Inspiring Ideas: College of Arts and Sciences

Innovative teaching. Encouraging demeanor. A passion for the subject. Contagious enthusiasm. All of these traits help inspire students to great ideas. Here are four faculty members from the College of Arts and Sciences whose teaching, research, and community service are both inspired and inspiring.

Michelle Brown

Michelle Brown, an assistant professor of sociology who teaches classes about law and justice, often has her students talk about difficult topics, such as pain, suffering, and societal exclusion.

These topics can make people squirm in their seats, but Brown manages to get her students to participate in the discussion without hesitation. What is her secret?

She allows her students to be uncomfortable and ask questions, and she hopes their discomfort inspires new ideas that reach beyond traditional thinking.

“Holding the position of discomfort—to borrow from yoga class—or being caught in contexts of uncertainty is a learning and transformative space. These are the places where we are pushed creatively, imaginatively to think beyond the oppressive structures of everyday life,” Brown said.

She has accomplished a great deal since she joined UT, and she recently was honored by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

“Michelle Brown is a productive and hard-working junior faculty member who has accomplished a great deal since she joined our faculty,” said Theresa Lee, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Out of the classroom, Brown’s current project examines how people on the fringe of society see themselves beyond legal structures such as citizenship. From these often faceless and voiceless communities, she seeks new ideas about social justice.

“In prisons, camps, and other total institutions as well as in settings of extreme poverty and conflict and disaster dislocation, people are stripped of political rights and compelled to improvise new perspectives and makeshift communities to survive. I see these as spaces where emergent models for social justice are lived and embodied,” Brown said.

Being reminded of the world’s injustice on a regular basis, it might be easy to have a lackluster outlook on life, but Brown does not. Rather, her work inspires her to strive for a better tomorrow.

“A lot of people assume that my work has an unusually dark or bleak focus, but actually I am drawn—or compelled—to these spaces for hopeful reasons,” she said. “I want to learn more about how transformation takes shape amid competing visions of justice and in the starkest of human conditions.”

Brown came to UT in 2011. She previously worked at Indiana University and Ohio University. She did her undergraduate and graduate work at Indiana University.

Tom Burman

As his time as head of the Department of History comes to a close, professor Thomas Burman says he learned more than expected—not just about leadership but also about Booker T. Washington, women travelers of early modern Japan, and many more topics that his colleagues study.

“As department head, I had to read my colleagues’ scholarly work particularly closely. This has been a marvelous experience because we have such a great group of scholars in the department,” Burman said.

His colleagues’ work was more than a source of information; it was also a source of inspiration. From these works, Burman’s passion as a historian grew.

“Reading the recent works of the faculty members of UT’s history department makes me want to be a better historian,” Burman said.

Burman’s own area of research covers medieval Latin and Arabic manuscripts, and his research inspiration comes from the source of his studies:

“Copies of medieval encyclopedias or copies of the Qur’an that circulated in Europe and were read by European scholars. Holding these old, old handwritten books, often with notes scribbled in the margins by medieval readers, always gets my creative juices going,” Burman said.

Burman’s work does not go unnoticed. He was recently awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship for the 2013–2014 academic year, and Dean Lee is delighted by his success.

“He was awarded the fellowship to work on his project titled ‘The Dominicans, Islam, and Christian Thought, 1220–1320.’ This is the second NEH fellowship awarded to Tom; the other one was in 2002–2003,” Lee said.

He derives the material for his graduate student seminar from his research and from a favorite book, which he hopes will inspire the next generation of historians.

“The class is built around George Steiner’s amazing book, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. It’s a book that’s been inspiring me for fifteen years, and I hope it will do the same for them,” he said.

Burman’s term as head of the Department of History ends this summer when he resumes his normal faculty duties.

Burman has been at UT since 1991. He has a bachelor’s degree from Whitman College in Washington State, a master’s degree from the University of Toronto, a Licentiate of Mediaeval Studies from the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto, and a doctorate from the University of Toronto.

Witek Nazarewicz

Professor of Physics Witek Nazarewicz is a landscaper, but not in the traditional sense. Where some may fuss with plants and weeds to make a patch of land beautiful, Nazarewicz uses supercomputers to map out the landscape of atomic nuclei to widen the understanding of nuclear landscape.

His work as a nuclear theorist led him to the discovery that the chart of nuclides has more than double the number of nuclei previously identified. He carried out this research using the density functional theory, which is used to describe molecules, solids, and atomic nuclei.

But he did not make this pivotal discovery on his own. He inspired his students, both undergraduate and graduate, to assist him with this research.

“The students made important contributions to this work. They identified and counted the experimentally known isotopes, edited figures, compiled data, and developed codes to graph data for tables and figures,” Nazarewicz said. “It was a pleasure seeing their skills grow through this process.”

Guided by Nazarewicz’s assistance and knowledge, the team made a permanent mark on the frontier of nuclear physics.

Nazarewicz is the recipient of several awards in his field, including the 2012 Tom W. Bonner Prize in Nuclear Physics, hailed as the “most prestigious nuclear physics prize in the United States,” as well the 2012 Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Distinguished Scientist Award.

“Nazarewicz is an accomplished senior member of the faculty who has earned an international reputation,” Lee said.

Nazarewicz came to East Tennessee in 1991 as a research professor at the UT-ORNL Joint Institute for Heavy Ion Research, and joined UT’s physics faculty as a professor in 1995.

Althea Murphy-Price

For Assistant Professor of Art Althea Murphy-Price, hair serves as an inspiration, a tool, and a process.

Using synthetic hair sent through a variety of processes, she sculpts and makes prints that comment on a personal and cultural history of hair.

“I am interested in hair as a symbol of assimilation, culture, race, and fashion, and my creative process is one that parallels an approach to styling hair—the variable and compliant nature of hair allows me the freedom to work in a number of ways rooted in ornamentation,” Murphy-Price said.

The project grew from her personal history with hair but soon expanded to explore the role of hair in African-American culture.

“Art is all about exploration. Through the creative process you learn so much about who you are,” Murphy-Price said.

Murphy-Price’s work is noticed beyond UT.

“She is one of forty-seven artists from a pool of over 400 nominees selected for the Southern Graphics Council International’s Traveling Exhibition,” Lee said.

Seeing her students work through the creative process motivates Murphy-Price and influences her own work. In the studio, she encourages her students to explore different methods and to revisit their work—sometimes asking them to do unconventional things, such as cutting up their artwork and reworking it. The time spent with her students is reflected in her own work.

“I learn a lot from my students. I want to create an environment where dialogue can be exchanged,” Murphy-Price said.

Murphy-Price has been at UT since 2010. She attended the University of Colorado and earned her bachelor’s degree from Spelman College in Atlanta, her master’s degree from Purdue University and her Master of Fine Arts from Temple University. She also studied in Rome and Florence, Italy.

Visit altheamurphyprice.com for samples of Murphy-Price’s work.

C O N T A C T :

Christine Copelan (865-974-2225, ccopela7@utk.edu)

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)

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