Alumnus prof finds home in Purple Valley

Assistant Professor of Political Science Justin Crowe ’03 instructed me to describe him with three words: “Your favorite professor.” Such unbridled confidence is part of Crowe’s charisma – at the end of the interview he claimed, “I turned out alright. That’ll be a great pull-quote.” The claims might be lofty, but he has validated these statements in his three years as a professor at the College, acquiring a reputation as a rising star in the political science department with a healthy dose of sass, consistently over-enrolled courses and a fundamental understanding of what the Williams experience should be.

To put it bluntly, Crowe bleeds purple and gold. “The summer after eighth grade I came up to Williamstown with my best friend,” Crowe said. “I fell in love with it then.” Crowe enrolled in 2000 and, despite prior ambitions for law school, determined after his sophomore year that he wanted to return to the College as a professor. “I came wanting to major in political science and English, and I did major in political science and English, but I wouldn’t say I knew being a professor was what I wanted to do with my life,” said Crowe. “I had originally been thinking that I wanted to go into politics.”

In typical Williams fashion, Crowe’s plans changed after his advisor, Timothy Cook, asked him to spend the summer as his research assistant. “He brought a couple of us to the coffee shop to discuss the whole Bush v. Gore election debacle, and he asked what I was doing for the summer,” Crowe said. “I had planned to apply for an internship with the [U.S.] State Department. My application was all filled out and ready to go, and I hadn’t really thought about it; research had never crossed my mind. But I thought ‘alright, what the heck?’ And I stayed that summer. I don’t think he asked me to be his assistant in the idea he would make me into a political scientist, but that’s what it did.”

After graduating, Crowe earned his doctorate in political science at Princeton, choosing the university partly because of its similarities to Williams. Despite his degree from Princeton, Crowe’s heart never left Williamstown. “My father has a saying. He grew up in a rough neighborhood, and people would say, ‘Oh, you grew up there.’ He would respond, ‘No, I didn’t grow up there. I just slept there from time to time.’ When people say, ‘You went to Princeton,’ I respond, ‘No, I just took classes there from time to time.’ That’s obviously not true, my Ph.D. is from there, but I feel no allegiance to Princeton.”

After completing his dissertation on the development of the federal judiciary in just three years, Crowe left the northeast for the cloudless skies at Pomona in Claremont, Calif. “I really loved everything about Pomona. It’s like a New England that’s sunny all the time,” Crow said. “But when the opportunity came to come back to Williams, it was too good to pass up. Williams is home.”

The job offer came as a bit of a surprise to Crowe, who was convinced that the professorship, which had been filled during his time at Princeton, would remain filled for his lifetime. “I had made peace that getting this job wasn’t going to happen because my third year in graduate school, they hired someone,” Crowe said. The job opened when the hired professor decided to move to Claremont-McKenna, located down the street from where Crowe was teaching. “I never thought that it would happen, but it was always my dream,” Crowe said. “My [wife] Christen [Romanick ’03] was on board with moving back, and it was all very serendipitous.”

Back at Williams, Crowe epitomizes the approachable liberal arts professor. His days at the College make him relatable: During our interview, he recounted stories from his freshman entry (Sage F), discussed his brief time as opinions editor for The Williams Record, chatted about his year at Oxford and explained how he “tricked” Romanick, his Williams sweetheart, into going on a date at the Five Corners with him. “She didn’t know it was a date,” he said. “She thought it was casual. Then I paid, and she knew it was a date.”

While Crowe is constantly visible on campus, usually chasing his toddler Everett around Paresky or hefting his newborn son Fisher down Spring Street, the classroom is where he truly makes his mark. Crowe is prone to theatrics, turning lectures into performances. “I like the entertainment aspect of teaching,” Crowe said. “Good teaching is part performative.”

In addition to giving entertaining lectures, Crowe has been polishing his approach to office hours. “I’ve started using very elaborate metaphors. I told Juliana [Stone ’12] when she was writing her thesis to pretend she was Tom Hanks in Castaway,” Crowe said. “I told her to take what she’s found and save it, like Tom Hanks opening the FedEx boxes and finding ice skates and putting them aside. He gradually finds uses for these things. I have tools that I’ve sort of developed to relate the material to students.”

While his metaphors may need a bit of polishing, there’s no doubt that Crowe intends to be a long-term fixture at the College. With the upcoming release of his first book on the development of the federal judiciary on March 1, 2012 and his sabbatical next year, in which he will research the “lived experience” of democracy, Crowe is settling in for “another 60 years” at the College. Said Crowe: “My life here at Williams is everything that I’ve always wanted.”