I have had the good fortune to study and teach in many different places.
My undergraduate Honours and Master’s degrees (both in history), are from the University of Toronto. But in a ‘Third-Year Abroad’ programme, I spent a year at the Centre for West African Studies (CWAS), Birmingham University, UK. This very positive year drew me back there for my PhD work (1976-1980). During this time, I lived not only in Birmingham but also Bristol and London, and spent seven months doing field research in West Africa (Mali, Mauritania) and archival work in Paris. I then held Post-Doctoral Fellowships at Dalhousie and York Universities, and limited-contract positions at Duke and Toronto Universities before coming to Alberta in 1986. [see my full CV for dates, administrative and committee history]
I initially intended to go into Law but that third year at CWAS changed all that: I was totally captivated by African studies. That year I took two undergraduate and three graduate courses in political science, anthropology/material culture, sociology, history and economic history. This experience shaped my interdisciplinary approach to what I teach and research. I chose to work with my (then) professor in economic history to prepare a thesis on a Sahara-desert salt mine and the people who mined it, controlled it, transported its salt and marketed/purchased its salt in the sahelian (Mali) regions to the south.
I’ve never looked back. Projects since my PhD expanded these interests into southern Morocco as well [see ‘Research’ below]. What this all means is that I have had excuses to work in London, Paris and Aix-en-Provence in Europe, and Mali, Mauritania, Morocco and Senegal (Dakar) in West Africa, doing both archival and interviewing research.
That said, I have indulged that initial interest in law by offering my expertise in cases of Mauritanians seeking refugee status in Canada, the US and the UK. Mauritania is a country that knew abolition of Slavery in 1980, a coup-d'etat that put in place an authoritarian dictatorship in 1984 that lasted until 2005, and a 'border war' with neighbouring Senegal in 1989 that has been termed an excuse for genocide against a particular black ethnic group (an interpretation with which I agree). I have done some twenty cases/appeals in the same number of years - most related to that last 'war'. That said, for various reasons, the number of cases annually has increased recently.
Personal Interests: other than being ‘Mom’ to two now grown sons, I own and ride a horse named Holly. She is Canadian born (Saskatchewan) of Dutch/Belgium warmblood breeding; she (like her owner) is aging but still active – she is 16 in 2018. I ride English and compete when I can in Hunter-Jumper competitions. Holly pretty much takes up all my non-teaching, non-researching, non-administrating time – and then some.
My MA thesis was a survey of the economic and political significance of ‘salts’ in a large part of West Africa (I looked at desert, sea and vegetable salts in Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Liberia, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Ghana).
My PhD focused on one desert mine in Mauritania whose history was largely unwritten but referenced (in my view) as early as the 11th century. Its impact on the larger picture of trans-Saharan trade and Saharan-Sahelien development was hugely important through to the nineteenth century. This project involved field-work (archival, interviews) in Mali and Mauritania; the work in Mauritania drew me into the Sahara – and I decided this was where I wanted to develop my career research.
My next major project looked at the commercial development of the central region of this desert-edge country. It pulled me north into southern Morocco because this is where many of the important commercial families who settled in Mauritania's central region, came from in the late-nineteenth century. This project opened up a host of new possibilities that has allowed me to move back and forth over the years.
Most exciting was a SSHRC grant (2008-12) in which I looked comparatively at a group I had come to know over the previous decades called ‘haratine’. In Mauritania, they are estimated at (at least) 40% of the population; they are mostly considered to be former slaves (or their descendants) and therefore, ‘upwardly mobile’ in comparison with slave. In southern Morocco they are up to 90% in some communities, definitely a majority (70-80%) across the region. In spite of the fact that many of the ‘nobles’ are of the same ethnic origin as those in central Mauritania, they are seen as a distinct social group, largely inferior to former slaves. This seeming contradiction that emerged over years of research between the two regions, formed the basis of the project. Essentially, I was trying to explain ‘why’ this was the case. And then, I was also trying to look how haratine were currently self-identifying, both socially and politically.
While I have published a number of articles using the research from this project and have an edited collection in process (based on a workshop in Paris generated by the it), I have yet to fully realize its richness and potential. Its interviews alone, in both southern Morocco and Mauritania, number around 140! These are comprised mostly of interviews with haratine themselves (both rural and urban), as well as some local politicians and journalists.
I continue to work from this incredible data-base of interview (and archival) material. Although I now have a new project to pursue [see below ‘Announcements’], this work from the haratine project is far from finished.
In the thirty-years I have been teaching at the University of Alberta, my ‘areas’ have moved in two directions.
Initially I taught lecture courses on the pre-colonial and colonial history of Africa, and upper-level seminars on South Africa (an area of personal interest rather than personal research, which I find to be especially dynamic both in terms of contemporary developments and historiography).
In the early 1990s, I was instrumental in founding MEAS (Middle East and African Studies), a programme that flourished for over fifteen years. (It was recently closed to make way for a new direction – MEIS (Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies).
In the process of setting up MEAS, I developed a ‘Middle East in the Making’ course (a history of the Ottoman Empire) that I still teach and re-conceptualize frequently. Recently, in order to complement this course, I developed a lead-in course on Early Islam (through its ‘Golden Age’, up to the 13th century).
Straddling these undergraduate teaching interests I have developed shared senior/graduate seminars looking at different aspects of slavery (e.g. Islamic Slavery) in the Middle East and Africa, including one called the ‘History of the Harem’ (in ME&A). I just finished teaching a new seminar on the legacies of Apartheid in Post-Apartheid (and most recently post-Mandela) South Africa. And I will be developing another in 2019 “Africa in Crisis”, looking at the historical making of contemporary crises as they are presented in the media, everything from Islamic ‘Terrorism’ to ethnic cleansing to human trafficking.
My ‘teaching philosophy’ is quite straightforward: whether the course is lecture based or seminar, undergraduate or graduate, my goal is to create engagement on the part of students. I believe in analysis and interpretation, not simple delivery-and-regurgitation of information. The information I provide (either in lectures or through assigned readings – which always include primary sources) is meant to give students the ‘tools’ they need to think for themselves and to understand how it is that historians specifically – and people in general – can come to understand the same ‘event’ or issue in history in so many (often contradictory) ways. I also believe that students need to develop the skills to articulate their analyses and interpretations, both orally (in class discussion) and in writing (through various kinds of written assignments). I take my responsibility to help students, no matter what their ‘level’, to develop as best they can in terms of these skills. The information they may or may not retain; the skills will serve students no matter what future they follow.
(1) I have just been awarded a 3-year SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Canada) Insight Grant. Its title is “Freed-Slave Workers in the "Mountain of Iron": a history of haratine labour in Mauritanian mining (1940-2020)”. This research [see above ‘Research’] will take me back to Mauritania but to an area I have not formerly worked in, namely the mining centre of Zouerate. There will be work available for a Graduate Student assistant at the PhD level who is interested in issues of African slavery and labour history, and who can work with French materials (oral, written).
(2) In addition to this specific Project, given my research and teaching interests [see ‘Research’, ‘Teaching’, above], I welcome Graduate Students at the following levels, in the following areas:
West Africa, mostly Francophone (especially Mauritania, Mali, Senegal) but can handle some topics in Anglophone regions.
General topics: social and economic history, especially slavery and post-slavery societies; Islam as it shapes society and economy; intersection of gender and Islam in these regions/societies. I can work with the full chronological range – Pre-colonial, Colonial, Contemporary.
In exceptional cases, namely those whose specific topic (Islam, slavery, economic history) relates to my area of expertise, I would feel qualified to supervise theses in East and South Africa. My previous teaching and supervisory experience [see'CV'] supports this assertion. However, I would defer to interests specific to my colleague Guy Thompson re: Zimbabwe, Southern Africa.
Middle East, mostly Ottoman because this is what I have taught for over twenty years. I do not have the linguistic skills or calligraphy to work with untranslated materials. However, I think my historiographical understanding of the field, as well as where to look and who to contact (I have some relevant connections that have developed through my personal research), means I can effectively help produce projects ans theses in this area. We also have strong support for this work in Religious Studies (Jocelyn Hendrcikson), Political Science (Mojtaba Mahdavi) and Arabic culture (Iman Mersal), through the research programme MEIS (Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies http://meis.ualberta.ca/).
North/West Africa: specifically Mauritania, southern Morocco and Saharan Mali; at a stretch, Senegal . A Joseph Hill (Anthropology) works on Sufi Islam in Senegal and he would nicely complement a thesis committee in this area. As I continue to publish on the Sahara (considered holistically) from medieval to modern to contemporary times , I am happy to work with anyone interested in its social and economic history.
The above-mentioned colleagues (Hill, Hendrickson, Mahdavi, Mersal) are critical supports to any PhD committee, and can also be brought on board when appropriate, as co-supervisors.
Historical overview of the rise of Islam in seventh century Arabia and the political, economic and cultural impact of subsequent expansion into Asia, Africa and Europe.
African history since the 19th century.
The rise and demise of the Ottoman Empire. An overview of the religious, cultural and political making of current-day North Africa, Near and Middle East, and Eastern Mediterranean. HIST 111 and 112 are recommended but not required.