Smith House 2.0

Five new political science faculty with the weight of the world on their minds

By John T. Ward

Illustration by David Hollenbach

Call them the Poli Sci Five, a handful of hires who’ve moved into Smith House in the past two years. Ranging in age from 29 to 39, they focus on issues as timely and vital as tomorrow’s newspaper headlines.

One, for example, looks at torture in light of centuries of history as well as the current war on terror. One compares welfare policies in industrialized nations, and another is an expert in American education policy. Two are focused on the Middle East conflict and efforts to rebuild Iraq.

Heavy topics, to be sure. But scratch the surface, and you’ll find more—like a potential plan, one with actual traction, to remake the way Drew students learn. (Spoiler: It has much to do with tying Drew to the greater world.)

All this is happening, ironically, within the walls of the resolutely unchanging Smith House, complete with a shag rug that’s been in place since, oh, let’s say 1977. Whether the rug ever gets the heave-ho is up for debate, but what’s staying the same are the standards set by earlier occupants, including recent retirees David Cowell, William Messmer, Douglas Simon, Paul Wice and the late Dick Rhone. “We interviewed a lot of qualified people,” says Philip Mundo, a member of the faculty since 1986. “But these five have high aspirations. They want the institution to be good. They all do.”

Andrea Talentino

Nation building may actually split countries. The outcome may be far more negative than we anticipated.

Google “Andrea Talentino,” and among the biographical tidbits you’ll pick up are that she’s the department’s resident expert on nation building and peacekeeping efforts, she spent several years in New Orleans and she’s run quite a number of road races.

AREA OF INTEREST: Security studies
GREW UP IN: Cortland, N.Y.
Ph.D.: University of California, Los Angeles, 1998
TAUGHT AT: Tulane University

But the first hit is the one that gets closest to who she really is, Talentino admits. It reveals that, in a brush with Jersey gustatory glory, she got to ride along with the Newark Star-Ledger’s “Munchmobile” squad, trolling the state in search of the perfect… doughnut.

The outing “was the pinnacle of my life,” Talentino says. “It didn’t matter if I got tenure, it didn’t matter if I made full professor. Nothing could beat the Munchmobile.” When not reveling, Homer Simpson-like, in the memory of her personal-best sugar high, Talentino settles back into more familiar roles: a teacher in international relations and a researcher into postwar reconstruction and nation-building regimes.

A former believer in large-scale postconflict reconstruction efforts, she’s writing a book that argues that nation building isn’t quite what it used to be, if it ever was.

“It may actually split countries and continue the fragmentation,” she says. “In many cases, the outcome may be far more negative than we might have anticipated. Shorter and more narrowly targeted efforts may actually be preferable.”

For 10 summers, Talentino was a camp counselor, and also worked as a tennis coach, and back then, she says, she was teaching perseverance as much as the perfect serve. Today, she explains, she still aims for broader lessons than who sits on the National Security Council of the United Nations.

“What I’m really teaching students is critical thinking, whether they’re reading about Iraq or dealing with the boss in some future situation,” she says. “That’s what’s going to be useful in the rest of their lives.”

For a meatier taste of the real world, though, Talentino will lead a Drew International Seminar in January to the West African nation of Cameroon. While there, Talentino will turn 40 years old. “It’ll be a birthday I’ll never forget,” she says.

And she’ll have something to look forward to on her return. A recent tenure grantee, Talentino and her husband, Tom Tarnow, just moved to the same town, it just so happens, as one of the doughnut shops she discovered on the Munchmobile—Menger’s Bake Shop. “Now you know,” she says, “why I have to run so much.”

Patrick J. McGuinn

I happen to think that No Child Left Behind is a good thing, and that’s not a popular position these days.

Pat McGuinn was teaching high school when one of the more remarkable political shifts in American political history began.

AREA OF INTEREST: Federal education policy; No Child Left Behind
GREW UP IN: Washington, D.C.
Ph.D.: University of Virginia, 2003
TAUGHT AT: Queen Anne School, Maryland; Brown University; Colby College

Somewhere between 1996 and 2000, Republicans went from insisting that the U.S. Department of Education be dismantled—a longstanding party position—to backing presidential candidate George W. Bush, whose platform called for what McGuinn describes as “the most robust federal intervention into education in the history of our country.”

Once in the White House, Bush quickly pulled off a modern rarity: the bipartisan passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which fulfilled that campaign pledge. By then, McGuinn had earned two master’s degrees and become a doctoral candidate in political science. But the not-so-subtle shift in Uncle Sam’s place in the classroom remained a matter that scholars hadn’t taken stock of, he noticed.

“There was nothing that was analytical about how the role of the federal government in education had changed—and why,” he says.

The question went right to the sweet spot of McGuinn’s lifelong passion for politics, history and education policy, so he made it his dissertation topic. Last year, that work was expanded into a book, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965–2005 (University of Kansas Press), that has been widely praised.

Critics say the controversial law’s mandate for standards-based testing forces schools to teach students little more than how to pass a specific test. McGuinn sees that as just one of many flaws. But while the law is far from perfect, he says, No Child does direct attention to schools that would still be neglected, particularly in inner cities.

“I happen to think No Child Left Behind is a good thing, and that’s not a popular position these days,” he says. “But as someone who has studied education policy, I believe you have to have standards and testing and accountability, and you have to have them because these disadvantaged populations have been poorly served in the absence of those things.”

McGuinn, who’s 36 years old, traces his tripartite passions to his boyhood in the nation’s capital. “Anyone who grows up in D.C., I think, gets the political bug in one way or another,” he says. In his case, the bug was bolstered by an awareness even as an adolescent that he was getting vastly better schooling than kids who lived not far from him. His seemingly inborn teaching talent also emerged early on. “Literally, my high school teachers wrote in my yearbook, ‘You’re going to go forth and be a great teacher’ kind of stuff.”

Now in his third year at Drew, McGuinn is the lead proponent of the university’s Center for Civic Engagement, an effort to centralize outreach efforts in a way that makes them a larger part of the Drew student experience.

McGuinn, who with wife Ilana, a clinical psychologist, has three young daughters, flirted with the idea of running the center, slated to debut next year, but decided that he’s too attached to his present job.

“I would not want to leave the classroom. I love to teach,” he says, a remark his old high school teachers would not be surprised to hear.

Jinee Lokaneeta

It always troubled me, this need to resort to violence in the legal system, particularly in countries that distinguish themselves from authoritarian countries.

Jinee Lokaneeta’s main area of study can be rather gruesome: state-inflicted torture.

AREA OF INTEREST: Torture in democracies
GREW UP IN: Delhi, India
Ph.D.: University of Southern California, 2006
TAUGHT AT: Kirori Mal College, Delhi University

We’re talking the entire historical gamut of the third degree, from the rack to what some refer to as “torture light.” These include exposure to extremes of hot and cold, or prolonged loud music; sleep deprivation; and “water boarding,” in which a subject’s face is covered in plastic wrap and water is poured on it to induce a sense of drowning.

Lokaneeta’s interest isn’t so much in the methods of coercion. It’s in how democratic societies over several centuries have gradually moved away from the routine use of torture, yet still give themselves wiggle room to employ it, despite bans on both physical and mental torture by the Geneva Conventions and other international agreements.

“Liberal democracies have these difficulties in actually doing away with what I think of as excessive violence,” Lokaneeta says.

The problem is not so much one of bloodlust but of governments rationalizing their behavior in the face of upwardly ratcheting security threats, she says. Sept. 11, 2001, of course, breathed new life into the “ticking bomb scenario,” in which someone in custody knows, but won’t reveal, information about an imminent and catastrophic threat—a nuclear weapon often figures into it—under conventional interrogation.

“Whenever there is a moment of crisis, it’s always easy to break the boundaries because then there is some justification that allows you to do that,” Lokaneeta says. And rather than being seen as a far-fetched plotline out of television’s spy drama 24, “the ticking bomb scenario becomes the starting point for any debate about torture,” she says.

Growing up in India, Lokaneeta was steeped in the vocabulary of human rights. Her father taught political science at Delhi University and was involved with civil liberties issues; her mother is an economist with a focus on gender studies. But when Lokaneeta herself opted for academia, her career choice didn’t sit well. It was “to their great displeasure, initially,” Lokaneeta says of her parents; like those in many Indian families, they wanted her to become a doctor—the next rung up the ladder.

Eventually, though, the pall lifted “when they saw how happy I am in my own field,” she says. Living in the Copper Beech faculty apartments with her husband, Sangay Mishra—who’s now wrapping up his Ph.D. in political science, also at USC—36-year-old Lokaneeta enjoys hiking, which took her to the Appalachians and the Alps this summer.

And truth be told, she’s also pleased that her primary area of focus is one that’s hot-off-the-presses relevant, and likely to remain so in the post-Sept. 11 age.

“I like the fact that what I’m studying is connected to what’s going on in society, and that I can help give frameworks of analysis to my students,” she says. The present debate about torture is “so much a part of everyday thinking that it gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

Jingjing “JJ” Huo

The main challenge is, obviously, driving.

[After the Fall 2007 issue of Drew Magazine had been printed, Jingjing Huo announced that he would not return to the faculty.]

Jingjing Huo’s commute during the week is a short walk from the Copper Beech faculty apartments to Smith House, where his research is focused on how industrialized nations approach welfare.

AREA OF INTEREST: Federal education policy; No Child Left Behind
GREW UP IN: Washington, D.C.
Ph.D.: University of Virginia, 2003
TAUGHT AT: Queen Anne School, Maryland; Brown University; Colby College

His weekend commute takes a bit longer, and involves an unusual amount of time listening to the propulsive pop stylings of the Pet Shop Boys.

Every Friday night during the school year, Huo drives from Madison to London, Ontario, where he lives with his wife, Hui Feng, a professor of economics at the University of Western Ontario. On Sunday nights, he does the reverse. It’s nine hours each way.

“My wife is in a tenure-track position, and so am I, so there’s really not much job mobility for either of us,” he says. “It sounds really difficult, but people just try to rationalize and adjust to whatever situation they’re in.”

Huo, who’s 29 years old, always starts out late at night to avoid long lines at the border, but that means his return trip gets him back to Drew at 3 or 4 on Monday morning. After a bit of rest, he launches into his workweek, teaching Comparative Political Systems, European Politics and Comparative Political Participation.

“I think I’m actually very good at this overnight thing, probably because I’m still very young,” he says by telephone from Canada. “It doesn’t affect me in terms of energy.”

To stay alert on the road, Huo listens to 1980s dance music and ponders his research, through which he has explored such arcana as the degree to which a person’s occupation influences his or her views on European Union integration and the dramatically different approaches to welfare adopted by Australia and Canada.

We’ll leave it to the experts to say if the Pet Shop Boys seep into his work. But Huo turns out to be something of a serial border crosser, literal as well as figurative.

Not long after arriving in the United States from his native China in 2000, he earned a master’s degree in journalism from Ohio University, which he hoped would lead to a career in writing about politics. But he soon realized that he’d rather study the topic deeply than write about it in the manner of media hacks. So he turned his attention to an academic career in political science.

Huo and his wife, who had been his girlfriend and college classmate back in China, got married in 2004 in Canada and haven’t lived full time on the same side of the international boundary since. When he was in North Carolina pursuing his doctorate, she was in Victoria, British Columbia.

“That’s why driving [from Madison] to Ontario is actually better,” he says.

Besides his wife, Ontario also is home to another of Huo’s passions: his 500-piece collection of Tomica cars, the Japanese equivalent of Matchbox toys.

So many tiny roads, so many tiny borders to cross…

Carlos L. Yordán

Instead of draining the swamp of tyranny [in Iraq] what we have done is create a revolution that has forestalled democracy.

“I went to a bar one day,” says Carlos Yordán, adjusting his baseball cap.

Yordán is leaning back from his desk in his cheesily paneled, vaguely moldy basement office at Smith House, a place he likes because it’s cool and quiet, a place where he can immerse himself in work while a ball game plays low on the radio. He’s explaining how he came to write a number of op-ed pieces for the daily newspaper in Bangor, Maine, of all places.

AREA OF INTEREST: U.S. foreign policy and postwar reconstruction
GREW UP IN: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Ph.D.: London School of Economics and Political Science, 2004
TAUGHT AT: University of Maine, Hamilton College, University of Alabama–Birmingham

Yordán had just married a Mainer named Tiffany and was taking time off from his Ph.D. work at the London School of Economics to be with her when he stopped in at a Bangor tavern, he says. No doubt there was a game on the tube; he’s passionate about the Red Sox, but will settle for the Mets.

“So I met this guy who was an editor at the Bangor Daily News, and he said, ‘What do you think about this?’” meaning some international issue that Yordán doesn’t specify. “And I told him, and he said, ‘Put it on a piece of paper and I’ll publish it.’” And so that’s how it got started, Yordán says.

That was eight years ago, when he was 25. “Now, every so often, if something rattles me, I write it and send it to him,” he says.

Not that he gets many chances to do so these days. There’s a newborn daughter, Sophia, to tend to and play with, classes to teach and a book to write on America’s effort to implant a “showcase democracy” in Iraq, a venture that Yordán, who largely supported the invasion, says failed. “Instead of draining the swamp of tyranny and replacing it with democracy,” he says, “what we have done is create a revolution that has forestalled democracy.”

A native of Puerto Rico, Yordán began his academic career focusing on postwar peacekeeping in the Balkans. But when a parent of one of his students at Hamilton College was killed on Sept. 11, he found himself confronted by questions he couldn’t answer and vowed to develop an understanding of Islamic terrorism. Three years later, he was teaching a class on the subject.

It was then that Yordán’s immersion in the modern Middle East began, and today he segues fluidly from one topic to another: postwar reconstruction, military unilateralism, terrorism funding, the recruitment of suicide bombers. When Yordán gets going, words pour forth in a torrent, almost faster than the average mortal can listen. One can see why students consider him a classroom dynamo, and why an editor might enjoy his company over a beer and a ball game.

“I think scholarship should not be in the ivory tower,” he says. “You have to connect to the public at large, and you should be able to explain events in the world in a simple manner that anyone can understand. I think writing the op-eds keeps me true to that in a meaningful way.”

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