Soul of a Teacher

Three decades of influencing Oxford students
Portrait of Bill Shapiro in his office

Bill Shapiro has had an important impact on Oxford students for more than thirty years. Says Katie Vigilante 90OX 92G 07PhD, his former student who now also teaches political science at Oxford, “He is a natural at getting students to think harder.”

Bill Shapiro, professor of political science, joined Oxford College in 1979. In the years since, he has had a profound influence on numerous Oxford students. Shapiro received an undergraduate degree from Brooklyn College and an MA and a PhD from Cornell University. At Oxford he has been recognized for his excellence in teaching with the Emory Williams Award, the Mizell Award, and the Fleming Award.

How did you get from Brooklyn to Oxford?

The journey didn’t really start in Brooklyn. It started in Toulouse, France, where I was born. My parents were from Vienna, but they were in France when World War II broke out. How they spent the war and the years immediately after is a story in itself, but they brought me to New York as an infant, and I grew up in the Rockaway Beach neighborhood.

I was working for the American Enterprise Institute in 1979 and was being considered for a job in the office of Senator Patrick Daniel Moynihan, but I saw the opening at Oxford and applied. Dean Moncrief brought me down for an interview, and I’ve been here ever since.

How did you choose political science as your field?

I grew up in volatile times—the antiwar movement and civil rights movement were at the center of American life—and it came home to me in a personal way. When I registered with the Selective Service, I could have been removed from draft consideration by invoking my French citizenship and giving up my US citizenship (I have dual citizenship). But I’m an American from the top of my head to the tips of my toes; I was not about to do that. I registered as a conscientious objector (CO) and fully expected to go to prison. I’m not a true pacifist, but I deeply opposed the Vietnam War. To my surprise I was granted CO status, and I immediately enrolled in alternative service.

What do you want from your students?

I want them to have self-awareness. I don’t care what they think, but I want them to know why they think it. I don’t care if they agree with me—in fact, I purposefully say things to keep them from pinpointing me. I want them to think for themselves beyond their own parochial backgrounds—and they all need that, no matter where they come from.

What are your scholarly interests?

As an undergraduate I studied theater and speech as well as political science, and Shakespeare is a continuing interest. I draw upon these in designing my courses, especially my course Women and Politics. We read the Taming of the Shrew, Medea, and Lysistrata in addition to readings from the Bible, Rousseau, Goethe, Simone de Beauvoir, etc. Nietzsche is an ongoing interest as well; I am working on a translation of Also Sprach Zarathustra.

What has kept you at Oxford so long?

In my soul I am a teacher. The support systems for teaching at Oxford and the great value that is placed upon it are extraordinary. I have never seen a better, more supportive institution.

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