In Conversation with Warren Snead

Warren Snead is in his second semester as an assistant professor of political science at Swarthmore. He currently teaches Constitutional Law and Politics and Judicial Politics. The Phoenix spoke with Professor Snead about research, graduate school, and his recent arrival at Swarthmore.

Maya Levine: What area of political science do you study?

Warren Snead: I look largely at public law, public policy, and American political development, which is basically how American politics has changed over time. It’s a qualitative, historical look at politics.

ML: What is your current research focused on?

WS: I have a few different [projects]. My dissertation that I finished last summer examines how the Supreme Court has shaped public policies over time through statutory interpretation. Instead of just looking at if the Court strikes down a law or affirms it, [I consider how], as they interpret key provisions, they shape the way [laws] are administered and how Congress does or does not respond. That will start my first book project.

This year, I’ve been working on two projects that are quite different. One is another historical qualitative project. There’s a strain in political science research that says the Court can’t do very much on its own. There’s now a sentiment that, for some reason, that interpretation doesn’t seem to fit with the current Court. The Court is issuing decisions that majorities of members of Congress and the public are skeptical of, and we don’t see this very much in American history. So, a co-author and I are looking at party cohesion – how the parties have become more homogenous over time – and how electoral competition has changed in a way that empowers the Supreme Court. 

The other one is a survey project. We’re interested in the democratic and normative implications of Court power – especially in terms of electoral accountability – [including] democratic representation and this trend we see in modern American politics where members of Congress are not taking positions to advance legislation on controversial issues and are kicking those [issues] to the Supreme Court. We want to see how the public interprets that. When the Supreme Court makes a decision, does the mass public blame political actors for the Court’s decision? And, because presidents appoint members of the Court directly, does the public – like in the case of [Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization] – blame or credit President Trump? Do they see [President] Biden as responsible? Some of our preliminary results show that [the Dobbs decision is attributed to President Biden] at a high rate despite him not appointing any of the justices who voted to overturn it, which we think is interesting.

ML: It sounds like you’re going down many different avenues within the same topic. How do you decide what you want to research next when you’re thinking of new projects?

WS: That’s something that’s really exciting about being out of graduate school. When you’re in graduate school, you work very closely with your advisors and you try to develop projects that fit your interests, but you also consider the strengths of your department. And you want to think very carefully about not only the quality of the work, but also what can make you competitive in the job market. Once you’re out of graduate school, it’s both scary and exciting in the sense that you’re not in touch with your advisors as much. The projects I’ve been working on since then are purely things that have captured my interest. They’re [based on arguments] that I’ve read in graduate school and that I’ve assigned in classes that I just don’t think hold up. [The work] is very interest-based, quite frankly.

ML: How did you become interested in political science and the topics you’re studying now?

WS:. Even when I was really young, I leaned towards the argumentative side and I think kids like that grow up thinking they want to be lawyers. As I grew up a little bit and as I learned about the world, I was still attracted to law. But, the impact of law and the democratic implications of the United States court system – especially with the Supreme Court being so much more powerful in the U.S. than in other countries – is overlooked within the field of political science and a lot of the existing public law research doesn’t fit with that [understanding]. Reading stuff that you’re passionate about and then realizing that important topics are not necessarily unaddressed, but not as comprehensively tackled as you would like creates a natural research agenda, especially as you get through your graduate school education and learn to think a bit about research questions. Reactions to papers and books you read start to translate in your mind into research designs as you have that research methods training.

ML: Speaking of graduate school, what was your path to Swarthmore?

WS: Before graduate school, I worked as a seventh grade history and civics teacher. So, I’ve always been very interested in the teaching side of things. As I applied for jobs, there were two things that were most important: one was just geography. Ideally, I wanted to be in the Mid-Atlantic. The Philly area was kind of ideal, location-wise. Then, I wanted a place where I could not only succeed in my research, but also work directly with students in a meaningful way beyond the lecture hall model. I was not particularly interested in lecturing for 50 minutes to a class of 80 students and then having [Teaching Assistants] do the discussion and the grading. I think that model is great for a lot of people. But, for me, what really makes me excited about being in this field is working with people closely and getting to see my students develop over the semester and how they interact with each other and hear their thoughts on the world.

ML: What were your first impressions of Swarthmore?

WS: There was a lot of construction. 

I think when I was doing interviews, Swarthmore was, I would say, the most selective and prestigious school that I interviewed with. Initially, I didn’t really know what to expect, because I think it’s easy to think with prestige, there could be kind of a sense of competition, or a cutthroat element where everyone wants to do the best they can for themselves and what have you. So, I was very pleasantly surprised just to see how kind everyone was – and that’s the faculty and the students as well. The faculty has been extremely welcoming and I genuinely, really enjoy the people I work with. And – just kind of anecdotally, something that I’ve picked up on in several classes and several instances – a lot of times students will credit other students with their comments, which I don’t know is always the case across U.S colleges. There might be a student who doesn’t participate as much in front of the class, and they’ll say something in a small group and a more vocal student will raise their hand and say “This student just made this really interesting point that I thought we should raise.” That’s really great. 

I also have been impressed with not just the intellectual quality, but the genuine interest in learning. I think a lot of schools have very capable students, but they sometimes see education as just a stepping stone to get an MBA or to a top-fourteen law school. A lot of students here are very motivated and have admirable, high career goals, but they also seem to see value in the learning in and of itself, which I think is really refreshing.

ML: Have your thoughts changed at all between your first impressions and now? Has anything been really surprising to you?

WS: Something that was advertised to me – and I think it’s advertised to the students – is that there is student-faculty collaboration and research. But, I think it’s hard to know until you’re here how much of that is a talking point and how much of it is really embedded in the culture. The more time I’ve spent here and the more I’ve learned about research opportunities and the summer funding program for students – and just reviewing some of the applications students submitted for summer research projects – I’ve learned just how deep the commitment to student research is and just how accessible it is to work with students on research. My own advisors were so generous and impactful with me and my research. I think it’s really cool that it’s so easy here to kind of take on that role with undergraduates who are interested in what you’re interested in or maybe just interested in political science generally. You get the opportunity to show them what that looks like at the professional level, which I think is just an incredible thing.

ML: What are you looking forward to most in your time at Swarthmore?

WS: So, building on the last question, I’m really excited to work with more students in the research vein. I think when you first get somewhere, there’s a little bit of a learning curve when it comes to resources, opportunities, where the students are, and what things look like. Now, I think I’ve gained that sense of the avenues through which you work with students and where research abilities [and interests] seem to be. Working with more students in a research capacity is really exciting to me. 

I’m also very excited but unsure of what to expect for honor seminars. I’m teaching my first one in the fall and I’ve never taught in a three-hour block before. I’ve already been so impressed with Swarthmore students that I don’t really know what to expect with the honors level, including what that looks like in the classroom, ways that I need to adapt my own teaching structures from a 75-minute class to a three-hour class, and things of that nature.

ML: You probably know that many Swarthmore students are planning on pursuing Ph.Ds. As someone who has recently been successful in the job market, what’s your advice to students who would like to be in your shoes?

WS: That’s a good question. The most important thing to say is that I don’t think that any [particular] advice translates to everyone. It’s a really big decision and there’s a balance that I want to strike between telling people that this can be an incredibly fulfilling and enriching career, but also [acknowledging that] there’s a lot of risk in it. A lot of people don’t end up in stable jobs in academia or they’re on the move a lot. That can create complications for yourself emotionally. It can raise logistical complications if you have a family. 

I think, though, for students that are interested in [a Ph.D], you should seek out the opportunities to work with professors here, all of whom are extremely knowledgeable and accomplished in their fields. Use those opportunities to get a sense of what aspects of that career path really  move you. Do you really love the research side? Can you really see yourself doing that for six years? It’s really great here that if you have faculty confidants, you can talk one-on-one to get advice on a personal level about your interests, your family situation, and things that might give you anxiety about graduate school.


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