Graduate Student Profile: Craig Perry
Craig Perry’s academic career exemplifies the scholarly process of moving from the general to the specific and provides an unusual glimpse into the development of a scholar. Inspired by early mentors to pursue a broad liberal arts education, Perry pursued comparative area studies with a minor in history as an undergraduate at Duke University. He broadened his experience through study abroad in both India and Germany, with an interest in inter-regional studies already emerging as a theme. He was awarded an MA in teaching with a concentration in secondary social studies and coursework concentrating in American, Atlantic, and world history. Perry then began teaching high school history in Maryland.
Developing a course in comparative religion led Perry to an investigation into Judaism and Jewish history and literature, the beginning of his narrowing of interest toward interdisciplinary Jewish studies. The comparative religion course also generated an interest in Islam, which led to a year teaching in the American School in Casablanca. During this time, Perry studied Arabic and had the opportunity to experience Mediterranean cultures directly.
Upon returning to the U.S., Perry taught at a Jewish day school in Los Angeles. There he undertook—alongside colleagues—a modernization of the history curriculum, expanding both the geographical and chronological scope with the goal of integrating the teaching of Jewish history into the wider context of world history. This endeavor required a deeper investigation into Jewish history and included summer study in Israel. At this point, the core questions that he wanted to explore in graduate school had taken shape: that is, to look at inter-regional interactions as an understudied historical force and to do so through the lens of medieval Mediterranean Jewish merchants and their interactions with Indian Ocean merchants.
As Perry says, coming to Emory was almost an accident after he and his wife came to Atlanta for her job. He continues, “During my first year in Atlanta, I audited Hebrew classes and took Marina Rustow’s undergraduate survey of Jewish history. During that time, Roxani Margariti was also very accessible and encouraged my interests. I was incredibly lucky to find such a great fit in Emory.”
Originally applying to the MA program, Perry instead was admitted to the PhD program in the Department of History and was awarded the prestigious Woodruff Fellowship. Working with history and Jewish Studies faculty member Marina Rustow and Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies faculty member Roxani Margariti in coursework in medieval Mediterranean history as well as exploring the Cairo Geniza in Emory’s Woodruff Library, Perry also has studied Hebrew, Arabic, and Judeo-Arabic in his first two years at Emory. All three languages are essential to his doctoral work and scholarly career as a student of the medieval Mediterranean. With support from the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies and the Laney Graduate School, he studied Hebrew during summer 2008 and then spent much of summer 2009 in Middlebury College’s Arabic language immersion program. Summer 2010 includes tutoring in academic Hebrew to enable him to use the many secondary historical sources written in that language. He says, “The language training is opening new doors for me in terms of research interests, because it expands the type and number of sources I can use. Medievalists often struggle with a lack of sources—especially documentary ones.”
Seminar papers written in his first two years helped further focus his interest toward a research topic concerning the slave trade in the medieval Mediterranean. One paper won the department’s Francis Benjamin Prize for best graduate paper; the other won the annual Blumenthal Award for best graduate paper in Jewish studies. Both are being revised for possible publication. He says,
I became interested in slavery as a topic after writing a paper on two very different studies of medieval slavery based on Geniza sources for my first-year historiography class. After that, I signed up for a course with David Eltis (an expert in Atlantic slavery), because I thought it would be an asset to me if I was ever asked to teach a survey of world history. Eltis’s class helped me see the importance of studying slavery throughout history, but also the potential layers that a history of slavery could tap into—culture, trade, the master-slave relationship, etc. My adviser has encouraged me to develop my interest in slavery and also to “test” the topic as a viable dissertation topic by writing research papers on slavery using Geniza sources. Margariti and Devin Stewart have supervised two different papers on slavery this past spring. Both of them have been instrumental in helping me wrap my mind around slavery in the Islamic context.
With his coursework complete, Perry begins studying for his comprehensive exams in the fields of medieval and modern Jewish history, then will begin dissertation research. Perry will propose a study of medieval Near Eastern slavery and the slave trade based on Arabic, Hebrew, and Judeo-Arabic sources. He is interested in how the Jewish communities of the Fatimid and Ayyubid empires participated in the wider systems of slavery that were a persistent feature of medieval Islamic society.
Of his scholarly path, Perry says,“Emory has excellent people who work in the medieval Mediterranean across multiple departments—especially history and Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies. The Mediterranean as a subject of study also has been reinvigorated in the past ten years, and I think it is an exciting time to be entering this subfield. Virtually every paper topic I chose has ended up contributing to the intellectual trajectory that I’m now on. I credit my teachers both for guiding and informing those choices as well as giving me the latitude to experiment with my own interests and hunches. I’ve made it a point to have an open mind and have my interests shaped by my Emory experience.”
TIJS faculty have high expectations for Perry. Eric Goldstein, associate professor of history and Jewish Studies and acting director of TIJS for 2010–2011, says, “Craig pursues Jewish history in a way that keeps in mind larger questions about the nature of identity, cultural interactions, and time and place. This intellectual breadth will allow scholars from a whole range of disciplines and fields to understand and value his work. Because he thinks outside the box and asks innovative new questions, I expect that he will shake up the field of medieval Jewish history in important ways.”