Friday, September 4, 2009

September 4

I am pleased to be writing this entry from my Charles University-supplied computer in my new office. I don’t actually have my own office, but one of six cubicles inside Case Hall, Rm. 304. Case Hall is where the political science department is located. Rm. 304 is one of the offices reserved for graduate students. This is one of the benefits of being a graduate student here that I didn’t realize I would receive until the department’s new student orientation session, which was held today.

I was surprised that there were only a dozen or so of us new political science graduate students at the orientation. But as the department chair, George Stavros, explained in his talk, the department only offered admission to the very top applicants, and the students in this group tended to be admitted to several programs. Not everyone offered admission to the program at Charles accepted it, just as, he noted graciously, “each of you probably turned down offers from several other universities.”

Stavros was very welcoming, but I must admit, I didn’t pay close attention to him. For one thing, his specialty is the U.S. Congress—a subject which holds no interest for me. For another, being an administrator, I assume that he must either be past his prime or that he never had one. Cohen used to always say that about academics who became administrators.

Several other professors gave brief talks about the courses they teach, the research areas they are interested in, and what sort of dissertations their students are working on. Again, I didn’t take much note of the specialists on American politics. Why, I wonder, do political science departments in the U.S. have so many specialists on American politics, all doing basically the same thing, when they barely cover other areas of the world with just one specialist—or don’t cover them at all?

I was, naturally, more interested in those professors who share my international interests. One of these was Ilya Trizenko, an assistant professor (i.e., someone who does not yet have tenure) originally from Ukraine who teaches the politics of Russia and Eurasia as well as comparative politics. He is a relatively short man with thick hair both on his head and his face. The large amount of gray indicates that he is relatively older—certainly older than an assistant professor normally is. He speaks well, with an ironic sense of humor. I’ll bet he is a very engaging lecturer.

Another was Theda DeKlerk, an associate professor who teaches both women’s politics and feminist theories of international relations. We studied some of her writings in Cohen’s class back at Barstow. She is a short, thin, middle-aged woman with closely cropped brown hair. If it wasn’t for the fact that she wore two earrings, I might have mistaken her for a man before she was introduced. She appears to be very soft spoken, and I couldn’t quite catch everything she said—especially her witticisms which she herself had the habit of laughing at through her nose while saying them. But while short in stature, I know that she has the reputation of a giant in the field of feminist IR theory. [delete the two penultimate sentences later, but keep the last one]

Yet another professor, whom I realized I would have to pay attention to, was Elton Asquith. Asquith, a full professor, teaches the year-long political science methodology class that all entering graduate students are required to take. He also teaches classes on the role of ethnic, cultural, and (as he said knowingly with arched eyebrows) “other” minorities in international relations. Although he did not say so explicitly, it is obvious just from Asquith’s voice that he is gay. I wish someone would explain to me why it is that gay men—no matter what their ethnic or regional background—all speak with the same artificial, universally recognizable accent which they clearly did not have as small children. There is, of course, nothing wrong with being gay. [delete the penultimate sentence later, but leave in the ultimate]

For me, though, the highlight of the day was the talk by Barrington Briggs. I recognized him immediately from his picture on the back of International Relations: A Neo-Radical Interpretation, though he appeared somewhat older in real life. Of course, that picture was taken back in the mid-1990s. But even though he might look a little older now (as befits a full professor), the youthfulness of his spirit was evident when he spoke. He was, just as I anticipated, supremely self-confident with an incisive wit that some might mistake for mockery.

Right at the outset of his talk, he warned those of us here to study international relations that if we didn’t want to work too hard, we should tell him now and he’d supply us with one-way bus tickets to Bellevue, Washington, so we could study with Arch Faircloth at Gates University. There was no need to send us by air, he continued, since no matter how long after the start of classes there the bus took to arrive, we still wouldn’t have missed anything. Some in the room seemed a little flustered by this, but those of us in the know all laughed heartily. Yes, this was the Barrington Briggs I was hoping to find here.

In a more serious vain, Briggs told us that the political science department here at Charles observed the very highest standards of sensitivity with regard to the treatment of ethnic, cultural, and (I saw him glance at Professor Asquith as he too emphasized the word) “other” minorities. He went on to say that no sort of harassment or misconduct—sexual or otherwise—was tolerated here. This not only applied to relations between professors and students, but also—he wanted us to know right up front—between graduate teaching assistants and undergraduates. “We’ve had to get rid of a few bad apples in the past,” he told us. “And if we need to, we’ll do so again.”

It appeared to me that Briggs was eyeing Asquith while he said this. I think it appeared that way to Asquith too. There was clearly some bad blood between these two. Some might say Briggs was being needlessly provocative, but there is nothing wrong with being provocative for the purpose of eradicating racial or sexual harassment or misconduct, as far as I am concerned.

For the benefit of my future biographers, I wish to emphasize my principled viewpoint on this matter. Racial and sexual harassment and misconduct cannot be tolerated anywhere at any time. Even consensual sex between a supervisor and subordinate cannot be allowed since this involves an obvious conflict of interest. It is especially important that universities maintain the highest standards in this regard. For it is the university which creates the values to improve society. If those in the university do not maintain these high standards, the rest of society can hardly be expected to either. I am deeply gratified that Professor Briggs shares these principles with me, and that he outspokenly defended them. I did not, however, expect anything less from him.

I won’t describe any of the other professors. After they finished their presentations, sandwiches and sodas were brought in and we had the opportunity to talk informally among ourselves and with our new professors. I was deeply gratified that Professor Briggs knew who I was when I introduced myself to him. He said he recognized my name from reviewing the applications, and welcomed me to the program. I told him that I hoped I would be writing my dissertation under his direction. I decided not to mention my critique of his work that I wrote for Cohen back at Barstow. There really was no opportunity to talk about it anyway since other students and even other professors were crowding around him. Being the start of the new year, many of the professors had apparently not seen one another for several months.

After lunch, the professors all sat at tables around the room and the incoming grad students were able to consult with them about what courses to take. For those of us, like me, who just came in with our B.A. degrees, this process was fairly clear-cut: we had to fulfill all the course requirements for the degree. For those, however, who came in with M.A. degrees, the process was more complicated. They wanted to have some—or even all—of their previous work at the universities where they got their M.A.s count toward the course requirements here. I could here several of the Charles professors explaining that even though graduate courses taught elsewhere might have the same name as those taught here, their content could not possibly be similar. Some of these conversations grew quite testy; not a smart way for incoming grad students to start off.

As we each completed this process, we then went to the department office to be issued our office key. I’ll describe my office mates—my colleagues, as I need to get used to calling them—in my next entry, after I’ve had a chance to get to know them a little.

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