Fresh Faculty: Vanessa Walker
Issue   |   Wed, 02/19/2014 - 00:21
Vanessa Walker

Assistant Professor of History Vanessa Walker received her B.A. from Whitman College. She got her M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has published work on 1970s human rights movements and is currently working on a book about human rights policies in the 1970s.

Q: How did you begin studying your subject?
A: I went to a small liberal arts school like Amherst as an undergraduate — I went to Whitman College in Washington State. I was actually a biology major, and I had to take classes in various areas for requirements, so I took a history of Vietnam course for a distribution requirement. I fell in love with it! I was completely enthralled. I thought I was not interested in anything political and only took it because I needed to get so many distribution requirements. I found myself intrigued then in political history and in American political history in particular. So I took another course, then another course, then came a minor, a major and an honors thesis. Now, here I am having pursued that rather than marine biology — my parents are still wondering what happened!

Q: What is your primary research area and what made you become interested in it?
A: My research is primarily on human rights and foreign policy in the 1970s, particularly between the United States and Latin America, but also on human rights more broadly. I became interested in it, again, thinking about my undergraduate years as a student in the ’90s when the United States was trying to come up with new paradigms for its international power. At the end of the Cold War, before the 9/11 era, the United States was grappling with wars, ethnic conflicts — Serbia, Kosovo, Rwanda — and it seemed to me that everyone was sort of dismissive about human rights at that time. They were saying, “We tried that before and it was so misguided,” and I thought that this was very interesting and wondered why. So a lot of this was grappling with contemporary issues as an undergraduate, thinking about the world I was moving into, and trying to understand why it is that everyone is so dismissive about Carter’s human rights-foreign policy. They were saying, “Oh Carter, so nice but totally naïve and ineffective.” As I started studying this as a student of history, I didn’t find his human rights policies so misguided or naïve; I found it misunderstood. The historical records of that period were just starting to be opened at this time, so nobody had begun historical work on Carter and the human rights moments in the 1970s. In the past 10 years, there has been an explosion of scholarship about human rights in many historical perspectives which is really exciting. So my own interest came from the contemporary world and thinking about what an effective human rights policy would look like. It is much more complicated historically and now than what I anticipated. Studying the past helps me have greater sympathy, if not optimism, about human rights policies today.

Q: What do think about American foreign policy today and what President Obama is doing?
A: It’s a very diverse foreign policy. I think Obama in some ways is in a 1990s-type moment that I was talking about where we’re trying to understand what the United States’ role should be. The United States is an undeniable force in the international system, but it also feels like it doesn’t have as much control as what you might think such a force should have. Trying to find that balance between the very real national interests that the country has and the ideological interests — meeting both without undermining the other — I don’t think is inherently contradictory, but certainly a juggling act.

Q: Do you think the United States will remain the sole superpower in the 21st century?
A: I think that term is going to have less importance in the 21st century. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been an increasing multi-polarity in the international system. Even though you may have countries that have overwhelming military and economic force doesn’t mean that they have overwhelming determination over what the international scene will be like. There are more voices that can be heard, more polarities of power in the modern age, and I don’t think we’ll have any one power be able to dominate the international system even though certain countries have heightened presence. You can’t pretend that the powers aren’t there but their abilities to control and shape outcomes in the ways that they would like are increasingly waning.

Q: What classes are you teaching?
A: This year I’ve done a full introduction into the history of United States foreign relations. Last semester I did the pre-20th century portion, and this semester I am doing the 20th century part. We look at United States foreign relations not just in terms of traditional foreign policy, but also in regards to cultural interactions and grassroots actors. This is why I call it U.S. in the World because I don’t want to be parochial and think we should look at how other countries act on the United States in shaping those foreign relations. I also did a class on the history of politics and human rights this past fall which was a lot of fun. We started historically but ended by talking about contemporary problems like the military base at Guantanamo, questions about humanitarian intervention in Syria and global capitalism and economic equality. Next year, I am going to teach U.S. in the World again, and I’ll also be doing a class with Professor Moss on the 1970s, looking at it from local and global perspectives. For example, how we look at feminism, the environmental movement, changes in the global banking systems, gay rights movements in local and global contexts. In the spring, I’m going to do a research seminar, but I don’t know on what yet — probably on the 1960s or the Cold War. And finally, I’m also doing a course on Vietnam which is what launched me on this path in the first place.

Q: What do you hope to contribute to Amherst?
A: I would like to constantly pose questions that are historically rooted and challenge students to re-think their assumptions about the world today. I want to challenge them to think more critically about their relationships with one another and the world more largely. I also want to contribute to a generation of students who leave here, go out and prove to the world why a liberal arts education is so valuable. Sometimes people think of it as an indulgent approach to education as higher education is becoming more technically focused and pre-professional, and I think that that does a real disservice not only to liberal arts institutions, but also to students like yourselves. The jobs people anticipated training for 15 years ago are not the jobs that you guys want to go into today. So I think that when we champion this liberal arts model of critical thinking, broad problem-solving skills and communication, you guys are going to be ready for whatever that comes next.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
A: I like to sleep! No, I’m kidding. I love to cook. I love Wisconsin sports, and actually President Martin was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as the Chancellor when I was a student there. So I share her love of Badger athletics, particularly football and basketball. I used to run and do marathons, and I would like to take that up again. I also like to read, not history, but fiction.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Thu, 02/20/2014 - 12:46

Professor Walker is amazing. We are so lucky to have her.