Remembering Susan Sell

25 January 2024, 1638 EST

This is the second in our series of remembrances on the late scholar Susan Sell.

Since I learned of Susan’s untimely passing on Christmas Eve, I’ve been trying to articulate exactly how important Susan was to me, both professionally and personally. It’s especially hard since Susan is pretty much the reason why I have a career in academia. So, I’ll write about the second time I met Susan.

It was April 2013. I was nine months into my first academic post, a tenure-track assistant professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Canada. Susan’s ground-breaking work on the international political economy of intellectual property – and especially her benchmark masterpiece, Private Power, Public Law – was one of my foundational go-to texts, both for my dissertation and now.

There’s a lot to admire in Private Power, Public Law, but I’ll highlight two things that increasingly resonate with me. Start with how it’s so clearly written, with a distinctive perspective, and backed up by copious research. In this, as well as the attention she paid to questions of justice, she was a scholar in the mold of the other great Susan. In the background of Susan Sell’s work, you can always detect Susan Strange’s famous research question, Cui bono?

The reader can appreciate all that on first reading. But pay attention also to Susan’s theoretical framework – or rather, Margaret Archer’s morphogenetic framework, an ingenious method for untangling the mutual constitution of agents and structure by examining how the two change over time. 

International Relations/IPE, like most disciplines, is enamoured with novelty. This can sometimes lead us to invent needless jargon or to refashion existing theories into something supposedly new. Susan doesn’t do that here. Applying critical IPE theory (Robert Cox and Susan Strange get early shout-outs) to a critical case, the creation of the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), is innovation enough. That someone of Susan’s stature to ground her work in an already-established theoretical framework is important. It models good scholarship practices: do the research, give credit where due.

So, April 2013, at the International Studies Association conference in San Francisco: my first conference as a professor. It’s easy to get lost at a huge conference like ISA. At previous conferences as a student, my presentations hadn’t connected much; I hadn’t yet found my people.

I’d emailed Susan to ask if she could meet for coffee. My book, based on my dissertation and containing a lot of her ideas, was at the publishers and would be out the following year; I figured we’d have something to discuss. We met in the hotel lobby. I’d previously met Susan while doing field work in Washington, DC. Then, as now, she was generous with her time, enthusiastic, sharp and engaged; she treated student me and professor me the exact same way. She didn’t expound: she was more interested in discovering what you thought, and digging into whatever we were talking about. She knew how to listen. In improv, there’s a principle called “yes, and.” The idea is to build on what your scene partner is saying and run with it. Susan was a “yes, and” person.

In San Francisco, professor to professor(!), I started describing my book. “Yes, I know,” she interrupted. “I’ve already read it. I was one of the reviewers.” I had no idea. She loved it, she told me. I was floored. And beyond grateful.

Over the next decade, our paths would cross several times: a small, impromptu dinner I organized at one ISA, bringing together an agreeable mix of junior and senior scholars; an interview about her academic influences; some panels (a yes-and person is always up for a good idea); a Zoom-enabled Australian Football League Grand Final party during quarantine.

Always she was such a strong, vocal proponent of my, and my partner’s, regulatory scholar Natasha Tusikov, work, singing our praises to her fellow senior scholars. She didn’t have to do that, but she did.

The last time we saw Susan in person was in 2023, at the Montreal ISA conference. Echoing 2013, we had a co-authored book coming out in a few months; this time, we knew she had already read it. What we weren’t prepared for was her massive enthusiasm for it. We take some big swings in the book, and Susan was there for them. By the end of our talk, Natasha and I were floating. (She would again play our cheerleader the final time we saw her, at our virtual book launch, hosted by her home base, the School of Regulation and Global Governance at the Australian National University.)

We talked about her current research agenda, which she related with the same intense enthusiasm she always seemed to have. Her ideas, as always, left me in awe. As her work on IP demonstrates, Susan had the gift of being able to see around corners, and this project sounded no different. I will miss Susan personally, but losing her perception, her voice, at a time when everything seems in flux, is a gigantic loss to society.