Dr. Alexandra Moffett-Bateau is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at John Jay College. She is teaching Qualitative Methods at the Graduate Center this Spring.
Asher Wycoff: Tell us a bit about your current research.
Alexandra Moffett-Bateau: Currently I’m working on my first book project, and the thesis is that living in housing spaces developed by the government, particularly public housing, ultimately shapes the political possibilities that poor black women see for themselves. This project was originally my dissertation, and I’ve been working on fleshing it out for the last couple years, so I’m getting to the end.
AW: Since your work draws heavily on ethnographic data, could you speak about what you think ethnographic methods bring to the discipline?
AMB: I think one of the things we always forget, particularly in American Politics, is we really started as an ethnographic discipline, with folks going door to door and asking people about their political efficacy. I think that as Americanists, in our excitement to use large-N survey data, we forget qualitative research is really important for developing theoretical frameworks and concepts that can later be measured in these big quantitative projects. What I do with my ethnographic work is try to develop theoretical frameworks that I think are going to be useful and interesting to the rest of the field. Getting the full complexity of how someone understands themselves as a political entity is just as important as finding out how 10,000 people feel about Trump, for example. Without fleshing that out, we can’t really understand what people mean when they say, “I’m a Democrat” or “I’m a Republican.”
AW: How does your research inform your teaching and vice versa?
AMB: One thing I’ve learned from my research is how important interpersonal relationships are to who people become politically, and that informs my teaching by reminding me how important students’ relationships with one another are to their understanding of political ideas. Right now I’m teaching the Qualitative Methods seminar here in Political Science at the GC, and I’m also teaching a qualitative research seminar for undergraduates at John Jay. One of the things that’s really important to me in both spaces is that students understand themselves as pedagogical collaborators in the classroom, so I’m constantly checking in with them about, was this reading useful for you? Is there a different perspective you need to hear from to understand this topic? I also want them to understand their classmates as colleagues. As both my graduate students and my undergraduates are developing these big research projects, I’m asking them to do a lot of work with one another to build those early relationships that are so important to any academic career. If you’ve developed solid relationships with your colleagues as a graduate student, you’ll to have people to bounce ideas off of and get feedback from for the rest of your life.
AW: How’s your experience at the GC been so far? Any ideas on what you’d like to teach here in the future?
AMB: It’s all still new, but it’s been a great opportunity to teach graduate students, to jump into the weeds about the more esoteric parts of qualitative methods. You can have those kinds of deep dive conversations that you may not be able to have with undergraduates. The Doctoral students and Masters students here are so bright and interesting, and they’ve really pushed me to think about qualitative methods in a different way as well.