Fresh Faculty: Tess Wise

Fresh Faculty: Tess Wise

Tess Wise is a visiting assistant professor of political science. She received her bachelor’s degree in French and political science from MIT and her Ph.D. in government from Harvard University.

Q: How would you describe your area of research? A: My area of research is the intersection of race in U.S. politics and economic inequality. Specifically, I think about the question of economic insecurity. With inequality, we often focus on the very rich or the very poor, and I’m interested in the people in the middle who often don’t sort of get captured in those analyses. And for them, insecurity often looks like rising costs of living, increased debt and increased demands on your income with stagnant wages. We know that people in the middle of the income distribution basically haven’t seen a wage increase since the 70s. For that group, I’m interested in what inequality looks like in their day-to-day life. And then I sort of study how that intersects with race. So how are people sort of racial consciousness and their consciousness of their economic lives? How do those things get intertwined?

Q: What made you decide to pursue that research? A: When I was in grad school, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to work on. I kept changing my mind and I tried a whole bunch of different topics. Eventually, I needed to do my dissertation. I had learned at a methods course over the summer how to do ethnographic research — so you’re putting yourself in particular physical spaces or lived experiences — and I thought, “you know what? This will be a way to actually go and try to understand this topic [that] I’m studying from the perspective of the people who are experiencing it.” I wanted to study debt because that’s something that’s really changed for Americans over the last generation. It also has some serious racial components. But nobody wants to talk to you about their debt. I tried to get people to do interviews by posting ads on Craigslist that said, “Do you want to talk to a grad student about your debt? I will pay you $30.” Ether that was not enough money, or, what I think is more likely, that no one actually likes talking about debt unless they have to. There’s been some research that shows that it’s really anxiety provoking, which I suppose is fairly intuitive. So, I ended up studying bankruptcy, because it’s basically a point when people are suddenly talking about this thing. By the time I get to interviewing them, they’ve already had to talk to their lawyer and appear before a trustee, so they’ve kind of had the BandAid ripped off. What’s interesting about bankruptcy is that at no point in the process do people get asked what happened from their perspective. The legal process asks a lot of technical questions about their assets and their debts, but it won’t ask what happened such that they are going through bankruptcy. I was able to do interviews where I’d ask people that question right after they’d had this situation where they thought they were going to get asked this question, so I could provide a space for people to kind of unpack the experience. It made me really want to do more research because I not only got to think about these topics that I was trying to understand, but I got to connect them to people and to lives and to experiences that made sense on a human level.

Q: What drew you to Amherst? A: The thing I loved most in grad school besides the research was getting to work with undergrads. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do teaching as a grad student, but my favorite was always working with undergrads, just because so many of the questions in political science are ones that you maybe didn’t get to think about in high school, but once you get to college, you’re really ready to grapple with some of these big questions around things like race and identity and class. These are topics that we get to talk about in the political science classroom all the time. For Amherst in particular, I couldn’t imagine a better place to go if you cared about teaching, if you cared about having students who actually want to engage with the readings, who are willing to take ideas apart and who are willing to be vulnerable in the classroom. I think that’s something that you don’t find everywhere: students who are willing to bring so much of themselves into the room with them.

Q: What classes are you teaching? A: One of the classes I’m teaching this semester is called “Identity Politics.” “Identity Politics” is a class that dives into a topic that a lot of people have probably heard about and thought about but maybe haven’t thought about from the sort of academic or analytical perspective. We think theoretically about what identity is and about what the goals of identity politics are from a theoretical point of view, and then we study a whole bunch of different identity based social movements, ranging from Black Power to the #MeToo movement to alt-right white nationalism — we cover the gamut.