Faculty Spotlight - Professor Eileen Ryan

The History Department Welcomes Professor Eileen Ryan

By Kathleen Biddick, Associate Chair

Eileen RyanThe History Department welcomes its newest faculty member, Professor Eileen Ryan. She comes to Temple with a freshly minted doctoral degree from the History Department of Columbia University. She is a student of Italian colonialism in North Africa and asks how the intersections of Catholicism and Islam have helped to form the modern Italian state. Her dissertation is titled: The Italian Colonial Administration and the Sanusiyya: Religion and Resistance in Libya 1911-31. Eileen took time out from her busy first week of teaching at Temple to meet with me and what follows are the highlights of her thoughtful answers to questions of interest to our alumni, graduate students, and undergraduates. As you read, you will understand why the word "intrepid" appears often in the glowing letters of recommendation in her dossier.

Q: Our undergraduates, in particular, are curious to know: how does a historian become a historian? Would you share with us the turning points that led to your doctoral research into Italian Colonialism in Libya in the early twentieth-century?
A: I think it was sometime in high school that I became aware of the tension between the secularizing claims of Western democracies and the abiding influence of religion in modern societies. My interest in this tension inspired me to major in religious studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and I went on to get a masters degree in religious studies at the University of Chicago.

It was at Chicago that I encountered a turning point that led me to pursue my study of history. In 2003, I was browsing through an Italian newspaper when I saw a report of a court case that shaped the course of my future research. A Muslim Italian had sued his local school system for the removal of crucifixes from his daughters’ classrooms. The case sparked an intense national debate and resulted in a regional court upholding the continued display of the crucifixes. Despite an official separation between Church and State, the Italian judge characterized the crucifix as a cultural artifact that provided a crucial understanding of Italian identity to the students in the school. As I tried to unpack the significance of the public reaction to this case in Italy, I began to realize that I needed to develop the kinds of analytical tools used by historians. I wanted to understand how this court case fit into a longer history of Italian involvement in the wider Mediterranean. My first step was to enroll in Arabic language courses. My next step was to begin a doctoral program in the history department at Columbia University. That was the beginning of my career as a historian.

Q: As our Temple graduate students craft their dissertation projects and plan their trips to archives, they are curious about the following question: Once you fell in love with your project on Italian colonialism in North Africa, what kinds of support did you need on your way to pursue your scholarly dream?
A: A project of the dimensions I envisioned requires research in a wide range of archives throughout the European and Mediterranean world, so I could not approach my research without a full arsenal of languages at my disposal. I was lucky to receive generous financial support in the sum of about $75,000 to fund both my language studies and my archival research in Libya, Egypt, England, France, and Italy. I received fellowships from the American Institute of Maghbreb Studies, FLAS (Federal Language Area Studies Grant), the American Academy in Rome, the Council for European Studies, the Barbieri Endowment for Italian Culture, and Sciences Po in Paris.

My dissertation work also depended on the kindness of strangers around the world. My visits to Libya and Italy put me in close contact with warm colleagues who were eager to engage in my project and help me along the way. Archivists, those unsung heroes, offered me immense support and proved to be invaluable fonts of knowledge. I also connected with a journalist investigating the plight of Libyans and Tunisians who fled to the Italian island of Lampedusa during the uprisings of the Arab Spring. She took me to the island to act as her translator, and the trip allowed me to observe firsthand the geographic and cultural connections between southern Europe and North Africa in the Mediterranean. On the southern shore of Lampdeusa, a sculpture by Mimmo Paladino called the “Gate to Europe” immortalized those trying to cross the Mediterranean, and it struck me as an apt symbol of my research which tries to show that the gate swings both ways.

Q: As you encounter Temple undergraduates for the first time this week, what visions of undergraduate education do you bring to the Temple classroom and what, in particular, drew you to Temple?
A: I was first drawn to Temple for its strong historical mission of improving access to higher education, a cause that has always been near to my heart. During my graduate studies at Columbia, I volunteered as a career mentor for New York Needs You, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing guidance and resources for first-generation college students. But it was the interest in Temple in combining that mission with its unshakable dedication to research excellence that convinced me that Temple would prove the ideal place for me to make this transition from graduate student to professor. I hope I can pass along to my students here a passion for learning about the past to understand more about the present.