Assistant Professor of Government Joslyn Barnhart Trager is known for provoking thoughtful discussions in her small seminar classes. She sat down with The Argus to discuss travel, creative writing, and manipulating people’s foreign policy preferences.
The Argus: How did you end up at Wesleyan, and how are you liking it?
Joslyn Trager: I was at a small liberal arts college for my undergraduate work, and it was appealing to me to return to a similar type of place. I’ve been loving it! I think the students are excellent, and I learn things from students during classroom discussions, you know, this is the most a professor can ask for in a classroom. For the most part, students come ready to discuss and my classes have been a pleasure.
A: What classes are you teaching this semester?
JT: I’m teaching a seminar on territory and conflict, in which we talk about the relationship of those two ideas. And another [seminar] on psychology and international relations, in which we bring in a lot of research from social psychology and think about how you might apply it to a study of international relations. Both of those have been small seminars; I think we’ve generated a lot of interesting ideas and questions.
A: Do you like teaching seminar-style as opposed to large lecture-style?
JT: I like both. I teach the intro course for International Relations to freshmen, which is a larger course. You have students coming in and you get to establish their interests and try to motivate them. I like both approaches. I like asking the big questions in the intro classes without giving the students concrete answers and I like helping them figure out concrete answers as or if they go through the government major.
A: Do you travel a lot for your work?
JT: Not particularly. I traveled a lot before going back to graduate school. Personally, I like to travel a lot and see different parts of the world. Usually with International Relations, you don’t have much of a regional focus as you do when doing comparative politics. I don’t have a very concrete knowledge of the situation on the ground at any particular region. There are parts of the world I love to travel to and will continue to travel to.
A: What are some of your favorite places to travel to?
JT: I’ve been to India a number of times. I’ve enjoyed all of my experience there; both times, I had my very close friend with me. Her family lives there, so it’s a really great way to see India. I’ve spent most of my time in France and Europe in general. I have yet to go to Asia, but very soon, I hope. Japan!
A: I’ve never been to Europe, but I will go next semester for my study abroad in Spain. Did you have a chance to study abroad during your undergraduate career?
JT: I didn’t. I went to college in Oregon, so my travel abroad experience was in New York City. To me, that was a novel experience. I knew I wanted to live in the city, so that’s where I went. I was in New York a number of years after graduation, and then moved back to California for my graduate degree.
A: What do you like to read for leisure? What are you reading now?
JT: I read fiction. I’ve been going through National Book Award finalists and seeing if I can judge who can make the final cut. I try to read something totally different at night and on the weekends. I recently finished “Fates and Furies,” by Lauren Groff. It’s nominated right now. It was entertaining. I like contemporary fiction.
A: Have you ever tried your hand at creative fiction writing?
JT: I’ve never taken a class—well, that’s not true. I took a Russian fiction class when I was an undergrad, but I was a neuroscience major and didn’t get to focus my time on fiction writing. Yet, it’s becoming something I’m more and more interested in.
A: Is it something you would like to do?
JT: It’s something that I’ve been thinking more about in some post-tenure future. I would try my hand, but I have so little experience with it! It would be something—yes—I would keep close to the chest. There are so many classes you guys get to take. I just look through the course catalog with such envy. Most students don’t recognize that when you get out of here, the time for academic exploration is going to be greatly diminished. If it grabs you now, it will always grab you and you will always want to seek it in some way. It can become difficult to find that in post-graduate life. I think this sends people back to graduate school pretty quickly to get that same stimulation in the same ability to explore ideas. So yes, I look with envy.
A: Tell me more about your book, “Status, Humiliation, and International Behavior.”
JT: Sure! I’m working on it currently. It focuses on the idea that states can fall prey to the notion of humiliation and that they worry about their status in the international system. And when that status is somehow threatened, it leads them to engage in actions they wouldn’t have otherwise. Often those actions are going to be aggressive because they’re trying to signal to other states that they expect to be treated in a certain way. This is joining with other literature right now that’s arguing that these same types of forces can apply on the international level. So I look at the cases of the scramble for Africa and nuclear arms race in 1960 as evidence as these type of things.
A: Why did you hone in on those two specific cases?
JT: Well, I think, if you want to show status concerns are driving behavior, you need to isolate cases in which they don’t have an obvious material benefit. In the scramble for Africa, you have a lot of leaders talking about how the territory they’re seeking is materially useless, so it provides a puzzle. The same is true in the nuclear arms race; both sides were acquiring nuclear arsenal that were far in excess of any sort of strategic utility. This provokes a question of why they would develop arsenals of thirty thousand nuclear weapons if one hundred were sufficient to cause catastrophic impact. So these two cases allow me to isolate, presented puzzles in what was driving non-materially motivated behaviors.
A: Are you working on any smaller projects?
JT: My other interest is in territory and in borders and justifications that state the use for territories. My next project is going to deal with something about borders. We have this notion that borders are becoming less important as a function of globalization. Borders now are fixed in this way that seems unique to this contemporary era, so what role do borders play in all of this? There is nothing more salient to states than the borders that define them. It defines who is within the group and who is out of the group.
A: You recently received a faculty project grant. What are you currently working on?
JT: I’m doing surveys experiments online. I set up subjects to either read about the fact that the United States is in decline—status decline vis-à-vis others, especially China. Or I remind them the United States is the best nation in the word type of thing. So I prime them to think optimistically or pessimistically about American status, then I ask them a series of foreign policy questions to see how their foreign policy preferences tied to the things they might support, how that might change as a function of this original prime. Survey experiments are starting to play an increasing role so we can understand how the findings in social psychology might apply to International Relations.