APSA Member of the Month: Dr. Justin Vaughn 

Dr. Justin Vaughn
December of the Month

Boise State University
Department of Political Science
Member since 2002

Professor Justin Vaughn focuses his research and teaching on American political institutions, with an emphasis on executive politics. He is the Director of the Center for Idaho History & Politics and Editor of The Blue Review, an online journal of popular scholarship. He currently serves on the executive council of the Pacific Northwest Political Science Association. Dr. Vaughn earned his Ph.D. in Political Science at Texas A&M University and his BS and MS in Political Science at Illinois State University.

Why did you become a political scientist?
Like most of us, I became a political scientist because of my experiences as a student and, in particular, because of the model a couple of really fantastic professors provided. It certainly was not my plan, however. As an undergraduate, I bounced around between a few institutions and ended up graduating from Illinois State University. Throughout it all, my plan was to go to law school and become then practice law. I’d planned to do that since childhood, largely because that’s what my childhood hero, Abraham Lincoln, did. By my senior year, I’d taken a couple con law courses and one disillusioning mock trial class, and knew that was what I didn’t want to do. After graduating, a somewhat last minute opportunity to come back to school and get a Master’s degree opened up. I decided to take advantage, if for no other reason than to give myself another credential and some time to figure out a new plan. Over the next couple years, however, I got to know my professors better as people and also learn more about what their profession really entailed. The passion they had for their work and the satisfaction they took from it was inspiring — Manfred Steger and Lane Crothers were particularly instrumental here — and I decided to go onward to study presidential politics at Texas A&M University with George Edwards.

Why did you join APSA and why do you continue to stay involved?
Almost immediately after starting my doctoral work, my mentor, George Edwards, insisted that I join APSA and become involved in the section that was then called the Presidency Research Group (today it is the Presidents & Executive Politics section). That group immediately became my intellectual home, with a large number of scholars from all over the country who were eager to formally and informally serve as mentors. In no time at all, conferences were more than opportunities to present my work, built also to build new relationships and continue to build existing ones. Opportunities presented themselves over time, from being a graduate member of the section’s council to editing the section newsletter to chairing sections at various disciplinary conferences. After I left my graduate program and started my faculty career at a much smaller department where I was the only scholar of American institutions, this group sustained me, providing from afar the kind of daily intellectual stimulation that so many of us enjoy in our graduate school years.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a political scientist? How?
Depending on the day, I think it changes. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to balance objectivity and the need to be viewed by students, peers, and members of the community as legitimate while still being able to apply my knowledge and expertise to the current political moment. Staying officially neutral, not registering with a party, not supporting specific candidates, etc., all help avoid alienating students and others who may not agree with you, or who have the idea that a “real” scholar must be above the political fray, but is that the “right” thing to do? At the same time, how does one participate in contemporary politics in a way that maintains standards of civility and thoughtfulness, especially when social media and other developments incentivizes strident and irreverent discourse? It seems like the ground that a public intellectual occupies is always contested and shifting, so how do we go about engaging beyond our silos and towers in the most effective and professionally viable ways? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I wish that I did!

If you could give one piece of advice to someone in their graduate/undergraduate years, what would it be and why?
Think about the kind of work you want to do, and then figure out what kinds of skills are necessary to do that successfully. Sometimes it seems like most political scientists are best at teaching their students to become junior political scientists, and while that is obviously a great career path, it might not help students develop the real-world skills that other careers in public affairs and public service require. There are a lot of ways to do this, from internships to experiential coursework, and however one approaches it, making sure they are gaining not just substantive knowledge but professional know-how will not only lead to higher quality options after college but also a greater range of them.

Outside of political science, tell us something interesting about yourself.
I’ve realized I have this passion for both organizing things and for music and art, namely indie rock and low-brow/outsider art. I’ve also accepted that I have zero talent for at least the artistic side of that. So instead, over the years I’ve hosted indie rock shows on public radio stations, promoted concerts at local rock clubs and events at small galleries, and have taken a great deal of satisfaction in doing so. Over the years, I’ve probably spent many more hours than I care to admit in the service of such things, but life’s too short to have one’s nose always at the grindstone, right? Lately I’ve become better at linking my professional and personal sides together; for example, a couple of my colleagues and I are starting a weekly public affairs radio show at our local community radio station and I’m also helping to organize a more robust civic engagement dimension to a really cool music festival that takes place here in Boise each spring.