Nelson Polsby Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Institutional Change in the U.S. Congress: Conversation with Nelson 
    W. Polsby, Heller Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley; 9/4/02 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Lessons Learned

There are two things that I want to talk about related to your work, as we near the conclusion of the interview. One is writing. book coverYou write extremely well and very lucidly, with great clarity and simplicity. Did you learn that?

Yes, I learned it.

But did it come naturally?

Yes. I used to read a fair bit, and there are writers I admire quite a lot, because they write clearly. I found myself imitating E.B. White, Mark Twain, people like that. So I suppose I write imitatively. The rule about clarity is perfectly straightforward: If I write a sentence and then I say to myself, "What did I mean by that?" it means it wasn't clear and I have to do something about it. My goal is to be able to understand the next day what it was I meant.

Is that hard work or does it come easier every time?

It depends entirely ... sometimes it's hard work; sometimes it's easy. It just varies. Sometimes I've gritted my teeth and away I go and other times, it's just like breaking rocks. It just depends.

It's rumored that you have a sense of humor, and I want you to talk a little that. What role does humor play in discourse?

Well, somebody with a sense of humor normally doesn't explain when they're being facetious.

Oh, I see, I see. But could you tell us about that strength and the role it plays in discourse?

It's not a strength. As a matter of fact, it's risky.

It's risky?

Yeah, yeah. Frequently, I've said things that were meant to be silly and were taken quite seriously. I knew they were silly, but other people just thought they showed that I was an unsound person.

So it's not something that you would recommend to others?

Well, certainly not to someone who runs for public office.

I see, I see.

But I can get away with it, because I've got tenure.

I see. Okay, so let's conclude now and let me ask you, if you were advising students, if students were to sit through this interview, any recommendations for how they should prepare for the future if they want to pursue political science?

Well, the main thing is to enjoy it, find their own voice. The most important thing in the world is to have a mind of your own. I have to say, the graduate education around here at Berkeley and, to a certain extent also, even an undergraduate education around here ... we attempt to help people find their voice and find what they're good at. And there are, obviously, skills associated with it, and we're certainly as prepared as many universities are to bring them up to speed with respect to those skills. But the main thing is to find a mind of their own and pursue what interests them.

Nelson, I want to thank you for this opportunity.

My pleasure.

And thank you very much for joining us with this Conversation with History.

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