Academic Role Model (ARM) is The Political Science Club’s series in which various professors, researchers, and academics from the field of political science, international relations, and any related inter-disciplinary social science, are being interviewed by the members of our community with the sole purpose of presenting a potentially-inspiring life story that shows just what it takes to succeed in the world of the academia.
Our newest Academic Role Model is J.D. Lex Paulson, professor of rhetoric, advocacy, and human rights and humanitarian action at Sciences Po Paris, and lecturer in political theory at Université de Paris Sorbonne. Additionally, Mr. Paulson is an accomplished professional in the fields of counseling and advocacy consultancy, who has attained experience both behind the curtain of the political field and in its spotlight, as he served as Legislative Counselor in the United States Congress, Democratic nominee for State Representative in Norwalk, Connecticut, and is currently very involved in projects of the National Democratic Institute, UNICEF, Corporation for International Private Enterprise, and Democracy 2.1.
The interviewer is Vlad Costea, founder of The Political Science Club and master student in comparative politics at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Bucharest. He has had the pleasure to meet J.D. Lex Paulson during the advocacy class he took at Sciences Po in the spring semester of 2015, as part of an exchange program.
Vlad: Professor Paulson, it is a great pleasure to have you as our newest Academic Role Model, and I am absolutely delighted that you have accepted to be a part of our project. I have had this plan to interview you for quite a while, and it dates back to the advocacy classes – yet I felt intimidated by the idea of trying to persuade somebody who is a consummate professional in conveying messages and convincing people. However, I am really, as glad that you will be sharing some of your experiences you have a staggeringly impressive résumé which displays your prowess in the field of political science. My first question has to do with your secret for having so many accomplishments in such a short amount of time. How do you manage your time and how do you prioritize between tasks?
Lex Paulson: Well, first of all, you have to look at the amount of grey hair on my head to know that I’ve lived long enough to have a few very interesting experiences. I think the defining quality of my life – my professional life and my intellectual life so far – has been the freedom to explore the idea of democracy and justice from many different perspectives. It’s something I explored in the world of campaigns as a university student, something I explored in my study of political theory and Roman history as a graduate student, something that I explored in the court room as a lawyer for a very brief time, something that I elaborated as an organizer for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, as a speech writer and legislative advisor in the US Congress, and then beyond the shores of the United States of America as an advisor to political parties and political NGOs (Egypt, Tunisia, a dozen other African countries, India, and around Europe). So both intellectually and professionally my obsession with democracy and how to improve it and adapt it with lessons from history is the stream that runs through all these seemingly-chaotic phases of my life.
How do I manage my time? First of all, I don’t watch very much television. I think that’s the surpassing secret to a productive life: making lists and minimizing screen time. I do my best when I’m in front of a screen to keep focus on getting through e-mails and writing documents as needed, and then spend the rest of my time interacting with human beings – either in the classroom or in developing projects. I think just with those two time management techniques, that of list-making and minimizing the time in front of the screen, most people can probably save 20-30% of their day and make it more efficient.
Vlad: As previously established throughout the series, there will be three different sections of the your interview, which regard life before becoming an academic, the experiences you have had as an academic, and the advice you have for to the young ones who might follow a similar path. First of all, since you received your bachelor degree in political science from Yale University in 2002, I will ask you a series of questions that are directly linked to this experience: At which point in your life did you decide that it is political science that you wanted to study? Also, were there external influences or series of events that might have encouraged you to pursue studies in the field?
Lex: I think that from my earliest childhood I was marked by the experience of my parents in the 1960s and the idea of progress through resistance and through moral courage in the face of conservative societies and oppressive institutions. So whether that was the struggle for African-American civil rights, the struggle against the Vietnam War, or the struggle for the rights of women and the LGBT community, I think this idea of resistance to injustice and organizing peacefully in the face of injustice was perhaps the most important early influence in my view of politics. Interestingly, my parents sent me to school in the very heart of that establishment, so I went to high school and university alongside the sons and daughters of the most powerful – and in some cases the most powerful and conservative, which I think established my sense of the importance of logical arguments and developing one’s point of view in fine-tuned detail and one’s political positions concretely and specifically – but also the sense that there was a struggle that still needed to be waged and that if I didn’t take up the banner of the 1960s in my generation, the power would fall in the hands of some of the mean-spirited and narrow-minded of my classmates. In my heart I was so much of a musician and a reader, and not so much of a politician – and it wasn’t until I went to Yale that I discovered campaigns and the excitement and the possibility of campaigns both at the local level, but also at the national level. In 2000 during the campaign between Al Gore and George Bush, I led for Gore at the Yale campus and for college students in the state of Connecticut, and that experience and that heartbreak of witnessing a “non-victory victory” I think was the galvanizing event that led me into the Democratic party as my main political home.
For me it was much more an interest in the practice of politics than in the study of politics at first, but an encounter with a course on Roman history at the end of my time in Yale opened up these incredible resonances between the struggles of the Gracchi brothers, and Caesar and Cicero on the one hand, and the political stakes of modern politics on the other. And I think it is that resonance between the history of democracy and the current stakes of democracy in the 21st century that continue to animate my involvement.
Vlad: Was there anything different about the way in which the science of politics was taught when you were a bachelor student? And if so, how would you describe the changes?
Lex: Well, I think then, as well as now, political science can be taught in a very dry and bloodless way – I think this is one of the reasons why I was always more drawn to politics than to political science and perhaps my biggest intellectual mistake was confusing an interest in politics with an interest in political science. I think one of the problems, and this goes back to Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss in the mid-20th century, is that the sense of politics is inherently an ethical and even an aesthetic practice of mankind, which was the vision of politics according to Plato and Aristotle. This sense was transformed by the liberalism of the 19th century into an adjunct of economics – an instrument that helps you quantify people’s economics and the treatment of politics as a series of economic transactions which I think fundamentally is how political science was taught to me at Yale and it wasn’t exciting at all, it seemed to miss the point. Whereas studying politics in history and even in literature and philosophy struck me as much closer to the world of politics as I lived them on the streets of New Haven, Connecticut, in American politics, and finally in the politics I saw in Cairo and Congo. The political science as it was taught, and I think as it is too often taught, speaks to economists and social scientists but doesn’t speak to people actually doing politics on the ground. I wanted my practice of politics to be a bridge between the theory and the practice of politics. And I think the theory as it was taught and as it is taught too often feels very distant from politics as it exists in the real world.
Vlad: For the next stage of your studies, you went to Scotland’s University of Edinburgh and pursued studies on Aristotle’s political theories. Since your bachelor thesis was on youth voters’ mobilization, what made you change your subject of interest?
Lex: I would say again that this experience of encountering Roman political history and the way in which Greek thought influenced the history of the Roman Republic was something that got into my mind at the end of my university studies and I didn’t quite know how it all linked up, but I used my time in Edinburgh to explore that.
Vlad: Now that I’ve gotten to know you personally, I know that you are a big advocate of the classics and you consider that most of the contemporary political events and movements are explained to some extent in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero. However, how did you acquire this interest? What made you want to study the ancients and project their theories on the latest issues?
Lex: I think it was these stories, especially from the first century BC, that we keep with us. The stories of Marc Antony vs. Cicero and the story of Julius Caesar and the assassins, but also the lesser known stories of the second century of the Gracchi brothers and the desire to reform Rome as it slipped into inequality, injustice and political paralysis – that I thought was exactly what is happening in the United States of America and in Europe. Watching how these stories played out in the Ancient context just seems so vivid, real and relevant that it was through those stories that I started looking at ancient history and ancient philosophy more closely.
Vlad: In the same year that you graduated from The University of Edinburgh, you have also embarked on a long journey of political activism and professional counseling. To which extent has it helped you get a better insight on the social and political phenomena?
Lex: This importance of stories and of tracing patterns over time is something that you see in political campaigns – political campaigns are fought in the United States of America by essentially folk wisdom and you know what moves people to leave their houses and go vote based on what you and what people who are mentoring you teach you from their practice. I think this idea of the folk wisdom of campaigns struck me as something very similar to how Romans dealt with their political world and the way they encountered tradition and carried it forward. Romans have basically invented political campaigns as we know them today: Cicero’s book “Commentariolum Petitionis” is just as applicable and is startlingly modern in its approach to how politicians win friends and votes. I think the practice of politics in Connecticut was very similar with what I read in the pages of Roman history.
Vlad: In 2006, while you were still undergoing your post-graduate studies in law, you were named the Democratic Nominee for State Representative in Norwalk, Connecticut. How did you find that experience and to which extent has your academic background helped you be a better candidate?
Lex: To be a politician in the United States, you have to be one of three things: to be part of a famous family, you have to possess a lot of money, or you have to be lucky and diligent. And I think the practice of law is one of the most common ways to build a self-reliant political career in the USA. Law helped me think more logically and analytically about arguments, has given me the incentives to link evidence to emotional and historical sources of appeal, and so I think in the sense that is draws upon these Aristotelian modes of structuring arguments and using evidence, the study of law was very important to how I practice politics and how I think about the practice of politics today.
Vlad: After getting your J.D., your professional career seems to have boomed – you got involved in Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign as a Deputy State Director in Connecticut, worked as an attorney, and have even landed a job in Washington D.C. as a legislative counsel at the United States Congress. From a political scientist’s point of view, how rewarding have these experiences been? What would you say that was your most notable achievement in every one of the positions mentioned?
Lex: Working for Barack Obama was the most rewarding political experience of my life, in the sense that this little-known senator with a strange name who comes from a very untraditional background could compete with the top politicians in the United States of America for the top political position, was something extraordinary and also seemed to move beyond what I though was some of the more paralyzed political debates. It was incredibly rewarding to work for him in Connecticut to help organize the campaign, and then to carry that forward from the campaign into government. We had big majorities in both Houses of Congress, and I was able to work on the major legislation for healthcare, renewable energy, and stabilization of our economy. I have also contributed to many bills including some for climate change that didn’t pass the Senate, but that we in the House of Representatives were able to pass. To be a part of that history was incredibly rewarding.
Vlad: While having such a successful professional career, were you still thinking about returning to the university in order to become a PhD candidate? What was the turning point that made you return to the academic world – both as a lecturer and as a doctoral candidate? Also, what was the determining factor that made you move to Paris?
Lex: It was the Republicans taking over Washington in 2010 that made me start considering going back to the academic life, as this early promising chapter of Barack Obama’s presidency had closed and I needed to do something different. And since my time in Cambridge I’ve been fascinated by the idea of writing a thesis and really developing a single idea to its fullest extent. At that point I benefited from the help of some friends from Cambridge, who put me in contact with professors from the Sorbonne. And thus I received guidance for the idea of writing a thesis on Cicero – that’s what determined my path and opened up the possibility for me to leave Washington and move to Paris.
Vlad: How did you finance your studies? Did you obtain scholarships or funds? Did you rely on your own or on your family’s financial resources? Did you ever take a job that wasn’t related to your qualification just to be able to support yourself?
Lex: There was no “bourse” that I knew of and I was eligible for as an American studying in Paris, so I did have to work. I first took any job that I could find and, in the first year, have tutored very young children and then moved on to high school students. Through friends that I met in Paris, I was connected to Sciences Po to teach – at first the opportunity was to teach in the English department of Sciences Po, and then I moved on to the Communication School and the International Affairs School, where I currently teach. I had to support myself – I was very lucky that I could find a reasonable place to live and was able to make friends and connections very quickly in Paris – but it has been a self-supporting project ever since I moved here four years ago.
Vlad: From your experience, is the academic world entirely meritocratic in the sense that it gives proper credit and recognition to those who work hard?
Lex: Well, of course that’s only partially true – I think academia, like politics, is about connections as much as it is about talent. Talent for making connections is the way in which both academia and politics are meritocratic. If you have a natural sense of how to promote yourself in a way that is charming as opposed to alienating, people will invite you to do interesting activities, give you opportunities and give you a path to advancement. Promoting yourself without appearing to promote yourself is an useful skill in both endeavors.
Vlad: If I were to tell you that I want to become a researcher in the field of political science, what are the first three pieces of advice that you would give me? What about advice for teaching?
Lex: I’ll try to provide the same three pieces of advice for both of your questions.
Number one advice – I would develop a writing style that you can use in any job or discipline. Too often academics don’t know how to write or they think writing in the most complicated way will distinguish their intelligence and make them respected. To be able to write persuasively and clearly, and even enjoyably, is what distinguishes a good academic in the field of political theory. So learn how to write well and study those who do write well!
Number two – I would advise you to serve as a bridge between theory and practice. Theory is only proven in the real world and similarly, the data on the real world only makes sense if you have time to reflect upon it in a way that universities offer us. My advice is to go back and forth, as opposed to spending too much time either in the field or in the classroom.
Finally, don’t be a prisoner of the schools of thought that you learn about and don’t be afraid to develop a totally original and radical idea that nobody has elaborated before, even if people don’t understand it at first.
Vlad: There are many university students who disregard the option of becoming researchers or professors, and prefer to settle for occupations that do not require further attainment of knowledge. If you could present to them one argument for becoming academics, what would it be?
Lex: My interest is not that of convincing people to become academics, but rather nourishing a universal curiosity among academics and non-academics alike. I think that there are some incredibly-curious and gifted non-academics with whom I’d rather spend time than incurious and narrow-minded academics. I think curiosity and desire for knowledge is something worth encouraging and deepening, apart from the specific choice of either pursuing an academic career or not.
Vlad: Is there a publication of yours (be it book or article) that you would recommend to us? And if so, where can we find it?
Lex: I’ve written a series that I called “Applied Classics” for Huffington Post, as I like to think of myself as an applied classicist who practices his craft in a similar way in which physicists apply their theory. You can type in my name on the website of Huffington Post and read the articles I wrote. Also, I wrote my first article on Cicero and what I like to call his “creative constitutionalism” at the University of Bologna – so if you look up my name and Cicero on any internet search engine, it will come up.
Vlad: What would you say is your highest accomplishment as an academic?
Lex: My highest accomplishment as an academic is that of meeting students with sharp and original minds from all over the world, and exchanging with them. I hope to write many books and articles, but I think that it’s the human interaction, as well as interaction across cultural and generational divides, that to me is the most enriching part of this life.
Vlad: Do you think that succeeding in the field of political science is harder for my generation?
Lex: I think that, since the financial crisis, there’s a lot of anxiety in your generation. I see it everywhere and I think it threatens the desire for knowledge by making it seem that finding a job is the only end of university education. I think, in that sense, it is more difficult. But as they say, one can always pursue knowledge regardless of one’s field.
Vlad: If you were to turn back time is there anything that you would do differently?
Lex: I think I might have advised my 18 year-old self not to be a political science major, but to come to politics via philosophy, history, and literature. Starting to learn Latin and Greek a little earlier would have also been great pieces of advice for my younger self.
Vlad: What are your future plans – both on the short term and on the long run?
Lex: I would love to write and publish, especially around what I call my theory of aesthetic politics – that politics can only really be described in its fullest form by encompassing our desire for beauty and stories in our lives. This narrative capacity of human beings and our aesthetic capacity to seek not only functional political systems, but beautiful ones, is something that’s a part of the rhetoric of politics that the Ancients introduced as part of the study of politics and political thought. Restoring this idea of aesthetics and beautiful stories, forms and ideas into politics is my lifelong intellectual mission.
In terms of my professional goals, I think keeping a balance between my international projects and my teaching is the balance that I want to continue.
Vlad: Mr. Paulson, I would like to thank you very much for having the patience and benevolence of answering all these questions. It was a pleasure to have you as an Academic Role Model, and I hope that your story and insights will help present and future political science students who look forward to similar experiences.