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Office Hours with Professor Charli Carpenter

We had the privilege of attending office hours with Professor Charli Carpenter of the Department of Political Science. She shared her experiences about growing up as a passionate and ambitious young woman, the details of her recent projects, and being a female professional in a male-dominated field. Before we let her go, she even imparted some much-needed wisdom for Collegiettes. 

Her Campus UMass Amherst: Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you from originally and what brought you to UMass?

Charli Carpenter: I was raised in Arkansas and Missouri, in the Ozarks, and then we moved to New Mexico. I grew up with a dad that always talked about ‘when you go to college,’ and it was never really a question for any of my brothers or sisters. On my mother’s side I was first generation. My dad has his degree and so did his sisters. It was good for me and my sisters growing up, because he constantly talked about his sisters who went on to become professors so there was just a sense in his mind that this is what women could do. It was never about pushing us to get married, he always assumed we were going to become lawyers or other professionals.

HC: Could you summarize what your main areas of research are?

CC: I try to figure out why governments do bad things to their own people and how to stop them. So, I look at the laws of war and political oppression and human rights. I try to figure out how to build a world that is better for individual people, and I study the actors who are trying to do that and why they sometimes get it wrong and it becomes worse.

HC: What courses do you teach here at UMass?

CC: I teach an undergraduate course in the rules of law, which is a course I have taught over and over again because I love it and the students love it. I have, in the past, taught courses on humanitarian action, gender, and world politics. At the doctorate level I teach a course on human security, which sort of talks about all of those things.

HC: What kind of traveling do you do for work?

CC: I study the work of international organizations a lot, so I often go to places where they meet — Geneva, New York, and London. I’ve also done fieldwork in Bosnia because I wrote a book about the human rights activism there after the war. But I have children, so I try to make short trips now. My daughter is 21, she’s studying elephant sanctuaries in Thailand on a gap year, and my son is 15.

“Learn to interrupt people. Learn to finish your sentences when you are interrupted. In the academy it’s really important to finish your sentences, because you are going to be interrupted all the time, and women get interrupted even more often. Know that what you are saying is of value.”

HC: Do you have any advice specifically for first-generation college students?

CC: My advice is to remember that everybody else has imposter syndrome too, even the people who went to Yale and Stanford. Everybody knows that they don’t know as much as they should know, so we are all holding ourselves to a high standard, even the ones who seem super confident. The other thing to know is that there are more first-generation college students around you than there appears to be. I would say humility is important, but also confidence, because you have earned the credentials and you’re just as smart as everybody else — you’re actually probably smarter, because you knew you were going to have to work harder, so you did.HC: Did you always know you wanted to study international relations?

HC: Did you always know that you wanted to study international relations?

CC: No, I wanted to be an astrophysicist. I wanted to be the female Stephen Hawking. But then I told myself, like many girls do, that I wasn’t good at math — but I still wanted to be a scientist, so I turned to social science instead. I was also was interested in computer science, and then international business, but decided I didn’t want to sell things to people. I wanted to be a diplomat. I discovered a political science class at New Mexico State and fell in love with it. It’s been a circuitous route, and I think like lots of college students I had many interests, but then eventually found my way.

HC: What is one research project you are particularly proud of?

CC: I wrote a book about campaigns that don’t go anywhere, called “’Lost’ Causes,” which came out a couple of years ago, and I learned a lot about how global politics works. “Lost” is in scare quotes because many of these causes actually did gain traction after a while. What enabled me to write that book was that nobody wrote about campaigns that didn’t go anywhere, everybody wrote about campaigns that succeeded. And so the big lesson I learned from writing that book that I try to impart to students is to always pay attention to where the gaps and silences are and what’s not getting talked about, because you are going find some really interesting questions. There’s a chapter about the campaign to stop killer robots, which sounds silly and was for many years, but it’s now actually a huge campaign that’s a successor to the landmines campaign, because governments are actually building killer robots, and activists are trying to stop them. When I was doing my research, nobody was paying attention to the activists saying that this would be a huge problem coming down the pipeline, so the book is all about why actors start listening, when they don’t, and how those politics work. I followed these activists for seven years on these different cases. I talked to them and to the big organizations they were trying to convince to take up their causes.

HC: You contribute to a blog called Duck of Minerva — could you talk a little bit about that?

CC: Blogging as a professor can be like research notes. You’re writing in an informed way, but you don’t have to write a whole paper before you put your thoughts out there. Sometimes I write about teaching, sometimes it’s more of an op-ed style where it’s a forum to talk about what’s going on today, and I try to do it from a political science view. Sometimes we just talk about what’s going on in our profession, and sometimes I even write about science fiction. It’s a way to get science ideas out in the public sphere. It’s a totally different kind of writing than the kind you are trained to do as a professor.

HC: What is one thing you would want your students to know about you?

CC: Come and get to know me in my office hours! Don’t expect me to write you a letter of recommendation if I don’t know you. This is generic advice, but find the professors you like and make friends with them. Don’t expect them to be your friends, and be professional. I think I have an intimidating reputation, but I am actually very approachable and a lot of my students find that out if they take the time to come and speak with me. 

HC: Do you have any advice for female college students?

CC: I am teaching in a male-dominated subfield, which is security studies, and often my female students are much quieter in class. Learn to interrupt people. Learn to finish your sentences when you are interrupted. In the academy it’s really important to finish your sentences, because you are going to be interrupted all the time and women get interrupted even more often. Know that what you are saying is of value, and always have something of value to say. It’s better to speak up and feel that you are unprepared than to be prepared and not speak up at all. Also, pick your partners really well — when you have kids, that affects your career. Choose a partner who is going to help you with your kids, because otherwise, any job can become really onerous. I hope that we get to a world where all of that becomes automatic.

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Taylor White

U Mass Amherst

University of Massachusetts Amherst '18 I Secretary of Her Campus UMass Amherst
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