Profile: Steve Lamy, professor of international relations and spatial sciences
Steven Lamy looks back over Polaroids he took of former students when they first enrolled in his classes — a trick he developed long before student head shots were common practice and one that underpins his legendary ability to remember names and faces. (Photo: Letty Avila.)

Profile: Steve Lamy, professor of international relations and spatial sciences

Steve Lamy is known throughout campus for his inspirational classes and his ability to remember hundreds of his students’ names. [6 min read]
BySusan Bell

One of USC’s most beloved professors, Steven Lamy holds the distinction of being the only member of its faculty to have been portrayed by Robert Redford on the silver screen.

Redford played the inspirational Professor Stephen Malley (the name is a twist on Lamy’s) in the 2007 play-turned-movie Lions for Lambs, written by Lamy’s former student, Matthew Carnahan, and directed by Redford.

In a letter to Lamy explaining he was the basis for Redford’s character, Carnahan wrote, “Frankly, at the end of the day, Redford didn’t really come close to his character’s inspiration.”

Carnahan is not alone in feeling this: Alumni and students frequently cite Lamy as their most inspirational professor. He’s also (in)famous across campus for knowing everybody’s name and whether they attended class the previous week. No mean feat when his international relations classes are often packed with upwards of 250 students. So, what’s his secret?

“Getting people to sit in the same place,” Lamy says, eyes twinkling. “And I make them wear name tags.”

But that’s not all. When Lamy joined USC Dornsife in 1982, he invested in a Polaroid camera. He takes mugshots of each student on the first day of class and keeps them pinned to his office wall. He grades all papers himself. (His teaching assistants use pencil; he uses pen.)

“While I’m grading, I’ll keep the pictures next to me. It’s a big time commitment, but it’s worth it,” says Lamy, former director of the USC Center for Excellence in Teaching.

“These kids matter. They’re not numbers.”

On the morning of this interview, Lamy had received an email from a former student he taught in 2011 requesting a letter of recommendation for law school. “I’m the kid who went to Tokyo for a marathon and burned his hand trying to climb right before graduation. Remember?” writes Marcus Knoll.

Lamy does remember — he still has Knoll’s photograph in his files.

“I keep them all,” Lamy says, “because you never know when somebody’s going to need a letter of recommendation.” 

Growing Up

Born in Goffstown, in rural New Hampshire, one of five children of a French-Canadian regional sales manager for Miller Brewing Company and a homemaker who later became a bank manager, Lamy spent his childhood outdoors, fishing, hiking and riding his bike. He grew up hearing and speaking French at home and was an avid reader who showed an early predilection for world affairs.

Returning home from his first day of elementary school, Lamy tried to read the local newspaper, then burst into tears. “I started crying because my mother had told me as soon as I went to school, I’d learn to read,” Lamy said.

By his senior year of high school, he was a foreign exchange student with the American Field Service, spending 16 months in Flemish-speaking Belgium where he learned to speak Dutch, perfected his French and taught himself to read German. Later, he would add Afrikaans.

Lamy’s Belgian classmates were supportive, but critical of America’s role in Vietnam.

“I found myself in a situation of trying to defend America, but not defend the war,” Lamy said. “I learned a lot about the importance of different narratives and belief systems.”

The death of his father shortly after Lamy’s return narrowed his college choices.

“I had to be closer to home. Often in life you have dreams to do one thing, and something else intervenes,” he says, adding philosophically, “but it’s all been to the good.”

Lamy earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Siena College near Albany, New York. Despite his love for the great outdoors, and the fact that all his college career aptitude tests said he should become a forest ranger, Lamy’s passion for world  affairs won out. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, where he was taught by Korbel, father of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. 

“We don’t learn by PowerPoint, we learn by decision-making stories. It’s not stepping on the student’s toe, the top of their head opening up, and pouring in knowledge. It’s wrestling with that knowledge.”

Passion for Pedagogy

Lamy joined USC Dornsife’s School of International Relations (SIR) in 1982, promptly taking on the challenge of revitalizing its undergraduate curriculum.

A firm believer in case-based learning, Lamy says, “We don’t learn by PowerPoint, we learn by decision-making stories. It’s not stepping on the student’s toe, the top of their head opening up, and pouring in knowledge. It’s wrestling with that knowledge.”

His case-based class remains among the most popular he’s created at SIR. One of the first case studies he teaches is titled “Keeping the Cold War Cold: Dick Cheney and the Department of Defense.”

“It looks inside Cheney’s head, examining theoretical and analytical concepts like the importance of belief systems,” Lamy says. “I’ve got lots of emails from kids who saw Vice (the 2018 biographical film about Cheney), saying, ‘It’s just like the case study.’ ”

Lamy also fosters problem-based learning through USC Dornsife’s Problems Without Passports (PWP) program, which he created.

One of his particular gifts is to break down complex world problems into relatable, human concepts. He encourages students to analyze global affairs from multiple perspectives using what he calls DEPPP skills — Describe, Explain, Predict, Prescribe and Participate — that allow them to go beyond ideological labels.

“The whole concept of PWP was to get kids involved in thinking about global challenges and problems and finding ways to resolve them,” he said.

He’s led undergraduates on four PWP trips to the Arctic, visiting Finland, Norway and Iceland and looking at the impact of climate change on culture, economics and politics.

Lamy tells his students that “what happens in the Arctic never stays in the Arctic” because the region is considered a canary in the coal mine for climate change. 

Just Do It

Lamy was a serious runner for many years, participating in the Los Angeles, Skylon (renamed in 2007 the Niagara Falls International Marathon) and Boston marathons. He still runs or cycles for 45 minutes a day. Two years ago, he was knocked off his bicycle by a hit-and-run driver who ran a red light. Lamy’s watch was ripped off by the impact as he went face first into the asphalt.

Two black eyes and a couple of bruised ribs later, Lamy’s motto remains, “just keep going.” He cites an old Nike commercial showing a man rising at 4:30 a.m. to run in the dark and rain. “It’s that ‘Just Do It’ kind of thing. I love that,” Lamy says.

Lamy certainly got it done. In addition to creating PWP and the USC Dornsife Washington, D.C. Program, and serving for five years as director of SIR and for 10 years as vice dean for academic programs, he set up SOAR (Student Opportunities for Academic Research) and SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fund) — two programs that award funds to students for doing research with professors.

He also established the Fisher Fellowship for first-generation students and founded TIRP (Teaching International Relations Program), which gives high school students a basic grounding in the key principles of foreign relations. Now he wants to concentrate on a new master’s program he’s developing and the Global Policy Institute he recently created.

“I’m very proud of the classes I teach and the work I’ve done intellectually,” he says. “There are some regrets in terms of not spending enough time writing the best book or the best article in the world. I still have time to do that.”

But when asked what he considers his greatest achievement, Lamy talks about how good he always feels when he sees students graduating.

“I don’t have children, so they’re like my kids, and to see them go on, it’s kind of neat.”

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine’s Spring/Summer 2019 issue >>