Dr. Sunil Dasgupta

Q: What led you to become a political scientist?
A: I used to be a newspaper reporter and doing that I realized that I really knew very little of what I was writing about. I wanted to get a master’s so that I could figure out the politics I was writing about, but was told that I would get funding only if I applied to an integrated Ph.D. program. I couldn’t afford school on my own so there wasn’t really another choice. Someone told me that I didn’t have to continue if I didn’t want to after the MA. But I decided to go on once I started to read political science and began to realize how exciting it was learn about how different societies solved the same problem differently or how such dissimilar societies opted for nearly the same solution overcoming all kinds of cultural, geographic, and institutional dispositions. And then I couldn’t–and still can’t–believe my luck that I get paid to read and write about things I love.
Q: What kinds of research questions are most interesting to you?
A: My research has always been driven by highly practical concerns about the world around me. I am not very esoteric. I started my academic career with a strong interest in international relations, but was attracted to comparative politics while in graduate school. For my dissertation that looked at paramilitary forces, I combined comparative politics approach to questions on security normally associated with international relations. I have been interested in civil-military relations, political violence, and security studies. I developed regional expertise in Asian politics, but also became increasingly concerned about American foreign and national security policy. Starting 2015, however, I have been pursuing two questions that are quite dissimilar: first, driven by my personal experiences, I have become interested in grassroots political participation in the United States, especially looking at the politics of candidature in local governments–are barriers to candidature depressing political participation. The second question I am interested seeks pathways to a post-growth economic model: Japan, for example, has not grown economically for close to 30 years, but remains and viable and even vital society. Is this model viable and replicable? The irony in pursuing these two questions is that local politics are fundamentally about economic growth, jobs, and revenue generation, the very coverse of thinking about a post-growth world. This is an incredible intellectual challenge to try to reconcile.
Q: What ideas, skills, or experiences do you hope students will come away with after having taken a class with you?
A: I construct my courses around puzzles: the uneven character of development (POLI 386) or violence (POLI 490), why representations of war in the academic literature differ so much from popular media such as film (POLI 379), why American power is so overwhelming and so limited at the same time, why do we love to hate politics (POLI 200). The first thing I want my students to come away from taking a course with me to develop a love for asking questions like these about what they see around them. I recognize that the most of the specifics of what I teach will either change or become outdated in the scholarship, so I focus on skills development. I put reading comprehension of complex materials at the center of learning in my courses. I incentivize perseverance and returning to the readings repeatedly. I emphasize that learning to read is like training for a marathon or learning to the play the piano. We have to do it
over and over again. I ask students to write every week, which students complain about during the semester but about which they write back in appreciation after graduation. I am now looking at the introducing more active learning courses that will empower students to become social and political agents and entrepreneurs.
Q: What can POLI majors do with their degrees?
A: There are the usual law school, grad school, think-tank, and even county, state, or federal political-aide positions. These are all possible with a degree in political science, but I am most proud of students who take the learning from a political science class and apply that knowledge to a completely new realm. One of the alums I am most proud of from the Political Science Program at Shady Grove is Ed Cornell, who after graduating went on to start a food truck selling organic ice-cream (Milk Cult DC; if you see the truck, buy the ice-cream and say hi to Ed!). Ed wrote me an email how the analytical skills he learned in an Asian politics course helped him start his food truck. Ed’s case is instructive not because I expect my students to make these lateral leaps, but to show how it is possible and often desirable to rethink an education in political science. Most students, of course, take a more incremental approach to their careers, which is why I think it is important for us especially at a campus with a mandate for vocational education like Shady Grove to develop pathways that show how useful a political science major can be.