Welcome to Office Hours, a series brought to you by the Features section! In these articles, Argus writers speak to faculty, staff, and members of the administration about their interests, classes, and lives on and off campus.
If you missed the chance to attend your professor’s office hours this week, don’t fret. Even though you may not be a student of Assistant Professor of Government, Assistant Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and College of Social Studies (CSS) Tutor Nina Hagel, The Argus brings you an exciting opportunity to visit her classroom. From the presence of authenticity in political thought to the value of lived experiences, Hagel explores many topics in her research in political theory. The Argus spoke to Hagel about her research at the University of California, Berkeley, time in Prague, and love for teaching.
The Argus: What sparked your interest in political theory?
Nina Hagel: I had just the most amazing undergraduate [political theory] teacher. I came to college really interested in international relations, and I was a political science major. I didn’t know anything about political theory. Then I had a friend who said, “I’m in this class and you’d love it. You should take it next.” It completely captured my intellectual interests. It was the first time that I couldn’t stop thinking about what I was learning in class. I would talk to all my friends about it. I’d bring some of my visitors from home when they were visiting. I’d take them to the class. And what I loved about it was that it gave me a new lens to see the world through. I often start my classes by saying that you’ll have this demon on your shoulder that will talk to you in the voice of the [political] thinkers. And I felt like I had Rousseau or Nietzsche speaking in my ear whenever I’d read the news or whenever I’d be at a protest.
A: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your time at UC Berkeley and about your research there?
NH: I came to UC Berkeley knowing that I was really interested in political theory, but not knowing how broad and diverse of a field it was. During coursework, I was reading thinkers in the history of political thought for whom authenticity was a really central political concern. In another course, I was reading [Michel] Foucault and [Judith] Butler and poststructural thinkers who were saying, “Authenticity is a ruse. There’s no such thing. The author has died, the subject has died, we’re better off without it.”
So I combined that with my own experience. I saw my students in my classes appealing to their lived experience and appealing to these authentic truths and how it was a really important category for them. Oftentimes when people would ask me things, I would appeal to this kind of felt sense. I couldn’t quite justify [this sense] in these more abstract or argumentative terms, but I could justify it based on who I was, or how I felt, or what my experience was. This motivated a dissertation that focused a lot on what the value of authenticity is in political life. Particularly because in political theory, we’re very distrustful of it.
After I graduated from Berkeley, I became even more interested in the politics of it because I found that there were newer political objections to authenticity, but there was also a surge of people arguing from lived experience. Then, transgender politics became much more visible, and then the dangers of right-wing populism [emerged]. I ended up really modifying the audience and some things that I was doing in my research because of what I was seeing on the ground, and I wanted the research to stay true to what was going on in the world today.
A: What drew you to becoming a professor?
NH: I had amazing professors in undergrad who demonstrated that you could live this life of the mind, that you could read and be in conversation, that you could be engaged with these things you’re intellectually passionate about, as a career. Both of my parents were nurses, and I came from a background where being a professor was never really on my radar. I didn’t know any college professors or academics before coming to college. Then I met a lot of graduate students and professors and thought, “This seems really exciting.” And the other thing that drew me to it was that I spent two years after undergraduate teaching English in Prague. I loved teaching, and I loved the conversations that I got to have while teaching. So I thought being a professor would combine my love of political theory and my love of discussing different ideas with people.
A: What was it like living in Prague?
NH: Amazing. Oh my goodness. It was before the Schengen Agreement, so whenever my visa expired, I’d have to take the train across to Germany to get my passport renewed. Then I was there when Schengen happened, and that was no longer an option. I loved it so much that I was initially only supposed to go for one year, but extended it to two. I met so many people that I would not have met if I just went straight to graduate school or if I stayed in the States. I loved being immersed in a new culture and learning about the history [there]. I felt like I had this advantage—everyone wanted to show me something about their culture or their life. So my students would take me to their hometowns to meet their families. I was really able to see a part of the world that I might not have seen before if I had just gone on vacation or even just studied abroad. I had two full years there, which was amazing.
A: What is one thing that you love about Wesleyan?
NH: I love the students. I genuinely enjoy teaching. I come out of class feeling like I have all these new ideas or I am really satisfied with how discussions go. I think students are excited about ideas, engaged with ideas, engaged with the world, and they’re incredibly creative as well. I can’t tell you how many double majors I teach, with studio art or film or music. I narrowly majored in political theory when I was an undergrad—I went to Johns Hopkins [University], which is a research university—so it’s been amazing to see how many things students can do with a liberal arts education. They can try these different things with such an open curriculum.
A: What is one thing that students don’t know about you and you want them to know?
NH: Here’s something. Political theory was really difficult when I started, and I wasn’t terribly good at it. But I was excited by it, and it opened my mind to this new way [of thinking], and so I kept with it. I wish that students knew that it’s not about having a particular talent or being good right off the bat, but it’s something that if you put more work into it, it opens all these doors.
A: That really resonates with me. I remember you saying how you didn’t really like speaking in a class setting and how that part of you evolved during your time in academia.
NH: I sympathize a lot with shy students. I feel mixed about cold-calling, which I do in so many of my classes. But if I don’t cold-call, I often won’t hear from students, and students always have something to say. They’re just sometimes hesitant to say it unless you cold-call them.
A: If the readers of this article had to read one book that you teach, what would it be?
NH: What would you say? What’s been the best one so far for you in the course so far?
A: Wendy Brown, one hundred percent. I repeat this a lot to the current CSS sophomores who are studying the canons of social theory. I’m like, “It gets so much more exciting.” The fact that her work is contemporary, that you can really relate it to what’s going on in the present day, and that it is applicable to your own life, makes you identify with it in a way that you don’t really identify with the works of Hobbes or Locke. So yes, I would say “Undoing the Demos” by Wendy Brown.
NH: I do love that book. What else would I say? That is one of my favorites. I assign a lot of things that I like reading. For me in college, reading [Friedrich] Nietzche really excited me. And then when I got to graduate school, Foucault’s work really transformed how I saw the world and how I interpreted politics.
In terms of thinking about what’s going on today, I’ve been reading and teaching Lida Maxwell’s book “Insurgent Truth: Chelsea Manning and the Politics of Outsider Truth-Telling.” I just love how she starts with this one case and then goes deeper into it and brings in other thinkers to complicate it. I’ve enjoyed teaching it across different classes. I’ve been enjoying teaching Amia Srinivasan’s work on consent. I taught a class on consent a year and a half ago. I’m teaching a unit on it in my freedom class, and I think that was the book that everyone kept wanting to return to.
A: What is your favorite place to eat in Middletown?
NH: Oh, that’s tough. A combination. I love Sweet Harmony. They have new ownership. They make this delicious crepe that I really like. I like their scones [too]. I also love Brew Bakers. Last semester, during Thanksgiving, I told my students, “If you’re here, come meet me at Brew Bakers and we can chat.” A few of them did, and it was just this cool place to meet students. Also, I love sushi, so Hachi.
Eugenia Shakhnovskaya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.