Monday, March 29, 2010

Living History: Prof's Ground-Level Experience

Guest blog by Lisa A. Patterson

Every year, a select few UNC Charlotte faculty members are honored in award ceremonies for their dedication to teaching, exceptional research or the mentorship they provide to students. We’re gearing up to present one such award April 14 – the First Citizens Bank Scholars Medal. This year’s recipient, Dr. Lyman Johnson, a professor of history, is being honored for his achievements as a scholar of late colonial Latin American/Argentine history.

One of the amazing things about quality scholarship is the way it can illuminate a subject that might seem esoteric at first glance. Even better if the person doing the research is passionate about his/her subject – that passion becomes evident to students and colleagues and informs everything the scholar produces. Dr. Johnson is a prime example of a passionate scholar who has contributed to the advancement of his field and the growth of his department, and to the reputation of UNC Charlotte as a research institution.

Like all of the best scholars, Dr. Johnson has immersed himself in his field, spending extended stints in Argentina, the country in which he specializes. In a recent interview, he recounted a harrowing experience from one such trip that led him to a greater understanding of his subject and the struggles his Argentine colleagues face. This is the story in his own words:

I feel I’ve been very fortunate because my wife and I and my family has opportunity to travel all over Latin America. You can find yourself being in history. I was a Fulbright professor in Argentina – we arrived a few weeks after the military had driven Estela Martinez de Peron from power. When we arrived at the airport there were tanks in the parking lots, and soldiers. You could hear gunshots in the streets at night. We had one personal incident that was really terrifying to us. We were in Salta, close to the Bolivian border, and in the middle of the night two guys beat on the door of the hotel room. They were armed with pistols. They ransacked our luggage, asked a series of questions and left. What we discovered the next day was that the federal police chief had been assassinated and the police were looking throughout the country for people with fraudulent passports. There were other incidences like that. In the end my wife decided to take our 5-year-old daughter home early. I finished my term, but it took my wife a while to want to go back. We’d had a wonderful time just six years earlier, but it was a shock to us. But in some ways that was the experience of all my Argentine colleagues – almost all had been forced to flee the country under threat of death and had spent time outside the country. It helped me understand the enormous difficulties my colleagues faced in Latin America during political conflict. The experience didn’t sour us, or change my love of the place. But it reminded us there was a series of huge political issues outside of the archives you had to pay attention to. Having seen that, it’s made me understand it in some way, what the ground level experience of people was during times of violence and political confrontation.

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