiss). The campus was an amazing place to study. The weather was delightful (apart from the disgustingly humid summers and the occasional hurricane). And I fell in with a really special group of friends (who were so impossibly nerdy that we even came up with a nickname for ourselves). My experience as a first year grad student at Duke was so good, in fact, that I even talked one of my best friends from Michigan State into joining me there when he graduated the following year.
As a political theory student, I was advised to take every political theory course that was offered and maybe even some philosophy courses as well. Looking back on it, I took every course offered by nearly every political theorist on the faculty and then I also took a couple of philosophy courses (including Alasdair MacIntyre’s last seminar there). I took seminars on Locke, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Arendt and Habermas, and probably a few others I’m forgetting. The notes I took in those courses formed the backbone of the lectures I’d write when I started teaching my own theory classes. In short, the best preparation for preparing classes of my own were the classes I took (both as an undergrad, since I also still use those notes, and as a grad student).
I also took a series of international relations seminars (my second field) from some of the scholars whose books and articles I’d read as an undergrad. This was both a little bit thrilling and a whole lot intimidating, if I’m being honest. Still, the notes I took in those classes prepared me really well for my comprehensive exams (more below).
I got some experience as a teaching assistant for an amazing human rights course (on which I based the human rights course I’ve now taught one and off for a decade) and for an introductory IR course. It was when I was TAing for that human rights course that I first got involved in service learning and, as a result, spent a whole lot of time visiting men on North Carolina’s death row. Seeing the value of service learning to a human rights education first-hand convinced me to make it a part of the human rights program that I now direct here at Nebraska. It was also during that first stint as a TA that I really felt like teaching was something I might be good at doing. I can still remember the discussion section I led and the excitement of coming in every week to talk with a small group of really gifted upper-level undergrads about the problems and promise of the idea of human rights.
I started studying for my comprehensive exams in the fall of my third year, if memory serves me. I planned to take the two day-long tests in the spring. Graduate school in general can be a bit isolating … even if you have a great group of friends. And studying for exams can be really, really isolating. It’s possible to put a group together but, at least for political theory, a whole lot of the preparatory work boils down to reading, writing up notes, and putting those notes in an order that will be helpful at the moment you open the email message that contains the exam questions. I still have all of the notes I took to prepare for comps and I still use them when I prep a new class.
I went to the state fair with a friend of mine, bought a jade plant, and sat on my couch, with my plant on the coffee table, and I read books and articles for months. When I took the exams, the plant moved to my desk upstairs and watched me take them. That little plant went with me when I moved to Virginia for my first job and then it moved out to Nebraska. It’s probably also worth noting that a friend and I decided not to cut our hair while we were studying. Then, after we’d written the exams (but before our oral defense of them, if I remember correctly), we went together and got our hair cut at the campus barber shop (which only cut hair one way: “Regular boy’s haircut”).
After passing my comps (and thereby earning my Master’s), I could teach my own classes. And I taught a lot of them. My first was a writing course with a public apology and restorative justice theme. After that, I taught an upper-level ethnic conflict course (twice) and then got hired to teach a couple of classes at Wake Forest University (a seminar on Marx and a seminar on human rights). All told, I taught five of my own courses as a grad student; it was a lot of teaching to do while I was writing my dissertation but it was incredible preparation. I had three different courses prepped and tested out before I got my first job, which meant that I had less prep work to do. I ended up teaching some variant of all three of those courses in my first two years of my first job, which meant I had more time to work on publishing articles and turning my dissertation into a book.
Speaking of the dissertation, I had a pretty good sense of my topic before I left Michigan State; I knew I wanted to write about human rights and, as a result of my first TA gig, I read a book that set out the problem I thought I could address, namely whether or not the idea of human rights could be understood without the religious foundation that seems to be its foundation. I spent months reading and kicking the idea around with my advisor, and then I started writing the prospectus (which would eventually become part of the introduction). All told, the dissertation took me just under two years and I moved through it as quickly as I did because my advisor was saintly enough to meet with me every other week, either to discuss something I’d drafted or to kick the tires on my idea for whatever chapter I was working on at that time. If you think preparing for exams is solitary, dissertation writing is a whole different world of loneliness. There was a point in time where my schedule, for months, was this:
Wake up, make breakfast and drink coffee, go upstairs and write for four hours, come downstairs to make and eat lunch, go upstairs and write for four hours, come downstairs to make and eat dinner, find someone who would come over, go out, or talk on the phone, sleep.
I only had the dissertation committee I had, but I know this: Picking the right dissertation committee matters a lot. I knew it mattered when I picked them, but the amount you think it matters should probably at least be doubled. These are really the people who shepherd you through the process, who teach you about completing a project of this magnitude, who keep you on track, who push you to make it as good as it can be, who help to ensure you finish it, who explain the weird academic publishing game, and who go to bat for you on the job market. I won’t ever forget spending all those hours in Elizabeth Kiss’ office or hanging out at Peter Euben’s house (or teaching him how to use email, which is another story entirely). It’s been almost ten years since I left Duke and half of my committee isn’t even on the faculty there today … but I know they’d read and comment on something I wrote or write a letter of support on my behalf if I dropped them a line out of the blue. They’re first-rate scholars and terrific people.
Thanks to my committee, and a weird stroke of luck, I actually got a tenure-track job before I finished my dissertation. I planned to do a limited job search in my fifth year, applying for jobs that were either too good to pass up and jobs that seemed to call for someone who did exactly what I did. I applied for three or four jobs, I think, and one of them called me for a phone interview. The phone interview went well and they invited me to campus. This was James Madison University, which was looking to hire someone with a theory backgroup who was interested in social justice topics (like, for example, human rights) to help start a new department called Justice Studies; the chair of the search committee turned out to be a political theorist trained at Duke. I drove from Durham to Harrisonburg, met the political science faculty, the search committee, and one of the deans, taught a political theory class, and ate a couple of meals. There was no “job talk.”
I have no earthly idea why they hired me, apart from the fact that I studied precisely what they said they were looking for someone to do. My only publication was a co-authored encyclopedia article on Thucydides and I suspect my letters of recommendation spoke highly of my future prospects. I think I had decent answers to their questions about how I thought the Justice Studies program should be put together and I think I did a good job with the class they asked me to teach. Beyond that, you’d have to talk to the good people on the search committee.
I spent three years teaching at James Madison and they were a very good three years. Maybe I’ll write a little about JMU, publishing, finishing my first book, and my decision to leave for Nebraska, if anyone would be interested in that.