ALUM Update: Gaines earns doctorate in political science
Jan. 31, 2012 - Dr. Gary Gregg, director of the McConnell Center, interviewed Susan Gaines, a 2005 graduate of the McConnell Scholars Program who recently earned her doctorate of philosophy in political science.
Dr. Susan Gaines, a 2005 McConnell Scholar Graduate, with her doctoral adviser, Dr. Cecil L. Eubanks.
Susan Gaines, a 2005 graduate of the McConnell Scholars Program, grew up in Hardin County, Ky. In August 2011, she successfully defended her doctoral dissertation in political science at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La. She now lives in England where she teaches political science at University College London. Dr. Gary Gregg, director of the McConnell Center, recently interviewed her from across the pond.
Gary Gregg (GG), Director of the McConnell Center: I know you have always been (unfortunately) a Kentucky Wildcat fan, but what did it mean to you to be chosen as a McConnell Scholar back on that spring day in 2001?
Susan: Well, at the time, I knew that it was a good opportunity, but I don’t think I realized precisely how lucky I would be over the next four years. I heard about the McConnell Scholarship through a meet-and-greet with Jenny Sawyer in Elizabethtown. The interview process was rigorous, and though I thought I had done reasonably well, I had no idea whether I had made the grade. When I received the letter in the mail, my choice of where to attend college was cemented. It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. I knew that I would have the chance to interact with influential political personalities and scholars, and I knew of the China trip. Those factors alone were enough to make the scholarship an unparalleled opportunity. What I didn’t count on was the camaraderie, the other learning opportunities, and the mentoring I received from Dr. Gregg.
2005 McConnell Scholar Graduate
GG: Most high school students don’t grow up wanting to be a political science professor. Did your experience as a McConnell Scholar impact your choice of a career and the path your life has taken?
Susan: I, like most high school graduates, was ambivalent about what to do with my life. I toyed with everything from biomedical engineering, to history, to chemistry, to law. I entered my first year at the University of Louisville, and the McConnell Scholars Program, as a history major planning to attend law school after graduation. I can’t say that I was particularly excited about being a lawyer, but it seemed like the appropriate career path for a history major. In my first semester of college, I took a philosophy course under Dr. Thomas Maloney. I was immediately enamored. I loved the opportunity to learn - not what to think, but how to think. I had never been exposed to philosophy in high school, and the first taste of it in college was enough to get me hooked. In my second term, as a requirement of the program, I took Dr. Gregg’s leadership course, and though we dealt with largely different texts, I noticed the overlap between my new-found love of philosophy, and the study of politics and leadership. I began visiting Dr. Gregg’s office more frequently to discuss the texts we were reading. I wrote my paper for that term on Henry Clay, and I remember Dr. Gregg’s comment on it: “You are a very good writer, perhaps you should pursue a career in it someday.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time. When young people think of writers, they don’t usually consider academic research. However, after a few more meetings with Dr. Gregg, he raised the possibility of graduate school in political theory. Almost immediately, I was sold. Over the next three years, I spent time learning what it meant to be an academic, what doing high quality research entailed, what presenting at conferences was like, and I was able to interact with many influential scholars with the support of the McConnell Center. Again, these opportunities were never advertised in the McConnell Program brochure, but they were probably some of the most formative experiences I had in college. So, I guess the short answer is that the McConnell Center, and Dr. Gregg, are almost entirely responsible for my career choice.
GG: Do you have a favorite memory or experience that stands out from your time here at the McConnell Center? Perhaps a quirky experience that only happens in an environment like ours?
Susan: There are so many that it is difficult to pick one! One of the most pronounced memories I have isn’t a particularly good one, but in terms of a favorite memory, certainly my experience in China must be one of them. Of course, there were the broad cultural experiences of learning basic Mandarin and Chinese history, and visiting historic sites throughout the country. But the little things there were probably the most memorable. I’ll never forget the street sweepers blasting Christmas carols in June or the amazing hot pot restaurant we were taken to. There are other good experiences, such as sitting at a conference with a few other students and Dr. Gregg until very late at night discussing political ideas. I also remember traveling through rural Virginia with some other students and Sherry driving our van, on a trip to Williamsburg, and singing 80’s dance music at the top of our lungs…Poor Sherry.
GG: You mentioned that your most pronounced memory isn’t a good one. Can you elaborate?
Susan: One of my very first memories of the McConnell Center occurred the day before our first event of my freshman year. It was a beautiful day and I was to be in the McConnell Center very early. I was on the committee to help host Senator Barbara Mikulski. She was to speak to the McConnell Scholars and the public in mid-September 2001. I and a few other students met with Dr. Gregg and Sherry early one morning to survey the venue she would be speaking in and to organize some last minute details. During the course of our meeting, we began getting news that two planes had struck the World Trade Center. Slowly, our meeting became a group of people trying to come to grips with what was happening in New York, and Washington and Pennsylvania. At some point, we all ended up around a small television in one of the department offices. It was a scary day, and it is, literally, my first memory of being an active member of the program.
GG: What was the most formative experience you had during your undergraduate career, and what lessons did you learn from it that might help current students here at U of L?
Susan: I think it was being opened up to a world that I didn’t know before. I had never even considered the possibility of studying philosophy, or getting a PhD. So, my advice to students is to absorb everything the McConnell Center and the University have to offer. There are few programs like this one anywhere in the country, and the opportunities are vast if you seize them. Many students come into college “knowing” what they want to do. My advice is to keep that plan in the back of your mind, but to explore other interests too. That might mean taking a summer class, or it might mean attending an extra event that isn’t required by the program. But at the end of the day, you only have four years. And, at the end of those four years, if you have allowed yourself the freedom to explore other interests, you may find yourself somewhere entirely different than you expected to be when you began your studies.
GG: I know most dissertation topics prove to be difficult for the layperson to understand or appreciate, but can you give us a taste of what you wrote your 250 pages on?
Susan: My main argument is that scholars should be discussing the possibilities for legislating human needs instead of human rights. Rights can often be used to argue both for and against something. I believe that we must assess the things that are valuable for human flourishing. In part, the psychology literature can tell us about the needs that every human being has, such as the need to give and receive love, which cannot easily be conceived of in terms of rights. But, rights are well-entrenched in the history of Western thought, and I argue that we must also consider the importance of sentiment if a needs-based discourse is to be more successful. Ultimately, this probably requires some sort of sentimental education which teaches the value of friendship and solidarity.
GG: I am sure you miss Kentucky, but what are your favorite things about living in London?
Susan: I think the history of London is probably my favorite aspect of living there. The history museums here (which are all free!) have some of the best collections in the world. I can visit the Tower of London, part of which has stood since shortly after William the Conqueror invaded in 1066. I can visit parts of the old Roman wall built around the Roman settlement. I also often walk past buildings in central London and look up to notice a plaque on the building which says, “Charles Dickens lived and worked here.” There are so many ghosts here. I love it.
GG: Thank you, Susan. We look forward to visiting with you in person when some McConnell Scholars come to London in May to explore the roots of America’s political culture. We are counting on a great tour from our new favorite local!