Yemen Expert Loves Teaching, Building Understanding
A future in dance and acting was her dream while growing up, but Professor Jillian Schwedler (political science) ended up on a very different path. “I know that’s totally normal,” she says. “But the important thing was taking advantage of opportunities to discover new things about myself and the world.” She did—and still does. Her recent book, Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen, offers insights on what is going on among Islamist political parties and the government in Yemen. It’s the only book in English on the subject so far, making Schwedler an in-demand expert.
But let’s get back to the beginnings. After high school, Schwedler moved from Detroit to New York to immerse herself in the performing arts. “I attended New York University primarily to pursue a dancing career in New York City, but soon discovered I had a strong interest in history, anthropology and politics.” Her first trip to the Middle East came in 1986 when she backpacked with a roommate through Turkey and Syria. “After that, I was hooked and I began studying the area in earnest,” she says.
With a BA in Middle East languages and literatures and an MA in Middle East Studies, also from NYU, Schwedler began working for the International Peace Academy, an NGO. “I was a program officer for a project examining civil society in the Middle East,” she says, “and after three years I started my PhD program—at NYU, but this time in politics. I’ve lived in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and traveled extensively throughout the region. (And I continued to study ballet until I was 26.)”
Schwedler rhapsodizes about living in new countries. “Discovering new places, meeting new friends, and learning about the world is amazing. I’m always eager to learn new things about myself—things that aren’t necessarily apparent until you’re thrown into a totally new context and have to establish new patterns. For example, I always thought I was a ‘night person’ until I lived in Yemen, where the day begins early. I learned to love getting up at 6 a.m., buying a piece of fresh bread on my way to work, and basically reimagining the patterns and rhythms of my daily life. I also discovered that I love teaching as much as I love doing research in foreign countries.”
At UMass Amherst since 2007, after seven years at the University of Maryland, Schwedler is thrilled with her move. “The interaction across departments and the sense of community is great. That teaching is so highly valued is a huge plus for someone like me, who puts so much time and energy into it. I’m also very excited about the direction of the political science department. Unlike typical programs, our approach to studying politics features work at the intersections of the traditional subdisciplines, and we particularly welcome problem- and issue-driven research.”
Because she wanted to take a larger role in building the undergraduate program, last fall Schwedler became the department’s Honors Program Director. “We’ve added several honors courses and offer a strong support system for students writing capstone theses. Last fall I taught the first incarnation of our Honors Research Design course, working with ten students starting their theses. It was really rewarding and I was extremely impressed with the students. And vice versa, the students get a rich experience by working closely with faculty on their independent projects, as well as collaborating on faculty research.”
Building on her strengths is Schwedler’s mantra. “I teach what I know best, so that I can bring the richest details into the classroom and share my enthusiasm and energy. People recognize that and respond positively to it.”
Since Schwedler’s work involves the Middle East, it’s no surprise that her expertise goes beyond the campus in terms of outreach, education, and influencing policy. “I regularly speak to journalists, researchers, public groups and government officials about my work,” she says. “I try to bring a richer understanding of the region to those who are thinking about difficult questions concerning intervention, US policy, and so on. Because I’m an expert on Yemen, I’ve been extremely busy lately.”
Despite her extraordinary levels of engagement, Schwedler, who is the mother of 5-year-old twin boys, admits that life is pretty exhausting these days. “I divide my time between the Valley during the week and New York, where my husband lives, on weekends. I travel far less than I’d like to, but would rather spend free time with my family. Next fall the boys will be in school up here, so hopefully things will calm down some. I do run and exercise, and when I travel to conferences and lectures, I try to work in some personal time in whatever city I’m visiting. And I try to fit in a couple of great meals a week, whether at home or dining out.”
Schwedler is a strong proponent of the education UMass offers. “The political science faculty is first-rate and deeply committed to teaching. Full faculty members, rather than adjuncts and grad students, teach virtually all the undergraduate courses in our department—unlike at so many universities, including the Ivies. Students here have many opportunities to interact with faculty outside the classroom: ‘coffee-hour’ discussions, special lectures, events around elections and other major political events, and more. My advice to students is to get to know your teachers. Take advantage of these special events, and go to faculty office hours. We’re available not only to talk about your courses, but also to talk about politics and practically anything else!”
February 11, 2010