As a new hire in RISD’s History, Philosophy + the Social Sciences department, Assistant Professor Andrew Robarts is bringing Middle Eastern history to life for art students. His research focuses on human migration patterns and changing political, cultural and economic environments, but teaching at RISD, he says, has put an entirely new spin on the material he’s been studying for decades.
Robarts first became engrossed in the Ottoman Empire when he moved to Bulgaria in the early 1990s to teach at the American College of Sofia. Founded in the 1860s, the venerable institution educated high school students for nearly 90 years before the Communist regime shut it down in 1947. It was resurrected some 40 years later after the dissolution of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
“At about that time, I was working in an office park in Stamford, CT,” Robarts recalls. “I knew that there was real action taking place in Eastern Europe after the wall fell, so I went there to teach English and be a part of the faculty that reopened the school. The experience changed my life.”
In a sense, Robarts wanted to become part of living history. He had lived in a number of other countries that once bordered—or were subsumed by—the Ottoman Empire, including Turkey, Azerbaijan and Lebanon. “My father worked for the Ford Foundation,” he explains, “so we moved back and forth between the US, the Balkans and the Middle East. At an early age I was exposed to Islam as a part of Arab culture but also in its Turkic manifestation.”
Before coming to RISD, Robarts taught history at more conventional liberal arts colleges such as the University of California/Riverside and Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. “I was really excited when I saw the breadth of courses included in RISD’s Liberal Arts division,” he says. “My colleagues here bring so much dynamism and energy to their teaching and weave visual culture into their classes. I take very seriously the responsibility of teaching art students, who may have only a few opportunities to study history. But in my first year, I’m still figuring out the best way to help them connect with the discipline and with the specialties I bring to RISD.”
One of those specialties is epidemiology and the ways in which great pandemics have steered the course of human history. In Disease in History, a seminar Robarts is teaching this spring, students are looking at displacement and migration and how public health systems have evolved in response to epidemics.
“We’ve been focusing on tuberculosis, which was a big killer in the 19th century,” says Robarts. “But issues related to disease, mobility and border control are still very much with us. I worked with refugees for six or seven years before getting my PhD, and I remember them arriving in the US with these big manila folders that held their lung X-rays and the certificates saying they were clear of tuberculosis.”
Last fall Robarts taught Istanbul History + Fiction, a seminar that draws on literature to help students imagine the ancient city at various moments in history. “What does modernity mean in a city like Istanbul?” he asks. “How is it manifested visually through architecture, transportation systems and the like? There are so many cultural layers in Istanbul. It’s a great milieu for engaging in questions about historical processes and how they’re reflected culturally.”
Robarts is delighted to report that he’ll be returning to Istanbul next January for Mapping Istanbul, a Wintersession course he’ll co-teach with Associate Professor of Foundation Studies Leslie Hirst. “I’m really looking forward to working with a colleague outside of Liberal Arts,” he says. “I’m sure the experience will broaden my teaching horizons even further, energize me as a scholar and help me to keep making those unique connections that are at the heart of a RISD education.”
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