Remembrance of Becky Morton from Joshua Tucker

I can’t quite believe Becky is gone.  It sounds cliche, but between Becky’s move to Abu Dhabi and the pandemic, I hadn’t seen her in awhile. I have a lot of colleagues I haven’t seen in a while, but I know I’ll see them again.  So why can’t that be the case for Becky?

The reason I wanted to speak to you all today is because for a time in my life, I saw Becky regularly. Actually, I saw her regularly for many years — her office was just downstairs from mine, and we were colleagues in a collegial department where everyone comes into the office and there is lots of talking in the hall.  Becky traveled a lot — maybe more than anyone I know — but when she was around, you knew she was here.  Never shy with an opinion, Becky was always a presence.

But for a while, I saw her very regularly — every week during the semester, and every other week during the summer.  The reason was that we had embarked on a kind of crazy endeavor together — starting a new journal from scratch.

We were sort of an odd pairing to be bringing a new journal into being. For starters, I was never particularly sure that Becky actually liked the kind of experimental research I did. But I want to share the story of how we came to found The Journal of Experimental Political Science, because this story is all about Becky, and, to me, it highlights what made her such a wonderful colleague, scholar, and friend.

Shortly after I arrived at NYU, I asked Becky where I might be able to get funding to run some survey experiments. She mentioned a research Center at NYU and said she’d introduce me to the Director to make my request. Somewhere along the way, though, we hatched a plan to make a more general argument about this Center needing to provide more funding for political science research.

We ended up going to meet the Director of the Center together, and I got absolutely nowhere in terms of securing funding to run my experiments. Instead, in a very NYUish sort of way, we got an offer of funding for a seminar series, which for a variety of reasons neither of us thought was a particularly good idea. Instead, we decided that we’d take the money and run a one-day conference for people doing experiments in political science. 

Now, Becky and I had different ideas about what made for interesting experimental research, so it wasn’t quite clear how well this would work. And when we held that first conference, we expected 20 or so people to show up. Instead we got over 100 people, and actually had to find a different room so we could fit everyone.  That conference is still going strong 14 years later, and ended up playing an important role in the decision to start an Experimental Research Section of the American Political Science Association.

So let’s take a step back for a minute. This all starts because Becky is willing to go out of her way to try to help a new colleague find money for his research, and when that doesn’t exactly work out the way it is supposed to, Becky then moves on to trying to provide a public good for the discipline by working with a colleague who had a different approach to research. I think Becky at this point realized that for experimental research — a passion of hers — to really take root in political science, it was going to have to encompass the full panoply of different types of experimental work being done in the discipline, much of which was research she didn’t find particularly interesting or important.  How many people do you know in our field — or any field — who would be willing to take that kind of an approach? It’s easy to find people who are passionate about supporting the type of research they do, but Becky was willing to put her time and energy on the line to support a much wider range of research, because she cared about the development of this nascent field of experimental political science. She didn’t want her type of research to win — she wanted to make the field grow for everyone.  And grow it did.

Even having done this together, I was still surprised and flattered a number of years later when Becky approached me about putting in an application to serve as the founding editors of what would become the Journal of Experimental Political Science. Again, I have to stress the fact that I did a very different type of experimental research from Becky. It would have been so easy for her to seek out a co-editor with a like minded view of what was good — and what wasn’t — in the field. But I think she turned to me because she believed the journal was more likely to succeed with editors who had different perspectives on ways to do experimental research in political science.  

Over the next two years, we once again went back to being full time plotters, working out our application to serve as the journal’s first editors, figuring how to secure a publisher for this new journal, and then building an editorial process from scratch.  What I loved about working with Becky through this whole time was that she was the perfect combination of opinionated and understanding, of strength and accommodation.  Others have mentioned her long, impassioned emails on various departmental matters that were very much on one side of the argument, but the Becky I knew would always listen to me, and was always willing to try to work together to figure out the best way forward.  At least related to the journal 🙂

Once we started taking submissions, we started having regular editorial meetings. I have these fond memories of strolling down the stairs to Becky’s office, and I knew the next hour would just be great. We would have different opinions about papers occasionally, but for the most part we were able to come to an agreement quickly. Remarkably, I don’t remember ever getting into a single argument with Becky regarding the journal over the 4-5 years we worked on it together.  And along the way, we would talk about our families and our lives. I learned how hard Becky had worked to get where she was, how she had raised her daughters as a single mom, and how incredibly proud she was of them. We started this process as new colleagues, but over the years we became real friends.  I’ll be honest — Becky scared the crap out of me when I first met her, but I grew to absolutely love those weekly editorial meetings because of the time I got to spend with her.  When it came time to pass the editorship of JEPS along to the next editor, we were both ready to move on from the work, but my one regret was that it meant the end of my weekly meetings with Becky.

And so I stopped walking down the stairs to see her quite as often. And Becky started spending more and more time in Abu Dhabi, where I was lucky enough to be able to visit her multiple times. But I got used to not seeing her around the department, confident that there was always going to be a party at her apartment somewhere where I could see her next.  Then the pandemic hit, and I didn’t see anyone in the office for six months, and so it made sense that I wasn’t seeing Becky at all. 

I can’t stop thinking: how could someone, so full of life, so full of opinions, such a lover of being with other people, suddenly no longer be there? It’s easier to think she’s just in Abu Dhabi, or at a conference in Venice, or with her mom in Dallas, and that I’ll see her again when she’s back in New York.  I am so sad that I’m not going to see her again. I am so sad that no more students will get to work with her.  I am so sad that there are no more places for her to visit. I am so sad there will be no more parties in her apartment with Becky’s homemade gumbo.  And I am so, so sorry that she died before I had a chance to say goodbye.   

One final thought — I do think everyone else’s chances of getting into heaven probably just went up a little bit — I’m not sure God knows what she is going to be in for when Becky starts lobbying for the people she wants to get in. Good deeds are obviously advised, but I’ll take my chances on a 17 page email from Becky to seal the deal.

– Joshua Tucker, New York University