Kenneth Peter

Kenneth Peter

Professor, Political Science

What research questions currently preoccupy you?

I continue to be absorbed in reading the secondary literature surrounding all the new (to me!) authors I teach in the Humanities Honors program, where I have to be prepared to teach in many areas that are widely divergent from my political theory preparation. In the last cycle through that program, I prepared to teach the following subjects which were new to me: Egyptian poetry, the Bhagavad Gita, Virgil, Anselm, the Tale of Genji, John Calvin, pre-Columbian America, Progressivism, and Tolstoy. History, literature, religion—reading widely in these fields has enriched my understanding of political theory, and I now see my specialty in a new and much richer context than I ever did when focusing more narrowly on getting articles published. For example, it was through the Honors Program that I really encountered WEB DuBois for the first time, and since then I have taught him in my political theory courses.

Most recently I have adapting DuBois’s theory of higher education to a critique of online learning. It is my position that the sociology of the classroom is a vital part of the learning process for most forms of knowledge that we social scientists pursue, and we delude ourselves and our students when we pretend otherwise.

What personal factors contributed to your research?

When I was an undergraduate at Stanford, I was very interested in politics, in history, and in literature and had a hard time deciding which academic field to pursue. I came under the spell of a truly great teacher of political theory—Nannerl Keohane. I realized that the study of political theory combined the best elements of all of these fields—I did not know it at the time, but it was what later became known as an interdisciplinary pursuit. Nan was a brilliant classroom teacher who seamlessly wove those three fields together in an eclectic but highly organized manner, and I knew what I wanted to do. Nan left to become President first of Wellesley and later of Duke, but never gave up her teaching during her career in academic administration—something else I admire about her.

What has been most challenging in your research?

That is simple—it is the prejudice of academia that only research that is published is worthy of recognition. I believe that all good teaching requires constant research, and the best form of research at a comprehensive university like SJSU is the research that informs the classroom. As Aristotle put it, “teaching is the highest form of scholarship.” The general prejudice to only focus on publications has two ill effects—in order to publish, some faculty are increasingly pushed to very specialized and esoteric niches that are unrelated to their teaching, and they also become discouraged from investing time in rejuvenating their teaching if it distracts them from the publication mill. I particularly admire those among my colleagues who publish in ways that directly support their teaching and wish I had been better at that integration.

How has your position in SJSU contributed to your research?

That one is easy, too. It is knowing my students and answering their questions. When I arrived at SJSU I was in love with political theory in a kind of abstract, disembodied way. I found that the task of explaining these ideas to my students put them (the ideas) in an entirely new light. So many of my students worked at repetitious, boring jobs, and they understood Marx’s theory of alienation far better than the students I TA’d at Princeton. You do not really understand an idea until you have to explain it in clear terms to others, and my students helped me to dramatically contextualize and understand these ideas in ways I had not before.

A hidden (research) talent:

Browsing. Seriously. I’m so old that I actually go to the the library and wander the stacks, pulling random books down and perusing them. I also surf and Google stuff, but for some reason it is not the same. There is still a thrill to opening up a dusty book that had not been cracked in a couple of decades and having a conversation with an author who is long gone. It really feels like time travel to me.

One book that changed your life (or research) and why:

Way, way, way too many to name. Being a student of Sheldon Wolin, though, was probably the greatest intellectual influence on my life, so I will name his classic Politics and Vision. It is far and away the most insightful and penetrating application of historical political theory written since the Enlightenment, and one day it will be even better recognized.

A website/journal/newspaper (in your field?) you follow without fail:

I have to confess that I began to really dislike the direction of many Political Science journals years ago, and so I am much more of a book person. I do try to stay current on news, with the Economist and the New York Times.

Advice you’d give to newer faculty or students:

Above all else, set aside time every day to read. Never compromise on that. There is nothing that will improve your research or your learning more than daily reading. It is to intellectual life what calisthenics are to athletes. If you don’t do it, your mind will becomes flabby. And read widely—it stimulates creativity to read things outside your narrow niche.