Bret McEvoy is a Fritz Thyssen Postdoctoral Fellow at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. If you want to know more about him, check his profile page.
In this interview with our second year MPP student Laura Schweigert, conducted on October 7, 2021, Bret talks about his background and research areas, and shares his first impressions of and perspectives on the Brandt School.
Thank you for speaking with us! Can you tell us about yourself, including your academic and professional background?
I grew up in the Northeast of the United States and did most of my education there. I then spent most of the 2010s in Boston doing my masters and PhD at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The Fletcher School is an International Relations graduate program similar to the Willy Brandt School. Actually, I joked with Professor Goldthau that if you look at the Fletcher building on the website, it looks eerily similar to the Brandt School building. I really wonder if the Brandt School modeled its architecture after Fletcher, which made me feel right at home here quickly. But in the US, it is common for students to work and then go back to get more education, so after my bachelors I spent five or six years in international Humanitarian Aid and Development work, with a focus on post-crisis situations. After that work, I moved to Boston to pursue my masters and PhD.
Could you tell us about your area of research? How did you come to focus on it?
Working in the Humanitarian Aid field, I was often frustrated with the short-term thinking that tends to accompany humanitarian response and I wanted bigger frameworks to understand the structural problems of the world and how I could be more holistic and impactful in my work. So I started looking at International Law, and in the process, received my introduction to Feminist frameworks and became very interested in issues related to Gender, specifically Gender and Transitional Justice. Although my initial foray into the field was likely driven by a belief that I was somehow ‘saving’ women, my deeper engagement led to a more critical examination of (my own) masculinities. Then through several mentors doing related work on intersectional gender justice, I became increasingly interested in issues of Race in the United States. This led me to a dissertation linking all these things together, and specifically looking at white people, like myself, and often looking at white men, and our roles in perpetuating or challenging structural violence, systems of racism and sexism, and white supremacy and patriarchy in the United States, and then tying these issues back to ideas of Transitional Justice and Reparations. My dissertation was called, “White Reckonings: The Possibilities for Transformative Justice Contributions from Anti-Racist White Activists in the United States.”
How did you find out about the Willy Brandt School and what made you decide to want to teach here?
Although I completed my PhD in the US, I moved to Germany several years ago for reasons unrelated to my work. I got married to my wife, who is German, and we had a child. We’ve since decided that we’d like to try and stay in Germany, and so as I was nearing the end of my PhD, I was also looking to connect to universities, research institutions, NGOs or activist work here in Germany. I wanted to find a strong program, similar to my school back home, that was focused on contemporary Public Policy and International Relations. Also, while my German is conversational, it’s not quite at the level to teach in German, so I was also looking for an English-speaking program. And just like the Willy Brandt School, I am very interested in ‘where local meets global’, and particularly in how the local in the so-called Global South is shaped by its relation to the local in the Global North, and vice versa. I love how the Brandt School is located at the European center of where East meets West; in a more liberal city like Erfurt, yet situated in a more conservative state in the East; and how these connections and contradictions play out in the history of Willy Brandt himself. So, there are a lot of things that draw me to this School and that connect to my background and helped me transition into Germany. During my search, I came across a job opportunity at the Willy Brandt School, which got me connected to several professors and the director. With the support of Professor Goldthau and Director Kemmerling, I was able to find some postdoctoral research funding through the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, which has enabled me to locate my research at the Willy Brandt School for at least the next year or two.
You taught the Gender and Conflict course last semester, what are your first impressions of the Willy Brandt School? Which further courses should we expect from you at the Willy Brandt School?
In terms of first impressions, I really appreciated the significant diversity in our online classroom, even though the class was relatively small. Our conversations were quite rich thanks in large part to the unique perspectives offered by students coming from different parts of the world, which I know is a big value of the Brandt School. While the small size of the group allowed for a very participatory classroom environment, my only regret was that more students did not sign up for the course. I recognize that students at the Brandt School are pulled in many different directions, and need to fulfill their requirements, but I believe that gender analysis is core to an effective public policy analysis and curriculum (including, or perhaps especially, for men!), and hope that more Brandt School students will enroll in the future.
Regarding future classes, I am currently teaching a course at the University of Tübingen on ‘Race, Racism, and International Relations’, which may be offered at the Brandt School next year, depending on availability. I would also like to develop a course on the ‘Politics of Human Rights’, which would look at the history, principles and practice of International Human Rights Law, but particularly from a lens of power.
How was your experience starting at a new university, but you only had the opportunity to meet your students online? Are you looking forward to in-person classes again?
I am absolutely looking forward to in-person classes again. I was pleasantly surprised with how well online teaching functioned, with student attention and participation levels remaining relatively high, even though I was teaching a three-hour class. Given the constraints, I thought it went quite well, but of course there is something lost in not being physically together, and not having the chance to interact and get to know one another in person. Yes, I am very much looking forward to being in a physical classroom with my students again.
What is the biggest aim you hope to achieve during your time at the Willy Brandt School?
Three things are very important to me. First, as an individual, one important goal for me is to develop my own capabilities and skills as a teacher and researcher. I want to use the time to grow and build my knowledge base around these issues – specifically, Gender, Race, International Law and International Relations – beyond my dissertation’s focus on the United States, towards a greater focus on Germany and Europe. Like the United States, Germany and Europe are at the heart of the Global North, with the concentration of wealth and power in this part of the world intimately shaping the possibilities for justice and peace in the Global South. I want to make sure that our research and teaching on the Global South is also interrogating the asymmetrical power relations that emerge from relations to the Global North. A second goal, more focused on students, would be making the most of the opportunity to teach and to learn from such a diverse and capable group of young people as they begin or continue the process of building their careers. Lastly, and more institutionally, I would hope to have some ultimate impact on the curriculum. As I said before, I fully believe that critical theory courses, which might be seen by some as less ‘practical’ or relevant to public policy, should actually be seen as core to a policy curriculum. In my opinion, you cannot do policy well without having grappled with underlying issues such as Gender and Race. I believe that you have to appreciate the deep inequalities existent within global and local systems in order to then do effective policy work.