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Interviews with Brandeis University’s academic leadership: the politics department

The chair of Brandeis University’s politics department, Professor Eva Bellin, sat down for an interview with The Brandeis Hoot to shed a little light on the department, its future and herself. This interview is part of a series of interviews with the chairs of a plethora of different academic departments and programs at Brandeis.


Editor’s Note: This interview was recorded during the 2022 spring semester.


Why did you choose to come to Brandeis?


I was recruited first and foremost by the Crown Center, which is the center for Middle East studies [at Brandeis]. I’m a specialist in Middle Eastern politics … so it was a very exciting opportunity. The center had a very distinguished leader, Shai Feldman, who has an incredible vision of how to build a center that studied Middle Eastern affairs. The terms of my employment at the Crown Center were extremely attractive; they were going to give me lots of time and funding to pursue my research, even as I continued being a professor. So it was just a terrific opportunity.


What draws you to study the Middle East?


I didn’t study the Middle East as an undergraduate, … I didn’t take a single course on the Middle East. But when I decided I wanted to go to graduate school, I knew I wanted to go further into the study of politics and I knew that I wanted to study politics in a non-Western context. Then, it was a question of which region to focus on. I wanted to study a region that had a difficult language associated with it because I love to learn languages …. That was going to be my insurance policy; if I didn’t succeed in academia … I’ll be able to find a position in policy analysis or in the corporate world. I was trying to decide between Chinese, Arabic and Russian. I decided to go with Arabic since I had already had a background in Hebrew …. So those factors came into play. And once I started, I was completely hooked. It was an area of incredible history and contention and all the interesting political issues that engaged me at the time were at play in the Middle East.


What do you think that the politics department does well?


The ambition of a liberal arts education is to teach students critical thinking. I mean, that’s such a cliche at this point, but it’s true. We do that very well in the politics department. We give students analytical tools that they might not have had otherwise. [We give them] both qualitative and quantitative tools: concepts, theories, ideas about politics … and the empirical basis to adjudicate between different theories. So students learn how to think critically about big questions.


Is there anything that you think the politics department could do better?


I wish we had a better sense of community among our students and among our faculty …. Sometimes it seems difficult to get students to come together as a major, and I think that’s because Brandeis students are so oversubscribed …. Brandeis students are triple majoring and doing a million extracurriculars and who knows what else. So it’s very hard to catch their attention and say, “Come on down, let’s have a barbecue for the department, or let’s all get together for this discussion on election night,” or whatever it is. We get turnout, but not the kind of turnout I’d like to see that would really build a collective identity in the department.


What makes Brandeis’ politics department different from other universities’ politics departments?


We are a small department and I think there’s a sense of collaboration among the faculty that you might not find in a bigger university. There’s less room, for example, for methodological division and hostility …. We’re too small to allow that sort of bickering to take hold. Maybe we’re just nice people, who knows! I think that’s really something quite extraordinary. This is the internal politics of the politics department, probably not of so much interest to undergraduates, but that is something that distinguishes our department.


How do you feel that the Western Jihadism Project fits into the politics department’s goals?


It’s a fantastic opportunity for students to see how research is actually done and how data collection is actually carried out. I think Professor Jytte Klausen does an excellent job in exposing students to that process. As a result, a number of her students have gone on to work in … government or think tanks.


What is your favorite class to teach?


I have taught Introduction to Comparative Politics for over two decades. It has evolved over time, but the basic logic of that course has remained the same. Even though I’ve taught it many times I never tire of teaching it because it asks ambitious questions about politics and exposes students to some of the major approaches to understanding politics. For example, we explore why some countries democratize and others remain authoritarian …. We explore those questions using big theories, and then we test them against empirical cases. So students actually delve into historical cases of revolution, say the revolution in Iran in 1979 and the revolution in Russia in 1917 …. They use those empirical cases to test the theories and figure out what seems most explanatory to them. It’s still a revelation for me to work through that material though. I’ve taught it so many times. So that’s probably my favorite, but I love all my courses.


What do you work toward in your free time?


I love to garden. Gardening kept me sane throughout COVID because I could see things growing and changing in a positive way, so that was really a lifesaver. I also love to cook, which is a creative activity that has a very short investment period. You buy the food and you cook it within three or four hours and you have a wonderful meal and it’s done, which is very different from the work-reward ratio with writing a book where you will [be working] … for five, six years.

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