New faculty member David Blanding's life experiences inform his teaching

Brown graduate David Blanding returns to the University from the Government Accountability Office to teach Race and Public Policy at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

Associate Professor of the Practice of International and Public Affairs David Blanding M.A. ’09, Ph.D. ’13 joins Brown from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan agency conducting research on federal policies and programs for the U.S. Congress. A recipient of a dissertation fellowship from the Ford Foundation/National Research Council, Blanding earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from Brown University, after earning his undergraduate degree in political science from Boston University.

You’ve taught at several venues, including Brown University. Tell us about your teaching responsibilities at the Watson Institute?

This fall I am teaching Race and Public Policy (MPA 2226), an advanced course that examines racial bias in U.S. education, environmental, and criminal justice policy. In the spring, I will teach a new course that I designed called "Principles and Practices of Stakeholder Engagement." This course aims to introduce students to the various governmental and nongovernmental actors who may shape the policy process, as well as considerations and techniques for interacting with those actors throughout the policy process. I am also excited to be co-teaching the course that accompanies the Policy in Action consultancy projects that MPA students complete in the spring. 

How does your recent position as Director of Leadership and Executive Development Programs at GAO’s Learning Center inform your teaching and your research? 

Working in leadership development actually cemented something I first learned years ago when I joined GAO as a senior methodologist: In the world of applied social science, it is often the nature of the "social" rather than the quality of the "science" that dictates success. The actors involved in that work must master "soft skills" – such as strategic thinking, emotional intelligence, persuasive communication, agility, and collaboration. In many organizations advancing public policy today, students need to know that they will not necessarily be doing econometric modeling or conducting randomized controlled trials, for example. However, they almost certainly will be working with diverse, interdisciplinary teams on "matrixed" projects to solve complex problems involving technical, financial, and political factors. My work in leadership development positions me to mentor and coach students on those soft skills and competencies as they hone their technical skills in the MPA program. 

It’s been some 13 years since you entered your master’s program here. What drew you to return? What are your thoughts on the MPA program? 

A lot has changed in 13 years! For one, there seems to be greater emphasis on synergy within and between departments. Brown has always been about asking powerful questions and crossing epistemological boundaries, but that ethos did not extend so visibly to the important work that graduate students and faculty were doing then. My sense is there is much more collaboration and greater openness to different perspectives now.  

On the other hand, Brown does not seem to have lost the humanism that defined it when I first came here. I always tell the story of having learned of my admission to the Ph.D. program through a call from the cell phone of the Director of Graduate Studies. That memorable experience helped confirm that Brown was the right place for me all those years ago. Being offered this position in a similar fashion affirmed for me that one of the best features of Brown had survived all these years. I couldn't be more thrilled to be "coming home" to that familiar feeling.

What research initiatives are you working on now? Will you engage Watson students in that research?

My focus is on teaching this year, and I'm very excited to be part of cultivating the next generation of global leaders through that process. I have an abiding interest in civil rights policy that I would love to reinvigorate in the future with the help of some graduate and/or undergraduate research assistants. 

How does your background inform your teaching and scholarship? 

It is easy for someone like me to experience “Imposter Syndrome” at Brown, where I am surrounded by some of the world’s leading scholars and professors. But I remind myself: few, if any, professors on the campus can bring their personal perspective to their teaching quite the way I can. When I lecture about mass incarceration, felon disenfranchisement, or prisoner re-entry, for example, I am able to speak from the perspective of the child of an incarcerated parent. I know the names, the locations, and the look of several state prisons. Likewise, when I speak about social policy in the United States, I can speak as someone who has lived in homeless shelters and experienced kinship care. I can speak as somebody who knows what it feels like to hand a cashier paper "food stamps," what powdered milk and "government cheese" taste like, and what a conversation with a New York City Bureau of Child Welfare social worker sounds like when you are eight years old. I believe that kind of first-hand knowledge, combined with my professional experience and scholarly knowledge, will help me bring to life the academic material my students encounter and affirm the value of students’ own lived experiences in their engagement with policy problems and solutions. My background beyond academia means I can infuse public policy discussions with the nuance, depth, and pathos they deserve.