Secret life of our faculty: Steven Wulf

The only political theorist at Lawrence University, Associate Professor of Government Steven Wulf has been teaching such areas as political theory, constitutional law and philosophy for the past 12 years. In his classes, he asks students what governments should and shouldn’t do through engaging anecdotes and thought experiments. He’s clearly enthusiastic about the subject, as evidenced by an office piled high with books on political scholars circa 340 B.C. through 1980 A.D. When he speaks, Wulf’s voice oscillates from high-pitched energy to lower matter-of-fact musing. He laughs easily and gesticulates often, giving the distinct impression that he’s about to jump out of his seat.

Wulf has always shown an interest in government. “I’ve always been bothered by the abuse of power,” Wulf says, “When I was seven I fantasized being a benevolent dictator so I could essentially stop bad people from doing bad things to the weak and helpless. Later I learned about actual despotisms […] and they pose an interesting problem, which is how do you get government to protect people from being abused, when the people running those governments are pretty awful people?”

Why did Wulf become a professor? “I started out as […] essentially a business major at Cornell. What I really like doing is sitting around and arguing with people, especially at cafés, reading books and thinking about why they’re wrong. My plan was to get as rich as possible really fast so I could retire and do what I really like. Then my freshman writing teacher asked about my plans and then she said why don’t you figure out a way to do that before you’re middle aged?” Wulf pauses to smile. “So at some point I realized that’s what you get to do when you’re a professor.”

Spending most of his life in the Northeast, there is a feeling of serendipity that he ended up at Lawrence. When applying for the professorship, he admits that he’d never been to the Midwest. “I thought it was going to be wall-to-wall flat cornfield. I was almost surprised there were actually trees.” He pauses, “I had no idea.”

“I picked [Lawrence] because it was a small […] and a good liberal arts college.”

But there is another reason: Professor Wulf enjoys the flexibility and autonomy conferred upon his teaching choices because he is the sole political theorist in the government department. He also enjoys his teaching schedule. Says Wulf, “I like teaching  Tuesday-Thursday […] I need 110 minutes and it goes pretty fast for me. I don’t know if students feel that way.”

“But I get really hyper after class. I can’t get anything done […] I’ll usually do office hours after class or between classes because my mind is racing. I like consuming vast quantities of coffee and talking all day long.”

One channel for all this energy is biking around the Fox Cities area. “I bike to work everyday all year round through the winter. I usually fall down and suffer a lot, but that’s okay,” Wulf says. “It builds character […] For me it’s all about adventure, whether that’s biking or doing the philosophical stuff.”

Wulf is known to frequent the coffee shops of College Ave. Of his favorites, he says “Anything with south side of the street. I like sitting in windows, but don’t like having the sun blasting on me. So Harmony or Aspen — what I really like is Seth’s in Little Chute.”

It should surprise no one at this point that when asked about something crazy he did in college, Wulf’s story involved coffee. “Once, we [Wulf and a friend] drank a lot of coffee. That was the only substance. Just caffeine. I said to him: I wonder what would happen if we saw two police cars next to each other and we walked by the cars, screamed ‘Oh my God,’ and then started running away. And strangely enough, what they did was come after us. They asked us what we were doing. I said we were just walking home and had a lot of caffeine. “

“One of the cops says, ‘Well it just so happens that you match the description of somebody that we’re looking for.’ I ask the description and he said guy wearing blue pants.  I was wearing jeans. I pointed out that pretty much applied to anyone living in Kenmore, New York at any given time.”

Did they take you in? “No, not that time…”

As far as what Wulf does when he’s not answering the broad questions of what governments can do and the scope of their authority, Wulf enjoys spending time with his kids, biking and listening to music. If you’re considering taking a class with him, you’ll be in for a treat.

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