Q&A faculty spotlight: Jan Box-Steffensmeier

February 8, 2023

Q&A faculty spotlight: Jan Box-Steffensmeier

Jan with students

Jan Box-Steffensmeier is Vernal Riffe Professor of Political Science, professor of sociology by courtesy and Distinguished University Professor. Professor Box-Steffensmeier received her BA in 1988 from Coe College and her PhD in 1993 from the University of Texas at Austin. She directs the Program in Statistics and Methodology (PRISM) and is a scholar of American politics and political methodology. 

Please describe your current research/creative activity or area(s) of interest. 

One of my current projects explores law and geography. We look at the density of cases and interest groups by geographical origin, across issue areas, and through time. The distribution of cases and interest groups has interesting and important implications for understanding the ability of external actors to shape public policy through the U.S. Supreme Court.  

What/who influenced you to select your area(s) of study and how has that impacted your career?

My undergraduate professors significantly impacted my academic pursuits and the direction of my career. Some encouraged breadth of study, which led to me discovering political science to add to my math major. Others helped me see how I could combine my interests in both, and I now do a lot of data analysis (which requires an understanding of math and statistics) of social science data. Professors also discussed various careers with me and motivated me to go to graduate school.

If there are opportunities for undergraduates to connect with you for research or creative activity, please share what this would be and how students should reach out to you.

One of the most fun, interesting, and rewarding aspects of being a professor is integrating undergraduates into my research. I have students who work on every aspect of a research project: design, data collection, literature reviews, writing and editing, statistical analysis, and presentations. Recently, data analytics students and computer science students have become invaluable members of my research teams with their data scraping tools, advanced data manipulation for large data sets, and other machine learning tools. If students are interested in getting involved in research on American politics or methodology, the easiest way to connect is through an application that is at the bottom of my website.

What undergraduate classes do you teach? 

At the undergraduate level, I teach the Introduction to American Politics as well as courses on Congress and Elections. I also teach methodology courses, such as Time Series and Event History, at the graduate level. 

Why do you think a student should take these classes and, if appropriate, why would they be of interest to students majoring in other disciplines?

Political science is the study of the single largest organizing force in modern society: government. Therefore, government is also the single largest organizing force in your life and given that you are taking classes at an American university, the American government has at least some impact on your life. But just because the American government exerts influence on you does not mean that you cannot exert it back. Becoming politically informed is the single best way to influence government. By learning how government works, you become more aware of where you can make an impact.

Furthermore, being active and engaged in your citizenship and local community is attractive to employers in and around Columbus. In an “Industry Needs Assessment,” the Ohio State College of Arts and Sciences found that 83% of employers desired the future workforce to become more active in their citizenship and more engaged with their local community. By taking political science courses, you will be equipped with the knowledge to be more involved in communities across America.

One of the undergraduate courses I teach, the Introduction to American Politics is an introduction to the institutions, processes, and influences of American government, politics, and political behavior. It is roughly broken into two sections. The first part of the course focuses on political elites, discussing the history and theories of American democracy as well as its political institutions (Congress, the President, and the Judiciary). In the second half of the course, we shift gears and focus on mass political behavior and interests.

What aspects of your teaching give you the most satisfaction?

I love mentoring! I look back and see so many mentors who helped me and I want to pay that forward. It is fulfilling to work with students one-on-one to help them discern their career path, discuss puzzling current events, or witness them discover something new. 

What book/movie would you recommend or what music do you enjoy? 

I would recommend The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind-- and Changed the History of Free Speech in America by Thomas Healy. It is hard to overstate the foundational aspects of the First Amendment and it is a great historical read to see how Supreme Court Justice Holmes changed his mind on this critical issue. I reflect on how it was a dissent – which means he was on the losing side of the vote, went on to be of such significance. It is an inspiring story of not giving up, of being open to learning and subsequently changing one’s mind. It emphasizes the still timely topic of free speech, a right that the world will likely always grapple with but that is core to freedom, democracy, and progress.

The Report is a 2019 movie produced by Amazon Studios, starring Adam Driver, Annette Bening, and Jon Hamm. It details the process of one Senate staffer in creating a report on the CIA's use of torture on suspected terrorists in the aftermath of 9/11. I recommend it because it illustrates the checks and balances in the branches of the U.S. government. For the legislative branch, one of the most important checks is government oversight and I think this movie does a great job of detailing what a quagmire oversight can be. In addition, the key to understanding Congress is to understand committees. This movie does a nice job of illustrating how committees function and how congresspeople develop expertise within their assigned committees.

What is the most interesting place you have visited? 

I was able to visit the United States Supreme Court to hear a live argument. It was awe-inspiring to be there surrounded by so much history that underpins our government.

What is the best advice you have received? 

A sage piece of advice given to me from senior colleagues at The Ohio State University when I started working here as a professor was to share my work widely. I think that applies to students and professionals. By sharing our work, we gain immeasurably from different perspectives and the generative ideas from dialogue. 

What advice would you give to undergraduate students? 

Explore subjects widely by taking advantage of the breadth of classes available to you.

Feel free to stop by my office hours. I love to talk about:

Your favorite nature spot to walk, new tech advances, and books you would recommend!

Share an interesting fact about yourself:

I am a first-generation college student from rural Iowa and my father was a brick mason and farmer. He instilled in me a tenacious work ethic and the belief in the transformative power of education!

Learn more about Professor Box-Steffensmeier's work, email and office location on her department page.

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