This year, there’s a new face in Reed’s political science department. After the recent retirement of long-time faculty member and political theorist Darius Rejali and former professor Tamara Metz’s transition to the role of Assistant Dean of Faculty, Reed decided to fill in the gaps in the department by hiring Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Lexi Neame, a self-described “keen cyclist” and “committed cat fancier.”
Born in Queensland, Australia to a family of dairy farmers, Neame grew up in “a place where the paved road meets the dirt road.” After completing her undergraduate studies in Australia, Neame decided to come to the United States to pursue further education. She studied at The New School in New York before receiving her Ph.D in political theory at Northwestern University. She’s been a dissertation fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara and taught at Stanford for three years before coming to Reed.
As a scholar of political theory, Neame’s intellectual interests involve the history of political thought; contemporary democratic and feminist theory; and the politics of science, technology, and the environment. Neame’s initial interest in political theory was sparked when she encountered the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault in an undergraduate class on feminist and queer theory, and her interest in issues of power and class were further deepened when she read the works of German philosopher and economist Karl Marx.
“I read Marx and began to question how well an aesthetics of existence or limit experiences address issues of class, structural domination, and collective mobilization,” Neame said. “Foucault and Marx gave me a sense of the complexity of politics and the different ways of engaging it, theoretically and practically.”
But what, exactly, is political theory in Neame’s mind? According to Neame, in contrast to political scientists who seek to develop causal explanations for political phenomena, political theorists “think interpretively.”
“We are interested in the meaning of political concepts and experiences,” Neame said. “So, what is democracy? What is justice, or freedom? We also think normatively. Why does freedom matter? Is there a tension between freedom and justice?”
In order to answer these types of questions, political theorists such as Neame rely upon a variety of tools. On the one hand, texts such as Plato’s Republic, the Confucian Analects, and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan serve as critical resources and touchstones for many theorists. But scholars such as Neame also draw upon literature, art and film, or historical research in their attempts to theorize about politics.
While those unfamiliar with the discipline of political theory may be tempted to dismiss theoretical inquiry as abstract, removed from everyday life, and archaic, Neame sees a lot of value in employing a political-theoretical approach to contemporary questions and problematics.
“One of the reasons why I think studying political theory is valuable is because there are certain themes, questions, concepts, and fears that recur again and again, in our collective lives,” Neame said. “When you study political theory, you come to see how we have come back to these [questions,] but always with a difference, over long periods of historical time… It’s not that we always have the same answers, it’s that recognizing how these answers emerge, are reformulated, are sometimes forgotten… can help us today.”
At Reed, Neame currently co-teaches a class with Professor of History and Humanities Benjamin Lazier called “The Human Condition.” The class focuses on the works of Hannah Arendt, an influential 20th century political theorist whose writings on totalitarianism, bureaucracy, and political freedom continue to resonate to this day.
Neame says that she really enjoys teaching the course. “My experience teaching ‘The Human Condition’ has been great,” Neame said. “Students are incredibly engaged, they’re excited about the material, they’re curious… and they’re really willing to take ownership of the text.”
Neame has also appreciated the experience of co-teaching the course with Lazier, who provides an alternative perspective by approaching Arendt’s texts as an intellectual historian rather than a political theorist.
“Ben and my disciplinary backgrounds, teaching styles, and interests are different but complementary enough that it really adds a valuable dimension to the class,” Neame said. “I think it adds a lot to have those two… ways of thinking, and ways of reading, combined.”
Furthermore, part of the satisfaction that Neame derives from teaching “The Human Condition” relates to her passion for teaching more generally.
“I absolutely love teaching,” Neame said. “Teaching is really my life’s work… for me, the way that I can most connect with political theory as a living tradition is by engaging with others, and that means engaging with students. It’s students who have the most exciting, courageous takes on classic texts.”
In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Neame also advises a handful of senior thesis students. Neame has never advised senior theses in the past, but she says that it was one of the aspects of her new position at Reed that she was “most excited about.”
“I really like working with students on a large project of their own design, [and] seeing them… decide what it is going to be about, what methods they are going to use, what texts they are going to focus on, all that sort of stuff,” Neame said.
Both in her teaching and advising work, Neame seeks to balance the goals of providing students with a structure or framework for approaching the text that is grounded in her training and expertise as a scholar of political theory, while still providing students the intellectual space to pursue the questions and problems that most interest them.
“I certainly go in with a sense of what I think is most crucial for students to spend time with in the text,” Neame said, “but I don’t want to go in and impose a rigid framework on how students are coming to the texts because I want students to be able to pick it up themselves and create their own sense and meaning out of it. What I’m trying to do is create a structure in which students are basically free to move around as they want.”
Next semester, Neame will teach a course titled “Democracy and Data,” which examines the ways in which phenomena such as “big data,” statistics, algorithmic prediction, and corporate surveillance may lead us to rethink central concepts in political theory, such as freedom, consent, property, and identity. Next year, Neame plans to teach courses on Foucault, Nietzsche, and the notion of “body politics.” Those interested in learning more about Neame, her research interests, and the courses that she teaches can swing by her office in Elliot Hall or reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.