It is 4:06 on a Monday afternoon. Amid the sea of chairs in a starched white classroom, scholar desks have been pulled into a close circle under fluorescent lights. Ten people face one another, discussing democratic ideals in an almost Socratic vein.
“In order for democracy to work, we all have to have a voice,” the professor says.
There is a patter of laptop fingers and shuffle of loose-leaf paper as students move to take notes. One of the desk’s occupants, a petite woman with dark hair and a direct gaze, remains still. She, the professor, is leading the conversation.
“We give our opinions through speech, either verbal or written — we’ve got to communicate,” she says.
After 11 years of university work, Professor Jessica Preece knows the value of classroom communication. Especially since her first four were spent here at BYU, studying political science and chemistry.
“She [was] one of our top students,” recalls Donna Lee Bowen, professor of political science and Middle East studies – Preece’s former teacher, now co-worker. “Everyone wanted her to TA for them.” As an undergraduate, Preece worked as research and teaching assistants for many of the professors she now calls colleagues.
Preece’s close work and communication with faculty as a student was an impetus for her to pursue her doctorate. “That was a huge part of it, not only sort of seeing what they did and finding that interesting, but also their support was really key to helping me feel like I wasn’t just being crazy, deciding to go off and get a Ph.D.,” Preece says.
After graduation from BYU in 2003, she went on to spend seven years at the University of California Los Angeles. Preece graduated with a hard-won Ph.D. in comparative politics, her research focusing on representation, “something that could keep her interest.”
“I realized what I really needed to study was how political parties choose their candidates,” Preece says. “Who decides who gets to represent this party in Mexico, or this party in Italy? I study how centralized that decision-making process is.”
However centralized the decision-making may be, it happens in a lot of places. Preece compares the candidate selection process in a cross-section of countries, employing research assistants who speak Spanish, Italian, Ukrainian and Lithuanian, just to name a few. “I just got back from New Zealand,” Preece says. “While I was down there I hopped over to Australia and did a little research there as well. It’s a pretty wide selection of countries.”
Representation is just as critical at home. As the first full-time female professor to join BYU’s political science department since 1987, Preece knows the importance of female participation in the political and academic process.
“We talk in academia in general about the pipeline,” Preece says. “Graduate school is challenging. There’s a lot of leaks in the pipeline, there’s a lot of places, points at which women say, mm, I’ve done enough with political science, I’m finished.”
But a variety of perspectives is crucial in a field concerning governance.
“Gender balance is vital,” Bowen says. “It’s not just so it looks good on a report. It’s because the way women approach questions often differs from the way men approach questions. We have women students; we want to have role models for them.” And a woman in front of the political science classroom is certainly a step in that direction.
Additionally, Preece teaches a course new to the department called Women and Representation.
“It’s about all women and their involvement in the political process at all different stages,” Preece says. “We’ve had some really interesting discussions and we’re only a few weeks in.”
The course is a dual effort. Preece team-teaches with Professor Ray Christensen, whom she formerly worked for as a Political Inquiry teaching assistant.
“Professor Preece leads discussions well,” Christensen says. “She has an ability to draw people out and get them to see perspectives that they might not have seen at first.”
The flag football field will get also get a first this season thanks to Preece – an all-female faculty intramural team.
“We think it’s the first ever,” Preece says. “If you are playing intermural flag football this year, we’ll see you on the field.”
The combination of research, teaching and sport keeps Preece busy.
“Here’s the chemistry analogy,” she laughs. “The work expands to fill the available space. It’s a gas.”
However, despite the workload that comes with professorship, Preece takes time to mentor those she comes in contact with. Preece’s brother Evan is a freshman at BYU this year.
“She really knew her professors very well, that was really a big deal for her in making the decision [to become a professor],” he says.
Now, Preece is paying it forward – making a concerted effort to reach out to her own students.
“She is excited to share her passion with other people. She’s shared it with me,” her brother says. “She played a huge role in what I want to become. I am definitely encouraging other people to take classes from her.”