Q&A: Family Bonds at the Wilson School

May 7, 2014
Eric Wilkens
Woodrow Wilson School

In recognition of Mother’s Day – Sunday, May 11 – we sat down with Princeton’s first mother-son faculty pair: Viviana Zelizer, the Lloyd Cotsen ’50 Professor of Sociology, and her son, Julian Zelizer, the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs. 

Q. What does it mean to you to be the University’s first mother-son faculty pair?
Viviana: I confess to repeatedly boasting about that fact! Mostly, because of the pride I have in my son’s achievements as a scholar and as a person. But also because it shows that intimate family connections and institutional life can combine in productive ways. 
Julian: It is a real honor to be part of this history at such a fantastic institution. There are many ways to make a mark at a university, but doing so through the accomplishments of the family makes it feel like a special achievement. 
Q. What do you enjoy most about working at the same institution?
Viviana: I enjoy the delight of sharing our attachment to Princeton. Both of us joined the University as full professors at similar ages (Julian in 2007 and me in 1988) so it’s wonderful to watch parallels in our trajectories.
It’s also a special treat when students ask me “Are you related to Professor Julian Zelizer?” and then praise my son’s talent and generosity as a teacher. I am also regularly asked how to explain his extraordinary productivity. For that I take no credit but admire it as others do. 
Julian: The greatest benefit is being able to see each other on a regular basis, which seems increasingly rare in the modern world of professionals. In addition to the weekly Monday night dinners that my wife Meg and I have with my parents and their grandkids, it is a treat to be able to run into my mother at Robertson Hall or walking across campus. 
The University becomes an extension of our family life. It is also wonderful to interact with common faculty and graduate students as our world in Princeton is connected by a series of interconnected networks.
Q. How big of an influence was family in pursuing academia? Julian, did you mother encourage you to pursue academia?
Viviana: I started graduate school before Julian turned two. So he watched me through all stages – taking classes, writing papers, finishing a thesis and then as I began teaching. But I never suspected it was contagious! Although I do recall when he was 3 or 4 years old as I wrote on my typewriter, Julian sitting next to me on the floor clicking away on his own toy typewriter. For a long time however, because of Julian’s wisdom and attentiveness, I predicted he might become a judge. 
Julian: It was certainly a big factor. I obviously grew up seeing and learning all about what academia was like. From the professional aspects of being a scholar to the passion for research, academia was an integral part of my life from a very young age. It never seemed exotic to me but, rather, very familiar and comfortable. When I did reach the decision to pursue this work, I was extremely comfortable doing so and had a great feel for “the business.”  
Q. It seems like economic sociology and American political history would have some overlapping concepts. Do you ever collaborate?
Viviana: Although we have never collaborated, there are possible overlaps. In fact, recently, a brilliant history graduate student who works with Julian and also took a few of my classes noted that Julian and I have both written about the earmarking of monies from our distinct disciplinary perspectives. He writes about earmarked taxes, and I write about earmarked family funds. Perhaps the question can become a prediction, and we’ll return sometime with a joint article. 
Julian: We have many areas of overlap. I have often invited her colleagues to participate in the political history seminars that I run every month, and I have several graduate students who have participated in her seminar. Although the fields are different, my mother is a historical sociologist deeply informed by scholarship in my discipline while my work is very policy-oriented and often connects to the kinds of issues she and her colleagues examine. I could imagine collaborating in the future.