DR. URIEL ABULOF
OCTOBER MEMBER OF THE MONTH
Department of Political Science
Member since 2007
WHY DID YOU BECOME A POLITICAL SCIENTIST?
Did I? I guess I have become one, but it was long time in the making, and even today I’m not entirely sure I fit the bill. But I have been thinking about politics for decades. It’s an odd combination of curiosity, fear, frustration and hope, and Jerusalem, my hometown, is partly to blame. It’s difficult growing up in such a torn and tumultuous city without becoming curious about the making of politics, fearful about where they may lead us, frustrated over why we still can’t make it right, and yet hopeful about the prospects of peace, and better politics. Without hope, I would have left Jerusalem long ago. As for “science,” I wasn’t merely seeking knowledge, but a community – one in which open conversation is not merely tolerated but cherished. I don’t think we always live up to that ideal, but that just means we still have a lot to accomplish.
WHY DID YOU JOIN APSA AND WHY DO YOU CONTINUE TO STAY INVOLVED?
When it comes to new ideas, I’m somewhat insatiable. Like a kid in a toy store, I can never get enough. So what better venue to try out all these new PS toys than APSA? To be sure, the immensity of APSA’s annual conventions deterred me at the beginning (it took me years to feel comfortable at a rock concert!). In time, however, managing a better balance of floating ideas, meeting peers, and exploring the outdoors did the trick. Finding kindred spirits is perhaps the most exciting part of the process. Despite what its title suggests, social science, PS included, can be a lonely place. Meeting, often by chance, someone with whom you can truly share a moment of intellectual fascination is magical. APSA itself cannot cast this spell, but it can hand out some useful wands.
WHAT IS THE MOST CHALLENGING ASPECT OF BEING A POLITICAL SCIENTIST? HOW?
Professionally, becoming, and staying, a political scientist, has become an increasingly daunting task. It used to be “publish or perish,” which made sense; these days it’s often “publish in high impact factor journals or find an adjunct position.” The odd thing about this process, is that it seems like most political scientists do not truly believe this is the right way to go; most realize that we too often sacrifice creativity to the IF demigods. And yet we continue to yield to “bad faith,” saying there’s no choice, when in fact it’s largely up to us. Navigating this terrain, let alone trying to change it, is one formidable challenge. Another, related, challenge is finding the right research-to-teaching balance: seeking a secure position through publications, it’s easy to lose sight of our pedagogic vocation, but that in turn may undermine our capacity to truly understand the world from other people’s perspectives. This leads to the third challenge: politics matter not (just) because it pays our salary, but because it’s where we, as communities and societies, shape our lives, together. Studying this means shouldering the responsibility of engaging people far beyond the walls of the ivory tower.
IF YOU COULD GIVE ONE PIECE OF ADVICE TO SOMEONE IN THEIR GRADUATE/UNDERGRADUATE YEARS, WHAT WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
Stay out! Just kidding… Well, after the obvious warnings (see above), I encourage my students to keep the fire going. How to do that is for each to find out, but without it, I don’t see how, but more so why, anyone would want to pursue political science. For me, keeping the fire going meant living this world first, thinking of theories later, until they entwine to enrich each other. We often teach theories so intensely that our students lose sight of the world as it is, and view it as a collection of case studies awaiting theory testing. It should be the other way around: behold this world, the people near and far, and discover what truly fascinates you, where you truly see puzzles – questions you have no answers for, not hypotheses to be tested. Do they keep you up at night? Good. If not, move on, until such an enigma comes your way, and then do your best not to let go. Don’t develop “thick skin,” seek criticism that hits home hard, let yourself agonize over it, then come up with even better ways of refining your questions, and finding answers. Finally, memento mori, to have not just a sense of urgency but of humility too – do the best you can while you’re still around, and, well, try to have some fun…
OUTSIDE OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, TELL US SOMETHING INTERESTING ABOUT YOURSELF.
I have no life outside political science! But seriously, I guess I’m more interested in what’s outside myself than in making myself interesting to others, which my rather nerdish path in life rigorously demonstrates. However, as Nietzsche said, “one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star,” and I try to stir this chaos within. Visiting new places, meeting new people, immersing myself in art – it’s all part of making my life not just bearable but meaningful. True enough, as this brief overture betrays, I’m not very good at small talk, but if practice makes perfect, revisiting APSA holds some hope for that too.