Susan Sell: A World Class Scholar and Human Being

26 January 2024, 1750 EST

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

Professor Susan Sell was a world class scholar.  But even though one of the papers she wrote (about using ideas strategically) was very influential in my personal intellectual development, I don’t want to say something about that.  The thing I want to say about Susan is that she was the antithesis to so many of the negative tendencies that you can see in academia, while at the same time holding the highest intellectual standards.  In this way she is a personal hero to me and a model for how I strive to be an academic.

Hierarchical snobbery, unfortunately, is common in academia, where prestige of various types is the primary form of capital.  Where did you get your PhD? What rank are you? Where have you published?  Etc.  But Susan went out of her way to ignore these things and treat people as people.  Arrogance and egotism can also blight the academic experience, but Susan genuinely seemed immune. 

She was kind and generous with her time and her emotional energy.  I remember most distinctly that the entire time I knew her, all the way from my first class in grad school in 2006 to the last time we spoke in person at ISA 2023 in Montreal, I always felt good after talking to her.  Her effect in the world was to cheer you up. 

I was one of her graduate students; she taught classes I took, she was on my dissertation committee, and she helped and supported me up until the end of 2023, so that is my perspective.  I’ll give a small example of what I mean when I say that she was generous in supporting graduate students like me for their own sake. 

Susan ran the IGIS, the Institute for Global and International Studies weekly research seminar, when I was in graduate school at GWU.  This seminar was run so as to be of as much benefit to graduate students as possible and because of this was often the highlight of the week.  Of course lunch was provided and grad students were encouraged to take home as much of the leftovers as they wanted.  But grad students were also enlisted as discussants.  This meant for me and for others that we felt trusted to engage intellectually with political scientists at the top of the field.  When I was a discussant, she talked through my comments with me beforehand and told me what she thought of my performance afterwards in a way that was supportive and encouraging.  I suppose what I mean here is that I felt that she was taking me seriously as a scholar-in-training and she invested a lot of time and effort into that.  Maybe this is just a small thing, but it is emblematic of her generosity of spirit.  I felt like she was a cheerleader for me and I know that she was like this for many other people. 

Susan was a constant reminder that you can pursue a rigorous and creative intellectual life while at the same time constantly building people up.  In the acknowledgments section of my PhD thesis, I thanked Susan for both “sustained attention to flaws in my argument and writing” and at the same time being “an unflagging source of encouragement throughout” the process.  That was how she was.