APSA Member of the Month: Dr. John Ishiyama, University of North Texas

Dr. John Ishiyama
University of North Texas
Member since 1990

John Ishiyama is University Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas, and has been at UNT since 2008.  He has his PhD in political science from Michigan State University (2002). Prior to his position at UNT,  he was Professor of Political Science at Truman State University. He is also the former Editor- in -Chief for the American Political Science Review, (2012-16) and was the founding editor-in-chief of the APSA Journal of Political Science Education.  He was one of the principals involved in the establishment of the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference. He is currently principal investigator and Director of the National Science Foundation-Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) program on Civil Conflict Management and Peace Science.

His research interests include democratization and political parties in post communist Russian, European, Eurasian and African politics, ethnic conflict and ethnic politics and the scholarship of teaching and learning.  He has recently worked on both post-civil war politics and the politics of North Korea, a country which he has followed closely for many years. He has published extensively on these topics, producing eight books and over 150 journal articles and book chapters (in journals such as the American Political Science Review, Political Research Quarterly, Political Science Quarterly, Comparative Political Studies, Comparative Politics, Social Science Quarterly, Party Politics, Europe-Asia Studies, and Democratization). He was a member of the American Political Science Association (APSA) Executive Council, and an executive board member of the Midwest Political Science Association and Pi Sigma Alpha (the national political science honorary society). He has also served as the President of the International Studies Association-Midwest Region and is currently a Vice President of Midwest Political Science Association.  He has received numerous awards including the 2018 APSA Frank Goodnow Award, the Quincy Wright Distinguished Scholar in 2009 by the International Studies Association, the 2010 APSA Heinz Eulau Award for Best Political Science Journal Article by the American Political Science Association, the 2016 Charles Bonjean Best Article Award by the journal Social Science Quarterly, and the 2015 Distinguished Teaching Award, the highest award for teaching conferred by the APSA. He has received major grants from the US National Science Foundation, the US Department of Education, the US Department of State, and the American Political Science Association.

Why did you become a political scientist?

Dr. Ishiyama: It’s hard to say exactly why I became a political scientist, I think I just evolved into it. It’s hard to say exactly why I became a political scientist, I think I just evolved into it. Since I was in junior high school I was always interested in Evolutionary Biology, Archaeology and Physical anthropology (I loved following the Leakey family), but also History. I think what all of these had in common was a focus on how things change. Also I grew up on a neighborhood in Parma, Ohio (an inner suburb of Cleveland) that was predominantly made up of people from Eastern Europe—lots of Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians, Serbs and Croats. So I learned to love a lot of Russian and Eastern European things (especially the food). Also I did like to talk, and had a knack for public speaking. By the time I was a junior in at Bowling Green State University, it appeared to me that political science could combine my interests in these topics (except the food). That is probably why I have focused in my scholarly career on the evolution of political organizations that began as one thing and turned into another (such as ruling parties in communist systems to political parties competing in post-Communist elections or more recently the transformation of rebel groups into political parties). My love of talking explains why I love to teach.

 Why did you join APSA and why do you continue to stay involved?

Dr. Ishiyama: I have been a member of APSA a long time, I forget exactly when I joined, but it was when I was still a graduate student at Michigan State. It seemed that that was a natural thing to do—all of my professors were members, and graduate students were expected to join—especially if they wanted a job! I have stayed a member ever since (for about 30 years now).

I think I stayed involved in APSA largely because I have a very strong loyalty to my discipline, but also because APSA itself has changed. When I first joined, no one, except for a very few, appeared to be at all interested in teaching, which was difficult for me because I wanted a PhD so I could teach. Over the years, however, APSA as an organization has embraced, once again, the teaching mission of the profession. Over the years, however, APSA as an organization has embraced, once again, the teaching mission of the profession. This has involved not only the establishment of the Teaching and Learning Conference and including the Journal of Political Science Education as an association wide journal, but making teaching and learning a central part of the mission of the association (by including the TLC in the annual meeting). This is also evidenced by the commitment APSA made to fund our recent conference (held in Denton from May 31-June2, 2019) on “Rethinking the Undergraduate Political Science Major” via the Special Projects Grant program. The conference was a great success, and I believe the resulting report will help transform the way we think about the undergraduate political science major.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a political scientist?

Dr. Ishiyama: I am not sure it is easy to identify the most challenging thing about being a political scientist. I really enjoy every aspect of my job. What I can say is that some things require a lot more work for me than others.

I have long believed that central to what we do is both Teaching and Scholarship/Research. This is because I have long believed that if you teach and do not do research, then what is it you are teaching?  And if you do research and not teach to share that knowledge, then what is the point of doing the research? So both are necessary parts of being a political scientist. As far as these two core activities go, research/scholarship has always been fairly easy for me, I love to do it, but it is not nearly as challenging as teaching. I need to prepare a lot when I teach (I still write out everything I will say in hard copy notes, even though I do not look at them anymore when I teach). But getting students to think critically and having that “eureka” moment is both the most rewarding and most challenging.

For me, teaching and building an educated citizenry is how we are relevant as a discipline, more than anything else.

I will say, this has become more challenging over the past few years, as political polarization and opinions (and not evidence based reasoning) have gripped the student population. So for me, under current circumstances, teaching has become even more challenging, but it has also made me more resolved to change this. For me, teaching and building an educated citizenry is how we are relevant as a discipline, more than anything else.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone in their graduate/undergraduate years, what would it be and why?

I think everyone should ask themselves at some point—what is it I like to do? And then acquire the knowledge and skills to do that.

Dr. Ishiyama: I am not really very good at giving advice but if there is one thing I might say (and I tell this to my kids) is that whatever you do in life follow your passion. If you are passionate about something, you will be good at it. If you are good at it, you can make a living at it, and you will be happier and not going through life looking forward to retirement. I think everyone should ask themselves at some point—what is it I like to do? And then acquire the knowledge and skills to do that. If political science is that passion, then ask yourself what is it about political science is your passion? Activism? Learning stuff and talking about it? Analysis? Helping people? Then find someone who has done these things and ask them for advice on how they got where they are.

Outside of political science, tell us something interesting about yourself.

Dr. Ishiyama: I like playing music, particularly guitar (although I am very poor at it) and I like fixing my cars and motorcycle (but I am also very poor at those things as well), so I guess I picked correctly in choosing my profession! I also like to fish (but do not catch anything). I do also like to work on NGO projects in Ethiopia and have learned how to build a latrine with just a few tools (but I am not very good at that either) and have worked on Higher Education Access and undergraduate research programs like the McNair program (which is my other great love). So, outside of political science, I am not sure there is much that is interesting about me.

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