Faculty Spotlight: Pat Willerton

1. At what institution did you do your undergrad and graduate work? 
Undergraduate – Michigan State
Certificate – Soviet Studies
PHD – University of Michigan
 
2. What was your favorite course in your undergraduate career?
“I enjoyed a year long course in Russian Literature where we read and discussed great literature. I think you learn the soul of a country through its great literature.”
 
“I had a class on the American Judiciary and it was probably the most amazing undergraduate class I had because I wasn't interested in the topic, but the instructor was so dynamic and enthusiastic that I got really excited and really enjoyed the class.”
 
3. What is your field of research in?
“My focus is on Russian political elites, the Russian federal system, the presidency and other related executive institutions. I am interested in the relation between federal governments with the regions and a second area would be Russian relations with other Soviet Union countries like Ukraine, Estonia, Armenia, etc.”
 
4. What initiated your interest in this field?
“I discovered it when I was young, through the arts. I was exposed to Russian music. My family roots are not in Russia at all, but when I was a kid my dad gave me amazing gifts for my sister and me. This was around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, so they were our enemy!” 
 
“At the same time, I became aware of politics. I encountered the Soviet Union through a puzzle. I remember seeing a national magazine and it had a musical chairs picture with the faces of possible future leaders of Russia. I remember seeing that magazine cover and I thought ‘this is really intriguing, this is like musical chairs!’” 
 
 
5. What inspired you to want to teach?
“I was living in an area where there were no private sector opportunities in Soviet studies. We didn’t have much of any economic relationship. They were in their block. We had an iron curtain. Their economic system was totally different. I had two options, either go into the government or go into teaching and research. I did the latter.”
 
6. What do you think a professor’s role is in a student’s academic journey?
“I don’t think there is any one role. For me, I’d like to facilitate people, learning about ideas, knowing where to go for information, to encourage them to develop their intellectual framework. We all have an intellectual framework.”
 
“I believe that when people are having a good time, when people are in good spirits, when they feel comfortable in a setting, they learn more, they engage more, they are open, they are trusting. Every class I teach, the first day I will basically ask this question ‘Can we have a little fun?’ I put that in my power points.”
 
 “Make yourself vulnerable! Ask a question that you're really uncertain of the answer. Take that chance! I want an atmosphere of respect and engagement but I want people to know that I am comfortable with them where they are and I am open and I am not judging. So you can ask a question that may be a little off. That is very important to me.”
 
 “One of the challenges for me as an instructor is having people draw the assumption that if you are pleasant you don’t have standards. I am accessible, I am student friendly, but don’t assume that I don’t have standards.”
 
7. What words of advice do you have for students who may be taking your course(s)? 
“Engage the material. Bring passion. I can’t make someone feel passion for the course but I try to facilitate it. I am trying to bring stimulating things.”
 
“I think very consciously about ways to make the material interesting, relevant, fun, and I have some success with some. I take responsibility to make the material interesting and accessible. I think when people come in and bring some passion and show their engagement, this is to me the most important thing because we are all sponges. If you are in a good attitude and have a little prep, you are going to learn a lot. Incidentally, you are going to be given too.”
 
8. You had such an emphasis on technology in POL 300B, which is new to some professors. Do you still do that now?
“It is strange because I am one of the least technologically proficient people in this department. I just made a decision to bring in more technology. I think it facilitates communication among us. I do believe, intellectually, you guys are better off with this in the world you are going into. You need to learn how to work with technology in effective ways.”
 
“The way this started was with POL 150C The Politics of Happiness. I wanted a Gen Ed class that was motivating. The way this started was that I had been reading MacRumors and there was a university in the Netherlands that was going to shift totally to the Steve Jobs delivery model. I am somebody that has no apple equipment. Steve Jobs, before he died, was really pushing this education because he was worried what was happening to education in the United States. He talked with President Obama and said that they have to get real about meeting the new generations using these technologies. [As a result] we used Twitter and Facebook, People got more excited about Twitter because it is real time!”
 
“I really think it facilitates learning and community building. I can share much more information. I believe Steve Jobs was right.”