Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Thanks, Ben Schiff

This month, my adviser at Oberlin, Ben Schiff, retires.  I was not able to make it to Oberlin to give thanks, perhaps make a few jokes, and wish him well give him thanks.  So, I will do what I always do--talk about it here.

I only took two classes with Ben, as I discovered Political Science and IR late in my frosh year and he was on sabbatical during my second year at Oberlin.  When he returned, I took his Mideast Politics class and then his seminar.  I was disappointed at first that he had changed his seminar topic from Arms Sales to Refugees.  It reflected his changing research interests, but I had been more interested in the old arms sales topic.  Of course, that might have been a good thing since a friend I knew had his paper disrupted towards the end of the semester as he had been studying the "successful" arms embargo against Iran just as it came out that the US via Iran-Contra was selling arms to Iran.  Ooops. 

Anyhow, the refugee course was new to Ben, reflecting a desire to continue to pursue his curiosity wherever it took him.  This helped inspire not just my career but how I pursued it.  Ben went from studying the International Atomic Energy Agency to refugees to the International Criminal Court.  Perhaps as a result, my worked has also bumped around from topic to topic, depending on what intrigued me, rather than specializing in one thing for my career. 

Ben was far better than I have ever been in running a seminar.  It was a good group to be sure, as Obies are pretty sharp folks and like to argue about everything discuss stuff.  In the Politics of the Mideast Class, or whatever it was called, we had a paper assignment which was actually two papers--to argue the issues from the Israeli standpoint and from the Palestinian standpoint: Schmuel Saideman vs. Steve Said.  I thought I was pretty clever.  Maybe I wasn't, but I only remember a few assignments from my undergraduate days, and this was one of them.  I also remember Ben's appeal to foster discussion--that classroom discussions were low risk environments (as opposed to conversations around a boardroom table or government meeting), so have at it.

While Ben shaped some of my views of both IR and teaching, perhaps the contribution I can most clearly identify to my career is that he gave great advice to a panicked senior who was looking at grad schools.  "Check out UCSD.  Sure, the folks there are pretty arrogant, but they are also quite sharp."  I would not have applied to UCSD if not for Ben's advice, and I would not have gotten in without his recommendation.  His assistance that year definitely changed my life, as that choice forever dominated my destiny.

Ben turned out to be a great adviser to the next generation of IR scholars.  Oberlin has a grand tradition of producing not just Phds and not just Phds in Political Science, but in IR: Kenneth Waltz, Robert Jervis and Scott Sagan all went to Oberlin.  The folks who Ben mentored may not have as big names, but I am pretty proud to be in the same company as George Shambaugh, Audie Klotz, and, my classmate, Beth DeSombre. 

Congrats on your retirement, Ben.  Oberlin will miss you, and I will certainly miss our occasional coffees at random ISA's over the years.


Unknown said...

It is kind of impressive the group of IR folks of roughly our generation who came out of Ben's mentoring. I've stolen some of his teaching techniques (I remember in the N-S relations class we each got assigned a country to follow through the course and analyze through its lenses, a technique I've used in various forms through courses I'e taught since then. And as someone who also has a second (artistic) career I was -- oddly enough -- inspired by his fiction writing that happened while we were in graduate school. I even named my first dog after a character in one of those books.

Unknown said...

Oh -- and because google doesn't seem to recognize me, the previous comment was from Beth DeSombre.

Anonymous said...

As an Obie, you might find this interesting: