More than ‘just teaching names and dates’: meet Erskine’s behavioral historian
Born in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana and brought up in Idaho “on a spur of the Northern Rocky Mountains,” Assistant Professor of History Dr. Christiane-Marie Abu Sarah joined the Erskine College faculty this fall.
“It was beautiful, but I didn’t appreciate it much at the time,” she says of the scenic setting of her childhood. “I just wanted to ‘get out’ and make it big.”
Early on, she knew what she wanted to do with her life, and her plans entailed serious competition. “After high school I moved to New York City to study music,” she says. “As a classical oboist, I wanted to be the best in the field.”
She was living in New York City on September 11, 2001 when the Twin Towers fell. “I’d never thought much about the Middle East, or anywhere outside the United States, until that moment.”
The terrorist attacks marked a watershed in the young musician’s life. “After 9/11, my attention shifted. I was faced with my own mortality. I started studying the Bible and began looking for ways to give back to society,” she says.
Putting aside her desire for a musical career, she moved to Israel for a master’s degree program in Middle East and Islamic Studies. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, she says, “I believed counterterrorism was the best form of service I could offer.” The purpose of her studies was to prepare her to pursue that work.
Once she arrived in Israel and began studying in the Middle East, “The region began to emerge as less foreign and more human,” she says.
Meanwhile, “I met this irritating young Arab pastor in Jerusalem,” she recalls. “We argued constantly about theology and politics, and within a year, we were married.” Their wedding ceremony took place across from the famous Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Abu Sarah decided not to pursue counterterrorism as a career. She began her journey into the field of behavioral history, now her area of expertise. “Every biblical site I explored, every battlefield and war monument I passed, each militant I met, and each mosque, church, and synagogue I visited—each conveyed stories of ordinary people, struggling to understand their world and make the best of their circumstances,” she says.
“That was when I first started to feel a sense of vocation. I fell in love with the archaeological sites and the stories. But I also started to understand that history education has a larger role to play in society than just teaching names and dates.” Abu Sarah’s interest in her current field was kindled, and the direction of her life began to change.
“Behavioral history is an unusual field, because it engages with disciplines like biology, economics, and psychology,” she explains. “Formally defined, behavioral history studies how a person’s ecology influences his thoughts and actions, and how a person’s thoughts and actions reshape his ecology.”
How does that work?
“Think about what you ate for breakfast this morning,” she suggests. “Why did you eat that particular food?”
In order to examine this seemingly simple question, a behavioral historian would study “different parts of your ecology,” perhaps looking at “your history of food consumption and how it has shaped your daily eating habits, and your environment this morning as you went about your daily routine.” A behavioral historian would also work backward, studying “how the food caught your attention in the grocery store,” as well as “how your breakfast choice influenced the grocery store” in how it stocked its shelves.
Earlier this year, Abu Sarah delivered a TED talk entitled “How do daily habits lead to political violence?” in which she describes a special area of focus for her as a behavioral historian. “I study aggression, moral cognition, and decision-making in social movements,” she says in the presentation. “I study the moment the individual decides to pull the trigger.”
The TED talk, which has now gone viral, looks at two women in the 1950s, both members of the same political organization, who made plans to commit acts of violence.
Abu Sarah cites in her talk several habits leading to political violence, including enclosing oneself in an information bubble; viewing victims not as victims, but as members of an opposing group; paying attention to cues encouraging anger and outrage; and focusing on the differences between ourselves and others.
“The first woman had been paying attention to those outrage cues,” Abu Sarah notes. She went to the site of the shooting she had planned. At the last moment, however, she looked at the soldier she was about to fire on and observed, “He is the same age as me, he looks like me.” She put down the gun and walked away.
The second young woman, also attuned to the outrage campaign sponsored by her political group, surrounded herself with peers who supported violence and taught herself new habits. “She took her bomb to the café and followed through on the attack. This was not impulse. This was learning,” Abu Sarah says.
“Polarization is not impulse,” she continues. “Every day we are teaching ourselves. The good news is that while the individuals I study already made their decisions, we can still change our trajectory. We can stop contributing to violent ecologies.”
Abu Sarah’s purpose in giving the TED talk, presented early in 2020, strikes a chord near the end of this presidential election year. “My goal in the speech was to deliver a message of hope in divided times,” she says. “We have different political opinions, but we can’t let those differences become grounds for demonizing other people.”
Along with several other professors appointed this fall, Abu Sarah has begun her work at Erskine during a time of COVID-19 restrictions, but she is undaunted and enjoys employing creative approaches in the classroom. During this fall semester, she has been teaching Contemporary Global Issues and Global Cold War.
“I’m a huge science nerd,” she says. “I love to explore how people relate to science and technology. For Global Issues, I added a unit on technology and ‘techno dystopias’ and a unit on genetic engineering and pharmaceutical biotech—which features glow-in-the-dark rabbits and the infamous ‘spider goat.’”
As for her Cold War course, she reports she “snuck in one lecture on the nuclear race and Chernobyl and another on synthpop, computers, and gaming culture in the 1980s.”
Similarly, Abu Sarah’s upcoming spring courses, which include Global Issues, Historical Skills and Methods, and Near Eastern History, will combine attention to weighty subject matter with glimpses of some lighter aspects of history and behavior.
In the Near Eastern History course, she plans to cover the rise of Islam as well as Arabic food and dress habits. “I might even host a hummus tasting,” she says. In the Historical Methods course, she says, she will explore with students the history of emotions as well as “environmental history, military history, and other fun fields—so if you want to learn how to historically analyze comic books, your roommate’s emotions, or declassified CIA documents, feel free to stop by!”
The young professor’s spirit of fun never detracts from the serious aims and rewards of teaching as a behavioral historian. “If my students can learn about someone they just don’t understand—whether that person is an Islamic militant, a Jewish settler, a Chinese communist or a Soviet soldier—and walk away with a better appreciation of the humanity of that person, I’ve done my job.”