Widgets Magazine
When a student in THINK: “A Century of Violence” asked Associate Professor Amir Weiner why the class didn’t begin with American violence against Aboriginal people, he took the critique in stride.

Amir Weiner on surveillance, mass violence and questioning the professor in class

When a student in THINK 12: “Century of Violence” asked associate professor Amir Weiner why the class didn’t begin with American violence against Aboriginal people, he took the critique in stride.

Amir Weiner (Courtesy of Linda A. Cicero).

“I find it so interesting when someone challenges the basic premise of my class; I welcome it; it makes me think actively,” Weiner said.

Weiner, a historian whose current work focuses on state surveillance in the Soviet Union, said that he hopes his Thinking Matters course provides just the kind of space where students can think critically about issues that interest them – including the structure and content of the class.

“There is a thirst for knowledge and a total openness to listen, engage and challenge,” Weiner said. “These are the critical years when students begin forming their own opinions.”

“Century of Violence” examines mass violence in the modern world from colonialism to Communism and seeks to show that societies have historically participated in mass violence in the name of building a better world.

As a lecturer, Weiner’s delivery resonates with students long after the quarter’s end.

“Professor Weiner has a performance-like quality to his classes,” said Marissa Martinez ’20. “He identifies a clear narrative to each lecture which is suspenseful and keeps students actively engaged.”

“I was always enraptured by his story-like lecturing style,” said Emma Glickman ’20.

In addition to “Century of Violence,” Professor Weiner also teaches his “War and Society,” which he calls his “hobby course.” The subject of the course originated accidentally – while watching television, he came across an interview with a former soldier of his in the Israeli army on a film about his former unit. Weiner said he wanted to combine the soldiers’ unique experiences with more general themes.

He has taught the class for a number of years, but continues to update the reading material and design frequently.

“Servicemen frequently audit the class who bring a certain dimension you cannot get elsewhere,” Weiner said. “Each time I teach the class is completely different and unpredictable.”

Weiner’s passion for studying history began at an early age. As a child, he was an avid reader of historical biographies and would often listen to debates about Communism and Fascism. Now, Professor Weiner’s favorite place on campus is the Hoover Archives. He said that it is a place where he can lose himself in his intellectual calling.

“It’s a great feeling of joy when you do what you’re supposed to do,” Weiner said. .

Currently, Weiner’s research focuses on the KGB and the rise and fall of Soviet security forces. His work focuses on surveillance as part of the modern state, including the structure of surveillance agencies and the integral role of the KGB and mass state terror in the Soviet system. According to Weiner, the history of the KGB not just the story of the most famous surveillance in history, but that of the earliest form of modern state surveillance.

Weiner is currently writing a book titled “Coffee with the KGB,” which traces the lives of KGB agents from childhood to recruitment, including their first assignments and major achievements. Weiner said that he seeks to connect his historical research with present-day questions: For instance, he is interested in what current KGB agents contribute to Russia’s elite today, whether simple nostalgia or political values. Beyond Russia, he said that his research is also relevant to the controversies surrounding privacy and surveillance in the information age.

Reflecting on how he discovered his intellectual interests as a student, Weiner advised incoming Stanford freshmen to balance exploration with gradual specialization.

“Have an open mind for what you want to do but also your energies and interests,” Weiner said. “It is tricky when Stanford offers everything; enjoy it but also concentrate.”

 

Contact Mini Ruda at mruda ‘at’ stanford.edu.