An Interview with Rep. Tom Davis, Mason Adjunct Professor

Posted: October 23, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Jim Greif

Rep. Tom Davis
Rep. Tom Davis

Rep. Tom Davis has served Virginia’s 11th congressional district, which includes George Mason University, in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1995. The Republican member of Congress is not seeking re-election to what would be an eighth term; instead he has turned his attention to teaching an undergraduate class ― GOVT 490 Southern Politics ― as an adjunct instructor in the Department of Public and International Affairs at Mason.

Davis attended Amherst College, graduating with honors and earning a degree in political science, and then went on to earn a law degree from the University of Virginia.

Can you tell me a little about the class you are teaching?

It’s about southern politics in state and nation. We’re learning about electoral coalitions and how they develop. We also learn how even in a one-party structure, factions can form or not form depending on peculiarities. We also take a look at how each state in the south has its own particulars. And trying to learn more about how people unite in groups. We use the south because the south is unique and has its own interesting history. It was solidly Democrat until 1948, then it split off after that, and we talk about some of the factors that affected the change. Finally, we talk about this historical election and how the south will react to an African American running ― for generations the one thing that held the Democratic Party together was the fact that they wouldn’t allow African Americans to participate in the process. It has kind of come full circle.

Is this your first teaching engagement?

It is my first time teaching at the university level, though I have lectured at the University of Pennsylvania, Amherst College, Swarthmore College, the University of Maryland and American University. Just a lecture here and there on a specific topic, but this is the first time that I put a course together. This was an interesting time for me to just try to get some thoughts together and build a course.

What traits did you admire in your professors at Amherst College and the University of Virginia? Did this influence your decision to teach at Mason?

Amherst had very small classes. In several of my classes, I was the only student. I would go meet with my professor for an hour, get the reading list, do the work and come back and ask more questions. If you didn’t want to learn, you were in the wrong place. You were constantly challenged and reading the footnotes. It really got you to think outside the box and synthesize the material, not just regurgitate it. So, that is going to be the basis of my class. I want students to respond with original thought, not just recite material. Anyone can memorize, but thinking is something that not everybody is forced to do as a part of the learning process. I want them to learn to think and challenge and that is what I’m trying to bring out in them.

Why is this the right time in your career to start teaching?

Since I am not running for re-election it gives me time to teach, otherwise I would be on the campaign trail right now. We do have a handful of members that continue to teach class while serving in the House of Representatives, but most of them were teachers before they joined the House and are trying to keep tenure by teaching at a local D.C.-area university. D.C.’s delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, teaches a law course at Georgetown. In my case, it is a way to keep my hand in the intellectual side of politics as I transition out of the practical side.

What do you hope to get out of this experience?

I hope to inspire students to learn to think for themselves.

Why did you select Mason as the place to teach?

I think George Mason is a great university. You don’t have to just trust me, as you can see, the school was just named the number one “school to watch” by U.S. News & World Report. The students are also getting much more competitive. I think kids have the native intelligence to do the work, the question is: Are they inspired to do it? Do they learn methodologically how to apply those skills and apply them in the learning environment? I can only do that in something that I know a lot about, which is the political and government side.

Why did you want to teach undergraduate classes as opposed to graduate students?

I’m just getting my feet wet and needed somewhere to start. However, these students are not freshmen. They are government majors with an interest in political science. It’s a pretty aggressive reading program. I hold the students accountable for knowing the material.

What thoughts do you have about the modern college student and today’s university environment?

It’s much different because everything is computerized and information is much more instantaneously available than it was when I was in school. You can just go on the Internet and find facts that you couldn’t find before. There are just a lot of aids that we just didn’t have on hand. It was just a different era. We had the Vietnam War hanging over us, the draft hanging over us, but you still always had the pressure to perform for getting ready for grad school or a job. The competitiveness has never changed. Academic institutions have changed a little bit in terms of what they offer. But American universities have never been as competitive as they are now. They are still the best in the world. People from all over the globe come here for college. K-12 is not as good, but higher education ― much of it privatized, much of it public ― is doing very well in comparison.

Jim Olds and Tom Davis at the Krasnow Institute with banner
Jim Olds, left, director of Mason’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, and Rep. Tom Davis hold a commemorative throw recently presented to Davis in appreciation of his support and dedication to the institute over the past decade.
Photos by Nicolas Tan

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