BA, History and Geography majors, DePaul University, 1999
M.A. in Middle Eastern and North African Studies, University of Michigan, 2002
Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies, University of Michigan, 2010
Current Job: Assistant Professor of Islamic World History, Dept. of History, University of Cincinnati.
What is one of your favorite memories from your time at DePaul?
I have a lot of great memories of my time at DePaul, but, if I had to focus on one that left a lasting impact on me, I would look back to the Winter Break of 1997 when I went on a study abroad trip to Marrakesh, Morocco with Warren Schultz. It was my first time traveling abroad and, in a lot of ways, it really opened my eyes. I got to explore a place that seemed so different from the places I knew back home in Chicago, but the people I met there reminded me that Marrakesh and Chicago weren’t that far apart. The trip also kick-started my interests in studying the Middle East and the Islamic world.
In what ways did your History major shape your career trajectory after you graduated?
When I first applied to DePaul, I applied to the School of Music. I wanted to play bass in a jazz band, but, when I couldn’t get into a music school, I decided to come to DePaul and spend my first year exploring different opportunities. I had always enjoyed History, but didn’t necessarily think about it as a major. Like most kids coming out of high school, I didn’t have a good idea of what exactly historians did besides memorizing names and dates. I credit/blame Greg Kozlowski with infecting me with a passion for History. The first class I walked into as a DePaul student was his World History course and he immediately hooked me. The class was engaging, we read interesting books, and had stimulating conversations about them. It was exactly what I wanted. From there, I started taking more History courses. I didn’t have much interest in American or European history, I wanted to explore something that was totally new to me, and DePaul offered a great variety of courses so I took courses on Chinese, South Asian, and Balkan history before deciding on a focus in the Middle East. Having that opportunity to explore different fields at DePaul and work with a number of really inspiring professors shaped the choices I have made since then.
What inspired you most to pursue graduate work in History?
The cynical (but maybe most honest) answer is a year-long internship at the City of Chicago’s Department of Environment. That convinced me that life in a cubicle was not for me. Instead I wanted to do something with my life that challenged me intellectually and allowed me to work creatively and independently. I’m a huge geek, and I couldn’t think of any better career than one that involved doing research, writing articles and books, and talking with people about history. So far, I’ve never regretted making that decision. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have an amazing graduate school experience in Ann Arbor and to find a job in the field at a school like the University of Cincinnati.
What kind of methodological tool kit for studying history did you build at DePaul?
As an undergraduate, DePaul offered me a lot of opportunities to develop myself as a historian. Many of these opportunities came from faculty members who were willing to work with students outside of the classroom and on independent projects. For example, following my study abroad experience in Marrakesh, I had taken an independent study with Warren Schultz and a couple other students from the trip where we worked through some primary source materials on the history of Morocco. This was a great introduction to working with primary source documents. One of the documents we read was a seventeenth century account written by an English sailor who had been captured by pirates and sold into slavery in Morocco. In the summer before my senior year, I received an undergraduate research grant that allowed me to work on a research project with Professsor Schultz where I produced an annotated edition of this account. This project taught me how historians approach and analyze a text. It was a great first hand introduction to what historians actually do that was so much more immersive than what you might get from the normal classroom experience.
Can you tell us a bit about your current research?
I work on the history of the early Islamic world, from the foundation of Islam in the seventh century to the rise of the Mongols in the thirteenth century. In my research, I am primarily focused on the impact of the spread of Islam and the Muslim Caliphate on local networks in Iran and Central Asia. Right now I am working on turning my dissertation into a book manuscript. While my dissertation was interested in exploring ninth and tenth century Central Asia as a frontier society, my book project focuses on a particular group of local elites in eastern Iran and Central Asia that came to the forefront as I wrote my dissertation known as the dihqans (petty landed gentry) and the ways they sought to maintain their political and economic status throughout the early Islamic period. I really enjoy working on this early material because you have to work hard and think creatively to pull information from a limited supply of sources. I am also interested in the study of frontiers, the interactions between settled and nomadic societies, and numismatics (coins are often an important part of my research).
How did your time at DePaul shape your approach to classroom teaching at the University of Cincinnati?
I credit the fantastic professors I had at DePaul with my interest in becoming a professor myself and I often look back at my experiences at DePaul and think about what approaches engaged and benefited me as a student and which didn’t. Most importantly, I think about how much I appreciated the time professors took to work with me as an undergraduate. That personal attention was an important factor in my decision to major in History in the first place and I try to offer as much of my time and attention as possible to students who show an interest in History.
In my mind, there are a lot of similarities between DePaul and the University of Cincinnati. They are both in an urban setting with a diverse student body. Both schools have a large number of non-traditional and first generation students. There are also some pretty big differences, but I think when it comes to the factors that matter in how you approach the classroom the two schools share enough similarities that reflecting on my own experience as a student and the professors who inspired me is valuable.
What advice do you have for others who might be considering graduate work in History?
I think the most important thing for anyone considering graduate work in History (or most any field for that matter) to know is that success in graduate school is 99% persistence. The work is challenging and you need to be a self-motivator a lot of the time. If you go into a Ph.D. program, you will spend the majority of your time working independently on your dissertation research and there will be long gaps between deadlines and receiving feedback. For the most part, those who do well are the people who are passionate about their work and push themselves to work harder. You really have to enjoy doing research, writing, and teaching. A graduate degree in History is not going to lead to wealth or fame; you do it because you love it.