A Magazine from California State University, ChicoSpring 2015 Issue

Faculty in Focus

Sherrow Pinder

The International Connection

A bit over 50 years ago, Walt Disney’s animatronic dolls began singing, “There’s so much that we share that it’s time we’re aware / It’s a small world after all!” Since then, Time magazine estimates, this call to embrace the view that humans are more similar than different has been played some 50 million times around the world. 

People of the 21st century are still singing along. At the same time, we are increasingly moving to embrace the importance of studying and celebrating human and cultural diversity, while also recognizing the complexities of our differences and similarities as groups and individuals.

One of Chico State’s goals is to help students become informed, engaged citizens of the world, able to understand, value, and respond to human similarities and differences. General education curricula and more specialized courses explore diverse perspectives of peoples, cultures, and nations. Chico State’s extensive study-abroad programs provide firsthand involvement in the world beyond our borders.

Integral to these efforts are Chico State’s international faculty, who bring additional scholarly expertise and personal experience to the campus community. In this issue’s “Faculty in Focus,” three such faculty—Professors Najm al-Din Yousefi, Natalya Shkoda, and Sherrow Pinder—discuss their teaching and research. Their areas of expertise—history, music, and politics, respectively—are as varied as their backgrounds, and both their research and approaches to teaching illustrate ways in which their global perspectives enrich their scholarship and student learning.

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Exploring Difficult Questions

As a youth in Tehran during Iran’s 1979 revolution, Najm al-Din Yousefi was consumed by the “difficult questions revolutions always raise.” While friends and “other kids my age joined one political group or another,” Yousefi searched out widely divergent political and religious reading groups and classes in mosques, homes, and schools and, he says, “stuck my nose into as many as I could.” As a young adult, Yousefi came to a master’s program at Columbia University in 1995 on a World Bank Scholarship, “looking forward to throwing myself into quality education and a thorough cultural experience.” Doctoral studies at Virginia Tech and a teaching career followed, and in 2012, Yousefi brought his “strong belief in the symbiotic relationship between teaching and research” to Chico State’s history department.

How did you become interested in your area of research/specialization?

My academic background is in philosophy, economics, and history of science, as well as in Islamic studies. But it also has to do with my identity as a child of a revolution. The 1979 Iranian revolution changed virtually everything in that country, and raised fundamental questions about the kind of culture, history, political system, and religious identity that represented the Iranian people. Like many others in my generation, I was moved by these difficult questions: How did Iran become a nation that cannot make independent decisions and is often used as a pawn in global politics? Why can’t it produce scientific knowledge on the same scale or of the same quality as Western nations? Why does it import science and technology, while being incapable of exporting much beyond crude oil? 

Untangling these questions requires analysis of a rather long historical process. For example, various fields of inquiry flourished during the medieval era in a vast region under Muslim rule—a region that spanned from the Indian subcontinent to Mesopotamia, Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula. Despite this Islamic aspect, however, there were numerous non-Muslim translators and scientists that had fruitful collaboration with their Muslim counterparts and patrons. In fact, the great achievement of Islamic civilization lay in its creation of a culture that valued knowledge and celebrated its champions, regardless of their race and religion. This fact leads to an obvious question: Why did the Middle Eastern peoples stop producing scientific knowledge and simply become complacent with, or indifferent to, their scientific heritage?

What makes this work most exciting to you?

It is always exciting to bring to light the obscure chapters of world history. It’s even more exciting when such efforts call into question long-held clichés and erroneous ideas that are recycled through the media and scholarly publications. In addition to gaining a greater appreciation for our historic past and world heritage, it is virtually impossible to make a positive change without having a clear idea about the root causes of contemporary problems. My work as a researcher and teacher contributes to potential solutions to the exceedingly complicated issues that we face in the realms of politics, culture, society, religion, and global conflicts. If society can pose and address its difficult questions effectively, there’d be no need for revolution.

It can also help correct misjudgments and preconceived notions about the Middle East—and there’s no shortage of such misjudgments and preconceived notions—like that the Middle East is all desert filled with people on camels.

How do research and teaching intersect in your work?

The connection between my research and teaching is effortless. As I do research, I incorporate new materials into my teaching. Similarly, my research benefits from teaching. I do a lot of in-class discussion that always generates interesting ideas and questions—some of which have not occurred to me before. A couple years ago in my Modern Middle East class, we had a discussion about why the advent of the modern age did not come about in the Middle East even though this region was scientifically and technologically more advanced than Europe in the Middle Ages. One student raised an insightful question. He said the Catholic Church played a pivotal role in the balance of power in medieval Europe. How did the Islamic clergy or religious organization differ from the Catholic Church in the medieval era? This simple question convinced me that I needed to look more closely at the unique role the Muslim clergy have played in the dynamics of power and knowledge in the Middle East.

Do you have a secret ambition?

I sure do, but I’d rather keep it secret!

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Loving to Teach and Perform

Twenty-five years ago in Ukraine, Natalya Shkoda began her performing career by presenting a debut piano recital at Kharkov Special Music School for Gifted Children and winning a National Young Composers Competition. “I always wanted to play the piano,” Shkoda says, and now, 300 performances later, her research projects include recitals, master classes, competition adjudications, and CD recordings. Shkoda came to the United States in 1999 as a full-scholarship international student to pursue graduate studies at Arizona State University (ASU), joining Chico State’s faculty in 2008. The associate professor of piano states, “The choices I made in my professional life were influenced by my never-giving-up personality. I am proud to be a U.S. citizen and to do what I love—to perform.”


What’s most exciting about your current work, and what challenges do you face?

This academic year is very exciting because I am awarded sabbatical to work on a new CD in my Kosenko recording project, introducing the piano music of eminent Ukrainian composer, pianist, and teacher Viktor Kosenko (1896–1938) to audiences worldwide. The project started in 2004 during my doctoral work at ASU. Since then, I have recorded two Kosenko CDs: Eleven Études in the Form of Old Dances (Toccata Classics, 2006) and Complete Piano Sonatas (Centaur Records, 2011). My new, third Kosenko CD will feature premiere recordings of his Eleven Études, op. 8, and Twenty-Four Children’s Pieces, op. 25, to be published by Centaur Records. Another big project was being a guest artist at the North State Symphony’s Arrive concerts in both Redding and Chico in May, for which I performed Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto.

I face challenges in my research and work—teaching long hours and hundreds of students, lacking of adequate support and equipment for research, and trying to maintain a good work-life balance. Here is what helps me: I have a little dragon inside of me that keeps track of my deeds, reminds me of all the exciting things in my profession, refuses to be disabled by obstacles, and pushes me forward. After all, obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal. I know my goals.

How does the “Kosenko Project” tie in with your teaching?

Teaching and performing are equally important to me. I teach hundreds of different pieces every year, including the works that I have not played myself yet because this helps me to expand my own repertoire. I will teach Kosenko’s works to my students to be performed at their final exams and degree recitals. Being an artist-teacher, I always play the pieces that I teach to my piano students; and my students greatly benefit from that. Performing one Kosenko work will be required in the next Earl R. and Marilyn Ann Kruschke Prize in Piano Performance Competition that I have organized and directed at CSU, Chico annually since 2009.

Do you have a secret ambition?

I am an open person—I do not have secrets. I say and do what I mean. When I want something, I make it my goal to achieve it. My life resembles a staircase of goals, and I am not done climbing that staircase!

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Understanding Our Differences

As a country of immigrants, the United States is also a country with conflicting and complex ideas of what it means to be an American, and how human differences of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and other factors are understood. These complexities, for Sherrow Pinder, are simultaneously of major social significance and intellectual fascination. Born in Guyana, Pinder came to Chico in 2006, by way of Canada and New York. Pinder teaches in the political science and multicultural and gender studies departments. The author of three books and more than 30 published articles, book chapters, book reviews, and encyclopedia articles, she describes herself as a “scholar-teacher,” dedicated to work that is “crucial for the advancement of knowledge in the realms of both teaching and research.”

How did you first become interested in how group and individual identities are understood?

When I began my doctoral work at the New School for Social Research in New York City in 1997, the range of courses, coupled with my own trajectory as a black immigrant woman, reinforced my interest in race, gender, and ethnic politics. Given my Canadian citizenship, it made sense for me then to focus on Canadian and U.S. politics. As a visiting scholar at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (2004–2006), I taught a class on race and ethnicity, which I enjoyed. Two years later, while a Summer Fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, I found working on a book on race, gender, and ethnic politics a rather exhilarating experience, so I continue to research mostly in that area. 

What do you find most exciting about your current research?

My current research examines the notions of “colorblindness” and “post-raciality” in the age of President Obama. The election of a black man as president of the United States propels many scholars and ordinary Americans to falsely argue that the United States is now a “post-racial” society, that in the United States, race no longer matters. As a matter of fact, it is fascinating to debunk that, to explore the interplay of visibility and invisibility of race. The growing incarceration of black and Mexican men; the increase of poverty and the spread of HIV in black, First Nation [Native American], and other racialized ethnic communities; and such forms of institutionalized violence as incidents of police brutality towards men of color—all clearly show that race matters.

In what ways does your research intersect with your teaching (and vice versa)?

One of the classes that I teach at CSU, Chico is The Politics of Race and Ethnicity. The idea for my book The Politics of Race and Ethnicity in the United States: Americanization, De-Americanization, and Racialized Ethnic Groups (2010) grew, in part, out of this class. I also sometimes use my published work as course readings because I think it is important to share my research with students. The greatest challenge is to find the time to do my research and also to engage, on a regular basis, outside of the classroom with students and colleagues.

Do you have a secret ambition?

My ambition—which is no longer secret—is to be an excellent teacher-scholar. Accordingly, I continue to teach and write on controversial issues.