Hussein Fancy did not plan to work in higher education. He intended to become a writer, which in a roundabout way, led him to his career as a researcher and professor. “I was a writer and I thought about writing about interactions between Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Middle Ages for a novel,” commented Fancy.
After receiving his B.A. in English Literature from Yale University, he spent three years pursuing a career as an author, which eventually steered him to graduate school at Princeton University, where he received a Ph.D. in History. “I worked as a journalist, wrote a lot, taught high school English, and much of my becoming an academic has to do with the fact that I failed at becoming a writer,” said Fancy.
While in graduate school, Fancy discovered a passion for research of pre-modern history and its ability to disrupt and challenge the present’s conceptions. “There’s something incredibly enlivening about picking up a document that maybe two or three people have seen in hundreds years, being one of a handful of people in the world to read it, and then to discover that it says nothing that you want it to say and there’s nothing you can do about that,” said Fancy.
Hussein Fancy first came to the University of Michigan as a post-doctoral fellow through the Michigan Society of Fellows in 2007. While teaching as a junior fellow, he was able to interview for a faculty member position in the Department of History and became an assistant professor in 2010. In 2014, he joined the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies as a faculty associate. “I find Michigan to be one of the most egalitarian and congenial places. It’s also one of the most frenetic and exciting places I’ve worked as a scholar,” commented Fancy.
He wants to teach his students the history of interactions between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, but more importantly, he wants his students to value the humanities and appreciate the importance of slow, scholarly thinking. Fancy tries to emphasize this is by not allowing students to use their laptops in class. He believes this forces students to participate more in the class conversation with the goal of renewing an appreciation for the study of the humanities. “I think in the humanities we have grown comfortable with defending ourselves as also useful to professional careers. I don’t think that’s wrong…but I don’t think it’s a robust or full enough defense of the humanities. There is an ethical dimension to what we do, and there’s an important role for humanistic thinkers in the public that we’ve not fulfilled.”
Fancy is currently working on two new books. One will focus on his research around smugglers and imposters (people who pretended to be of a different religion) in the Mediterranean region. The other book will discuss changing views of Islam in western Europe.
In addition to working on his upcoming publications, Fancy would like to develop new classes at U-M on medievalism – how contemporary American and European society thinks about the Middle Ages. Using examples from popular culture, like Game of Thrones, he hopes to encourage students to think critically about current perceptions of the distant past.
Fancy sees his job as a scholar to question common assumptions and foster new critical thinking. “I think I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with the idea that my job is not to stake a claim, not to know that I’m right and not to defend it to the death, but to continue to stir the pot, to continue to keep the conversation going.”