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Sasha Turner of North Haven is associate professor of history at Quinnipiac University. Her ability to show new perspective on previously accepted themes is one reason she was recognized as the 2018 faculty scholar in the College of Arts and Sciences. (Photo courtesy of Sasha Turner )
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Sasha Turner initially saw studying history as an entryway into the law profession. But after a particular facet of Caribbean history caught her attention, her career path was drastically altered. Now an associate professor history at Quinnipiac University (QU) College of Arts & Sciences, she teaches with a perspective she hopes will inspire who students.
“I didn’t set out to be a history professor. I actually hated history as a young person,” says Sasha, who received the QU College of Arts & Sciences’s 2018 faculty scholar award.
Sasha earned her undergraduate degree from the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. She says that the history-to-law path is a common one for prospective law students there.
Sasha pursued the law partially because of an aunt who was an attorney. She says she was following the example of adults she admired in childhood when she started her education.
“[I thought] it’s the career that makes the person. I think I might have been wrong,” she says. “It’s not the career that makes the person. The person was just who they were.”
That realization opened her eyes to new possibilities.
“Midway through my program…I became more and more intrigued by history and specifically Caribbean history,” she says. “I sort of went down the rabbit hole following that curiosity.”
In particular, Sasha was drawn into the subject by a book by Eric Williams, who argued that the British ended slavery less for humanitarian reasons and more for economic purposes.
“The colonies no longer had the support and backing of the influential elites in England because now…[they] wanted to shift attention away from the slave colonies and towards industrialization in England,” she says.
This, she says, changed her understanding of the matter and drew her further into the subject.
“This was in the context of also being exposed to history as not just a series of accepted facts, that history is very much contested,” she says. “Combining those experiences, I had more and more questions. I became very much interested in that kind of history and also wanting to be part of that.”
Even after her interest was piqued, Sasha says her pursuit of history as a career still was not a conscious decision. She went on to graduate school at Cambridge in the United Kingdom because of the prodding of her undergraduate mentors.
She went on to earn a Ph.D in history. Much of her research since then has revolved around expounding upon that earlier argument. In particular, Sasha has looked at the often-ignored role of women in history.
“Women have either been relegated to the side or nonexistent. So there was no sustained attention to…where to women fit within this discussion,” she says.
Sasha’s focus on women and the slave trade took her as far as Scotland to help the government with educational programs on the anniversary of the trans-Atlantic slave trade’s end.
From there, she began her teaching career first as a visiting assistant professor in New Orleans and then at Rutgers in New Jersey and Washington University in St. Louis before obtaining a long-term position at Quinnipiac in 2010, becoming a North Haven resident.
“Some of my courses have focused on women, on piracy, on colonialism. Those are reflective of my research interests,” Sasha says.
She also applies her research to U.S. history, showing her students a familiar topic in a way that might not have thought of before.
Teaching history in this way has revealed topics that students may not have expected to learn about, like women pirates.
“Popular culture portrays piracy as a band of men,” she says. “It’s a place where women are excluded…so students were intrigued by this concept of including women in piracy.”
Sasha found that students were interested enough to warrant a piracy class that pays significant attention to women in piracy.
“I really do think that…focusing on women really does energize students and it makes them curious and think a little bit differently about history,” she says. “They have a new level of excitement.”
While Sasha has seen some students take up the history of women as part of their interest, she also sees them finding their own topics the way she did as an undergraduate.
“The more encouraging thing is seeing students asking their own questions…It sparks their own curiosity and how they can come up with their own original research,” she says.
Sasha often shares with her students her story about how Eric Williams’s book changed her opinion about history and altered her career path.
“Not all of us as professors started out knowing specifically what we wanted,” she says. “It’s…about seeing how students are far more willing to take risks in exploring who they are.”
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