Fictional Political Scientists

Dr. Elizabeth Weir (Stargate Atlantis)

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Carla Martinez Machain. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University.

In having a recent conversation with one of my colleagues in the English department, she noted (with much regret), that the most common characteristic of English professors in fiction is a wish (fulfilled or not) to sleep with their students.  I ran through a few examples in my head (here and here, just to name two); she clearly had a point.  Soon after that, I spoke with someone in the Anthropology department, who decried the fact she is often confused with archaeologists, whose popular media portrayal (we all know the most famous one) made people think that her job must involve more fedoras, whips, and chasing Nazis than it actually does[1].

Both of these conversations got me thinking about how it is that political scientists are portrayed in fictional works.  My first thought, of course, was that we are not (so that’s how the kid with no Disney Princess who looks like her must feel…[2]). The second was that fictional political scientists will often leave academia for government[3] jobs, or to become commanders of Stargate Command (it appears to be the case that Elizabeth Weir taught political science at Georgetown University before moving on to interplanetary diplomacy). Granted, most fictional characters are exceptional in one way or another (who wants to read about/watch ordinary people in ordinary circumstances?), but I still would like to see political scientists who represent the profession in at least a vaguely familiar way (this would help answer my grandmother’s questions of what exactly it is that I do[4]), rather than only ones with political aspirations.

This is why I was so excited to find, in Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics , a Political Science professor who actually sounded somewhat familiar.  In the novel, Gareth van Meer gets an undergraduate degree in economics (just like me!) from the University of Lausanne.  After two years teaching in Uganda and Nicaragua (resume building?) he goes on to get a PhD from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, writing a dissertation on guerrilla warfare and third-world revolution.  After spending some time doing field work in Haiti, Cuba, Zambia, Sudan, and South Africa (this all sounded quite foreign to me as an IR person, but I hear that the Comparativists like to do this), he goes on to write a book about territorial conflict and foreign aid (oh wow!  Sounds like a topic actual political scientists might write about).  He then becomes a professor of Political Science at Brown University and then Columbia University.

So yes, the Ivies are definitely overrepresented in Gareth van Meer’s trajectory (as they often are in literature[5]), but then, most surprisingly, he takes a position at Ole Miss[6].  At this point I was hooked.  I actually know people at Ole Miss!  For once I was seeing a writer move beyond the Ivies and show us a political scientist living a life somewhat similar to ours[7].  In fact, a key scene in the story takes place in Oxford, Mississippi.

After Ole Miss, van Meer goes on to take a variety of visiting positions (unfortunately, this may sound all-too familiar for many political scientists) at a variety of less well-known universities.  He talks about the importance of teaching “the illustrious, unspoiled Common Man,” while also referring to his students as “a monstrous misuse of matter” after “grading a frighteningly flawed final exam or widely off-the-mark research paper”[8] (sound familiar to any of you?).

Mostly it is fun to try and come up with examples of fictional political scientists and laugh about how they are not like us at all.  Still, there may be some negative implications of these representations.  What does it mean for us as a discipline if the most successful among us are portrayed as being the ones that choose to leave academia for more exciting pursuits?  Does that perpetuate the negative stereotype that those of us working at universities sit around hoping that one day Washington or the United Nations will call?  I worry that it does.  This is why, as much of a snob as Gareth van Meer can be (and really, let’s not pretend we don’t all know people like him), I am grateful to Pessl[9] for creating a character who does not have to leave academia in order to move the plot forward, and also a character who could plausibly remind us of ourselves.  And, after all, don’t all of us political scientists, like van Meer,   possess “that brand of good looks which only reach full force at the onset of middle age[10]”?

How about the rest of you QP readers?  Any favorite fictional political scientists?  Any particularly ridiculous representations of the profession?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.


Special thanks to Jaclyn Kettler, Chad Clay, James Hedrick, and Julie Blase for their helpful ideas.

[1] Sometimes Anthropology and English stereotypes can overlap, as anyone who watched Saved by the Bell: The College Years might remember from Kelly Kapowski’s short-lived relationship with Anthropology professor Jeremiah Lasky (though we all knew she and Zack Morris were meant to get back together).

[2]Allison Adato phrased it very cleverly for People magazine, “Belle, Tiana, Jasmine, Mulan, Ariel—where is Princess Shoshanna?”

[3] Agent Brad Wolgast in Justin Cronin’s The Passage dropped out of after two years at the University of Stony Brook’s political science PhD program to join the FBI.

[4]As of this writing, she thinks that I am a teacher who also freelances writing political analysis for popular media.  Close enough, right?

[5] Another example of a good representation of a political scientist in fiction is Yale professor Blaine in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.

[6] This is a direct consequence of him having a “major blowout” with the “conservative head of the Political Science Department at Columbia” over an article titled “Steel-Toe Stilettos: The Designer Fashions of American Foreign Aid” (good title, by the way). I guess even Pessl had to give her political scientists strong political agendas.

[7] Well, before all of the extraordinary stuff happens, as, of course, any readers of the book already know.

[8] Pessl, Marisha. Special topics in calamity physics. Penguin, 2006, p. 23.

[9] Given Pessl’s portrayal of a political scientist’s academic life, I actually wondered if she had grown up as the child of an academic (it turns out she did not; her father is an engineer for GM and her mother a homemaker).

[10] Pessl on Gareth van Meer’s appearance (p. 28).


Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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