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Alison M. Vacca, PhD, 2013

Area of Study: PhD in Near Eastern Studies: Islamic History and Armenian Studies

Graduation Year: 2013

I first heard of NES when I was a student in Jerusalem. I had identified a topic that I wanted to pursue in graduate school—Umayyad Armenia—and I was searching for a program that would combine language training, Armenian Studies, and early Islamic history. Few departments in the world excel at all of these, which made my choice to attend the University of Michigan quite easy.

I entered the program hoping to achieve mastery of two fields and multiple languages. I took large lecture classes, small seminars, and independent reading courses. I studied languages in Ann Arbor and abroad. I learned how to present at conferences and practiced applying for grants. I wrote tortured seminar papers and my first equally agonized journal article. I stayed up all night in Yerevan, Armenia begging my jet-lagged infant to sleep so that I could make it to the museum in the morning. I sat in coffee shops on State Street to chat with visiting scholars whose books I had read in class. I interned in a renowned museum and earned a Certificate in Museum Studies. I dragged an infant, a toddler, and a husband through a significant number of churches in eastern Turkey. I taught undergraduates and graded many, many papers. I attended workshops and lectures offered by some of the most learned people in my field. Through all of this, I never quite achieved my original (if naïve) goal of mastery, but I left with something far more rewarding: a set of tools that would help me to challenge myself and my own assumptions.       

After I defended my dissertation, I remained at UM on a Manoogian postdoctoral fellowship through the Armenian Studies Program. I worked to translate and edit an eighth-century Armenian source about the early Caliphate and I taught a NES course related to medieval Armenian, Arabic, and Syriac sources. This fellowship provided a break from the dissertation topic and allowed me to travel to conferences where I met remarkable scholars asking quite engaging questions.   

I left Michigan to take my current position as Assistant Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where I returned to the dissertation with fresh eyes and a new perspective. The resulting monograph, Non-Muslim Provinces under Early Islam: Islamic Rule and Iranian Legitimacy, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. While the shadows of my dissertation are hardly recognizable in this book, I could not have completed Non-Muslim Provinces without remarkably patient advisers, the expert guidance of many UM faculty, the support of fellow UM students, the opportunities to explore new ideas and places, or the tools I developed as a NES student.