Interviews with Academics #7: Professor Jane Anna Gordon on Coming to Political Theory

Professor Jane Anna Gordon is a political theorist at the University of Connecticut. Her most recent work is “Statelessness and Contemporary Enslavement” (Routledge 2020). pwip spoke to her about coming to and navigating political theory and her work on creolising the canon.

pwip: Could you tell us a little bit about how you came to political theory and your particular interests?

Professor Gordon: I came to political theory as a field of study fairly circuitously. As an undergraduate, I focused primarily on history, education and Jewish studies. I only realised later that within each of those fields the questions that primarily interested me were political theory questions. I was raised in a family that was quite suspicious of philosophy and of political science. Their view was that philosophy was a very bourgeois field and that it was very Eurocentric. They associated political science with training young people to work for the U.S. State Department.

It was through meeting the person who became my husband that I realised that the questions or themes that oriented me were those of classic and contemporary political theory. He encouraged me to take a graduate-level course, ‘An introduction to political theory,’ to see if I felt the resonance that he thought he saw in my existing written work. It was absolutely there. I spent a lot of time catching up; most people who do PhDs do them in the field they studied as undergrads or as Master’s students. Because I hadn’t, I hadn’t learnt the disciplinary norms that I was supposed to have imbibed regarding how canonical figures are conventionally organised and studied. As a result, the ways that they didn’t seem to fit together was much clearer than it might have been for somebody who was taught that arrangement as a very logical or seemingly rigorous one.

What motivated you to stay in academia, and did you encounter any obstacles? If so, how did you persevere through them?

Both of my parents are professors. On one hand, there are elements of university environments that I absolutely love: the intellectual spaces that grow up around universities. Whether it’s meandering through a used bookstore, having access to radio stations that are often supported by the university, or even just spaces where people can talk for hours for the cost of a cup of coffee. On the other hand, there’s so much about university environments, especially the most elite ones, that is really miserable. Most of the people I knew, however brilliant they were, lived between existential crises and often psychological ones. There was often a profound narcissism because they were forced to always draw attention to why they and their work should be prised over and above that of other people.

A lot of the imperatives that you’re encouraged to organise your studies around are deeply alienating ones, especially if you’re not a historical member of the professoriate.

Professor Gordon

The model of being an academic as opposed to an intellectual was one that I was not drawn to at all. My plan had actually been to teach high school social studies. Through my studies in education, I’d learnt that it’s in the 10th grade or the second year of high school, that the vast majority of high school Students of Colour and working class students will drop out of school. So I planned to teach at exactly that level. At the same time, I realised when I was doing my student teaching that there was a level of engagement and a degree of time that I wanted to be able to devote to engaging certain texts and themes that the structure of high school just didn’t allow. Again, it was my husband who encouraged me to consider returning to school to do a PhD. I had thought that the last thing on earth I wanted to do was to be a professor in a university. I wanted to be in intellectual spaces, but not in a university. When I went to graduate school, in many ways, it wasn’t with a clear expectation that I would become an employed academic. I consider myself very fortunate to have landed up that way. A lot of the imperatives that you’re encouraged to organise your studies around are deeply alienating ones, especially if you’re not a historical member of the professoriate. There are still times when I wonder whether this is actually where I want to be most, whether I want to devote most of my time to university settings.

To be able to have that freedom, to be led by intellectual and political commitments is really, really rare, and I don’t take that for granted at all.

Professor Gordon

That said, there are several things that keep me at university. One of the things that I consider most precious about life as a professor is that you can live multiple lives in one. For instance, when I moved jobs to the University of Connecticut, while I was teaching and being a professor and running our grad programme, I was also able to serve as president of the Caribbean Philosophical Association and to create its summer school. The view of the university was that as long as I make good on certain commitments – and I always make sure to do that and then some – they don’t get to tell me how to use the rest of my time. To be able to have that freedom, to be led by intellectual and political commitments is really, really rare, and I don’t take that for granted at all. The other reason is that I’m genuinely committed to education. I think that there’s a lot wrong with how universities educate, but my view is, once you land in a place, it’s your obligation to make the best possible use of where one is. What I often ask myself is, what would I want my children to have access to? What do I wish I had encountered? Then I fill in the gaps in terms of what I teach and what I prioritise. I take a lot of time making sure to help students navigate those spaces so that they can get everything that they’re looking for from them, because otherwise they can be places where many people get lost.

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