From the Bolsheviks to Belfer: Spotlight on Prof. Maria Zaitseva
Rarely is a teacher universally beloved across an entire student body, but Maria Zaitseva, a political science professor at Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women, seems to be the exception. Her classes on weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and international relations are considered “must takes,” and often attract students from the Sy Syms School of Business looking for exciting electives. Zaitseva boasts a 4.9/5 on Rate My Professor, and Yeshiva Student Union VP of Academic Affairs Josh Weinstein (YC ‘22) called her “a truly instrumental part” of his college experience.
The Commentator recently sat down with Zaitseva in hopes of learning her secrets to an engaged classroom. What followed was a captivating conversation about her USSR background, choosing a career in teaching and her care for Yeshiva University students.
Prof. Zaitseva was born in Moscow in the now-defunct Soviet Union to parents who were diplomats. In the early 1980s, her family was sent to New York to work for the Russian delegation to the United Nations. They resided in the Bronx, where all the Russian diplomats lived, and Zaitseva went to a special Soviet school where classes were taught in Russian. She also learned English as a second language. As Zaitseva was finishing high school in the early 1990s, the Cold War was nearing its end, and she was allowed to transfer to an American school to complete her secondary education.
Growing up in the environment of a diplomatic compound, Zaitseva says that international relations is “in my blood.” She has always been curious about how states relate to each other, why they act as they do and how countries can go from enemies to allies. This drive would eventually lead her to pursue a career in international affairs.
Zaitseva enrolled in Yale University where she earned her BA in Political Science. Thinking she would go to law school, she worked for a few years as a paralegal in New York. However, not content with the legal field, she decided to return to Yale for graduate school where she earned her MA in International Relations. It was during her years in that Master’s program that she concluded she did not want to be a lawyer and instead looked to get a doctorate. She then applied to various Ph.D. programs, finally accepting a scholarship from Cornell University.
Part of her scholarship required her to work as a teacher’s assistant for several semesters. It was during this time that Zaitseva realized how much she enjoyed the classroom. This was a particularly unique experience for Zaitseva, who as a child was “afraid of public speaking and an introvert.” From answering questions to running review sessions, the more time she spent in the classroom, the more comfortable she became with the setting. Teaching and helping students become more “inquisitive and curious about the world,” was “incredibly gratifying and satisfying.”
Zaitseva points to the renowned international relations scholar Dr. Peter Katzenstein as one of her biggest influences. As her doctoral advisor, he taught her that “you can support someone on an academic-intellectual level but also on a personal level.” Katzenstein portrayed himself as a person who “understood there was more to life than cramming for exams and writing papers.” This shaped how Zaitseva relates to her students now. “I try to see them as individuals, not just students who are getting grades coming to my class,” she explains, “but also understanding that they have a life outside of the classroom.”
Prof. Zaitseva has now been teaching at YU for nine years. Landing her position at YU was “pure luck,” she jokes. While she was finishing her dissertation, she began looking for jobs and saw an advertisement for an adjunct position in international relations at YU. She then met with the then-chair of the Political Science Department Dr. Ruth Bevan who Zaitseva says went on to be her mentor at YU. After speaking for a while, Dr. Bevan asked her, “So, what do you think? Should a woman be teaching all these men about security and international relations?” Zaitseva immediately responded, “Yes, I think she should.” At that moment, she was hired.
In a Zaitseva course, the classroom is always active with discussion. Students engage with each other and the professor, often tying in the daily material to current events. This kind of participation is encouraged, and usually accounts for about 20% of a student’s grade in the class. For Zaitseva, developing this kind of atmosphere was a “process” as the classroom she grew up with was quite different. Back in the Soviet school she attended during her childhood, Zaitseva shared that there was no discussion. “It was lecture, regurgitation, memorization — that's it. Critical thinking was not something that I was honestly taught at school.” That changed once she went to college where many of the professors invited students to talk, debate and ask questions. This was exactly how Zaitseva decided to run her classroom once she started teaching. Debate and discussion, not just memorizing information, is extremely important for Zaitseva. “You can read the books, you can memorize, but really, engaging in debate and engaging in discussion is what gets you to form your opinion on things,” she insists.
Her forum for free and open debate is important to Zaitseva who is particularly careful to never “force [her] point of view.” Instead, she wants students to “form their own opinion, and the only way they are going to do it is by talking it out, not only with me but with other students in the class.” Zaitseva encourages this forum of debate even in larger classes with more than 30 students.
At the start of her time at YU, Zaitseva taught only one class each semester. Over the course of her tenure, she began to teach more and more. She now teaches five classes total, typically teaching two every semester, on both the Wilf and Beren campuses. Her classes explore a range of issues related to international relations, from the details of America’s foreign policy, to the formation, motives and causes of terrorism. Out of all her classes, she especially enjoys teaching about weapons of mass destruction, a topic that was part of her dissertation “When Allies Go Nuclear: The Changing Nature of The American Response to ‘Friendly’ Nuclear Programs.” She also enjoys teaching the introductory class where many of the students are new to the world of international relations and political science in general. Zaitseva says she finds it “very satisfying” that students enter the class knowing almost nothing about politics outside of the United States and leave with a new understanding of how to assess what is happening in the world.
Speaking about political science in general, Zaitseva believes the field is important because “we are surrounded by it by every single day, whether we like it or not.” As for her international scope, Zaitseva commented that it is important for people to educate themselves about what is happening in the world “and not just focus on our immediate surroundings.” She hopes that students will leave her classes with a better sense of understanding about how other countries operate differently from the United States, and a sharper sense of how to analyze the news.
Photo Caption: Prof. Maria Zaitseva has taught political science at Yeshiva University for close to a decade.
Photo Credit: Maria Zaitseva