Jennifer Johnson is one of four new faculty members who joined the History department last fall and author of the new book, The Battle for Algeria: Sovereignty, Health Care, and Humanitarianism. In addition to her expertise in North African history, Professor Johnson is an exciting addition to the department as her plans and hopes for her classroom are much aligned with the spirit of Brown academics — thoughtful interdisciplinarity and creative study.
Having been an undergraduate here, how does it feel to be back at Brown as a professor?
It feels great to come back because I loved Brown so much. It was a place that had wonderful faculty and wonderful opportunities. It exposed me to the discipline of history and I always found the conversations to be very stimulating. Now as a faculty member, I find the conversations with my colleagues and students equally engaging.
And it’s just a place that I hold very dear. I thought Brown was a great place to go to school. It is a very creative space that encourages thinking across disciplines and asking different kinds of questions which I don’t think is the case everywhere else. I benefited from that approach as a student, and now I can see the benefits of having students engage with a broad approach that stretches them across different fields and disciplinary conventions.
Related to interdisciplinary studies, many people would not think of an academic link between history and medicine. How did this field of the history of medicine and public health become a focus for you?
I never studied the history of medicine or the history of science in college. I didn’t even know that it was a subfield of history. But I took a couple of classes in graduate school that shifted the way I thought about history. Often times history is analyzed from a political perspective, or an economic perspective, or a labor perspective, or a gender perspective — there are all of these different ways to ask questions about what types of things have happened in a particular place. But health care seemed like a totally different avenue for understanding how people viewed their bodies, their cultures, their environments, their politics and their economies. It was just sort of a backdoor — or side door — approach. It’s also a very interdisciplinary approach. It invites a lot of discussion with other disciplines with regards to how people live and relate to each other in society.
Last November, you presented at aconference called “Medicine and Public Health in Africa: Past, Present, and Future.” Why did you organize this conference at Brown and what did you hope attendees would take away from the event?
I was teaching an upper-level seminar for the History department that semester called “Medicine and Public Health in Africa,” and I thought that it would be interesting if we had a seminar that was essentially a companion part of the class that students participated in. I invited scholars who were on the syllabus and other scholars who were writing, working, and researching on the topics of public health and medicine in Africa. That’s how the conference originated in my mind: it would really be a curricular enhancement for the students.
But then I thought, wouldn’t it be great for faculty working on related themes to talk to each other about their current projects, and for students to see what academics do? So not only would students meet the scholars and read their work, but then take it to the next level and have a day-long symposium where the scholars and students engaged one another. This was designed in large part with students in mind and I hope it enhanced their overall learning experience in the course.
I aimed to stimulate a dialogue amongst the faculty and the students. I also hoped to introduce more Africa-related activities and events to campus. This conference was a way to bring some faculty from Brown — but also outside scholars — from different departments like history, anthropology, sociology, and the School of Public Health together. All of those different units were represented from Brown for what I hope was the first of many conversations about Africa.
What other courses do you hope to teach at Brown?
Next semester I’ll be teaching a course called “Modern Africa: From Empire to Nation-State,” which is a survey course from 1940 to the present. I’m really excited to teach that because I believe there is a lot of interest for African history at Brown and this class is designed to be a lower-level intro to the topic. I’m also hoping to teach classes on nationalism and decolonization in Africa, North African history, the Algerian war, and humanitarianism and conflict in Africa and the French Empire.