Three GW Historians Awarded ACLS Fellowships

The research fellowships will allow the professors in the Department of History to pursue their respective book projects.

March 23, 2018

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Joel Blecher, assistant professor of history, will explore the relationship between religion and capitalism with his book project. (Photo courtesy Joel Blecher)

By Briahnna Brown

The American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) has awarded 2018-19 fellowships to three professors in The George Washington University Department of History: Joel Blecher, Dina Khoury and Erin Chapman.

The ACLS grants fellowships to doctoral and postdoctoral-level scholars in the humanities to complete major pieces of scholarly work and are intended to help scholars devote anywhere from six months to more than a year to academic research for their projects.

While it is unusual for one department in one institution to receive three of these awards in the same year, Katrin Schultheiss, associate professor of history and chair of the Department of History, said that the department’s faculty has won multiple prestigious research awards in the past few years. In 2017, Andrew Zimmerman, professor of history, received the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship—the second consecutive year the department’s faculty received a Guggenheim.

“The history department has a long and impressive record of research productivity marked by perennial success in garnering prestigious national fellowships like the ACLS,” Dr. Schultheiss said. “While I’m not surprised that GW historians are receiving so much recognition, it’s still very impressive.”

For Dr. Blecher, assistant professor of history, the ACLS Fellowship is the second national award he was granted this year. He also won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to pursue his book project, “Profit and Prophecy: Islam and the Spice Trade from Venice to India.” 

The book will explore the relationship between religion and capitalism in medieval Islam as seen through the spice trade and how the economy was held accountable by moral questions of how it should function. With the ACLS fellowship, Dr. Blecher plans to travel to Oman and India and visit libraries along the spice routes he is researching.

“I thought that this would be a really rich case study to explore and would be able to contribute to the field of Islamic studies insofar as that it would ground all of these seemingly abstract debates about commerce and trade and ground them in the lived realities of the spice trade,” Dr. Blecher said.


Professor of History Dina Khoury plans to research in British, Indian, Turkish, Iraqui and Kuwaiti archives to research her book project. (GW Today)

Dr. Khoury, professor of history, also specializes in middle eastern history. With her book project, she will explore global migration patterns to the Persian Gulf in the late 19th century through the transportation of slaves and other forms of bonded and contract labororers from East Africa and the relationship between the documentation of the laborers and nationality in the region.

She said that present-day debates on citizenship and labor migration sparked her interest in this research. With the ACLS Fellowship, Dr. Khoury plans to devote 18 months to research in archives in Britain, India, Turkey, Iraq and Kuwait.

"So much of the legal underpinnings of our citizenship in the contemporary period are shaped by government attempts to keep some people out and hem others in--this is true for the U.S. and Europe as it is for the Persian Gulf,” Dr. Khoury said. “I wanted to find out the historical precedents of these debates in the countries I am covering and their relationship to nationality and citizenship.”


Associate Professor of History Erin Chapman is writing a biography on famed playwright Lorraine Hansberry for her book project. (Photo courtesy Erin Chapman)

Dr. Chapman, associate professor of history, is working on a cultural and historical biography of journalist and playwright Lorraine Hansberry, best known for authoring the play, “A Raisin in the Sun.” The book project will examine Ms. Hansberry’s writings and personal life as a lens through which the “radical activism” of black artists during the mid-20th century black freedom movement, Dr. Chapman explained.

She said she became fascinated by Ms. Hansberry after reading her journals in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. Dr. Chapman said that she identified with Ms. Hansberry’s perspective on being a black, intellectual feminist.

“The ACLS Fellowship is invaluable,” Dr. Chapman said. “It affords me the time I'll need to finally devote my working hours to this project, and it's also a wonderful confirmation of the academy's faith in my scholarship.”