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Steve talks to Eric about his life as a professor at the University of London, how he got there and what he will be doing in the near future.
Steve: Here I am this morning with my son, Eric, who is visiting from London where he has been living for, I guess…Eric, how many years have you been living in London?
Eric: About 15 now.
Steve: And you started out…you went there to go to…where did you go to school there?
Eric: Well, I went over there to do my Master’s Degree at the London School of Economics, otherwise known as LSE.
Steve: How many years did you study there?
Eric: I did a year Master’s Degree and then four years Ph.D., so five in total.
Steve: And then, I guess because you graduated from a British university, you had more job offers from British universities than from say Canadian or North American universities?
Eric: Well, I didn’t really have a lot of job offers, I actually had to apply because there are a lot of Ph.D.s and very few jobs.
Eric: It’s easier to get a job in the U.K.
because very few hiring committees will fly you over from the U.K.
to North America for an interview.
So I had about 50 applications, 10 interviews, before I got my first job.
Steve: Ten interviews.
You know it’s interesting, a lot of people, of course, learn English because they want a better job or we have some people who are immigrants who are looking to get even their first job or at least a job that corresponds to their educational background and they don’t have enough English and so forth.
I guess it is very important to have a good letter applying for a job, isn’t it?
Eric: Yeah, it’s important to have a good letter and, also, just as importantly to present well on the day.
So what are some of the things that helped you, you think, when you met with your potential employers?
Eric: Well, it’s always said that you can get to the interview…getting into the interview stage is determined by your application, a paper, on paper, but on the day it’s anybody’s job.
Eric: So, four or five people, it’s just how you perform on the day, so you have to be clear; you have to have a structure to your presentation.
And, I think…there are different tips in the interview stage, so you’re supposed to do things like if someone asks you a question you’re supposed to answer, but look around the room so you make eye contact with everybody on the panel so they feel part of it; tips like that.
Steve: Were there some other tips that you can share with us?
Eric: Well, you’re supposed to sound very definite, so say things like “I will do that” or “I have done this”, “I will definitely do this”, statements that make you sound firm and definite rather than hesitant.
Eric: And then there are things like you’re supposed to…if someone…if interviewers ask you questions if you can, you’re supposed to say things like “That’s a very good question.” Butter them up a bit.
Steve: Any other bits of advice?
Eric: Well… So you kind of want to come across as not too arrogant either.
You want to be confident, but not too arrogant and sort of a likeable person.
So you kind of want to convey that as much as you can within the interview settings.
Steve: You know I always come back to this, you know I did a little bit of reading on old Roman and Greek rhetoric.
I actually listened to an audio book in Swedish on the subject, which got me interested.
But they always said, that if you’re in any kind of a public-speaking situation or even an interview, the first two things you have to do is (A) get the listeners to like you and (B) establish your credibility.
So that’s why people will often fumble at the microphone or recognize someone or say something nice if they’re visiting about the town that they’re visiting and make people a little sympathetic to you.
Steve: And, also then, of course, you have to establish your credibility which, I guess, again in terms of a job interview, it’s one thing to butter them up, but you also have to establish the credibility that you have the skills that you claim to have.
Eric: Yeah. Well, yeah, that’s right, you kind of have to present clearly so they know you’ll teach well to a class.
Eric: Yeah, but there are all these other things too, like if you show that you’ve sort of read up on the department and what its strong points are and trying…
Eric: You know, our university, we’re an evening-teaching university, so if you can say how great mature students are who learn in the evening and that you know about that, that goes down quite well.
Eric: It’s surprising that sort of thing actually makes some difference.
Steve: But, then again, that would be…all of these things are true for any job interview, whether it be, in your case it’s a university, but somebody who’s applying for some other job, again, they do say they do say you should read up on the company and know something about the company and have something nice to say about the company.
Eric: Yeah. Oh yeah, no, that’s right.
Steve: So then you taught, first of all, at the university.
Where was your first job?
Eric: I taught at the University of Southampton, which is on the south coast of England.
It’s a pretty good university and it was a full-time post, whereas most of what I was applying for were sort of one-year, two-year jobs which were much less attractive, so I was kind of lucky that I didn’t get those other jobs.
In hindsight, the best job was kind of the last one that I applied for and got, so I was lucky.
Steve: And so then you where there and then when did you move to the University of London?
Eric: I was there in 1999 and then in 2003 I moved to University of London.
Steve: And now you are…and, of course, you have…tell us about your family.
Eric: Yeah, I have two children.
Well, my wife Fran, two children, a daughter aged five, Alana, and a son, Stewart, who’s aged eight.
Steve: And now you have a one-year…it’s not really a sabbatical, what exactly is happening?
It is a visiting research fellowship for a year at something called the Belfer Center for International Politics, which is located within the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
Steve: And so you now are on your way there.
You’re staying with us for a few weeks and then you’re visiting with Fran’s family in Toronto or friends.
Steve: And then you will show up in Boston.
Well, we’re going to be in Ontario mainly in sort of the lake country for a while and then we’re going to drive directly down to Boston.
And then, yeah, so that’s pretty well it.
Steve: And what sorts of activities then will you be involved in at this Center?
Eric: Well at the Center there are about 10 or 11 different programs analyzing different aspects of international politics.
So I think there’s something on conflicts within states, which is mainly ethnic conflicts, there’s stuff on the environment and politics, I think there’s stuff on foreign policy and then maybe on oil and politics.
And then there is our section, which is on religion and international politics and within that…that project received an external grant from a foundation of about $800,000 U.S.
or thereabouts and that made possible a series of these fellowships, of which I’m probably the only one who is an established academic.
The others would be post-doctoral, that is, they’ve got their Ph.D.s, but they have yet to have a full-time tenure-track position at a university.
So there would be mainly…I think there are about nine or ten of these post docs and most of the topics will be about Islam and politics, for obvious reasons.
Steve: But only Islam or will you be looking at other religions and politics as well?
Eric: Oh yeah, no, we will be looking at other religions.
It’s just that most of the fellows will be focused on Islam, but yeah, the theme will cover all of the major religions, particularly the monotheistic religions.
Steve: And, of course, you have spent a lot of time in an area where Islam is not a consideration and that is Northern Ireland.
And there, I’m not sure it is religion or what it is there.
Is it religion, I mean Catholics and Protestants, or is it communities that are struggling for a bigger part of the turf there or what’s…?
Eric: Yeah, I mean there are different ways in which religion is used in conflict situations.
I think in Northern Ireland religion itself is not currently a big driver of the conflict, it’s mainly a conflict between two ethnic groups.
The name Protestant and Catholic are really more symbols rather than descriptions of people’s faith, because a lot of so-called Protestants don’t attend church and similarly now a lot of Catholics don’t attend church.
The conflict is really not about theology, it’s about two different groups with their own separate myths of descent and so religion is just a symbol really.
It’s the same as former Yugoslavia, you know, you had Serbs who are nominally Orthodox, Croats or Catholic and Bosnians who are Muslim.
Actually, none of those groups were that motivated by religion, but they do have their ethnic boundaries which are marked out by religion.
Steve: It’s interesting too when we say ethnic, in fact, from sort of a genetic marker, DNA marker, point of view there’s not that much difference between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or even in the Balkans between the Bosnians and the Croats and the Serbs and they speak the same language, essentially, give or take.
Eric: Right, yes, yeah.
Steve: And yet they have very strong senses of their own ethnic identity and ethnic boundaries and who’s one of them and who isn’t.
Steve: And religion is a big part of that.
Even though, as you say, the theology is not it’s very much a marker for them.
Eric: Yeah, it’s the way you tell your group apart from their group, because they don’t look different, the languages are not different, so the only real way you can tell…one of the strongest symbols is religion.
Steve: What was the story about the Sikh in Northern Ireland?
Eric: Oh yeah.
Well there’s a joke about a Hindu goes to Northern Ireland and he stopped on a housing estate in a poor area.
They ask him in their Ulster accent, “What religion are you?” (I’ll do my accent here.)
And he says, “I am a Hindu.” They say, “Are you a Protestant Hindu or a Catholic Hindu?” The joke being that they want to, obviously, find out if you’re Protestant or Catholic and they don’t care if you’re Hindu or not.
So you’ll be doing this work and your family is going to be there with you.
So you had to rent out your place in London and you had to rent a place in Boston and it’s going to be, I guess, quite an experience for the family.
Eric: Oh yeah.
I mean it was a huge effort, a lot of planning, to make this move.
I mean a colleague of mine in my department said, “Yeah, I’d love that.
I know which part of that year that I’d like and that’s the sort of being at Harvard, but it’s the rest of it; I just don’t know where I’d start.” In terms of, you know, you have to rent your own house, rent a place long distance without seeing it; arrange schooling for the kids; you’ve got to ship certain things, take certain things, so it’s quite a big logistical exercise; cancel all your bills and renew them elsewhere.
So it’s a big move but, yeah, I think it’s worth it.
Steve: And then a year later you have to do it again.
Eric: Yeah, it will be slightly easier coming back, but going is quite tricky.
It was hard to rent our place because the property market has gone flat in London, flatter anyway, so it was hard to rent the place.
We only rented it I think a week before we were due to leave, so that was getting a bit hairy.
Steve: And do you think your kids both of whom…now they have Canadian parents, but they speak with a British accent.
Steve: And how long do you think it will be before they speak with an American accent?
Eric: Well, Stewart, who’s the older boy, tends to change his accent very quickly, so.
I mean we went on holiday to Spain and most of the boys his age there were from Liverpool, Manchester, places in northern England where they have a different accent from southern England around London.
He was speaking like them within a matter of days, so I expect he’ll be changing his accent within, certainly, a matter of weeks to sound like a Bostonian.
Steve: And just to finish out now, this whole issue then of religion which, as you point out, in many cases is more a matter of identity.
I think that’s even true with the Muslim religion to some extent.
Steve: It’s not so much a matter of theology as a matter of identity.
We’ve had all kinds of political activity or even military activity driven by ideology.
Now we have the rise of identity politics and splintered into smaller and smaller groups.
We see what’s happening now in those tragic events in the Caucasus and you throw religion in there and that’s just another.
And then you’ve got the traditional old, you know, super-power politics, strategic interests, between states.
It wasn’t so long ago that Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called The End of History.
Eric: Fukuyama, yeah.
Steve: I think we’re getting history back in spades, no?
Eric: Yeah, I think that’s true.
I think, though, the end of the Cold War has, you know, reduced super-power rivalry quite a bit to the extent that communism and capitalism are no longer really an issue.
So Fukuyama thought that because these ideologies were gone, the super-power rivalry was gone, that we would see an end to that conflict; however, I think into that vacuum has come religion, partly religion, as an ordering principle of international conflict, so you have Islam against the West, for example, in some areas.
Steve: But to what to extent?
Is it Islam or is it just sort of, you know, a lingering, anti-colonial, anti-western, resentment which takes different forms in different countries?
I mean we see it in China, we see it in Africa, no doubt.
And then at the other end of the spectrum you have these very specific ethnic conflicts like the one in the Caucasus right now where you have the Abkhazians and the Ossetians and the Georgians and God knows what other groups there are there that are all trying to stake out their turf.
And you’ve got larger powers like Russia trying to take advantage of this and the Americans playing their games with getting Georgia into NATO and stuff like that.
So, yeah, Islam is one factor, but it’s only one of many in the cocktail.
Eric: That’s true, that’s true.
I guess, mainly, if you look at the Middle East, for example, or Pakistan or some of these other countries in the Muslim world what you see though is a shift so, whereas, Pan-Arabism or non-allying socialism of the Nasser variety or Ba’ath.
Eric: The Saddam Hussein variety was the driving force.
Yes, it was just as anti-West, but those kinds of ideologies have crumbled and are being challenged by Islamism.
So now if you look at Palestinian nationalism it’s driven largely by a Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
So it’s Islamist and it’s talking about Palestinians as sort of the crusaders for Islam, carrying on a jihad for Islam, to protect the holy places.
And all that sort of rhetoric is much more religious and you see the suicide bombers are also buying into more of this Islamist rhetoric.
You could certainly say that religion is playing a role in Israel- Palestine, even though the conflict has been there since 1948.
So religion has added something to those ethnic conflicts; although, not everywhere, so the Caucasus is not an issue.
Steve: I mean it’s interesting, I think the Abkhazians are Islamic; I don’t think it’s an issue there.
It seems to be used by the Chechnians, certainly now we see the Uighurs in China are appealing to Islam as their sort of cry for support or solidarity from the vast Islamic community rather than just putting it in terms of their Uighur ethnic group trying to have a separate existence from the Chinese group, so they’re using religion more and more.
So, yeah, I guess the world is a complicated place.
Steve: And you’re going to be doing research to see how religion impacts on politics.
And I think at that maybe we should end our discussion today and, hopefully, we can have another one.
Steve: Thank you very much.
Eric: Thanks a lot.