Middle East Studies

I know that Brown’s open curriculum is a big draw for the students! But it’s also very exciting for faculty because it affords us the opportunity to teach courses that directly tie into our research.

Jennifer Johnson, Assistant Professor of History

Assistant Professor of History Jennifer Johnson shares latest research and the benefits of open curriculum

Can you tell us what research you’re currently working on? 

I am currently working on two projects. The first project is a book-length study on the relationship between public health and state-building in postcolonial North Africa. Specifically, my research explores the politics of family planning and nutrition programs in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. These intensely intimate questions were controversial and vigorously debated; they also informed national health policy and had significant bearing on foreign aid and development initiatives. Therefore, this study aims to make three interventions. First, by focusing on health-related topics, it seeks to move beyond the more conventional political and economic concerns that scholars tend to concentrate on when analyzing postcolonial African and Middle Eastern states and highlight the complex social, cultural and religious challenges that newly sovereign nations faced after empire. Second, it demonstrates the deep imbrication of health, economic development and international aid in this period. And third, it shows how local leaders coopted global health campaigns for their own benefits and used their assistance to bolster and expand their national health services in the wake of decolonization.

The second project I am working on (with Professor Nancy Jacobs) is a sourcebook of African History. This collection of primary sources focuses on 1945 to 2000 and will be one of the few readers to integrate North African sources throughout the text. We hope this will be a useful tool for instructors and students of African history.

Where in the world has your research taken you recently? What projects were you pursuing as you traveled?

Last year I received a Woodrow Wilson National Foundation Career Enhancement Fellowship to conduct research for my project on public health in postcolonial North Africa. I was fortunate to have traveled to numerous countries and archives, including the national archives in Morocco and Tunisia, the World Health Organization, Red Cross, and United Nations archives in Geneva, the French diplomatic and consular archives in Paris and Nantes, the British National Archives in London, and the Rockefeller Archives and United Nations archives in New York.

 Do you have any recent or upcoming publications?

My first book, "The Battle for Algeria: Sovereignty, Health Care, and Humanitarianism," was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2016. I also wrote a review essay which was published last year: “New Directions in the History of Medicine in European, Colonial, and Transimperial Contexts,” Contemporary European History, vol. 25, 2 (May 2016), 387-399.

How do your own research interests inform the courses and material(s) you teach here at Brown? 

I know that Brown’s open curriculum is a big draw for the students! But it’s also very exciting for faculty because it affords us the opportunity to teach courses that directly tie into our research. For example, in the fall, I taught a course entitled “Medicine and Public Health in Africa,” in which I was able to explore many of the central questions in my current research. I organized a one-day conference by the same name and invited leading scholars in the field of History of Medicine and Public Health to discuss their current research.

What advice do you have for undergraduates pursuing (or considering) a Middle East Studies concentration?

I suggest that you take a few classes that interest you. The MES concentration encompasses a wide array of disciplines, such as History, Comparative Literature, Anthropology, Sociology, and Modern Culture and Media. You never know what might spark a passion. And I strongly recommend that you start studying a language and travel to the region if the opportunity arises.