As an associate professor of political theory at the University of Oxford, Dr. Teresa Bejan ’02 has been pretty busy these last few months. Her new book, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration, published in January, examines what a tolerant and civil society looks like through the historical lens of 17th-century debates about religious toleration. Bejan’s study of “the tenuous balance between diversity and disagreement” proved particularly timely, landing her in the spotlight during the post-election season in publications like The New York Times.
Q: What have you been up to since graduating from DA?
A: As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I fell in love with the history of political thought and never looked back. After graduating in 2006, I did my M.Phil. at Cambridge and then my Ph.D. in Political Science at Yale. I spent another year at Cambridge doing research before graduating from Yale with distinction in 2013. My thesis won the American Political Science Association’s Leo Strauss Award for the best doctoral dissertation in political philosophy in the country, and it’s since become the basis of my book, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration, published by Harvard University Press this year.
After graduating Yale, I was lucky to get a tenure-track job in a very tough job market. I did a postdoctoral fellowship at the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia before starting as an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. In 2015, I accepted a permanent job at Oxford and was elected as the final Balzan-Skinner Fellow in Modern Intellectual History at Cambridge.
Q: What are you doing now?
A: From Cambridge to New York, then Toronto, now I’m back in the U.K. as an associate professor of Political Theory and a fellow of Oriel College at Oxford. I teach a wide range of courses in political theory and intellectual history to undergraduate and graduate students from around the world.
My first book, Mere Civility, was published in January and has proven a bit too timely. It’s been getting attention from popular outlets like The New York Times, as well as scholarly ones, and so I’ve been giving interviews and trying to bring some historical perspective to current events. I’ll be going on a book tour throughout the U.S. in March and April.
Q: Why do you do what you do?
A: Even in the face of increasing bureaucratization, being a professor is still the best job in the world. For me, it’s also a vocation. I want to contribute to the same intellectual awakening in my students that I experienced at the University of Chicago. Reading great works of political philosophy is an excellent way to puncture complacency — about the righteousness of one’s own political views, for instance, or about the obviousness or stability of the achievements of liberal democracy. The realization that Plato is smarter than you (and all of your teachers, too!) is a salutary one for any modern citizen or would-be politician.
Sadly, the teaching of these texts and their history is being marginalized in many politics departments and universities. My calling is to keep the tradition alive, and to model for students how precious, important and exciting it is.
Q: What DA experiences influenced you or helped you get where you are today?
A: My time at DA was formative and often challenging. I cut my teeth during my somewhat controversial tenure as editorials editor for The Green & White (before I was fired, of course) and as an organizer of the student-run One Act Play festivals. And I learned a lot from wonderful teachers like Dave Gould, Steve Davis, Anne McNamara, David Marcus and Debbie McCarthy, both in and outside the classroom.
Performing in Mrs. McCarthy’s Middle School musicals was a particular highlight, as was the time-traveling musical based on Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom that Mr. Gould (who is dearly missed) let us submit in lieu of a final paper for AP Modern European History. It will no doubt form the basis of my lectures on the Frankfurt School next fall.
Q: What are your interests away from work?
A: Music, still! I sang a cappella all throughout college and grad school and have been a member of a number of folk and swing ensembles (and a ukulele cover band) in the U.K. I love walking the English countryside, and when I’m in Durham, Forest Hills.
Q: What’s on the horizon for you?
A: I’ll spend 2018 on leave from Oxford to work on my next book, Acknowledging Equality, which explores ideas of equality before egalitarianism. I suspect it may be timely, too.