CCNY Early-Career Historians Win NEH Awards

Dr. Gregory Downs, associate professor of history, and Dr. Emily Greble, assistant professor of history at The City College of New York are recipients of faculty research awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The grants, announced by NEH December 9, will support book projects currently in development.

“The NEH fellowships are extremely competitive- only eight percent of applicants are successful. To have two early-career faculty members in the same department come up winners is remarkable,” said Dr. Geraldine Murphy, acting dean of humanities and the arts at CCNY, in congratulating them.

“Our department has undergone significant growth because The City College administration made a commitment to bring in energetic scholars and teachers,” said Professor Downs, who serves as department chair. “We’ve hired eight new faculty members in nine years and we are seeing that faith pay off.”

“We seem to have become a hotbed of new and innovative scholarship,” added Professor Greble. “We see the product of this intellectually stimulating environment in so many areas of departmental life, from the number of students we have been placing in top doctoral programs to the rigorous publication record of our faculty, to the winning of top academic fellowships like the NEH and the Rome Prize.”

Four Class of 2011 history majors are now in PhD programs at Yale University, Princeton University and University of Michigan. Associate Professor of History Barbara Ann Naddeo received the Rome Prize in 2010 for her scholarship on the city of Naples, Italy. Assistant Professor of History Adrienne Petty is conducting an oral history project on African-American farm owners in the South in collaboration with Professor Mark Schultz of Lewis University supported by an NEH award.

Professor Downs’ project, “The Ends of War: American Reconstruction and the Problems of Occupation,” examines the transition from Civil War to Reconstruction and asks why former slaves, loyal whites, Freedmen’s Bureau agents and northern emigres became disillusioned. The problems emanated not as much from free-labor ideology or racism as from a sharp reduction of military force in the region, which resulted in a power vacuum, he contends.

At the end of the Civil War, the U.S. government, fearing budget deficits, demobilized at such a rapid pace that within 18 months only 12,000 troops remained in the former Confederacy. As the military withdrew from different areas, hundreds of small wars broke out between former Confederates and organized freedmen.

Professor Downs attributes the situation to a naive belief among elected officials in Washington that they could expand voting rights in the South at the same time that the federal government was reducing its presence there to cut the budget. “What was needed was not an expansion of democracy, but an expansion of enforcement,” he says. “Both sides figured out that violence was the logical conclusion. By the time they had mobilized it was too late for the government to act.”

The project grows out of an earlier monograph, “Declarations of Independence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1860 – 1908,” published in 2011 by University of North Carolina Press. However, Professor Downs says his thinking has been influenced by recent U.S. experience with occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Seeing how difficult it is to change social power, create new lines of authority and disrupt societies makes me wonder why we were so confident we could do it in the post-war South. Rights need enforceability to make them real,” he adds, pointing to the intervention by federal troops in the Little Rock Central High School in 1957 as an example.

Professor Greble’s project, “Islam and the European Nation-State: Balkan Muslims between Mosque and State, 1908 – 1949,” examines how South Slavic Muslims adapted to six significant political shifts over a 41-year period. In each instance new governments sought – in their own way – to limit, secularize and shape Muslim institutions as the region went from Ottoman to Habsburg control, to liberal nation-states, to authoritarian monarchs, to fascist regimes and to socialist regimes.

Her initial research suggests Muslims proactively adapted the norms and customs of their faith to define Islam in their own terms. Additionally, they sought to become part of the international community of Muslims to confront being dispossessed of property, Sharia law, institutional autonomy and the right to define Islam.

To assert their influence, some Muslims formed political parties and cultural societies that promoted Muslim cultural agendas. More conservative members of the community sought to strengthen and protect local Muslim networks through codification of Sharia law and Islamic society. Others engaged in clandestine activities such as underground madrassas.

Much of Professor Greble’s research will examine the changing role of Sharia courts. Under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, these were codified and given jurisdiction over Muslim socio-religious affairs, such as marriage, divorce and inheritance. Muslim parts of the Balkans, particularly Yugoslavia, retained this legal autonomy between the two world wars and during Nazi and fascist occupation, but lost it after communists came to power and shut down the Sharia courts in 1946.

CCNY History Majors Garner Top PhD Fellowships

The City College of New York history department launched a research colloquium in the spring 2010 semester that would give its top students a “writing sample they can use to apply to graduate school.” A year later, the effort has paid off handsomely as four graduating seniors have been admitted to top PhD programs on full, five-year fellowships.

The four students and the schools that have admitted them are: Diana Sierra, University of Michigan- Fidel Tavarez, Princeton University- Michael Hattem and Rodion Kosovsky, Yale University. Three of the four also benefited from the City College and Mellon Mays Fellowship programs, which provide support to students interested in academic careers. In addition, two students transferred to CCNY from community colleges in the CUNY system.

“There has been a tremendous resurgence of interest in history at City College,” said Dr. Clifford Rosenberg, the department chair, who added that the number of history majors at CCNY has climbed from 35 to 225. The increase made it possible to offer the research colloquium, which requires a 3.6 or higher GPA to enroll, as well as more upper-level courses that apply toward the major and are taught by professors.

Students in the colloquium produce a journal-quality article of original research in a workshop environment where they critique one another’s work. “To do this, you not only have to work with primary source materials but also master the secondary literature,” said Professor Darren Staloff, who taught the course for the spring 2011 semester.

Being able to give and take criticism is also crucial to success in the class. “Students need to be tough without being personal,” he explained. When being critiqued, “don’t justify (yourself). Write it down. If you immediately defend yourself, you’re not listening.”

Every word of a draft gets parsed. For example, in one recent class students questioned a colleague’s use of “moderate” to describe Benjamin Franklin during the pre-Revolutionary period. Professor Staloff suggested instead that Franklin be called “a man of compromise. If it’s not critical, it’s not worth fighting about.”

“The process helps you better understand how to organize issues and strengthen your argument as a writer, says Ms. Sierra, a Columbian immigrant who plans to study Latin American history at the University of Michigan.

“The research colloquium is the best thing the department has done,” added Mr. Hattem, a 35-year old high school dropout and father of two who transferred to CCNY from Borough of Manhattan Community College and is now bound for Yale.

“We’d pass around drafts of our papers and get feedback. I was surprised at how good the other students in the program were. It was somewhat intimidating to read these impressive papers and get this impressive feedback and have scholarly interaction with other people who were just as serious about history.”

Mr. Tavarez, who transferred to CCNY from LaGuardia Community College and will now study Latin American history at Princeton, credits the colloquium with helping him gain acceptance to graduate school. “After that class, I had a solid senior thesis that I used as a writing sample.”

“Top PhD programs want a writing sample, and this is the best kind of sample you can have,” added Professor Staloff.

City College’s support for its aspiring academicians goes beyond the research colloquium. Through the City College Fellows and Mellon Mays programs, students receive mentoring and academic support in addition to financial assistance that helps them to conduct independent research.

“Admission to top graduate schools is all about research,” said Dr. Susan Besse, professor of history and director of the two fellowship programs. “It is virtually essential to spend at least one summer doing research.”

Mr. Kosovsky, a City College Fellow, was able to spend a summer in London doing archival research and Mr. Tavarez, a Mellon Mays Fellow, published a paper based on archival research he conducted in the Dominican Republic. Ms. Sierra is a Mellon Mays fellow, as well. The two programs have different admission criteria but are run together.

“Without support to do archival research, it is hard for a student to get the kind of experience that will make him or her stand out,” Professor Besse explained. In past years, fellows have traveled to France, Germany, Poland and Brazil, she noted. One student interested in health went to Guatemala for a summer to improve his Spanish and meet graduate school foreign language proficiency requirements.

“Being in the Mellon Mays program helped me meet living expenses and allowed me to dedicate time to my studies,” Ms. Sierra said. “It tries to mimic the relationships of graduate school, such as the mentoring process and doing primary source research. I was able to get immersed in my field and get a sense of what academia is like and what your discipline is about.”

“As a Mellon Mays Fellow, I started looking at my classes in a different way,” Mr. Tavarez said. “When I’d write papers, I wouldn’t write papers I would then throw out. I’d write papers that I could develop further research on.

For a class on 19th century American history, taught by Professor Greg Downs, he wrote about how ideas on race influenced President Grant’s unsuccessful effort to annex the Dominican Republic. He continued working on that theme in a class on modern imperialism taught by Professor Barbara Brooks.

CCNY Historian Edits Book on Pakistan

Since its inception 64 years ago, Pakistan’s quest for democracy has been tenuous. In Pakistan: From the Rhetoric of Democracy to the Rise of Militancy, edited by Dr. Ravi Kalia, professor of history at The City College of New York, readers get an idea of why.

Published by Routledge (2011), the book comprises essays by scholars and diplomats from three continents. They reflect on the political, social, military and urban history of Pakistan with focus on its search for democracy as well as its pivotal role in the global war on terror. It is the only non-NATO country aligned with the United States in the war on terror.

Pakistan was carved out of British India in 1947 as a homeland for Indian Muslims and has alternated between military and civilian rule since. While the political rhetoric by successive leaders from both sides has indicated a desire for democracy, liberalism, freedom of expression and other such progressive concepts, the reality has been starkly different.

Instead, the world’s sixth most populous nation, nuclear-armed with a population exceeding 170 million, has continued to drift towards increasing authoritarianism, religious extremism and intolerance against minorities.

“This chasm between animated political rhetoric and grim political reality has baffled the world as much as Pakistanis themselves,” said Professor Kalia, an expert in South Asian studies. “In this volume, scholars and practitioners of statecraft from around the world have sought to explain the dichotomy that exists between the rhetoric and the reality.”

A major obstacle to democracy highlighted by Professor Kalia is a society based on powerful tribal loyalties and kinship associations.

“Pakistani institutions operate on the premise of tribal loyalty and kinship and while these help keep the country together, they hinder its transition into the 21st century. The military is the only entity that bares any resemblance to a western institution,” he said.

Contributors to the book are:

Dr. Gilles Boquerat, head of the South Asia program at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.

Ainslie T. Embree, professor emeritus of history, Columbia University

Frederic Grare, charge de mission for Asian Perspectives, Department of Strategic Affairs, Ministry of Defense, France.

J. Andrew Greig, retired Foreign Service Officer, U.S. Department of State and United States Information Agency.

Annie Harper, social anthropologist, Trinity College, Conn.

Nazir Hussain, associate professor, Department of International Relations, Quaidi-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan.

Zafar Iqbal, sociologist, political activist, Pakistan.

T.C.A. Rangachari, retired Indian diplomat, visiting professor, Academy of Third World Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.

Tahmina Rashid, associate professor, International Studies, Faculty of Arts & Design, University of Canberra, Australia.

Oskar Verkaaik, associate professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Amsterdam.

About Professor Ravi Kalia

A graduate of the University of Delhi (BA Hons., MA) and University of California-Los Angeles (MBA, PhD), Professor Kalia specializes in South Asian studies. His focus is urban-architectural history in colonial and post-colonial India. His books include “Chandigarh: The Making of an Indian City” (Southern Illinois Univ. Press & Oxford Univ.Press, 1987- revised, 1999), “Bhubaneshwar: From a Temple Town to a Capital City” (Southern Illinois Univ. Press & Oxford Univ. Press, 1994), and “Gandhinagar: Building National Identity in Postcolonial India” (Univ. of South Carolina Press & Oxford Univ. Press, 2004). Professor Kalia has been published in numerous journals including “Habitat International,” “India Quarterly,” “Journal of Urban History,” “The Encyclopedia of Conflicts Since World War II” (2006), as well as many international newspapers. He’s the recipient of three Fulbright scholarships and numerous other research awards.