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"It's been a hell of a year to teach politics"

Sarah Parkinson reflects on her experiences home and abroad as the first Aronson Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies
Posted October 12, 2017

Sitting in her office in Mergenthaler Hall on a humid June afternoon, Aronson Assistant Professor Sarah Parkinson thinks back to where she sat about a year ago: on an airplane undertaking a precautionary "spiral landing" at Erbil International Airport in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).

"It's to avoid missiles," Parkinson says of the maneuver. Erbil is about an hour and a half east of Mosul, where, as the plane landed, an international effort to retake the city from Islamic State control would soon be under way. With support from the Aronson Professorship, Parkinson had traveled to KRI to embed with humanitarian groups serving those fleeing Mosul and other Islamic State-controlled territories.

"To understand politics, you have to interact with the people who experience the politics as they are, not as you assume them to be," Parkinson says, describing her work in the Middle East and other conflict zones around the world. "The Aronson funding allowed me to get out into the field at a very important time, and I made connections that will elevate my research and teaching for years to come."

That's exactly what Jeff Aronson, chair of the University trustees and a Krieger School of Arts and Sciences alumnus and board member, intended when making a $10 million gift to Hopkins with his wife, Shari, in 2015. The couple, also Hopkins parents, established the Aronson Center for International Studies to promote closer ties between the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, engage experts to solve thorny problems in international relations, and provide opportunities for young people to learn from these leaders. Parkinson, herself a 2004 Krieger School alumna, shared highlights of her first year as an Aronson Assistant Professor with Rising.

"The Aronson funding allowed me to get out into the field at a very important time, and I made connections that will elevate my research and teaching for years to come."
Sarah Parkinson

How are you building upon your experience in Iraq last year?

I live in the communities that I study, and I see what emerges from their interactions with foreign professionals, humanitarians, and journalists. It was interesting to speak to psychologists who were treating survivors of Islamic State captivity. You saw humanitarian organizations conflicted between their desire to bring attention to the issues these survivors were dealing with and their observations of problematic practices some journalists used to bring those stories to light. There are many ethical conundrums in those layers. I've received an Exploration of Practical Ethics seed grant [from the Berman Institute of Bioethics] to create training for common ethical dilemmas that emerge in this war-adjacent work. 

Outside of your experience in Iraq, what has the past year been like for you?

It's been a hell of a year to teach politics. I think that, for some political scientists — not necessarily myself, because people who specialize in the Middle East tend to be more jaded — this year has been cataclysmic. There hasn't been a failure to predict on this scale since the fall of the Soviet Union. We're going to see the reverberations throughout the field for years.

How has the turbulent political landscape affected your teaching?

One of the things you learn working in the Middle East is that you can never teach the same class twice. A few years ago, we focused on the successes of the Arab uprisings. Now, we're focusing on how authoritarianism has become entrenched, how these unending civil wars in Yemen, Libya, and Syria came to be, how to cope with the largest instance of forced migration since World War II. They're really tough questions that one doesn't necessarily have the answers for, and teaching when one doesn't have the answers is a big challenge.

Why is philanthropic support like the Aronsons' particularly important for scholars like you?

If you sit in the field for two years in Palestinian refugee camps, you learn a lot about migration — but most donors and granting agencies won't fund you to do that kind of work. Excellence, creativity, and innovation are driven by people who have worked their entire careers to develop an eye for what is important to study. They need to not be placed in boxes of "Is this useful to the government right now?" but instead free to consider "Is this valuable as knowledge to humanity?" We — Hopkins, and all American colleges and universities — need to attract the kind of faculty and support projects that may take a long time, and may not use the buzzwords of the moment, but allow us to determine important truths.

To learn more about supporting the Aronson Center for International Studies, and professors like Sarah Parkinson, please contact Harvey Green, senior director of development for the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, or Kim Morton, associate dean of development at SAIS.