I (Heart) the Social Change Workshop for Graduate Students

[Warning: I'm trying to sell something here. But only because I care.]
So, I've been busy creating marketing materials for the seminar I've run for the past two summers for the IHS, the Social Change Workshop for Graduate Students (the theme this year is “Rationality & Institutions”), and I found that I'm a bit frustrated by the process because it's just impossible to convey why I love this seminar so much, and why I think its really worth it for grad students to take a week out of their summer to come to UVA and listen to lectures, and talk about their research with a bunch of brilliant strangers. But I've got a blog, so I think I'll just use it to say my piece, and try to convey what gets left out of the usual marketing stuff. If you're a grad student, or about to be one, you should apply. You should come. I should mention that it's free (except for travel costs). [Here's a copy of the email invite to apply; consider yourself invited.]
Let me start here… I got an email a while back from one of last summer's faculty–it was her first time teaching at the workshop. She told me that the workshop was like she'd always hoped grad school would be, but sadly wasn't (having gone to Harvard for grad school and Berkeley for law). And that's really it. That's why I love it. At the Workshop you're surrounded by brilliant people. It's like the united nations of smart. Chinese students from Yale, Russians from Chicago, Poles from Oxford… Africans, Mexicans, you name it, and from some of the best grad programs in the world. (Interestingly, most of the european students come from central/eastern post-communist europe, and not France, Germany, etc, although we get those too.)
There are as many perspectives as people, and somehow everybody manages to get along, to talk and argue at an extremely high level about amazingly interesting and important things: why the rich are rich and the poor are poor, globalization, democracy, justice, religion, methodology, war. And for a week at least, ennervating grad school specialization goes by the board, and everyone talks about everything. One thing you almost never see in grad school are philosophers arguing with economists arguing with historians arguing with anthropologists, and so forth. Some students are inevitably stunned to find out that people in other fields have been talking about exactly the same issues as in their field, and have really useful and insightful thigns to say about it. Data sets get traded. Economists ask political scientists to read dissertation chapters. Ideas are everywhere, and it can be intoxicating. If I actually manage to write my dissertation, it will have a lot of the workshop in it.
That's the students. The faculty is simply stellar. I was looking at the list of faculty, and it occurred to me that if we were going to be ruled by Philosopher Kings, we could do a lot worse. Not only are these guys amazing intellects, they're wonderful people who love to talk ideas with students. You eat lunch with them, play soccer, chess, whatever. You drink with them at the socials at the evening, bouncing ideas off each other. They seem to enjoy themselves as much as the students. I consider everyone on the full-time faculty–Schmidtz, Tomasi, Nye & Munger–to be friends. I know Mike least well, but he's a riot, and razor sharp. Dave and John T. are in my biased opinion two of the best political philosophers of their generation. But I not only admire what they do, I admire how they do it. John N. is a jocular, larger-than-life compendium of knowledge, able to speak about classical music, WWII tanks, and economic history with equal brilliance. I can't wait to spend another week with them.
And the visiting faculty (who pop in and out over the week) are nothing to sneeze at. Doug North and Barry Weingast will stop by. The dapper and brilliant Jack Goldstone will be around much of the week. Melissa Thomas, from IRIS at Maryland, will grace us with her amazing poise and clarity. My man, Pete Boettke, will entertain while explaining his latest heroic theoretical synthesis. UVA's own Gerard Alexander will squeeze more argument in an hour than you thought possible. I'm still working on James Buchanan, Vernon Smith and Avner Greif (who doesn't have a Nobel Prize… yet.) Seriously, there's more than a semester's worth of good stuff, and a lifetime's worth of amazing people, in a week. It's a genuine intellectual adventure.
I really can't adequately convey the social atmosphere–the evening socials, the trips to the bars on “the Corner” in Charlottesville. All I can really say is that I've met people at the workshop who I am sure will be lifelong friends. Workshop friends come to stay at my house in DC, and I seem to have standing invitations to stay with folks in at least two dozen countries (and they always try to say that they're not just saying it.) Preparing for the workshop is a pain in the ass, yes. But when it gets into June, and the workshop is only a week or two away, I really do get excited at not just the possibility, but the certainty, of forging a few genuine friendship with some of the smartest, most interesting people I could ever hope to meet.
[Update: If I'm marketing, I might as well be marketing…
Here's a page of student testimonials.
Here's a page of video clips from past seminars.
Here's what to do if you want to present your work at the workshop.
Here are some papers and articles from some past students.]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center