Spring 2021 Faculty Interview: Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart is an associate professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and the Graduate Center’s political science department, where he teaches the Writing Politics course. Beinart is a contributing opinion writer at the New York Times, editor-at-large at Jewish Currents, a contributor at CNN, and a Fellow at the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

Alana Pagano: Can you share a bit about your background and how you ended up teaching journalism?
Peter Beinart: I went to graduate school a long time ago and I thought about getting a Ph.D. and trying to become a historian or political scientist. I was already doing some journalism. I ended up stopping after getting a Master’s in international relations and then went to work for The New Republic where I had already been an intern. I was a journalist for about ten years and worked for a couple of think tanks. Over time, because of the changes in journalism, I began to realize that if I wanted to do the journalism I was really interested in, it would be great to have a kind of base outside of journalism where I could teach and also have the time to do the kind of writing that I wanted to do, that would hopefully be complementary with my teaching. I was lucky enough to find a home at CUNY.
AP: What led you to the Writing Politics program?
PB: When I was hired to teach in the journalism school and in the political science department, the idea from the very beginning was that this was where I would do my teaching. The program had already existed but since I had been the editor at a political magazine and a political writer, this was something that was very familiar to me—thinking about what constitutes good political writing, helping people formulate ideas, editing the work, etc. I think it was a natural fit that that would be the program I taught in.
AP: What do you consider the purpose of the Writing Politics courses?
PB: People who are getting a Master’s or a Doctorate, whether it’s in political science or some other discipline, are gaining a lot of knowledge that hopefully, they can share with more than just an academic audience. Yet, the style of writing that is emphasized in academia, while valuable in a lot of ways, does not translate so easily into more popular mediums. The imperatives are different. So, what I try to do is teach students how to take the things that they are learning and write about them in a way that will be attractive to a wider audience.
AP: What advice would you give to political science students interested in writing for non-academic audiences?
PB: I would start by saying that if you want to do good public political writing, you need to be reading good public political writing. It doesn’t only have to be in politics or even be non-fiction, but you have to be constantly kind of infusing yourself with beautiful writing. So, that in some organic ways will help. There are also a series of basic principles about good writing that I emphasize and also a set of principles about how to structure an argument in this kind of discourse, for let’s say the Op-Ed page of a newspaper, or for a journal or magazine with a mass audience. We look at what those principles are and then we try to have the students execute them.