UT has recently garnered significant national accolades, including the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ Trailblazer award for retention and graduation rate gains and the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification for outreach. These successes are due to the hard work of our innovative employees. Here’s a look at two College of Arts and Sciences faculty members who are trailblazers in and out of the classroom.
For years, academic scholarship on the first centuries of Christianity relied primarily on texts written in Greek and Latin that were preserved in Western European traditions.
Tina Shepardson, an associate professor of religious studies, reasoned that untold passages of the story of Christianity might be found by blazing a new trail east, to Roman Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia.
By the fourth century, many Christian communities in these areas spoke a language called Syriac, but the history of Syriac-speaking Christians was largely lost in later Western accounts of Christianity’s history.
Having learned to read Syriac in addition to Latin and classical Greek, Shepardson has rediscovered some of that missing history in the writings of scholars and teachers in these eastern regions of the Roman Empire.
“There’s a resurging interest in this area, and new discoveries are being added back into the larger history of the religion,” she said.
Shepardson’s current research suggests that studying the development of a religious controversy that started in the fifth century may offer insight into religious conflicts happening today.
“In the fifth century, a theological controversy between different Christian groups became sharply politicized, creating separate churches that still exist to this day,” she said. “My hope is that studying the development of this schism will offer insight into some of the factors currently driving religious conflict toward radicalization around the world.”
Just as Christianity diverged and grew as it spread east and west, Shepardson said her own divergence from the usual scholastic path has brought many rewards.
“In the West, it’s common to study Latin texts, and so my interest in the eastern half of the Mediterranean set me apart a bit,” she said.
Shepardson recently used the framework of cultural geography to study how significant places in the fourth-century Syrian city of Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey) were redefined over time, and how changing perceptions of local places facilitated the Christianization of the Roman Empire.
“Cultural geography looks at the ways in which physical and rhetorical manipulations of places impact people’s behavior and sense of identity,” she said.
For example, Shepardson said, one place of worship might inspire awe and reverence in some who visit, while leaders of a competing religion might use hostile language to make their congregants afraid to go there.
“My last book studied how fourth-century leaders persuaded their listeners to see the places in and around their city in new ways that had significant implications for their religious identity, whether pagan, Jewish, Christian, or somewhere in between,” she said.
“Tina’s book is a work of seminal scholarship in this area of early Christianization and the roles played by these physical and rhetorical contests in that process,” said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Theresa Lee.
The work of redefining public spaces still goes on today, Shepardson said, citing the example of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
“Hijacked planes destroyed the Twin Towers, and the site of the World Trade Center became Ground Zero, its meaning as indelibly changed as its landscape,” she said. “The study of early Christianity sometimes sounds far away from twenty-first century America, but as I show my students, this history has a direct and significant relevance for today.”
Micheline van Riemsdijk
Throughout human history, people have chosen to leave their homes in search of security, health, wealth, adventure, and better opportunities for themselves and their families.
Associate Professor of Geography Micheline van Riemsdijk studies the movements of a particular kind of modern-day migrant: engineers, nurses, and information technology specialists with the professional skills increasingly valued in today’s global economy.
Many of these skilled workers end up in Norway, where companies have conducted an active international recruiting effort for many years.
“Micheline’s exemplary research on highly skilled migration and public policy in Norway has been validated by National Science Foundation funding,” Lee said.
The NSF is supporting van Riemsdijk’s research into the experiences of foreign-born engineers and other skilled professionals in Oslo and other Norwegian cities, and the ways their experiences are shaped by integration initiatives at local, regional, and national levels.
The project was funded by the NSF, van Riemsdijk said, because its findings will make theoretical contributions to geographical understandings of scales and networks, and will inform policy debates about competitiveness and innovation in the global knowledge economy.
“Geographers study social issues from a personal and institutional perspective, so my research combines the lived experiences of skilled migrants with an analysis of the social, cultural, economic, and governmental structures surrounding them,” she said.
Her interest in Norway actually predates her current research.
“I am from the Netherlands, which is a low-lying country, and so I was attracted to Norway for the skiing, the snow, and the mountains,” van Riemsdijk said. A year spent in the country after high school solidified her attraction.
Her current research focuses on the successes and difficulties of skilled professionals who move to Norway.
“Like any migrant, they experience barriers when moving to a new country,” she said. “They may experience problems with their work visas or face issues bringing along their families, buying a house, and adjusting to their new work environment where they may not speak Norwegian. Sometimes they feel left out of the conversation.”
Being a skilled migrant herself, van Riemsdijk says she can easily relate to her research subjects.
“Even though I’m not an engineer, I have had similar experiences in adjusting to life in another country,” she said. “It’s a bit easier for them to share their critiques and thoughts with me.”
In 2012 and 2013, van Riemsdijk brought UT students with her to Oslo for field interviews, an experience she says helps broaden their horizons.
“There is a global battle for brains, as it were, and I want my students to be ready to compete,” she said.
Charles Primm (865-974-5180, firstname.lastname@example.org)