This is a guest post by Joseph K. Young, Associate Professor, School of Public Affairs and School of International Service, American University.
The one piece of advice that my dad, an academic, gave me when I was applying to PhD programs was simple: choose based on who you will work with. With this in mind, I screened potential advisors like I was a TSA agent. I interviewed them. I asked them about their future plans, how old their kids were (thinking anyone with teenagers wouldn’t move while I was still working on my PhD), how they trained their students, and most importantly where their students got jobs. I read an article of Will’s when I was an undergrad, Repression and Dissent: Substitution, Context and Timing. This was the kind of work I wanted to do. These were the questions I wanted to ask: Why does repression work in some cases but not others? Why does repression sometimes lead to dissent and sometimes quiescence. And these were the tools I wanted to employ: rigorous empirical strategies using fine-grained data. I emailed to set up a time to meet with him. He replied within a few minutes. We then had several phone conversations, followed by a trip to Tallahassee to meet in person. Will passed all of my screening.
This was about fifteen years ago. When I arrived, we immediately started to work. He sat me down and listed the things I would need to know to be his student. As his other students can attest, this list could change. It could be formal models, maximum likelihood, multi-level modeling or Bayesian methods. Will had an active mind and was never satisfied with how things were done. He didn’t jump on new ideas because they were new. He adopted new methods and new theories because they were better at answering the questions that needed to be answered.
In my first year under Will’s guidance, I had to produce a first-year paper that was of publishable quality. Like his immediate returned emails, Will would give me near instantaneous feedback on drafts that was relentless. Will did not suffer fools. He would not accept vague, unsubstantiated claims, which I specialized in as a first-year student. Some students couldn’t accept his direct, unfiltered commentary. I learned early on that I could if I as he suggested “separate myself from my work.” It made my work better and my ability to improve exponentially better. Although it took me a couple of years and more drafts, I did publish the paper. In celebration, Will put a balloon on my door, which he did for all his PhD students after they published something.
Will had a chip on his shoulder. Most of the time this chip filled in some holes. He always felt a little like he didn’t have as big an impact in the discipline because he hadn’t gone to an Ivy for his PhD or worked in one. That perceived slight worked in his favor as he remained ridiculously productive throughout his career. He passed on this chip to his students, who are in turn productive across the board. He would opine on how too many people studied violence like interstate wars when they were so rare, and that if we could get just 10-20% of them studying the dynamics of repression and dissent we could make real scientific progress. As many of his friends, students, and family would admit (as he would as well), often Will was absolutely right about things from the Iraq War to passive voice (and its evils) yet pretty wrong when it came to how to deliver the news.
With Will’s guidance, I progressed well in the PhD program, took and passed my IR comps, and then struggled in the oral part of the Comparative exams. I’ll spare you the details and there were many reasons why, but I knew when the orals were over that I had failed. We went back to his office, and in classic Will fashion, he looked me in the eyes and commenting on my performance said, “Well, that sucked.” He was right, I was awful. He told me not so he could rub my nose in it. He told me so that we could make it better. He was always making me and my work better. In truth, I crumbled and cried. He asked if we should hug. I just did it.
After humiliating defeat, Will worked with me to finish. I passed the Comparative comps the next time around. Moving to the dissertation seemed easy. I had by this time published several pieces, had a growing list of research ideas, and was trained to do this. The only hurdle I saw was that while Will and I agreed on most things, but he was a committed rational choice theorist. I was not and am not. Expecting this to be a tremendous obstacle, I went to his office to proclaim independence from the chains of rational actors. Instead, Will told me the story of how his advisor, Ted Robert Gurr, a committed relative deprivation theorist encouraged Will to find his own way, even if it was rational choice. In a world where many academic advisors are actively attempting to replicate themselves, Will like Gurr authentically encouraged original thought.
When I finished and got hired in a tenure track position, I wrote Will a long letter saying some of what I am saying now. Again, in classic Will fashion, he asked me to stop thanking him. His suggestion was to pay it forward. He was excited this year when one of my students was hired into a tenure track position and when another received an important professional accolade.
Years later, Will drove his oldest daughter, Chelsea, to college, and they stopped to visit with our family on their way. Our lives were often intertwined. My wife had taught at the same high school Will’s daughters attended during the same years I was his student. Melissa and Chelsea have a strong bond. Kathy, Will’s ex-wife, once held our baby through an entire meal so we could actually eat. Over dinner on Will and Chelsea’s drive north, I relayed how much I struggled during comps and how thankful I was for his support. Will was mystified that I felt it so necessary to be grateful and like a social science tried to understand the cause and effect. He loved all of us, especially Kathy, Kris, Chelsea, and Kevy, in sometimes clumsy but well-intentioned ways.
The sadness I feel now as I write this is that he won’t get to see the ways he changed and is changing the discipline. He won’t get to see how his intellectual offspring flourish. I’m sad that he won’t continue to make us all a little better. He’s right about a lot of things, including how this world treats anyone who isn’t typical.
I prefer to remember him with my young daughter, Piper, at a concert. I was too self-conscious to dance with her as everyone else was sitting and watching. Will didn’t mind, he grabbed her hand and they both danced until they were sweaty and tired.
 In fairness, this was an FSU first year requirement but there was variation in outcome. But as other FSU PhD students can corroborate, Will expected you to publish it.
Very well said, Joe. Memories of a memorable guy. Mary Schneider
Joe, this is a heartfelt tribute describing a complex man. Without knowing Will, but knowing you and seeing your relationship here, I can see that his family & friends, and indeed the world, will be poorer without him. So sad for your pain.
I remember that first year at FSU. I was sitting in Will’s office trying to figure out if my interests in social movements could fit with the work he was doing. He looks right at me and asks me why I don’t just switch to sociology because they were the ones answering the questions I was interested in. I had never considered leaving a phd program or political science which had been my major and passion since day one my freshman year. Will’s simple question started me thinking and resulted in me changing fields and coasts. I will always be grateful for that conversation and his directness.
Thanks for sharing, Joe.