Professor Kinzer is a former foreign corespondent and bureau chief with The New York Times. He has written six books on U.S. foreign policy. His seventh, Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future, will be released in June. He sat down with North by Northwestern to talk about his experience as a teacher. Click here for the Q&A.
On Friday, Professor Stephen Kinzer taught his last class at Northwestern — a seminar on Iran. On Saturday, he said, he’ll leave Chicago and head for his new home in Boston.
Kinzer ends a four-year stint as a professor of political science at Northwestern. He began in 2006 on a one-year contract as a visiting professor. He followed that up with a three-year professorship through the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the Medill School of Journalism and the Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies.
When the university did not renew Kinzer’s contract in 2009, students began a petition to keep him at Northwestern. More than 450 signatures later, administrators agreed to rehire him for one more quarter at half pay. That quarter is coming to an end, and now Kinzer is leaving for good.
His departure ends the contractual saga that confused some of the undergraduates he taught.
“We didn’t really know what all the details were,” said Hugh Roland, a Weinberg senior who helped start the petition last year. “We just wanted him to stay.”
Provost Daniel Linzer said that Kinzer was hired to a visiting professorship funded by a special gift — thus there was a time limit attached to his contract. “The definition of visiting [professorship] is it’s a term non-renewable appointment,” Linzer said. “When that ends, then it’s open to bring in somebody else. And you’re continually rotating and bringing in fresh voices to the curriculum.”
Hendrik Spruyt, director of the Buffett Center, said it was important to employ professors like Kinzer — professors from non-academic backgrounds who publish in trade presses and mass media rather than in academic journals.
“We tried to make things work so we could keep Steve Kinzer,” he said. Weinberg, Medill, the Buffett Center and the Provost’s office helped to decide whether Kinzer would be offered a new position. Spruyt said he did not know “where it broke down, with so many players around the table.”
Linzer and Spruyt both said that the university continues to search for new tenure-line faculty, especially to fill empty positions.
Kinzer will stay busy while between jobs. He will lead a tour of Iran in April and May. This summer he’ll begin a national publicity tour for his new book. He continues to write a column for The Guardian — “I’ll keep my two typing fingers busy,” he said. And he hinted that he may be teaching again soon.
“I’ve had a number of expressions of interest and I think I’ll be teaching again in September,” he said. “Just unfortunately not by Lake Michigan.”
How are you feeling about leaving Northwestern?
I’ve really enjoyed my time at Northwestern. Let’s face it: nobody promised me a permanent job here. I don’t have tenure, so the university was well within its rights to decide not to keep me on. I’m sure everything will work out fine. I was very gratified at the response from the students. But decisions have been made and we all have to accept that and move on. So I’m not bitter at all — I’m very happy. I’m grateful that I’ve had the chance to teach here. And I’ll always look back fondly on my Northwestern students.
Now this is the first time you’d taught at a university?
Decades ago I taught a journalism course or two here and there. But this was the first time I ever had a serious university load, yes. I was still working for The New York Times at the time that I received the offer to come here and that was part of my decision to leave The New York Times.
What do you like about teaching, now that you’ve started?
I give you one example. At the end of my intervention course, I said to the students something like, “Well we’ve studied all these interventions and talked about the role of the U.S. in the world and where we’re going — so what do you get from all of this, what does it mean for you as you look forward to your future and to America’s future?”
So one young woman raised her hand and said something which other students then agreed with. She said, ‘Our generation is going to witness the beginning of the end of U.S. domination of the world. Therefore it will be the role of our generation to try to assure that this transition is made in a way that is not too jarring and shocking either for the United States or for the rest of the world.’ And I thought, “What a wonderful insight.”
So that’s an example of how my teaching is really a two-way process. I’m informing but I’m also being informed.
What do you want students to take away from your classes?
First of all I’d like them to take away the notion that we can learn from our past. I’m teaching what I think is a fascinating course — from which I am also learning a great deal — about Iran. We did a class on Iranian cinema, a class on the more contemporary literature on Iran. We’ve studied the political figures also. So trying to broaden people’s political and geographical agenda, broaden their scope I think is — is a valuable part of a university education.
What have you learned about teaching here at Northwestern?
How much a good professor can get back from the students. Learning is a lifelong process and professors are still learning also. So the chance to be around unusually talented students who have their own perspectives on the world and their own backgrounds is something you don’t get if you’re not on a university campus. An ordinary person in my generation is not in any regular contact with people of a different generation unless it’s his own family.
You think it’s important for students to explore foreign countries and cultures. But what gets in the way of that?
Mom and dad saying, “You got to pay off your student loans first.” And, “Don’t get any crazy ideas into your head. Settle down and find a job that’s going to earn money.” My advice to students who have come to me with questions like this is that one should take advantage of this period — of a student’s period in life and young years — to do things that one can’t do when one is older. When you get older, you have a lot of responsibilities. So if you have the idea of some wild or crazy adventure you’d like to go off on, I think you should do it.