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Politics

Waleed A. Hazbun ’90

Assistant Professor of International Relations, American University of Beirut

I majored in politics, but this fact tells you very little about what I studied. I entered Princeton as an electrical engineer because in high school I found science and computer programming easy but reading novels and writing prose painstakingly difficult. Placing out of several science courses opened up the door to electives that set me on a different path. Looking for a course to fill out my schedule and at the recommendation of the director of studies at my residential college, I signed up for “Economic Anthropology.” I had little clue what such a course would cover. Looking back, I realize how hard it is for students to pick courses and majors before they are immersed in them. In this course we spent a lot of time reading about non-market economies in small Pacific Island communities. I thought I had little interest in these places, but being exposed to the diverse forms that economies can take gave me insights and perspectives that turned out to be major influences in my intellectual development as a scholar of international political economy.

At Princeton I found myself increasingly compelled to investigate questions about the politics of economic development, the meaning of “modernity,” and the immense diversity of cultures, ideologies, and worldviews across the globe. And at a time when many scholars and practitioners in international relations were still focused on the Cold War, I was drawn to study the history and politics of the Middle East. In particular, I was interested in how the Arab world engaged ideas of modernization and development.

Challenging existing boundaries

A college education should not feel like a predetermined process of mass production. Instead, you can actively craft a unique experience that follows—as well as challenges—your interests and perspectives. I majored in politics because it allowed me to study with a leading specialist in the political economy of the Middle East, Professor John Waterbury. At the same time, the politics major gave me the flexibility to take a wide range of interrelated courses across several fields and geographic regions. Much of my learning came from independent work, such as writing the undergraduate thesis, and a one-on-one directed studies seminar. In the process, I followed the Program in Political Economy and gained a certificate in the Program in Near Eastern Studies 

After Princeton, I entered the Ph.D. program in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since I had already developed a self-driven, interdisciplinary approach to scholarship, in graduate school I was drawn to pursue questions and approaches that traversed and combined existing scholarship ranging across political geography, cultural studies, tourism economics, and constructivist international relations theory. For my dissertation, I wrote about the politics of globalization in the Arab world through the lens of international tourism, later published as the book Beaches, Ruins, Resorts: The Politics of Tourism in the Arab World. My interest in this topic, generally neglected in the vast literature about globalization, allowed me to combine my diverse interests and avoid the deadening overspecialization found in much of political science. I went on to teach international relations at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and became a leading authority on the political economy of tourism in the Middle East. Still driven by an interest in new experiences and challenges, I recently relocated to Lebanon to take up a position at the American University of Beirut. Here I am beginning a second book project on the international relations of the Middle East by situating myself at the crossroads of ongoing geopolitical conflict. In doing so, I have followed in the footsteps of many Princetonians, including my former thesis adviser, who recently stepped down as this university’s president. 

Years ago at an admissions committee meeting to select incoming graduate students, an experienced colleague looked at the application of a straight-A Ivy League student and suggested that we pass. Looking over the seemingly perfect record, he noted that the obviously bright candidate had never seemed to face a challenge outside his comfort zone. New knowledge comes from creativity and insights that challenge existing boundaries. As an academic adviser, I tell students to follow their interests and forge their own paths. Some of the most critical skills that a liberal arts education can offer (which happen to also be the skills most valued by employers and admissions committees) are not dependent on major. They include critical thinking, analytical writing, and the close reading of texts. You will not learn these by watching PowerPoint presentations or cramming for exams. Rather, you will develop these skills when you find yourself engaging the material because you are driven by intense curiosity. Most courses do not require such focused engagement from students, thus the best way to develop these skills is to spend your time pursuing challenging questions that are driven not by fashion and the expectations of others but by your own intellectual passions.

Hazbun-Waleed