15 Faculty Hot Shots: Maya Jasanoff

Maya R. Jasanoff ’96 might be in exactly the same place she was just over ten years ago, but she’s
By Elizabeth C. Pezza

Maya R. Jasanoff ’96 might be in exactly the same place she was just over ten years ago, but she’s certainly come a long way. Once a History and Literature concentrator and Adams resident, and now an Associate Professor in the History Department, Jasanoff has only begun to make her mark on Harvard.

On the way from her cozy Adams dorm room to her current office in the Center for European Studies, Jasanoff managed to earn a Masters at Oxford, a Ph.D. at Yale, publish her first book (with a second on the way), earn a fellowship at the Michigan Society of Fellows, and spend a few years teaching at the University of Virginia.

While this fast-paced track into academia might seem intimidating to some, it came naturally to Jasanoff. “I always loved history and I loved writing and I loved traveling and I loved reading, and by the time you add all that stuff up there’s only so many things you can do,” says Jasanoff, who has traveled to over 50 countries.

She adds that both her parents are professors, so she became familiar with the career early on. “I grew up...knowing that it was going to be really hard for me to have a job going from 9 to 5, to have a boss, having little control over what I did with my day.”

Julie Zikherman ’96, Jasanoff’s former roommate in Adams, says she wasn’t at all surprised by Jasanoff’s career path. “Some of the fun that she has in history has to do with telling stories and she’s clearly always loved that, and she does that now full time,” Zikherman says.

Though this is only Jasanoff’s second year teaching at Harvard, she came having made a name for herself and has been seen as an important addition to the History Department. “She’s been a star for a long time, lots of people have known about her,” fellow History Professor David R. Armitage says of Jasanoff’s reputation in the history world.

Jasanoff is especially interested in the question of cultural mixing, which she explores through her research on modern British history and British imperialism. Her first book, “Edge of Empire,” examines how the British and French expanded in India and the Middle East through the lives of art collectors. “I felt like they were on the frontiers of cultural exchange,” Jasanoff explains.

This ability to analyze history through unique perspectives and narratives has garnered Jasanoff great respect. “She breaks boundaries between national histories and between European countries and their empires,” Armitage says. “She is a beautiful writer and a wonderful speaker.”

It’s no surprise then, that even Jasanoff’s 10 a.m. lectures are consistently full. Furthermore, students in Jasanoff’s lectures aren’t often found Facebook stalking or Gchatting, but listening and note-taking. Jasanoff enjoys using narratives and stories in her lectures, explaining, “I try to tell stories because I think it’s important to capture something about human experience in the past.”

William C. Quinn ’10 calls Jasanoff one of the best lecturers he’s ever had at Harvard, citing her engaging use of narratives, anecdotes, and multimedia in History 1224: “Britain Since 1760: Island, Europe, Empire.” “She uses PowerPoint, but she actually knows how to use PowerPoint,” Quinn says, recalling clips from Churchill speeches and music by The Clash that were incorporated into her lectures.

Jasanoff’s friends and colleagues call her humorous yet analytical, accessible and engaging yet focused on her research, original but still realistic. It is her ability to intertwine work and life that enables her to maintain such an ideal balance. “There are scholars who are hard working and there are scholars who are talented,” says Jasanoff’s friend and Harvard Society Junior Fellow Sam Haselby. “Maya Jasanoff is both hardworking and talented.”