Jepson’s new professor has a background that includes working as an investigative journalist in Argentina and as a novelist. As a journalist, he covered politics. As a novelist, he wrote books with titles such as The Last Supper of Joseph Stalin and A Courageous Pilot of the New China. He was also a special advisor to the Mission of Argentina to the U.N. Security Council for a stint. Leadership and politics have always been at the center of — indeed, driven the plot for — Ernesto Semán’s personal story, it seems. Now he’s investigating leadership from a new, academic perspective and embarking on his toughest assignment yet: teaching undergraduates.

You're from Argentina. What was life like growing up?

I was born in 1969 in a slum in Rosario, an industrial city 400 miles from Buenos Aires. My parents were middle-class political activists and decided to live with the people whose lives they felt they wanted to help change and improve. We moved to a working-class suburb in Córdoba and then after many years to Buenos Aires. My parents' legacy has been extraordinarily influential in how I conceive intellectual activity as part of a larger commitment with a vision of society, fairness and equality. I have been interested in writing, the humanities and politics for a long time. And my career has grown around those concerns.

You worked as an investigative reporter, columnist and editor for several media outlets in Argentina. How does working in journalism compare to life as an academic?

Journalism is much more immediate than the academy, its impact larger in the short run, its contribution useful at critical moments. When I was a journalist, I would complain because I didn't have enough time to read and to think, even about my own work. In the academy, many times I feel there's too much time between when you have an idea and the time it becomes a research project or an article or book. The way I did it, journalism required working all day most days, working late at night and adrenaline-driven enthusiasm that had to be renewed every morning after the paper was printed, read and digested. Most things I do now are just not compatible with that kind of pace.

What brought you to the United States?

I didn't think about moving from Argentina or coming to the U.S. until it was already done, 15 years ago. Initially, I only wanted to take a leave of absence at the newspaper where I worked because I needed time to write my first novel. So I moved to Brooklyn, New York. I finished my first book in a year but lived in Brooklyn for 14 years. Over time, it became a much larger change, but I've never completely left behind my activity as a journalist and my life in Argentina; both are central parts of what I am and what I do now.

How do you approach the study of leadership?

“Leadership” is fundamentally a reflection about why people feel at some point that an idea, person or institution embodies their interests. And that “some point” is historically constructed. My students are already familiar with framework and how we apply it in my field, Latin American history. We can start a debate about how honest or intelligent the leader of the most powerful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere, Toussaint Louverture, was. But we will end up discussing the historical moment in which those skills became meaningful for the entire world: the evolution of the slave economy, the increasing organization of slaves' forms of resistance, the violent defense of white slave owners’ privileges, the impact in the U.S. of the slave rebellions in the Caribbean. And we will continue discussing how the actions of those slaves two centuries ago define in a fundamental way the world we live in today and what we understand as rights, democracy or community.

Describe your teaching style.

With small groups, the students and I can experiment and improve classes at every moment. I enjoy lectures that create a space for exchange and debate that is significant and goes beyond just rhetorical questions. And I especially enjoy when students take the initiative, develop their own ideas and I can guide them in exploring new arguments and projects.

What do you want students to get out of your classes?

Critical thinking, critical thinking, critical thinking.

What was the first thing you said to students on the first day of classes?

I had been in Richmond only 10 days, and absolutely everything was new. I did not know, literally, where the light switch was in the classroom. So I asked them if they knew where it was. I think it made everybody feel more comfortable.

Your research focuses on modern popular politics and culture in Latin America, U.S. foreign policy and the Cold War. What is your current research project?

I am working on a history of Latin American “caudillos,” strongmen and leaders who dominated the region's public sphere for the last 200 years.

You have written several novels. Why write fiction?

Along with running, writing fiction is what I have done for the longest time in my life. I decided to do it professionally some 15 years ago, but it has always been the space in which I make sense of what I live.

Your first nonfiction book chronicled the 1999 presidential campaign in Argentina and was a case study on political leadership…

The truth is that I had just finished reading Theodore White's The Making of the President, about JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign. It made me think that a solid, vivid account of a presidential campaign was always revealing of a society, even if applied to the 1999 president of Argentina, Fernando De la Rúa, a particularly lackluster leader whose most famous campaign spot started by acknowledging, “They Say I am Boring.”

What has been the biggest surprise teaching here so far?

I'm finishing my first semester at Richmond, and I am surprised and humbled by the dedication of some of the students to their final projects. Many of them have done extraordinarily original research: unveiling the history of citizens who preceded Rosa Parks in defying bus segregation; analyzing the violent aims of Henry Ford's attempt to build an American sanctuary in the Brazilian Amazon; studying the first slave rebellions here in Richmond; or tracing the origins of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide in the anxieties of Belgian colonial authorities a century earlier. What you learn from students is one of the most rewarding parts of being a professor.