New faculty members are 'game changers' for political science department

Susan Burlingame
August 12, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Department of Political Science in the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts has two new faculty members whose scholarship, teaching and service will allow for new research and an expanded curriculum, according Lee Ann Banaszak, department head and professor of political science and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.

Candis Smith, associate professor of political science, and Ray Block Jr., associate professor of political science and African American studies, joined the department in July 2019 as part of the college’s African American Life and Culture faculty cluster hire. The undertaking brought nine new faculty members into the college, each of whom has an academic home in African American studies as well as another liberal arts discipline. A tenth scholar has accepted Penn State’s offer; her announcement is forthcoming.

Smith earned her doctorate at Duke University and was assistant professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), where she also served as the diversity liaison to the College of Arts and Sciences. Her research focuses on how race and ethnicity shape the American political landscape and on how the boundaries of Black identity and Black politics change over time.

Block, who earned his doctorate at Ohio State, was associate professor of political science and African American and Africana studies at the University of Kentucky. He specializes in racial and ethnic group politics, voting behavior, and public opinion.

“I couldn’t be more delighted that Dr. Smith and Dr. Block are joining the department. It’s truly a game changer,” said Banaszak. “They will allow us to build our strength in race and ethnicity politics, which is an extremely important and timely focus for our discipline.”

Both professors are alumni of the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute, an annual program held at Duke University that introduces promising undergraduate students from under-represented racial and ethnic groups to the possibility of doctoral study in political science. Though they were in different Bunche Summer Institute cohorts, Smith and Block knew about each other because of that connection.

“I heard we were both offered positions at Penn State, so we kept each other up-to-date,” said Block. “Now we’re collectively celebrating that we’re coming here together.

“I’m a political scientist who prefers to be affiliated with an African American studies department. When I heard about the position, it seemed like a perfect fit,” said Block when asked about his decision to come to Penn State. “It can be challenging to merge the interests you have in one discipline with the needs of another department, so I am glad to be in a college that understands and supports these kinds of synergies.

“Another advantage of being a tenured professor at a flagship university that focuses on research is that I am at a place in my career where I can pursue the things that are really fascinating to me. I tend to do better when my research, my teaching and my service are all connected to each other, and I’ll have more opportunities to do that here.”

For Smith, the opportunity to join the political science faculty at Penn State was “kind of kismet,” she said. Smith is a faculty fellow for ENACT, the Educational Network for Active Civic Transformation, based at Brandeis University. Another ENACT faculty fellow, Amy Linch, associate teaching professor of political science and co-director of undergraduate studies at Penn State, attended the same program.

“Amy told me ‘you should come to Penn State,’” said Smith. “Then, Lee Ann Banaszak called to tell me she was reading my book, that Penn State was doing a search, and that I should apply.” 

Smith said she wasn’t looking to leave UNC; but, upon hearing that Penn State was trying to build a dual program in political science and African American studies, she became very interested.

“I knew the link between the two disciplines would produce really phenomenal scholars, and I thought it would be great to be part of building something like that,” she said. “For me, I really care about where I work and whether I’m going to enjoy showing up each day. I think I’m going to have that here. I see the potential next steps, the resources here are amazing, and there seems to be a culture of people actually doing interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work.”

“These prolific scholars are going to make a real difference for the department, the college, and Penn State,” concluded Banaszak. “I believe we will see an increase in the kinds of undergraduate and graduate students we attract to our programs, and we’ll be able to promote the understanding of why race and politics are intertwined and important to our society.”

Cynthia Young, head of the Department of African American Studies, echoed Banaszak’s sentiments: “Dr. Block and Dr. Smith are part of a sea change in the way we integrate Black studies into the liberal arts. I hope other universities will see what we have accomplished by bringing them, along with eight other African American studies and African Diaspora scholars, to Penn State.”

  • Ray Block

    Ray Block Jr., associate professor of political science and African American studies in the College of the Liberal Arts.

    IMAGE: University of Kentucky
  • Candis Smith

    Candis Smith, associate professor of political science in the College of the Liberal Arts.

    IMAGE: Marie Edwards
(1 of 2)
Last Updated August 12, 2019