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Boston University Arts & Sciences

History News
Newsletter of the BU History Department


By Luis Chunga-Celis

Luis Chunga-CelisI am very excited to be working for the History Department at Boston University. Previously I worked for the Political Science Department as a staff assistant before literally moving next door. I completed my undergrad degree at BU with a BA in Linguistics. I was born in Lima, Peru, and lived there for two years until my family moved to Portland, Oregon. I love the Trail Blazers, Oregon Ducks, and am one of the few people who enjoy the rain. I am an avid bicyclist and swimmer and I enjoy cooking, especially Peruvian cuisine. I have recently been changing some of my recipes so I can participate in the Boston Food Swap.

My ultimate goal is to pursue a master's in Speech-Language Pathology and work with children with autism. I would also like to spend some time in Italy and immerse myself in the language as it was my minor at BU. My parents still live in Portland, Oregon, and my little sister is about to complete her BA at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.


By Phillip Haberkern

Phillip HaberkernI wanted to introduce myself to all of you at the beginning of the school year. I have had the opportunity to meet most of you, and have really appreciated your warmth and good advice about living in Boston and teaching at BU, but for those of you I haven't met…I am originally from North Carolina, and did my undergraduate degree in religion and anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I then moved to Boston to attend Harvard Divinity School, so coming to BU has felt like a return home. After Boston, I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where I completed my PhD in History at the University of Virginia. I finished there in 2009 and have spent the last two years as a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in religion at Princeton University. I came here with my wife, Danielle Dong, who is a genetic counselor and works for Genzyme, and our daughter, Ellie, who is two. We arrived in July, and have spent the summer getting adjusted to life in our new city, learning the pro's and con's of its various playgrounds, and (for me) preparing for this academic year, during which I'll be teaching HI 101, a course on the Reformation, and a section of the Historian's Craft.

My main research area is late medieval and early modern central Europe, and especially the Reformation. Within this broad topic, I focus my attention on a man named Jan Hus (d. 1415) who was burned at the stake for heresy, but became a saint for his followers in Prague and for Martin Luther a century later. My interest in this historical figure may well have been bred into me; the city where I grew up, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is home to the largest Moravian community in the U.S., and that denomination traces its roots back to Hus. I also had the opportunity to spend a year in Prague researching my dissertation on Hus, and have been back numerous times since. My focus on the Reformation forms the bridge between my interests and background in religion and history; one of the things that most excited me about BU is that it offers a number of opportunities for maintaining and expanding the links between these fields, and I am already working with the Religion Department and graduate Division of Religious & Theological Studies to strengthen those ties.

I am truly excited to (finally!) start the school year at BU, and to engage fully with the faculty and students of the department. Everyone has been immensely helpful in smoothing my transition so far, for which I am thankful, and I am looking forward to a fantastic year.


Professor Cathal NolanDuring August, Professor Cathal J. Nolan worked as a technical adviser to USAID's Foreign Affairs Institutional Reform (FAIR) project at the Afghanistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) in Kabul. His principal mission was to assist the staff of MoFA's Center for Strategic Studies (CSS) in improving their policy analysis and recommendations to Afghan diplomats. His work included direct mentoring of CSS staff on policy analysis and advising on a quarterly publication of the MoFA Journal (published in English, Dari, and Pashto). Topics covered in training sessions included illegal timber exports to Pakistan, security issues with Iran, a proposed long-term U.S.-Afghan security pact, and women's rights in Afghanistan. His report follows:

While living and working inside reasonably secure compounds, general conditions in Kabul made it always necessary to commute to MoFA or around the city in up-armored vehicles and with armed guards. It was seldom wise to stay in public places outside these vehicles for more than 5-10 minutes, or until a crowd gathered and ex-SAS guards grew nervous and nanny-like. Yet, it was possible to get into the city on many occasions, even to get out and walk around and shop in local stores—of which the most remarkable sold gold, cut stone jewelry, and various leather goods. The most memorable of these excursions was along the Jalalabad Road to a hilltop overlooking Kabul known as the "King's Tomb," because, well, the former King's Tomb is sited there, along with a smaller tomb for some forgotten dead princess. The first visit found the place deserted, except by four teenage boys vainly trying to get foreigners to pose and pay for pictures with a small horse—a far better life choice that joining the local Taliban. That first trip was interrupted by dark smoke rising about a mile away, leading to a security alert and responding helicopters: it was discovered later that a column of eight fuel trucks were set alight en route to Fire Base Phoenix in northern Kabul. The second visit took place on the first Friday of Ramadan (or Ramazan, as it is pronounced in Dari). At least a thousand people were there, mostly in family groups. Despite the heat, enforced fasting, and a building sandstorm, they were flying hundreds of colorful, simple kites—a traditional and beloved practice formerly banned and severely punished by Mullah Omar's Taliban. It was very good to see such ordinary resilience and normality in the midst of the armed camp that Kabul is on most days. It was also inspiring to see new construction and everyday commerce along city streets, even those badly obstructed by huge, medieval-looking fortresses housing the U.S. military, ISAF (NATO's official acronym in Afghanistan), and Afghan National Army units.

There were a number of rocket, gunmen, and other complex suicide attacks (multiple attackers, arriving in waves after the first bomb goes off) in Kabul while Professor Nolan was there. They were carried out primarily by non-Afghan “insurgents” of the al-Qaeda-connected Haqqani network infiltrating from Pakistan. Their targets were Afghan government officials and their families, the Parliament, Afghan police, and other Afghan state infrastructure. According to daily intelligence briefs by ISAF and other sources, insurgent strategy this “fighting season”—and in the lead-up to anticipated ISAF withdrawal in 2014 or shortly thereafter—is to corrode confidence in local military and government capabilities to protect Afghan nationals. More worrisome, MoFA officers related that they feared, and expected, that ISAF and U.S. military withdrawal could lead to a widening of the war after 2014. They foresee a shift from ideological-religious struggle (which they ardently maintain is no longer the real basis of the conflict in any case), to renewed ethnic warfare centered around warlord-drug lord revival and a Pashtun attempt at secession. Indeed, they said that every ethnic group, nearly every valley, is so weary from nearly 40 years of war that breaking up the country is starting to appeal to many. By another name, they said, the old Northern Alliance of Hazzaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks is already effectively reforming and rearming behind the scenes, in expectation of a renewed and enlarged civil war with the Pashtun, who comprise President Karzai’s main supporters in southern Afghanistan.

The central concern of one ethnic Tajik MoFA officer, who is intimately involved in founding a new secular and non-sectarian political party, is that Karzai (who seemed universally despised) was already maneuvering to cut a deal with Iran-supported Pashtun and their allies among the southern Taliban around Kandahar. This well-spoken holder of a MA in Philosophy believed that about half the Taliban’s 10,000 remaining fighters (reduced from 100,000 in 2001, mainly by the old Northern Alliance) could be persuaded to end the fighting, but that there could be no deal whatever with the other 5,000 or so irreconcilables: they must be fought and killed, or driven out of the country, back into Iran and Pakistan. Other “Taliban” in the east (the label no longer really fits a motley and divided insurgency) are mostly Pakistanis and Arabs infiltrating across the eastern border. They are dedicated to jihad and suicide tactics and will remain a security threat for many years, MoFA officers contended, but they do not pose an existential threat to Afghanistan’s national integrity or current political system. The most terrible outcomes might be avoided, MoFA and CSS officers hope, by a national “reconciliation” process modeled on the South African and Rwandan experiences that looks to forgiveness and a celebration of the Afghan national identity as inherently culturally, religiously, and ethnically diverse.

Note: The International History Institute (IHI) at Boston University is exploring hosting an initial conference on Afghan national reconciliation, in conjunction with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and the CSS in Kabul.


Professor Simon Payaslian released a new book, The Political Economy of Human Rights in Armenia: Authoritarianism and Democracy in a Former Soviet Republic. Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Republic of Armenia has experienced a reversal from a brief period of democratization to a Soviet-style authoritarian regime. This study juxtaposes the history of the Armenian people with the evolution of international human rights standards, and contends that centuries of foreign domination and authoritarian rule have impeded the development of modern Armenian political culture, political institutions, and legal philosophy.

The proclamation on independence adopted in August 1990 emphasized the principles of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and international law and declared that Armenia guarantees civil and political rights and liberties. Since independence, however, the post-Soviet government has yet to demonstrate its ability to promote internationally acceptable standards for the protection of human rights. The volume underscores the clash between sovereignty on one side and human rights and democracy on the other.

Professor Richard Landes' new book, Heaven on Earth Professor Richard Landes's new book, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience is published by Oxford University Press. This long-awaited study shows, in the words of the publisher, “that many events typically regarded as secular—including the French Revolution, Marxism, Bolshevism, Nazism—not only contain key millennialist elements, but follow the apocalyptic curve” that Landes identifies in his book. Ranging from ancient Egypt to modern-day UFO cults, Heaven on Earth at once offers a vigorous revisionist argument for the significance of millennialism throughout history and analyzes the potency of these ideologies in the contemporary world.


By Devon Atchison

Editor's Note: At Commencement last May, our convocation speaker, Professor Bill Keylor, reflected on some of the changes overtaking higher education in recent years, including the rush toward online teaching. While online courses have not caught on at BU, where we still favor face-to-face learning, many of our former students are themselves teaching online. Presence of the Past asked BU PhD Devon Atchison (GRS'07), Professor at Grossmont College in California, to reflect on her experiences:

Like many of you reading this, I was skeptical of teaching an online history course.  I asked myself: could my students really learn history this way? Could I duplicate the experience of a face-to-face course online?  Would it be rewarding for me, in the way that classroom teaching is?  Though it took me a few semesters of tinkering with the formula, I believe online education can work for students and for professors.  To make my online courses rigorous and interesting, I knew my version of online education needed to go far beyond the correspondence courses of yore.  Accordingly, I have my students read my lectures—which I have typed up, inserted my typical bad jokes, photographs, maps, hyperlinks, and YouTube clips into, and posted on our web management system.  They take a multiple choice quiz on the lectures to ensure they’ve done the reading—I have to admit that this is a far better guarantee that they’ve “listened” to a lecture than trying to remember who was in class on Tuesday.  My students also read a series of primary sources each week and write a short essay on those sources.  But my favorite thing they do is Discussion Board. Each week, I break the class into small cohorts of ten students.  Each cohort reads a primary source and answers a series of questions on a Discussion Board about that source.  Students are required to post a “First Response” addressing the series of questions I posed, as well as a “Second Response” wherein they comment on a post one of their fellow students made.  The dialogue that has opened up on these Discussion Boards has been fascinating and incredibly rich—at the very least, these online discussions model the discussions we have in the classroom; at the best, these online discussions are more dynamic because students are less afraid of sharing their ideas.  The course is rounded off by a Midterm and a Final, a short essay on a book-length primary source, and an individual project that taps into their creative side.  Though the course has a lot of work and a different format, my persistence rates tend to be higher than in a face-to-face class and my success rates are comparable. 

There are some drawbacks, of course.  I don’t know my students as well as I used to—in my face-to-face classes, I always pledge to know every student’s name by the end of Week Two.  With my online students, I could run into them on the street and never know it.  Another drawback is that when students fall behind in an online class, it is incredibly difficult for them to catch up and pass the class.  I lose students that I might otherwise have been able to reach out to more personally in a brick and mortar classroom.  And from a personal perspective, I feel like I am on-call much more than I am with traditional classes.  My online students are often full-time parents, full-time employees, and full-time students (this may be because I teach at a community college, but I think students everywhere are equally busy and stretched thin, time-wise), which means that they do their homework and have questions at all hours of the night.  I had to set some guidelines and best practices for the students, and once I got used to checking my email every hour during business hours (and spending ten minutes or so responding to any questions), I stopped feeling so overwhelmed. Lastly, because online classes are more anonymous than face-to-face classes, students sometimes say inappropriate or rude things—I’ve found, however, that shutting down that type of behavior early sets the right tone for the rest of the semester. 

Higher education is changing at breakneck speed.  Our students expect an educational experience that fits in with their worldview, a worldview that is increasingly technology-centered.  With some thoughtful preparation, however, it is possible to create an online educational space that is flexible—in terms of time, location, and learning styles—and that provides our students with knowledge, skills, and a love of history.  I have so many students who come back to take every online course I offer—and I still get the frequent “I love history now!” comment, so I think I can safely say that online education can duplicate the experience of a face-to-face course, students really can learn history, and the process can be incredibly rewarding for the instructor!


Over the summer, Professor Jon Roberts published two articles. The first, "Science and Religion," in Wrestling with Nature: From Omens to Science, ed. Peter Harrison, et al. (University of Chicago Press), examined the changing meaning of the terms "science" and "religion" and the history of the trope "science and religion" as it manifested itself in the rhetoric of religious and scientific intellectuals in Europe and America. The second, "Louis Agassiz on Scientific Method, Polygenism, and Transmutation: A Reassessment," appeared in the May issue of Almagest: International Journal for the History of Scientific Ideas and is a slightly revised version of an article that was published in Portuguese (only) in 2009.

Professor Andrew Bacevich published "Whose Army?" in the summer issue of Daedalus and "Tailors to the Emperor" in the May-June issue of New Left Review.

Graduate students David Mislin's article, "'Never Mind the Dead Men': The Damnation of Theron Ware and the Salvation of American Protestantism", has been accepted for publication in The Journal of the Historical Society. It is scheduled to appear in the journal's December issue.

Scott Marr defended his dissertation, "Urban Encounters and the Religious Divide: Catholic-Protestant Coexistence in Saumur, France, 1589-1665." As historians of early modern Europe shifted their gaze from episodes of religious violence to expressions of religious tolerance, the mechanics of coexistence in everyday life—how men and women of different confessional allegiances managed to live and worship peacefully in close proximity—have become a focus of research. Marr's dissertation contributes to this new scholarship by examining relations between Catholics and Protestants in the French city of Saumur in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The social and economic structures of urban life, he notes, "provided the context for coexistence, Christine Axen in front of the Palais des Papesand the citizens of Saumur shared a commitment to the same civic ideals, if not the same religious beliefs."

Having won a GRAF Fellowship, graduate student Christine Axen is conducting dissertation research in Avignon, France. Here she is in front of the Palais des Papes (14th c papal fortress) where the archives she is researching are located.

Professor Jeffrey Rubin was awarded a Mellon/Latin American Studies Association Grant for his ongoing project, "Religion, Social Movements, and Progressive Reform in Latin America." The project, which he co-directs with sociologist David Smilde (University of Georgia) and anthropologist Benjamin Junge (SUNY New Paltz), examines the ways in which religious beliefs, practices, and institutions affect processes of reform through organized social movements and in "zones of crisis." The project consists of a series of three conferences at BU, in 2010, 2011, and 2012, and it will culminate in a special issue of the Latin American Research Review, which Rubin, Smilde, and Junge will edit, and in a featured panel at the 2012 Latin American Studies Association meeting.

Professor Clifford Backman reports on the results of a very busy summer: "I finished my book on the history of European-Middle Eastern relations, which Oxford University Press has scheduled for a September 2012 release. It will be a useful doorstop, since the final manuscript is just under 1,400 pages. I'll be delivering a talk in Barcelona in a couple of weeks at a conference to mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Arnau de Vilanova, everyone's favorite heretic-who-was-also-the-pope's-personal-physician. In the meantime, I'm finishing up a long chapter on Mediterranean piracy for a multi-authored book on the history of the sea. And I'm working on a new book, on the development of the moral idea of tolerance, for Cambridge University Press."

Keep Us in the Loop

Let us know about news or upcoming events. Please send news items to megmay@bu.edu, or call Megan Maynard Winderbaum at 617-353-2540.

Boston University

Boston University
Department of History
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Telephone: 617-353-2551
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E-mail: history@bu.edu