Faculty Spotlight

A Conversation with Dr. Jamie Miller


Dr. Jamie Miller is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Pitt’s History Department. His book, An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival, will be available on October 18th, 2016 through Amazon or Oxford University Press. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge (2013) and has been a Fox Predoctoral International Fellow at Yale University, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Quinnipiac University, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at Cornell. His article, entitled “Africanising Apartheid: Identity, Ideology, and State-Building in Independent Africa,” can be found online through PittCat.


How do you show students the worth in African history?


“I think we should all be doing what we can to bring students under the African history umbrella. If they want to even take one class—that’s fine. Dr. Webel and I offer various classes in African history to cater to this demand, but there is also a real demand for targeted, in depth, upper-level courses. Hopefully over the next few years we will see more of this type of African history course on offer, because we know that students are really straining at the leash for more African history.”


How do you teach your African history courses? Why is that important to students, and how is it accessible?


“I structure my courses around the big four themes: empire, capitalism, race, and the state. Those are the four strands that I use to weave through the material and tie it together. I zoom out, periodically, to the big picture in order to tie different places and focus points together into longer arcs of history, providing different vectors for students.


I’ve also started incorporating fiction and film into my courses, for instance. The truth is that students often don’t know much about Africa and they have a lot of preconceptions. One way to get past these obstacles is, counterintuitively, to actually take the professor out the equation and have them engage with African voices in-depth for themselves. Then they can read books by African authors to really get into African history on their own—they’ll have that forever, even if this is the only course they take and even if they forget much of what they learned in the class. I help them to situate what they are reading in the historical material, but they will have read Ngugi wa Thiongo, or Phaswane Mpe, and had an intimate experience with African history for themselves through the texts. I’m not the medium through which the information is ultimately passing. I tried this method last year and have really doubled down on it this time around. During the seminars when we talk about the books we are reading, the conversation breaks up the regular lecture format and involves different skills and ways of thinking. Some students take these courses for Africana studies, or are English Majors, and usually they are at a structural disadvantage vis-à-vis History majors. But the incorporation of literature and film helps them indulge their special skills, and helps me reach them on their preferred terrain. I think I’m going to more of this in future and not less.”


Why is it important for students to engage with African issues?


“Africa and African issues are, and are going to be, much more important to students as they get older. A lot of students come from families whose parents entered the job market when it was very America-centric. But travel, work, and culture are all going to become much more international in the future. These students won’t be able to get away with these America-centric paradigms when they meet people abroad. Africa in particular will be booming economically in the next couple of decades. Students’ jobs are more and more likely to involve interactions with African culture, clients, studies, and ideas. So not knowing where Africa is, or the basic contours of its history, just isn’t going to cut it, even in the most practical, mercenary sense.


Why is Pitt a wonderful place to take African classes?


“You should want to know everything about everything! The point of university is to discover new ideas. The average African lecturer, more so than even 20 years ago, is able to convey more rich, interesting African content. The proof is in the pudding: the quality of classes at Pitt are very high, and students appreciate and acknowledge that.”


What is your own research about?


“I have a book coming out in a couple months through Oxford University Press. It’s about how the white power structure in South Africa tried to make itself viable in the post-colonial world. This was done not so much by rejecting African nationalism and decolonisation, but actually by adapting and hijacking the very ideas anti-apartheid discourses contained, from self-determination to a rejection of racial hierarchy to anti-colonialism. It’s a very counter-intuitive story and it’ll be great to see the whole project finally come to fruition.”


What do students have to gain by taking diverse classes while at college?


“It’s so important to come to somewhere like Pitt—to big, public state schools. These are ideal places for students to meet people from different walks of life, different social classes, and different racial groups with different norms. There are a lot of universities where that only happens in theory. But in big state schools this happens in practice, and it makes me want to work harder for the students. The reality is that lots of students are being dealt a very poor hand by the current system, what with student debt and a lack of political will to fund education, and it makes me want to go the extra mile to help them learn about the world outside them, which is very confusing to them. Coming to university had an immense impact on my life and how I view the world. I want my students to find it just as transformative. A true liberal arts education in an environment that challenges you socially as well as intellectually, forcing you to grapple with other types of people within society, is a fantastic way to expand your mind.”


Check out Professor Miller's bio page and our other ASP faculty bios!