An Interview With Dean Jeffrey Shoulson
In the first student newsletter of the 2023-24 Academic Year, we spoke with the new dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, Jeffrey Shoulson, about his undergraduate experiences, the value of a liberal arts degree and his plans for the future. Dean Shoulson began his position in August. See more faculty interviews from the Dean's student newsletter, published monthly across the academic year.
What excites you about working at Brandeis as Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences?
So many things! Brandeis has such a strong reputation in the broader world of academia, both with respect to its students and its faculty. I've known many people who studied here, either as undergraduates or as graduate students, not to mention many of the faculty from my own scholarly work, and I've been consistently impressed with their intellectual curiosity, their creativity, their academic rigor and especially their dedication to the mission of Brandeis as a top-notch liberal arts institution housed in a world-class Research 1 university. It is one of the greatest honors of my career to have been invited to lead the School of Arts and Sciences.
Who would you say was the most impactful professor for you as an undergraduate, and what did you learn from them?
I've had lots of great professors, so it's hard to single out just one, but right now I am thinking about my senior thesis advisor at Princeton, John Fleming. He's a brilliant and accomplished scholar of medieval English literature with an absolutely hilarious sense of humor. The course I took with him on Chaucer is one of the most memorable of my undergraduate career and John made it so engaging and entertaining even as it was extremely challenging for someone like me who had had very little prior exposure to Middle English (the language Chaucer wrote all his poetry in).
Looking back on it, what I also appreciate about working with John was that he understood the importance of work-life balance and how essential it is to have a life filled with interests and passions that extend beyond your professional and scholarly work. That’s something I've kept with me and that has kept me satisfied with my career choice and my life more generally.
When did you realize you wanted to work in higher education or was there a moment in time when you decided this was the career path you wanted to take?
For the first two and half years of college I simply assumed I'd go to law school after graduation and become a lawyer like my father. Even though I was enjoying all the courses in literature, I wasn't allowing myself to acknowledge how important they were to me and how much they stimulated me intellectually. Then, in the second semester of my junior year, I took a course on the Victorian novel, taught by the great Ule Knopfelmacher, and I had an advanced PhD student for my discussion section leader named Lisa Jadwin.
During a meeting with her about a paper I was writing on Emily Brontë's "Wuthering Heights" (still one of my favorite novels), Lisa asked me whether I had ever considered grad school in English. Well, until that time I hadn't. But just being asked that question seemed to unlock something inside me and then it was all I could really think about! I had always loved being in school and learning new things, so the idea that I could turn that into a career made perfect sense — I just needed someone else to help me see what was really right in front of me all the time.
Your academic background includes a bachelor’s degree in English (Princeton University), an M.Phil from the University of Cambridge, and a PhD in English Literature from Yale University. How do you think this liberal arts background prepared you for roles in academic leadership?
I've been really fortunate to have studied at some of the greatest institutions of higher learning in the world and I’ve seen up close how transformative they can be for so many people. My path to this point in my career has been filled with inspiring teachers, mentors, and colleagues who have all made me want to be better, more thoughtful, more engaged, and most of all, more curious. What makes the liberal arts matter is precisely its combination of breadth and depth. There is so much to learn and be discovered and I love being in an academic environment where passionate dedicated people are working on so many diverse topics, using different methodologies.
We have lots of big challenges ahead of us in the 21st century, things like climate change, structural racism, economic inequality, and more, and none of these problems is going to get solved by one person or even one approach. We need the diverse perspectives only available through the variety of disciplines one finds within a liberal arts context.
You’ve only been here since the beginning of August, but do you have a favorite spot on campus yet?
I'm still finding my way around and still get lost sometimes, but as a book person, it’s hard for me not to say the Library. Matthew Sheehy, Brandeis's extraordinary University Librarian, gave me a wonderful tour of the facilities and I was absolutely amazed by the resources there. Not just the books — though the collection is impressive — but the technology spaces, the rooms for collaborative work, the archives and so much more.
I worry that in the age of web-based research and the circulation of texts digitally, newer generations of students will not have the same experience of falling in love with a research library that I did when I was in college and I hope our Brandeis students take the time to get to know our wonderful library and all the resources it offers.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I am eager to get to know the students! One of the sacrifices one makes moving into a senior administrative position like mine is that I no longer have the time to teach regularly and I miss all that wonderful interactions with the students. So I am hungry for other ways to meet them, learn about their lives and their interests, and watch them explore this terrific institution.
If you see me wandering around campus, please don't be shy. Come over and introduce yourself!