After graduating from BUA in 2000, Jennifer Johnson received her BA in History from Brown University and her PhD in History from Princeton University. She taught history at Lehman College and the City College of New York before returning to Brown in 2015 as an Assistant Professor of African History. Johnson is the author of The Battle for Algeria: Sovereignty, Health Care, and Humanitarianism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). In addition to her undergraduate and graduate teaching responsibilities at Brown, she is currently working on two projects, a book-length study on family planning programs in postcolonial Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia and a sourcebook of primary documents about African History. Her work has been supported by a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, a Watson Institute Collaboration Grant, and an American Institute for Maghrib Studies grant. In her free time, Johnson enjoys traveling, reading novels, cooking, gardening, and hanging out with her husband and their dog and cat.
You have traveled extensively in order to conduct research on twentieth-century North Africa. What has been one of your most valuable travel experiences? How does your travel and research help to inform your teaching?
Traveling for research is one of the many exciting parts of my job. Since graduate school, I’ve been fortunate to visit Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, France, Switzerland, the UK, Germany and many American cities to conduct research and/or to participate in conferences. While it’s difficult to pinpoint one experience as most valuable, one trip to Morocco in 2005 comes to mind as particularly important for how I think about the region, traveling abroad, and the kinds of lessons I hope my students will take away from my courses. During that summer, I went to Fes, Morocco for Arabic language training. I elected to live with a local Moroccan family in the old city. While I was eager for this opportunity, I was unsure what the experience of living in a place quite different from my own and among, what turned out to be, a large family would be like. To my delight, it was one of the most positive experiences I’ve had. My host family was so generous and welcoming. Despite our different backgrounds, cultures, and languages, I learned so much from them and felt truly integrated into their family. I think about this homestay often because it taught me to remain open-minded and curious and to seek out new challenges.
Has there been a moment in your education or career that was particularly surprising, challenging, or defining – or something that sticks with you to this day?
I matriculated to BUA as a junior, which compared with most of my peers, was quite late. I previously attended a boarding school but due to health issues, I needed to attend school closer to home (Cambridge). Naturally, I was nervous about starting a new school as an 11th grader. However, my classmates and teachers embraced me wholeheartedly and quickly made BUA my home. I made friends there who remain my closest friends to this day. What initially felt like an insurmountable hurdle and difficult transition at a critical juncture turned out to be one of the best decisions in my life.
One of Brown’s most distinguishing features is the open curriculum, which allows students to define their own personalized course of study. How did this factor into your undergraduate studies at Brown and your decision to return as a Professor?
Brown’s open curriculum is a big draw for the students! As a freshman, I was not sure what concentration I wanted to pursue and I truly benefited from exploring a range of disciplines including History, French, Anthropology, Modern Culture and Media, Linguistics, Africana Studies and English. Had it not been for that curriculum flexibility, I might not have discovered my love of history.
The open curriculum is also very exciting for faculty because it affords us the opportunity to teach courses that directly tie into our research. For example, last year, 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 with each other and with my students. It’s rare for such synergy to occur.
Was there a class, professor, or experience you had at BU Academy that helped spark your passion for teaching?
Sarah McMillan (English) and Richard Horn (History) were my most memorable teachers at BUA. Their dedication to the students and their passion for the material made it easy to be inspired as a student. Not only did I look forward to their classes but I also enjoyed talking with them outside of the classroom. They were so supportive and encouraging and went the extra mile to ensure students’ success. Now as a professor I try to emulate these qualities that I learned from them.