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Sarah Shields Receives Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Undergraduate Education Award

Professor Sarah Shields
Professor Sarah Shields has received this year’s Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Undergraduate Education Award. The award, which was announced at MESA’s Annual Meeting (held virtually) in December, recognizes “outstanding scholarship on teaching or other material contributions to undergraduate education in Middle East Studies.” This recognition from America’s preeminent academic society promoting the study of the Middle East will come as no surprise to Shields’ students, colleagues, and to others familiar with her efforts to get students thinking out of the box.

Shields is firmly committed to active learning. “What I learned from being a parent and teacher to my kids is that students don’t remember the things that they read or hear, as much as the things they figure out, and it’s especially true with people who learn like I do. I can read multiple books and don’t remember as much as I’d like until I actually have to use the ideas and information in them—for writing and teaching.” Shields puts active learning into practice in the classroom by getting students to think about historical themes through the prism of something concrete. In Iraq beyond Conflict, her course on Iraqi history, Carolina students organized a conference to introduce Iraqi arts to K-12 teachers. “The students wrote the program, introduced the speakers, and summarized the issues for the teachers,” she recalls. For these students, communicating information about Iraqi culture to a wider audience made the experience of taking the course memorable and meaningful.

Shields, whose survey course on the Modern Middle East has become a staple of the history curriculum at UNC, has never shied away from experimenting in the classroom. She strives not only to help students move beyond false narratives about the region, but to think about history in terms historians don’t always employ. “While most history courses on the region follow the region’s history from the end of the 18th century to the present, Shields shifted from teaching history in a linear trajectory to thematic modules,” notes Emma Harver, Outreach Director for the UNC-Duke Consortium for Middle East Studies. “Dr. Shields stands out as an exemplary educator who is genuinely passionate about her students, her courses, and teaching.”

In recent years, Shields has applied the same spirit of originality, and the same verve, to a new seminar on water in the Middle East. She attributes the idea to her daughter, Kate, a UNC graduate who is now working in the Aral Sea Basin in Uzbekistan as part of her dissertation research on political ecology and water resources at the University of Oregon’s Department of Geography. “Kate told me I had to teach water courses: ‘How can you teach the Middle East without water?’” She has now offered courses on water in the Middle East as a First Year Seminar, an Honors Seminar, and, most recently, as a Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CURE) class, gives students the opportunity to use mapping technologies (including ArcGIS, and the “amazing resources” available on the second floor of Davis Library) to explore the human consequences of dams. Using story maps, the students were able to chart how dams resulted in the dislocation of people. Many were surprised by the results of their projects. “What the students were most impressed with wasn’t so much the environmental consequences of dams, but the human consequences of changing the course of rivers. The communities that were completely flooded out tended to be minority communities like the Nubians [in Egypt] and the Kurds [in Turkey], while majority ethnic groups would end up with more water to use for agriculture and electricity.” In short, the students ended up with a lot more than they bargained for in a history course on water. “They were completely fascinated by how dams are not a natural choice; they are always a political choice with political and human consequences.”

Harver notes how Shields’ courses have successfully “demonstrated why understanding history is so essential to resolving current crises in the region.” While echoing Harver’s assessment concerning Shields’ “long-lasting contributions to the field of undergraduate education in Middle East studies,” the department community looks forward to the new topics and methodologies she will introduce into the classroom closer to home

Professor Lloyd Kramer Receives Thomas Jefferson Award

This September, History Department professor Lloyd Kramer received UNC-Chapel Hill’s Thomas Jefferson Award, a yearly award recognizing faculty members who “best exemplify the ideals and objectives of Thomas Jefferson” through their scholarship and teaching. At a meeting of the Faculty Council held over Zoom, chair Mimi Chapman related that numerous people had raised objections to the award over the previous year: “Why were we giving an award named after someone who enslaved people [and] who had a relationship that, by definition, could not be voluntary with an enslaved woman?” The Faculty Council, she explained, is currently considering the future of the Thomas Jefferson Award in consultation with other university committees, including the Faculty of Color and Indigenous Faculty Group at the Institute for Arts and Humanities and the Commission on Race, History, and a Way Forward. Since the award had been endowed by a donor outside the university, they would not be permitted to change its name. However, the Faculty Council could choose either to abolish the Jefferson Award and return the money associated with it, or alter the award’s language to better reflect its purpose and relation to Jefferson’s complex legacy. As Chapman concluded, Lloyd Kramer’s scholarship and public engagement made him an important participant in any discussion at UNC-Chapel Hill about Jefferson and his place on campus and in broader society.

The Robert Earll McConnell foundation endowed faculty awards in Thomas Jefferson’s name at multiple American universities during the 1950s and 1960s, including Vanderbilt, the University of Virginia, the University of Colorado, and William and Mary. McConnell, a mining engineer who made his fortune in finance, was a friend of presidents Hoover and Eisenhower, and held a number of advisory positions during the Roosevelt administration. As a committed advocate of industrial development through capitalist enterprise, he may have intended the award to build a bulwark against academic leftism. UNC-Chapel Hill officials fretted that McConnell might turn out to be “a John Bircher” seeking to use his fortune for political influence within the university. Regardless of his motivations, his foundation did not institutionalize an ideological interpretation of Jefferson’s ideals, instead leaving it up to a faculty committee. Recent citations for Jefferson Award recipients have discussed their history of service to the university and community, their commitment to public education and academic freedom, or their love of macaroni and cheese, which Jefferson is said to have introduced to the United States after encountering it in France.

For Kramer, the Jefferson Award provided an opportunity to reflect on the contemporary significance of Thomas Jefferson’s ideas and to make a case for the importance of historical education. “Engaging with Jefferson requires an acceptance of historical and human ambiguities,” he said at the beginning of his acceptance speech. Historically informed public debate argued, must address these ambiguities directly. According to Kramer, Jefferson’s ideals were best summarized by the list of achievements on his tombstone: author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and founder of the University of Virginia. But, as the Black abolitionist writer David Walker pointed out, Jefferson held that only white men had the capacity for self-rule, and denied education and religious freedom to those he held in bondage. Kramer’s acceptance speech extensively cited Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, published in 1829. Walker effectively employed Jefferson’s rhetoric and ideals to argue against Jefferson’s theories of Black inferiority and the racial tyranny that he supported.

In his acceptance speech, Kramer discussed different occasions where North Carolina’s political authorities sought to protect racial hierarchy by restricting freedom of inquiry and access to education. When Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World began circulating in the state after 1829, North Carolina’s legislators banned “seditious” abolitionist literature and criminalized teaching enslaved people to read or write. The first modern edition of Walker’s Appeal was edited by the radical historian Herbert Aptheker. Aptheker played a role in overturning North Carolina’s Speaker Ban, which excluded visiting speakers with “subversive” connections from UNC campuses. Enacted in 1963, this law was motivated by racist paranoia about Communist influence on the civil rights movement. In 1966, UNC-Chapel Hill student activists invited Aptheker to speak on campus, hoping to create a test case that might challenge the Speaker Ban. They were successful. Although Aptheker had to address the students from behind a low wall on Franklin Street, the law was overturned by a federal court two years later. Kramer also pointed to recent political interference with the UNC faculty’s recommendation to appoint Nikole Hannah-Jones to a position in the Hussman School of Media and Journalism at Chapel Hill. Her work on the 1619 Project at the New York Times again stirred up fear and anger among proponents of the racial status quo. Like the fight against the Speaker Ban, he said, the campaign on behalf of Hannah-Jones was also part of a struggle to achieve the Jeffersonian ideal of free inquiry and debate.

We should neither ignore Jefferson’s racism by whitewashing his crimes nor simply reject his ideas wholesale, Kramer explained in an interview later. Rather, engaging critically with the ambiguity and complexity of Jefferson’s ideas will help us develop both a better understanding of the past and a greater sense of our own place in history. Kramer argued that we can use Jefferson’s ideas about human rights, popular self-government, and public education to attack the systemic racism that is also a part of Jefferson’s legacy. These ideas, as David Walker showed, are crucial in the continuing struggle to defend and expand democracy.

Thanks to Matthew Turi from University Libraries for assistance with locating documents about the history of the Thomas Jefferson Award at UNC-Chapel Hill.

-Mira Markham

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