Five questions: Professor Wade Jacoby

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BYU has been home to Wade Jacoby’s political science teaching career for twelve years now and students still rave about his exciting lectures.

Jacoby teaches the GE political science classes, Introduction to Comparative Politics and Introduction to European Governments, and the capstone course on the EU and NATO. He also has a background in teaching social movement and international security and currently runs the Center for the Study of Europe.

Q: What got you interested in the world of political science? Was it that you grew up knowing what you wanted to do, or a talent that you found you had?

WJ: The collapse of communism. I was working in Washington, D.C., in politics, but not political science, and all of the sudden Tienanmen Square happened in June of 1989, then the East European revolutions in the fall of 1989. And here I was sitting in this policy job in Congress, and I was interested in questions like “What were the long term reasons these European systems collapsed? What’s the historical importance of change? What’s going to come next?” In Washington, the questions were “What should the United States do this week? What should my boss do tomorrow?” That’s when I started looking at political science. I thought, “Well I should go to graduate school, because that’s where those kinds of questions are more useful, and get out of politics — at least for a while — where those kinds of questions just annoy people.”

Q: What surprises have you encountered in your 12 years at BYU?

I didn’t anticipate how much of an advantage it is to teach international politics in a place where so many students have international experiences, and not just transient international experiences, but long-term, two-year international experiences. That was an even bigger benefit than I had counted on. At the same time, once I came to understand that, I was then surprised at how little so many students did to build on those skills. So you come back from a Russian-speaking mission. Great. You can bear your testimony in Russian. Also great. What are you going to do with that next? How are you going to further develop those skills? More students need to press forward to learn new vocabularies, learn substantive knowledge about the history and culture and politics and economics they can then use in their subsequent career — deepen their understanding of how that country works.

Q: Have you developed certain strategies you feel work well with the students here?

Sure. First, BYU students appreciate a good story — I think everybody does. So when I give a lecture, I want there to be an argument in there. I want there to be a narrative in that lecture — a beginning, a middle and an end. Every class has a kind of art to it, and if I get that right, students walk away thinking “Now I understand how it fits together.” And so every class, there should be a narrative there. I also want there to be an argument in the lecture — a real point of view. I’m not in the business of the neutral recitation of dry facts, because I didn’t enjoy that when I was a student, and I don’t know many students who do.

The other important thing I’ve learned is that BYU students are a bit unused to argument. Actually, though, I also was unused to argument before I got into higher education. Where I come from, an argument is a prelude to a fist fight. But in higher education we think of argument as a chance for two or more well-thought-out positions to rub up against one another. And it’s in that rubbing the learning takes place. Proving simply means ‘trying things out,’ testing them in tension with one another. And that’s why so often in LDS theology we come to big questions about works versus faith, mercy versus justice or individual integrity versus obedience. The answer always turns out to be both. But sadly, and ironically for a culture that really values this, we get out of the business of proving contraries. We want to hear what the right answer is; we want our faculty to stand up and tell us what the answer is. That doesn’t serve our students as well as older LDS traditions serve them — exposing them to the complexity of truth.

Q: Many students claim their favorite part of your class is your lecturing. Is that your main focus — keeping the lectures interesting?

The lecture has to be good, but that’s not enough. What happens when you tell a story around a campfire? You know it’s a successful story when, instead of going back to their tents, everybody says “Oh, I’ve got a story that reminds me of.” My job is to tell a story to make an argument that doesn’t shut down the conversation and send everyone back to their tents, but instead sparks people to say “Hey, I’ve got a view on that.” I work very hard on getting it right, but right means not giving the students the answer. Right means trying to spark them to say what it is that they know, what it is they think can contribute to a larger conversation. And there has to be room in the classroom for that, too, so if I begin yammering when the bell rings, and I’m still yammering when the bell rings again, that’s not a successful class no matter how fun the lecture was to hear. There’s got to be some time in there for people to process, to argue back, to get a sense of what it is that they honestly are convinced of.

Q: Why did you choose to teach at BYU?

As we say in political science, “that outcome is casually over-determined.” The fishing and the bow-hunting are unbelievable, my students and colleagues are great and I think we have a really strong department. And, as I said before, when you’re trying to teach students about the broader world, it’s a lot more fun to teach people who have languages and cultural experiences, even if they don’t fully understand them. Their optimism matters too. It’s important to me to teach politics to students who’ve had a sense from the time they were small that they matter in the world, that they can do something positive, that it’s not all decided.

So it’s a combination of things: it’s a great place to work, it’s a great place to live and really a great place to teach.

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