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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

A Conversation with Erin O’Brien

A Conversation with Erin OBrien

The word “professor” is derived from the identical Latin term, essentially meaning a person that is professed to be an expert in some art or science, a teacher of highest rank. In addition, from a conventional standpoint, a professor presumably possesses skills to teach objectively without imposing his or her personal views on their students. There is no question that professors here in the political science department are qualified.

Current chair of the department Elizabeth Bussiere noted that applicants for full-time positions must engage in an extensive selection process, during which a search committee, primarily composed of experts in the field, review an average of 140 applications. After several interviews and research presentations by usually three to four job applicants, the committee selects the candidate who is the most qualified and who offers the best fit with the department and university.

One of the most recent scholars to run this gauntlet and join the UMass faculty is the political science department’s newest full-time professor, Erin O’Brien, whom Bussiere described as “a very good scholar with extreme intellectual energy.” She will be teaching Diversity and Public Policy, the Politics of Poverty, Women and Public Policy, as well as U.S. Social Welfare Policy this spring. The Mass Media decided to sit down and have a chat with Professor O’Brien about everything from her classroom policies to her bumper stickers.

Mass Media: If I am not mistaken, you are from Cleveland, right?

Erin O’Brien: I am a little bit from everywhere in Massachusetts, and I have a lot of family here. I’ve always thought of Western Mass and Boston as home base, despite the fact I never really lived here. I spent a lot of summers at the Cape, up in Michigan, Southern Virginia and Ohio, so on and so forth. After spending six years in Washington, D.C., doing graduate work at American University, I moved on to Kent State University in Ohio where I was an assistant professor for four years.

MM: As an undergraduate, was political science your major?

EO: No. I went to John Carroll University, which is in Cleveland, and I was a political science minor. I had a major in sociology, and I had four minors, with two minors each in two different concentrations. I had minors in political science, English, sex and gender and psychology. All my concentrations dealt with issues of stratification, race, gender, poverty, ethnicity and equity.

MM: What did you specialize in as a graduate?

EO: While my doctorate is in political science, I did fields in political psychology, political sociology and policy analysis. For me, the common theme was the issue of inequality as it relates to group dynamics, and as it relates to social class, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. The social sciences overlapped. However, from a political action standpoint, I saw an ability in political science, perhaps, that might be a little bit more in the forefront. In any graduate work, you have to take some courses you are not so interested in. I love sociology, but the help of sociology did not interest me as much. I felt it was more of an overlap in political science for me.

MM: In your experience, what advice would you give to an undergraduate student who plans to teach political science at a university?

EO: You really have to get a Ph.D. to do it. Actually, I was just reading a report that said only something like 45 to 55 percent of people actually get tenured track jobs after completing their doctorate. The first thing is that they particularly look for well-rounded students who have research capabilities, are interesting in some way, and have a passion. You can be a smart student, but if you aren’t passionate about the subject matter, you are going to have a hard time being successful, and you are not going to be making the big bucks.

MM: Would you advise undergraduate students to wait before specializing?

EO: Yeah, probably. Like many schools, if you do it in political science, you do two to three fields. My first field was American politics, and my second fields were political psychology and political sociology. My third was policy analysis, and that was a very American focus. The concepts carry over, and though I am not a scholar on Congress, it is very American. You will find your way if you take a sampling of courses, and UMass’ core curriculum makes you take that sampling. So, see what you like. It’s how I decided to be a political science major.

MM: So is this is your first year teaching Intro to American Politics?

EO: Intro to American Politics, yes. At Kent, just about every department was required to do some intro courses or upper divisions. We use to call these courses “gut courses,” and everybody in every major has to take them. Intro to Public Policy was a gut course for our department, so I taught Intro to Public Policy, and I also taught Research Methods. One of the gut course I am doing here is Intro to American Politics.

MM: Are you Republican or a Democrat?

EO: I don’t answer that question.

MM: Oh man! Typical response from a professor, but I thought I’d try anyway.

EO: It’s a fair question, but in the classroom I work really hard to stay objective. I’m doing you a favor if I teach you how to think critically. If I’m telling you just think like me, you’re not going to remember that, and it’s not going to help you in the long run. The best reviews I get in my courses, and the ones that are most important to me, are the ones that say things like, “She made me think differently about the subject matter.”

MM: Some professors are extremely good at objectively articulating things without bias. For instance, I had one professor who was good at articulating conservative Republican views, and one day I was helping him take stuff to his car and he had a bunch of Democratic bumper stickers, from Deval Patrick to Hillary. I was shocked, like, “You’re a Democrat!”

EO: I feel tricked! Yeah, I have my bumper stickers. I wouldn’t have gotten into politics if I didn’t care about it. I have bumper stickers all over my car. I think my job as a professor is to help students think critically about the issues, not to tell them what to think. I give them tools, such as: not accepting every claim as true, how to think better, to think analytically, to ask tough questions, to ask, “Why should I believe that over this?” If I am doing that, then I feel good, because those are skills that stick. There’s not one answer in every issue.

MM: Do you think your political views translate into your lectures consciously or subconsciously?

EO: I don’t try to hide my views, by any means. What I try to do is not make students feel that they can’t share their thoughts and opinions because they think, “Oh, she doesn’t agree with me.” The only time I wouldn’t encourage a student to share their thoughts is when a student in the classroom starts talking without doing the reading. I have a “don’t-read, don’t-talk” policy.

MM: (Laughs) Is that specified in your syllabus?

EO: Yes, don’t read, don’t talk because you haven’t earned that right. There is bar talk and there’s classroom talk. If you want to just shoot your mouth off then go to the bar, if you’re your legal. If you want to have an informed discussion, do the readings and we will have it. I am very careful in the readings I provide. I work very hard to assign different ideological perspectives and much more than just “this is what the Democrats think,” or “this is what the Republicans think.” There’s a lot more variability than just Republican and Democrat. In poverty politics, the Democrats and Republicans, at least right now, are more often on the same page. I often start my class with different theoretical perspectives: pluralist theory, elite theory, social constructivist theory. It’s not strictly Democrat and Republican, but it’s giving folks different views. You remember the view finder when you were a kid, that toy, it was like sun glasses? You put it up to your eyes, you put a disc in and you click it?

MM: Yeah with the different colors.

I view theory that way: with each click you get another view ofthe problem. If you know how a pluralist thinks, for instance, that gives you some leverage to think in ways that you won’t or wouldn’t have at the bar. I tell my students, you can win at the bar after my class with whatever your view is.

MM: What most interests you about politics and continues to motivate you as a political science professor?

EO: I chose political science and academics because it blends together so much of what I love: a passion for the issues-especially issues of poverty and inequality-a passion for engaging students on these topics, a love of mentoring undergraduate and graduate students and a passion for research. It is a rare job where one gets paid for their passions. It is a rare job where one gets paid to be creative and produce original ideas/scholarship on the issues that they consider most important for the polity. My job pays me to do all these things. The ability to mix research, mentorship and engagement in issues of stratification, poverty and inequality keeps me motivated and engaged.