Journal Archive > 2001 > October

Jeanne Marie Penvenne

Jeanne Marie Penvenne says, "I love to share the insights I have gained from my research with smart young people."
© Mark Morelli

Historian's research fuels her passion for teaching

A magnifying glass was once one of Jeanne Marie Penvenne's best scholarly resources.

Researching the black urban workers of colonial Mozambique, she found herself digging through archives compiled by the Portuguese colonizers. The documents accorded Africans numbers rather than names, and photographs featured buildings and machinery, not people.

Then, in a photograph of the waterfront, she glimpsed the port workers in the background—tiny, inconsequential, unrecorded. Grabbing a magnifying glass, she focused on their faces. And she wondered, "How could the humanity of these people be recovered?"

Reconstructing the experiences of the people of sub-Saharan Africa—the former Portuguese-speaking colonies in particular—is Penvenne's scholarly passion. That passion has infused itself into her teaching, leading her to win two Tufts teaching awards within the past two years: The Lerman-Neubauer Award for Distinction in Teaching and Advising in 1999 and the Lillian and Joseph Leibner Award for Distinguished Teaching and Advising this year.

"I was delighted to get both prizes," said Penvenne, an associate professor of history. "I'm extremely honored that people value what I do in the classroom."

Yet it is her research that is the bedrock of her classroom work, she said. "I see myself primarily as a scholar. My research is fundamentally important to me. The excitement that I get from my own research fuels what I bring to class.

"If I were bored with what I'm doing, I would be a dreadful teacher," she said. "I love my research, and I love to share the insights I have gained from my research with smart young people. That's as good as it gets."

Penvenne joined the Tufts faculty in 1993, after serving as a visiting assistant professor in 1986 and 1990. She was promoted to associate professor in 1997. Her interest in African history was sparked when, as a community college student in her native Berkshires, she "spent the better part of two weeks' salary" on a world history book, only to find a scant page on sub-Saharan Africa.

"That made me really mad," she said. "And I set my cap at that point to learn more."

A stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Brazil made her fluent in Portuguese; in 1977, her knowledge of the language opened the door for a Ph.D. project in Mozambique. The country since has been the site of most of her research. She's working on her second book, Coming to Tarana: A Social History of Mozambican Women in the Cashew-Shelling Industry.

While at the Tufts European Center in Talloires, France, this past summer, she completed two articles, including an appreciation of her friend and teaching mentor, the late H. Leroy Vail of Harvard.

"He taught me a lot. He took teaching very seriously," she said, recounting how Vail's perfectly constructed lectures would work their way seamlessly through the subject matter, always referring back to the original premise, always taking exactly an hour.

But while these lectures seemed unrehearsed, Vail had, in fact, tightly choreographed each lesson, even knowing exactly how many keystrokes on his word processor it would take to craft an hour-long lecture.

From that, Penvenne learned "good teaching is a lot more work than it looks like." And, she, in turn, taught Vail the value of using technology and visual elements in the classroom.

"I'm not a TV person at all, but I do understand that our students are very visual; they have grown up looking at computer screens and TV screens, and they are visual learners," said Penvenne, who in 1999 received the Provost's Award for Innovative Use of Electronic Media in Teaching.

"I use films, novels and poetry in the classroom, along with historical essays," she said. "Once you get students hooked with what they see, the core story, then they will take the time to go into the longer scholarly essay to understand more."

The end result of her teaching, she hopes, is to expand the way students look at the world, and Africa in particular; to frame issues in terms of critical thinking and ethical implications.

"I really try to underscore to the students the power they enjoy as American citizens and global elites. I want every student to come away from [the class] much more aware of the challenges that African people of their age and education face," she said.

Global citizenship demands that students take a critical look at the worldwide implications of individual actions and public policies. "We, as America consumers, as American citizens, need to realize that what we do at home and abroad has a disproportionate effect on the world," Penvenne said. "We need to think through the implications.

"If, at the end, a student can say, ‘I never though of it that way before,' that course has been a success."