Fears about the journalism industry’s future hasn’t stopped 1,396 writers vying to become “America’s Next Great Pundit.” The winner of the contest will receive a three-month contract with The Washington Post. On Thursday, Connor Williams (GRD ’11), a PhD candidate in the government department, was announced as one of three finalists. Williams has had to make it through rounds of elimination, writing articles such as “Real Educational Reform, Tolerance and Learning to Love the USA.” Williams talked with THE HOYA about the competition, politics and his studies.
What motivated you to participate in the pundit challenge?
I really like the teaching element. What I am really frustrated by is that as an academic, it’s really hard to get powerful people, or even the mainstream of America, to read what we write. Therefore, I’m always tempted and excited by the chance to get a broader audience. I thought any round that I advanced to in the contest would be another chance to have my voice heard across the nation.
How do you prepare for writing one of your pieces?
It depends on the type of piece. For the blog posts, I would try really hard to find something really small to focus on. The piece that I will have on Monday in the Post is a column that I have been working on for a long time, rather than what I’ve been working on before [such as blog posts].
I’m the sort of guy who is shooting out his mouth all of the time, so what I try to do is look at something that I’ve been arguing with people about a lot lately. I try to write about some position that I have taken that a lot of people find interesting or at least provocative.
The good news is that being a graduate student means that I get a lot of chances to argue about politics with other very smart people. I spend a lot of time working on what my opinions are on American politics, and the various political issues we are struggling with now. Therefore, I got a ready stock and trade to make use of.
How would you say your experience at Georgetown has prepared you for your competition?
Georgetown has been very good to me from the beginning. They have supported me with funding but also with the classes that I have taken, which challenge me a lot. I came into Georgetown very sure of myself and what it was I thought about politics. Georgetown has been much more diverse than I ever expected. I was very taken by the many different angles that people have brought to the table, from professor Patrick Deneen to professor Joshua Mitchell and professor Richard Boyce [all in the government department].All the professors I have had have made it very difficult for me to just sit on the very settled beliefs that I had when I first showed up at Georgetown, and I can’t thank them enough for that. The criticism and reflection that my classes have prompted me to undergo have been fantastic preparation for this competition, not to mention, that when I went on the video challenge, the style of the last round, I was more than ready to argue, since that’s what I do for a living right now, in my classes and as a [teaching assistant] for [the class] Political and Social Thought.
You mentioned influence from a number of professors, how much you enjoyed discussions in Political and Social Thought, and how handy your experiences in academia have been. Do you have specific aspirations using your experience in academia and participation in the pundit competition as a springboard?
I really love teaching, I enjoy being at Georgetown and teaching and I think that part of a professor’s life is something that appeals to me a great deal. I also really like people taking me seriously, people reading what I write. Academics can spend months working on articles and years working on books that are then ultimately read by 50 or maybe 100 people. I have actually written a couple of articles for them, and after the first one, they told me that almost 10,000 people had read my article. Because of that, I’m also really tempted by journalism, think-tanks and advocacy, where people would actually be paying attention to me and where I could be taken seriously.
In your teaching experience, how did you feel about the level of political awareness in your students? What would you do to change this if necessary?
The Georgetown student body is very politically astute and very excited about politics, and has strong opinions. Almost everyone is ambitious, being very excited about getting engaged in Beltway politics. But political theory, which is what I study, is often about criticism and reflection, so I challenge my students, who are very confident and ambitious, to not rest on their laurels. They are all very smart, but they often have not given enough thought to the reasoning behind their beliefs. I try to make sure that by the time students have left me, they have a better sense for what it is they believe and why they believe it.
How did you feel about the Stewart/Colbert Rally?
I am really glad that happened, that a more reasonable centrist voice stood up and said the Tea Party is not the only movement in town. On the other hand, I think it is embarrassing that there is nobody else to do it but a pair of comedians. There’s nobody among the Democrats, the Republicans or the labor movement.
It seems damning to admit that we had to reach out to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to get this kind of populism going and that’s what people have to admire about the Tea Party. These are people who actually care. Sure there is some corporate money involved, sure they are not completely as grassroots as people maybe believe, but at the end of the day it’s more organized than anything going on in the left and I think that’s embarrassing.
As a former member of Teach For America, how do you think students can be more civically involved?
Teach For America is a great place to start. It’s a perfectly positioned program because on the one hand it has some public funding because it is affiliated with Americorps, but on the other hand it is also a private effort, with lots of philanthropy from private donors, keeping it from becoming a wing of the government. So in that regard it is an interesting way to be trying to promote civil participation without having to be directly government-run.
Another thing about it is that it appeals to a lot of young idealistic students who are finishing up college and who want to make a difference, while being a leader. Teach For America lets them have some responsibility and to get at least an average paycheck doing it. Teach For America lets them go into a really difficult position where they can make a difference and where they can be responsible for whole classrooms full of students, while being community leaders and classroom leaders. It puts an enormous amount of pressure on them, but if they are idealistic and energetic it puts them in the situation to succeed. Everybody who was in Teach For America with me left active and engaged with making a difference in education. I think that’s why I wrote about this for my first piece. I wrote about educational reform because this was something that I not only knew a lot about, but was deeply passionate about.