DeWitt received his doctorate in political science from UCLA last June after earning his master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science and attending UCLA as an undergrad.
What are you working on now?
I do all sorts of fun stuff. Lately, I’m writing a paper on celebrity testimony in Congress. (Laughs.) And I’m in the process of giving every member of Congress a “paparazzi score” to see like, you know, what’s the probability of that person showing up to a committee hearing if there’s a celebrity there? And it’s really crazy ’cause there’s one hearing where it was Joseph Stiglitz, Lawrence Lessig and one other equally famous public intellectual, and one senator showed up. But then George Clooney’s there, and 12 senators show up. And Seth Rogen, I think he got like two to four senators show up, and he said that wasn’t enough? So I’m going to have this thing in this article where I have a measure of “star power,” where I’m gonna be like, “Hey Seth Rogen, if you showed up after your next hit movie in 2014 or whatever, maybe more people would have showed up.” And that’s exactly what I predicted, so this one’s gonna be fun.
What got you into political science/politics?
To a large extent, it was seeing that government choices have huge consequential impact, so I’ve always been kind of interested in institutional rules. On the other hand, I think I’ve always had some sort of innate interest. I remember in the first grade, we had to do a state report, and I was, like, convinced that unless I got an interview with the governor of the state that I got (Florida), my project would just not be done. So I would call everyday, and just chat with the person in charge of the phones. I didn’t get the interview, never got to talk with the governor, but somebody – it was probably a staffer – did answer all of my questions on a letter with a nice stationary. (I) got an autographed photo, probably also done by a staffer, but I felt some kind of achievement.
What’s your favorite thing about UCLA?
I’d have to say the faculty. I came back to UCLA because of the faculty. I think a lot of people just assume that, “Oh, professors don’t have a lot of time because they’re too busy with their research, so they don’t have a lot of time for teaching.” After I got my master’s at the LSE, I realized that by leaving UCLA, I discovered how engaging the faculty here was.
Oh? But isn’t the faculty here often characterized as impersonal?
I mean it sincerely when I say that the faculty is the No. 1 thing about UCLA. So my first publication as a graduate student at UCLA, for example, we (my professor and a group of grad students) just went out to L.A. and surveyed over 900 people. We wrote a paper, and it’s now soon to be published in Urban Affairs Review. And I can’t imagine many professors doing that and just being like, “Yes! We’ve got 48 hours to design a survey, then we’re gonna test it out on the people at the Festival of Books (which, at that time was held at UCLA).” And then we went out a day later to this march and talked to 900 more people and put a presentation together and invited the general community. I wrote a paper and I was able to take it to conferences immediately, and all of that was built on my professor being so open to having a crazy idea and working with us to make it happen in five days. I just can’t imagine that would happen in too many places, that a professor would just drop everything he was doing to pursue an idea that his students thought of in his seminar.
You said the faculty was a lot more engaging here, is that why you seem to know a lot of your students by name?
Probably. You know, I’d like to say that things I do are “me”, but I’m sure a lot of the things I do are things I’ve picked up from Professor Bawn, Professor Schwartz, from people whom I admire as being really excellent teachers. I also think that, to some extent, I really enjoy teaching. If I didn’t like teaching, there are, well, plenty of data analyst jobs that would offer a lot more money. I enjoy engaging with students because you’re always gonna get a crop of students who really care about the topic, who want to think deeply about it, and that’s really exciting. I think that by getting to know my students, I think that’ll encourage more interaction and make class more fun. It’ll bring out a wide variety of perspectives when we’re discussing a puzzle, and I think it makes the job a lot more fun.
Any tips for students?
Go to office hours and meet your professors! They are the best and the brightest in their field of study. UCLA is one the most premier research universities. Here in this department, we have Lynn Vavreck, who is probably the most knowledgable person on American political campaigns. We have John Zaller, who wrote the greatest book in public opinion 20 years ago, and nobody has managed to write anything half as influential or meaningful since then. But every department here is just full of people who are at the forefront of research in their specialty and have created knowledge that’s being taught at universities across the country. So if you find someone who’s researching or working in an area that’s of interest to you, go talk to them. They will improve your ability to think critically, which is the reason you come to college. So go see them. You’ll meet a fascinating person, and they’ll probably be able to help you somewhere down the road!
Do you have a professor you’d like to see on Mojo? Comment below, let us know. Or tweet us @dbmojo.