Interview with Andrea Jones-Rooy

Can you start off by introducing yourself?

I’m Andrea. I am the assistant professor in Global China Studies. My area of research and teaching is political science. I teach international relations and comparative politics at NYU Shanghai. I did my PhD at the University of Michigan. I’ m from the United States where I studied autocratic use of the media and how it affects international relations. China was my case study in my dissertation, and my theory is about the role of media in politics.

Here at NYU Shanghai, I’m studying censorship. Next semester, I’m going to teach comparative politics. We’re going to compare different regimes and talk about what things they’re doing well, and what they’re falling behind in compared to others. We’re starting with a totally neutral mindset. Americans are biased to always think that democracy is perfect, while anything else is terribly flawed, but democracy has a lot of problems. The idea is – as scientists – can we figure out what works well and what doesn’t? Can we even say what works well in one country should work well in another? That’s the flavor of conversations here all the time.

 What topics do you cover in Global China Studies?
Global China Studies is a marriage of International Relations and East Asian Studies. Rather than students coming to take a purely China-focused program, we mix it with International Relations. So the idea is that students come away from the Global China Studies not only knowing about China, but also about China’s place in the world, how the world affects China, and how China affects the world.
Students get anxious about it because this major does not exist anywhere else in the world. They don’t know how to tell their friends about it. I think it’s a very worthwhile course, because research and teaching on China often falls into the China-only trap. Everything is focused on China, and doesn’t consider outside elements. Even high level scholars rarely connect China with the rest of the world. The rest of the world carries on with a US-centric focus and ignores China. In principle, this major is an opportunity to merge the two. In a way, it’s the perfect major for NYU Shanghai, because that is the whole point of this university. It’s quite experimental.
Can you talk about the faculty lunch seminar, how did you get the idea for that?
Basically when I was in graduate school, one of the best groups I was a part of was in the Center for Complex Systems, which is one of the most successful interdisciplinary programs that I know of. Physicists would sit down with Economists and Political Scientists. We’d talk about what our various problems had in common, and it was amazing. I didn’t always understand what the scientists were talking about it, but it was still cool to see how other scientists and humanities faculty think about things. I just like knowing what everyone else is up to.
I left my appointment at Carnegie Mellon to come here, and I came as a post-doctoral candidate, so it wasn’t even a step up. One of the reasons why I agreed to come to NYU Shanghai was because I met with Joanna Waley-Cohen in New York and she told me the NYU Shanghai doesn’t have departments. In 2014, we were so small we only had 30 faculty. Joanna is a historian, and she told me she talks to biologists and engineers all the time. I like learning all kinds of things so I thought that was awesome, because that’s what I loved most about graduate school.
When I got here, everyone was in different buildings, so it was logistically difficult to get to know anyone. I went to Joanna and proposed a weekly talk where someone from each field presents what they’re working on in a casual environment. We just started it very informally. Our first presenter was Lena Scheen in humanities, and all of the economists asked her questions, like “why aren’t you using data?” She handled them very well, she said “you can’t capture a story with numbers.”
One of the greatest things about this school is that we have all these majors that are interdisciplinary, and no one’s ever heard of them. The students sometimes find it hard to reconcile with their idea of what university should be, but I think it’s amazing. If a student comes out at the end of four years being a really interesting person, then we’ve succeeded. If you come from NYU Shanghai you’ll have some stories to tell. Anyone who has NYU Shanghai on their resume is going to get a second look from a potential employer. They’re going to be curious.
I realized this, because I talk to a lot of students for my job. At first I thought it was a fluke, that I was just lucky and picking students to interview that were interesting and interested in the world around them, then I realized that every single student I’ve talked to have involved themselves somehow in the community and the city. They’re doing theatre, and all kinds of stuff. 
Yeah. There’s a huge pile of artwork here in my office as you can see. I gave my students an extra credit assignment which was, “draw a picture of the materials from class, and I’ll give you extra credit.” And they did all of this! I was expecting single pieces of paper, but they did scrolls, and massive posters, and even paper art projects. There’s so much enthusiasm here. They’re all from different countries. They might have grown up in Sweden and lived in Africa and South America. They speak 10 languages. They’re already smarter than I am.
Speaking of involvement in exciting activities in the greater Shanghai community, can you talk about how you got involved with Cirque les Soir? 
I got into circus when I was in graduate school. I was a dancer growing up and a dance minor in college. Then I got to graduate school and dropped dance as an attempt to get serious about academics, but then I found myself bored. I also don’t like the gym so I wasn’t getting any exercise. I found a studio in a warehouse in Detroit, which was a great space for hanging and rigging a lot of circus equipment. I started going on Sundays to take classes on silks and trapeze. Before I moved here, I spent a summer doing it intensively in New York. When I came here, I thought “I’m leaving it behind!” After a month or two, I found myself very antsy. I looked for a place to take classes, but found out this company was opening, so I auditioned. Then they hired me.
Last question, what’s your best memory of your time here? 
I’m thinking of something that happened today. For all my exams in my classes my rule is that the highest score becomes the full score. So if the highest grade is 95%, then 95% becomes 100% and everyone gets a bump up. We study cooperation and collective action problems in my class. Since I’ve been teaching, I’ve told my students that if everyone gets a 50% on their exam, then 50% is the new 100%. So if you follow that to its logical conclusion, if everyone can agree to turn in a blank exam, then everyone gets 100%. But if one person answers one question, then everyone else fails. I’ve challenged my students at Carnegie Mellon to this, and no one ever has, but today, my class did it.
Basically, my students didn’t take the final exam, but for them to arrive at the point of actually pulling it off, they had to internalize all of the concepts we learned when we were talking about international cooperation. We’ve been discussing how to get countries to agree to a treaty or a ceasefire or a disarmament when everyone has an incentive to be the person who breaks the agreement. We spent a lot of time talking about why treaties between, like, Israel and Palestine keep failing. I figure if we sent students out into the world that have internalized these concepts, then it’s a net positive. My hope is that they’ll always remember this exam, but they probably won’t remember some of the ones they actually did.
At NYU Shanghai we’ve always said that we’re pioneers and we’re doing all these innovative things, so that’s why I like this story, because it shows that the students that come here really aren’t just ordinary college students. You don’t come here unless you’re up for some kind of risk. Even if you’ve grown up in Shanghai, coming to this school is kind of experimental and adventurous. So I shouldn’t be surprised that this group is the one that would pull it off. It’s a perfectly international group too. It’s a very nice example of what is cool about this school. I might find out that Jeff Lehman is mad at me though.

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