Volume 16 • Issue 3
Southwestern @ Georgetown
Education: B.A. Philosophy, Pomona College, including a semester at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland; M.S. and Ph.D. History with a specialization in South Africa, Stanford University.

Faculty Member: Department of History 1998-present; Associate Professor and Chair of the division of Humanities.

The most shocking thing to hear people discuss in Africa is …
Hearing people talk about witchcraft, evil and how it is understood, as a part of their daily lives.

What should people know before traveling to Africa?
They need to like meat. Africans eat a lot of meat, and it would be very hard to go there and be a vegetarian.

People in South Africa are …
As friendly as people in the Southern United States.

If I weren’t a history professor I’d be …
A dog trainer—which I’ll probably do once I hit retirement.


Thom McClendon

Associate Professor of History

Colonialism, race, and law spur two decades of study in South Africa

As a young child, Thom McClendon was always very interested in history. Yet, it was not until he spent a year traveling in Africa that he decided to pursue a degree in the field. He notes, “History attracted me because of its wide range in nature: historians are concerned with culture, politics, environments, economy, ideas and so forth. Therefore, it is the perfect discipline for someone who wants to explore things in a multifaceted way. For me, the connection to politics and law was paramount.” McClendon obtained his master’s and Ph.D. in history with a specialization in South Africa from Stanford University.

McClendon’s first trip to Africa was in 1986. He has since returned to conduct research nearly every two years, and a sabbatical this past semester allowed him to go twice this year. McClendon spends the majority of his time there researching in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. After his first trip to the area, he was captivated by the area’s history, especially the impact of apartheid. McClendon now focuses much of his research on the ways in which law connects to present-day struggles that are the result of imperialism and colonization. He spends a great deal of time talking with townspeople and doing research in government buildings. “I enjoy just plowing through the archives and trying to understand what these people were thinking (with regard to colonization and imperialism),” McClendon says.

Growing up in a family of educators, teaching was always something that McClendon wanted to do. He also liked the idea of teaching at a small liberal arts college, and that drew him to Southwestern in the fall of 1998. In his seven years at Southwestern, he has become very involved in the campus community and has served as the humanities department chair for the past three years. McClendon comments, “I really care about how Southwestern runs as a learning environment and as a place to grow.”

He also helped prepare the campus community for the 2004 Shilling Lecture, which featured Nobel Peace Prize Winner Desmond Tutu, by giving lectures about apartheid and South African history. Tutu’s visit was particularly exciting for McClendon because Tutu is such a key figure in African history. McClendon believes that Tutu’s lecture and visit helped generate interest and excitement about South Africa within the Southwestern community.

McClendon teaches courses in African history and African-American history. These courses emphasize concerns with colonialism, gender and generation, race, and law, and are concepts that reflect his research and experiences in South Africa. “I find it very stimulating to have a direct experience with the subject matter,” he explains. To help give his students greater background on the subject, McClendon occasionally has his students read some of his research articles.

“My research informs the way I teach the class, and student questions help me to formulate new research questions so that a better understanding can be reached,” McClendon notes.

He hopes that in coming years campus interest in African history will continue to grow and that a history program focusing on African history will be developed. McClendon also has been considering taking a small group of students to Africa. “There are definitely some daunting activities that one would experience, but going to Africa is something that people should get to experience.”

When McClendon is not teaching or doing research, he enjoys spending time with his dogs and horses. Once he retires, he hopes to train pound rescue dogs. He also likes catching the occasional live music show down in Austin. When there is time, he and his wife, Nancy, travel to his family tree farm in Louisiana.

Southwestern @ Georgetown
Education: B.A., Biology, Williams College; M.A., Ph.D., Anthropology, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor).

Faculty Member: Department of Sociology and Anthropology 1998-present; Associate Professor and Chair.

If I weren't a professor …
I would still be teaching in some capacity.

People describe me as …
Fun and energetic.

One thing people probably don't know about me …
I love botany.

The best thing about Belize is …
The calm, relaxed and friendly feel.

Melissa Johnson

Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology

Enlivening classroom teaching with research from the field

For Melissa Johnson, associate professor of sociology and anthropology, growing up in Princeton, N.J., was an interesting experience. Her father was a professor at Princeton University, so he was involved with the social elite, she recalls. Her mother, however, received no formal college education, and, at times, was not considered part of the same social circle. “It allowed me to see the functions of social class and to experience being an ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ at the same time. These sensibilities are critical to my work as an anthropologist,” she says. Her father once told her “the highest calling for humankind is the advancement of knowledge.” This is something she strives to achieve every day.

There are many benefits to teaching at Southwestern, according to Johnson. She enjoys the high-caliber students and the small class sizes—although she wishes some of her introductory courses could be even smaller. She intentionally cross-lists her courses because she loves to have students from varying disciplines in one class. “They each bring a different perspective to class discussions,” she explains.

Johnson believes that teaching is not a one-way street. It must also include student participation. She tries to actively engage her students by shifting the power to them. Drawing from the philosophy of feminist author bell hooks, she asks each student what life experiences he or she can bring to the classroom that will contribute to the learning process, which helps generate a sense of community in the classroom.

For the past 15 years, Johnson has been conducting ethnographic and historical research in Belize. She thinks research outside the classroom is essential because research and teaching are entwined and enlivened by each other. She also collaborates on research with students. She says the best thing about researching with students is that, “Each student is a new set of eyes that sees things differently.”

Currently, Johnson is completing a book manuscript based upon her research concerning competing ideas of nature and progress in a small, Afro-Caribbean community. Home to a wildlife sanctuary and a thriving ecotourism industry, it is a major point of interest for international conservation. She hopes her research will work toward dismantling the systems of privilege and oppression that work simultaneously to limit the choices of some groups yet justify and sustain the destruction of the natural environment.

Some of her concern for the environment stems from childhood memories of the summers she spent in a small Maine fishing community. When she is not busy teaching and conducting research, she finds time to go back there for visits.

Johnson recently returned from Jamaica where she headed the summer study abroad program. Setting her sights on the future, she hopes to continue her research and teaching. In the meantime, she is working on getting two books published. Johnson met her husband, Elrick Bonner, while conducting research in Belize. They have two boys, Elrick Jr., age eight and Adrian, age five. The family loves animals and has nine pets: four dogs, three cats and two birds.