Todd Landman is Professor of Political Science and Pro-Vice-Chancellor within the Faculty of Social Sciences at The University of Nottingham. In addition to that, he is also internationally renowned for his work on the measurement and analysis of human rights; he has assisted the European Commission, the United Nations Development Programme, the UK Foreign Office and Amnesty International. Furthermore, he is also a magician and a member of the Prestigious Magic Circle (AIMC with Silver Star). In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of subjects from ‘academic magic’ to his favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. It has been a joy to interview Todd and we hope you enjoy reading about his adventures.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: I am senior academic, international consultant, and professional magician. I work in higher education and lead the faculty of social sciences at the University of Nottingham. I lecture, train, and carry out research on development, democracy, and human rights. I perform what I call ‘academic magic’ or a fusion of conjuring, mind reading, and philosophy that leaves people baffled, educated and entertained all at the same time.
Q: Could you tell us about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: I grew up in rural Pennsylvania on the West Shore of the Susquehanna River outside a town called Mechanicsburg, whose claim to fame was that it was home to the huge steel globe made for the 1964-1965 World’s Fair, and was subject for a poem I got published when I was in year 8 at Allen Middle School. We lived on a disused farm called Hemlock Hollow, which had 13 acres of land, a huge barn, smokehouse, two ponds, and a log cabin farmhouse built in 1757.
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: I really liked science and math when I was at school, and I excelled in both. At Red Land High School in Lewisbury, PA I studied algebra, trigonometry, calculus, biology, and chemistry (for two years), and I was bused to Cedar Cliff High School in Camp Hill to study physics and computing. I found Latin very challenging and switched to Spanish after a year, which suited me better, as it was more contemporary and relevant to what I wanted to go on to do in college.
I was often asked to think a bit more before talking and to understand that I did not need to verbalise everything.
Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
A: I have always been rather extroverted and talkative, which were not always the best qualities for school, as I was often asked to think a bit more before talking and to understand that I did not need to verbalise everything I was thinking at the time.
Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: In school, I was determined to become a lawyer, speak Spanish, and then help people in America who had come from Latin America. While at the University of Pennsylvania, however, I took a Latin American politics class and thought, ‘I want to study politics and become a Professor’.
Q: Can you remember the point at which you fell in love with your subject?
A: The Latin American politics class was excellent, and was complemented by classes in history, economics, and philosophy. I remember seeing Professor Arturo Valenzuela give a talk on the politics of Chile from the 1973 military coup until the 1980s and knew then that I wanted to study with him. He became my Professor and thesis supervisor at Georgetown University. He was also to become Under Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere under President Bill Clinton.
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: I studied at the University of Pennsylvania and it was indeed my first choice. In 1984, I got into American University and Penn and knew straight away that Penn was the choice for me. It was Ivy League, in a great city, and founded by Benjamin Franklin. I applied, wrote an entrance essay on the science of deduction as found in Sherlock Holmes, and then went for an interview. My mother and I took the train to Philadelphia and made a day of it. I will never forget when the thick parcel arrived in my mailbox back home with the acceptance materials. I sprinted up the stone drive to show my parents.
I read the New York Times every day on campus and was a politics junkie.
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: I did a major in political science and had 32 classes over four years, so I was able to take natural science, literature, history, philosophy, economics, calculus, psychology, as well as my core and electives in political science. I thought about studying chemistry or medicine, but I was drawn to politics and the 1980s were an exciting time during the Reagan years, the end of the Cold War, and there was so much happening in Central and South America. I read the New York Times every day on campus and was a politics junkie.
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: There were several amazing professors at Penn. Jack Reece from the Department of History delivered one of the most moving lectures on The Holocaust. Jeffrey Morris (former Clerk at the Supreme Court) was a stunning constitutional law professor. Henry Mansfield taught me macroeconomics and had a great knack for remembering all of our names in class. The professor who taught me the most, however, was Youssef Cohen, who led a senior intensive seminar on economic development, democracy and dictatorship in Latin America. The most incredible large group professor was definitely Theodore Moran at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University whose International Business Diplomacy class had a lasting impact on my work.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: The guest lecture from Arturo Valenzuela at Penn convinced me to do a master’s degree, and then while working at the World Bank in Washington DC, I decided to study for a PhD, as I wanted to become an expert and full-time employee at the Bank. My boss told me to go get a PhD and come back. I got the PhD but never went back to the Bank.
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: I did an MA in Latin American Studies at Georgetown University, and then started my PhD in political science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, but left with a Master’s Degree as I had an invitation to come to the United Kingdom to work on a research project at the University of Essex, where I completed my PhD and built my academic career over the next 22 years. I was only meant to stay for one year!
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: It is called Agents of Change: The Comparative Impact of Social Movements. The thesis examined why and how social movements are successful and what kinds of ways they can change society. I compared women’s movements, gay rights movements, green movements, and right-wing movements in eight countries over thirty years. I found that those movements that were better organised and which had more formal structures had a more long-lasting impact on the politics of their countries.
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: I would have started studying statistics much earlier while an undergraduate and I would have taken more computer science classes to really learn how to write code. I also would have taken classes on religion and theology.
Q: Tell us about your current research focus?
A: I have been working on the systematic analysis of development, democracy, and human rights, and I am now turning my attention to the study of contemporary slavery; a problem that is highly related to human rights and which shares many of the same theoretical, empirical and methodological challenges. This is an exciting new direction of work with a new group of colleagues whose passion for academic work and changing the world is truly inspirational.
Q: What do you believe is your single most important piece of research?
A: I am really proud of my book Protecting Human Rights (Georgetown University Press 2005), which was the first statistical study to show that there is a positive and significant relationship between country ratification of human rights treaties and human rights practice; a finding which has found additional support in the subsequent empirical literature. That book consolidated my work from 1993 to 2004 and then led to a new phase of work that I am completing now and moving on to a new phase.
Human rights suffer from a fundamental problem of ‘unobservability’.
Q: Within your area of study, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: The inclusion of new forms of data, new methods for analysing these data, and the blurred lines between human learning and machine learning being applied to the study of conflict, political violence, and human rights. Human rights suffer from a fundamental problem of ‘unobservability’, but new forms of data and new kinds of analytics can reveal things we did not know before, and can advance our understanding of why and under what conditions human rights violations take place.
Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be researching in 2116?
A: My successors will be researching how to survive in new, permanently higher temperatures, less land mass, and less access to sources of food while avoiding severe violent conflict. What I hope they will be researching is how human thought alone can bring real peace between all humans.
Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: I see myself as a leader, a builder and a connector who tries to leverage beneficial opportunities that arise out of connections between like-minded human beings. I have led teams, built institutions, and empowered people to realise their ambitions and dreams. At the same time, I hope that my legacy will be one that has inspired others to question things, research things, and stand up for what is right. There are hundreds of my students out in the world engaged in really exciting and engaging work that seeks to make the world a better place.
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: Yes, I have a great resource called The Rights Track, which is a podcast series dedicated to the advance of human rights. I have recorded eleven podcasts so far with leading human rights scholars around the world and discussed the motivations for their work, the questions they seek to answer, the ways they seek to answer them, the findings they discover, and why those findings really matter. We will be recording our last one in this series, which is about human rights in America, and we have funding for another 12, which will feature leading human rights activists who use social scientific evidence for their work.
I am also working on a film project that uses performance magic as a means to communicate larger philosophical concepts and ‘big questions’ in life, which will be released as short videos every month in 2017. We are filming on our campus with students in a great theatre setting with a really professional film crew. It takes place during a run of shows I am doing to raise money for research into the early detection of breast cancer.
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Seize all opportunities and have total faith in what you are doing.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: Learn how to be a ‘flexion’, which is to say, develop a relevant and adaptable set of tools that you can apply to contemporary problems and add value to all tasks that you undertake. AND, never stop being curious.
Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: Robert Bates (2001) Prosperity and Violence: The Political Economy of Development.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: A Manhattan on the rocks, with two maraschino cherries and Maker’s Mark bourbon. Oh, and make it big.
If you’d like to find out more about Professor Todd Landman you can check out his academic profile, personal website and Twitter page.