Interview with Renan Levine

How did you get interested in political science?
I became interested in politics around the time I learned to read when I was seven or eight years old by turning to the front page of the newspaper after consuming every word and statistic in the sports section. By the time I was ten or eleven, it didn't seem very likely that I would become a professional baseball player. Politics and government seemed like a fun second-choice especially since I relished political arguments and realized that extra-curricular activities like the Model United Nations and groups working to improve interracial relations were a great excuse to skip high school classes.

The years after the collapse of the Soviet Union were especially exciting since it appeared that most everything we learned in history class might prove to be irrelevant. One summer I was working in an hot, steamy warehouse full of generic pantyhose while there was a political crisis in Russia. I resolved then and there that I wanted a job that would be affected by changing world events, not one that required moving dusty boxes of knee-high stockings from one end of the room to the other regardless of who was in charge of the Kremlin or occupying the White House.

However, after briefly working as an intern in local government and getting frustrated in a class on social welfare policy that there was not an easy solution to end poverty as we know it, I realized that I really enjoyed some of the theoretical aspects of political science - and I thought I might enjoy doing what my own professors did everyday.Throughout my undergraduate years, I kept returning to events that puzzled me since I was very young: why politicians I thought (and hoped) would win elections often lost.

What are you working on right now?
I am working on a project that tries to better understand the circumstances under which citizens cast strategic votes in hopes of preventing a candidate or party they dislike from winning an election. I am also working on a project that uses a relatively new statistical tool to better analyze voter attitudes towards candidates, parties and racial and ethnic minority groups. At the same time, I am trying to figure out how to best teach my students to identify and resist fake news and propaganda that they see on social media.

What do you try to bring to undergraduates in the classroom?
Much of what excites me about teaching political science is an extension of what attracted me as a student to political science: a desire to acquire practical skills while feeling like what I was studying was relevant immediately relevant to contemporary events. Even as an undergraduate, I appreciated how political science offered a robust set of empirical theories but also the sense that every election and every major policy decision represented an opportunity for scholars to wonder, "will this event conform to existing theories or will we need a new set of explanations?" As an instructor, I strive to share my enthusiasm for the contemporary relevance of the subject matter and often include opportunities to develop or refine useful skills. As a result, nothing made me happier than a recent alumni event when several students cited my classes as courses that gave them skills they draw upon in a variety of professional careers. At the same time, my favorite lectures allow me to connect some theory or concept to the daily news headlines.

Why do you like teaching statistics and research methods in political science?
I never was a big fan of math classes and I don't think I ever showed much aptitude for math. But I was very analytical and always wanted to understand 'why.' Statistics, qualitative research methods and game theory are all techniques that scholars use to understand 'why' something has happened. To me, they are essential tools to resolving interesting political and social arguments about why something has occurred. For instance, today many are arguing over why Donald Trump won the US Presidential Election in 2012. Did he win because he was so much unlike most Republican candidates, or did he win despite being unlike most Republican candidates in an election were Republicans enjoyed a big political advantage over their opponents?

Fortunately, we live in the computer era, so with computers doing the actual computations, my students and I can focus on how to interpret results to answer questions like, "did Trump win in areas that other Republicans did poorly in?" So, most of the time in the classes I teach on political research methods, I focus on learning how to run analyzes and interpret their results in plain, understandable English. I frequently express my goals to my students using an analogy of learning how to drive a car. My ambition is to teach the students how to read all of the dashboard indicators without [necessarily] knowing how to look under the hood and understand how the engine works. In class and in assignments, students are expected to learn to apply the appropriate statistical tests of well formulated hypotheses using user-friendly statistical programs.

I hope that students taking my classes will be empowered to ask and answer their own research questions, either ones they are curious about out of idle curiosity, for other classes, or when they join the workforce as co-op students, interns or recent graduates. Nothing makes me happier than getting emails from former students about how they just ran some analysis and impressed their new boss, or started an advanced seminar and realized that they could interpret the dense statistical tables in the required reading.