2018-2019 Faculty Research


Professor William Ascher — Pride and Identity among the Isanese

Student Research Assistant – Charlotte Reinnoldt

The people of Northeast Thailand (Isan), the nation’s poorest region, labor under difficult circumstances of contested identity and stereotyping. These problems propelled the Isan-based “red shirt” movement, which has engaged in considerable violence, precipitating the 2014 military takeover, and constituting an obstacle to poverty alleviation. The gulf between Isanese and those from the wealthier and politically dominant central region is based on disparagement of the Isanese language (between standard Thai and Laotian), the Laotian ethnicity of many Isanese, Isan’s economic backwardness, and the overthrow of Isan-supported populist governments in 2006 in 2014. Young Isanese, exposed to standard Thai through  education and mass media, hide their accent vis-à-vis non-Isanese; many abandon particular Isanese practices, while still harboring deep resentment toward central Thais and the government. The 2016 death of revered King Bhumibol, and the controversial succession of his son, are potentially destabilizing; some red shirts oppose the monarchy that the military is committed to defending.

What can the current and future Thai governments do to balance pride in being both Isanese and Thai, while reducing the risk of destructive conflict? Can Thai leaders’ long-standing “nation-building cultural homogenization project be moderated to accord more respectful standing to the distinctiveness of the Isanese? Other Southeast Asian countries, most notably Indonesia, have adopted policies on language and cultural respect that should be examined to explore approaches for Thailand.

This analysis will be a central part of a book, and journal articles, on the psychology of conflict-sensitive poverty alleviation in developing countries.


Professor Esther Chung-Kim — Migration and Community: Anabaptist Models for Poor Relief

Student Research Assistant – Furaha Njoroge

This project advances the scholarly discourse on the history of poor relief by illustrating the close relationship between religion and poor relief, especially during periods of migration, crisis, and economic or political turmoil. This research illuminates the shifting religious understandings of poverty, wealth, and social change in radical Anabaptist reformers in order to establish a framework for understanding the way religious values, ideals, and reforms interacted with one of the most glaring socio-economic problems of the sixteenth century: poverty. This study on Anabaptist reforms promotes a greater understanding of the role of religion in poor relief goals for migratory communities, which illuminates how radical religionists addressed one of the most common reasons for poverty in the early modern period, namely exile, migration, and displacement during a period of intense religious divisions. The study of Anabaptist settlements expands the previous perception of limited economic choices in early modern society. A clearer understanding of the role of religion in social reform is important to the humanities because such a study of the multi-faceted contributions to social change highlights the practical relevance and impact that religious values, ideals, and motivations had in shaping human society and communities.


Professor Nita Kumar — Cricket, Bollywood and Kebabs: Indian and Pakistani History in the Diaspora

Student Research Assistant – Ravi Sadhu

Historians debate the nature of history as related to memory, community-building and the politics of identity. Historians of South Asia, particularly, have been interested in how colonial constructions of “Hindu” and “Muslim” came to be internalised in the subcontinent, centuries of syncretism forgotten, and how these constructions led from the 1940s to an India-Pakistan animosity that was pushed back into a historical past. My project is to collect oral history data from residents in Los Angeles and Orange Counties who are of Indian and Pakistani origin. My purpose is to see how history works in everyday life, that is, in what ways the knowledge and consciousness of history contributes to the identities and inter- personal relationships of my informants. This will allow me to contribute to the conversation about the nature of history, and also to the debate about the importance of communal constructions for Hindu- Muslim co-existence. I will look for the following kinds of data. What are the sources of knowledge of the past (school syllabi, popular culture, gossip, travel) and how far do informants evaluate their sources of knowledge? To what extent does their historical knowledge shape their inter-relationships and conduct towards each other? What may be the relevant weight of commercial versus ideological considerations? Are present-day dimensions of life, such as residence in the USA, and the entertainment of cricket, Bollywood and South Asian food, more influential in creating bonds than are memory and history?


Professor Seth Lobis – Radical Composition: Poetry, Rhetoric, and Etymology from Spenser to Milton

Student Research Assistant – Ji Young (Zoey) Ryu

Etymology, the study and interpretation of word origins, has long been part of the European poet's stock-in-trade. In previous scholarly accounts, the practice of poetic etymologizing from classical antiquity through the early modern period has been treated as largely a superficial phenomenon, a matter of individual jeux d'esprit. This book project, Radical Composition: Poetry, Rhetoric, and Etymology from Spenser to Milton, overturns the assumption that the poetic use of etymology was primarily ornamental. Focusing on literary and linguistic writing in early modern England, I argue that in a number of significant cases sixteenth- and seventeenthcentury authors used etymology not merely as a means of adornment but also as a principle of composition. By cultivating the roots of keywords, these authors were rewarded with an abundant outgrowth of verbal and thematic material with which to form and shape their work.

As a Gould grantee, I would be working with Ji Young (Zoey) Ryu on the researching and writing of the fourth chapter of Radical Composition, tentatively entitled "What Does It Mean to Stand and Fall in Milton's Universe?" The chapter is centered on an analysis of John Milton's seventeenth-century epic, Paradise Lost, which takes the Fall of Adam and Eve as its central subject. Rejecting the idea that the Fall was predetermined, I argue, Milton organized his Biblical narrative as a verbal and thematic contest between standing and falling—that is, between remaining obedient to God on one hand and disobeying on the other hand.


Professor Derek Smith — The Emergence of the Rakim Era in Global Poetics

Student Research Assistant – Janise Waites

“The Emergence of the Rakim Era in Global Poetics” tabulates and contextualizes the formal innovations that transformed rap poetry from an adolescent limerick display into a mature art form, particularly adept in the expression mass culture narratives in the age of neoliberal capitalism. Among lay and scholarly observers of Hip Hop history there is general consensus that popular American poetics underwent a radical shift in the middle of the 1980s. Rap—the ascendant form of mass-culture African American expressiveness—became more complex and more cerebral than it had been in the first decade of its development. It is also widely accepted that this change was catalyzed by formal and thematic innovations in the work of William “Rakim” Griffin. At the time when Rakim was writing the poetry that appeared on his debut album, Paid in Full (1986), standard rap fare consisted of couplets linked by simple male end-rhyme. Rakim’s inventive aesthetic redoubled rap’s obsession with rhyme as it more tightly fused together couplets through the use of cascading internal and multi-syllabic rhyme schemes that reveled in metrical intricacy, and explicitly called attention to the cerebral dimensions of Hip Hop expressiveness. Arguing that the mid-1980s explosion in the popularity and the thematic diversity of rap is a function of the introduction of aesthetic complexity, this project first uses comparative close-readings to delineate the formal alterations that Rakim inaugurated in rap poetics. Then, building upon analysis of evolution in rap’s poetic form, the project further posits that the widespread adoption of aesthetic formulas pioneered by Rakim were key to the emergence of rap as a primary medium of worldwide poetic expression.


Professor Jamel A. Velji — The Infidel’s Drink: Coffee, Islam, and Europe

Student Research Assistant – Bhavika Anandpurda

This book project, The Infidel’s Drink: Coffee, Islam, and Europe, examines narratives concerning selected moments in the history of coffee—a beverage first domesticated and popularized by Muslims—to examine how religious discourses, as articulated in as yet untranslated texts and manuscripts, ascribed a divine origin to the beverage. I then examine the ways in which coffee’s Islamic origins became transmuted as coffee entered Europe. The final section of this project, commodity meets modernity, examines the ways in which the mass marketing of coffee, beginning in the 19th century, continued to frame a certain relationship between coffee and Muslims. This project provides us with a new understanding of Islamic pasts, as well fresh perspectives on the history of interactions between Europeans and Muslims.