Jennifer Hart named chair of Department of History
May 17, 2023
Jennifer Hart hasn’t always been interested in history.
Before she became an internationally recognized historian, the kind of history she studied in school seemed dull and unrelatable, disconnected from the history of everyday life that she found in historic houses, battlefields, and museum exhibits, she said. It wasn’t until she was in graduate school that she discovered the discipline can be “really exciting, incredibly dynamic, and very human.”
Hart, dedicated to sharing that more engaging practice of history with wider audiences, will join Virginia Tech in the fall semester as the new chair of the Department of History.
She follows Brett Shadle, who was appointed to the role in 2019.
Hart graduated from Denison University with a bachelor’s degree in international studies and philosophy before earning a master’s degree in history and a Ph.D. in African history at Indiana University. She is a historian of technology, infrastructure, mobility, and urban space in Africa, with a focus on 20th century Ghana.
Hart, who is also trained in anthropology, was never a fan of just memorizing names and dates. Instead, she likes to view history from the perspective of the individuals who lived it and delve into the “nitty gritty” of what it must have been like to live in a different time and place.
“At its best, historians look at evidence and try to use that evidence to understand what happened, why it happened, and what the implications of it were,” she said.
Her interest in African history sprang from the friendships she developed during her time in a choir with individuals from Zimbabwe. She said she “felt ashamed” that she didn’t know anything about the part of the world her friends were from and wanted to better understand what they and their families were experiencing. She joined a general international studies class and was challenged by a professor to follow a part of the world in the news. She chose Zimbabwe.
“I was really fascinated, and I became increasingly interested in southern Africa,” she said. “It was terrible that I, and most other people, were not learning anything about an entire continent that was the largest, most complex, most diverse, and wealthiest, in lots of ways, continent on the face of the earth.”
Dedicated to expanding access to that knowledge, her writing has appeared in numerous news and academic outlets, including The Washington Post, The Conversation, Africa is a Country, Nursing Clio, and Clio and the Contemporary.
Currently, she is an associate professor of history at Wayne State University, where she created a digital humanities minor and directed the general education program for three years.
Hart said she is an advocate for general and liberal arts education because she believes that no person should have to “be lucky” to benefit from the “transformative power of education.”
“This is really important to me because I was a person who felt like I had to be lucky,” Hart said. “In many ways I got here through luck - I found my path through general education to things that I had never even heard of before. And, thanks to investment from a lot of dedicated faculty and colleagues along the way, I get to live an exciting life now, doing things that I never imagined when I entered college.”
Her passion for general education led her to create an evidence-based program at Wayne State University to ensure students build the skills necessary for academic success and lifelong learning. She is also a senior scholar with the American Association of Colleges and Universities Office of Curricular and Pedagogical Innovation, where she helps develop general education programs.
Hart is a member of the steering committee for the Academic Leadership Academy, a fellow at the African Center for the Study of the United States at the University of Witwatersrand, and a co-founder and national leader in the emerging field of history communication.
Among her current ventures, Hart collaborates with the American Historical Association’s “Gateways” project to support history faculty development. She also directs the digital humanities project “Accra Wala,” which explores the culture and history of urban life in Accra, Ghana, through its public transport system.
Shadle said he is excited to welcome Hart to Virginia Tech and the history department.
“As a fellow historian of Africa, I have followed her many impressive research and outreach accomplishments,” Shadle said. “Having learned more about her teaching and service to her university, I am in awe at all she has done and is doing. I look forward to witnessing her take our department in new and exciting directions."
Hart, who grew up in Kentucky, said the move to Virginia feels a bit like a homecoming.
“I wanted to come back to the South,” Hart said. “I really wanted to come back to a community that felt familiar to me in an area that felt familiar so I could help create opportunities for people, like me, who did not necessarily know what was out there in the world.”
She said her vision for the history department includes continuing the great work faculty already are doing, but making it more visible and inclusive not only in Blacksburg, but in the scholarly community at large. She said she is impressed with the university’s Tech for Humanity initiative and the level of collaboration between colleges.
“Spreading the word, getting it out there, putting it in front organizations, and really seizing the opportunity,” Hart said as she listed her goals. “Because the work that the department is already doing is the direction the field is going.”
Dean Laura Belmonte said she is delighted Hart is joining the college.
“Her academic work, administrative experience, and exciting ideas make her a superb choice to lead the history department at this dynamic time in the college’s history,” Belmonte said. “I look forward to working closely with her.”
Written by Kelsey Bartlett