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Two MacArthur fellows, one signature class

In a Maya signature class, first-year students get a rare learning experience: to be taught by not one, but two of the university’s MacArthur fellows.

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To put things in perspective, a college student has a higher probability of being struck by lightning than of being taught by one MacArthur fellow, much less two.

So when MacArthur Fellows Nora England, a linguistics and anthropology professor in the College of Liberal Arts, and David Stuart, an art and art history professor in the College of Fine Arts, teamed up to teach the fall 2010 freshman signature class “The Maya: Classical, Colonial and Contemporary,” 150 students were poised for a unique classroom experience.

Focusing on their areas of expertise, Stuart covered archaeology and the ancient Maya, and England devoted her time to the modern Maya. The two professors worked together to show their students the strong relationships between the present world and the ancient past, and to expose them to the different ways of studying the Maya. They incorporated real-world examples and experiences into their teaching.

“There’s nothing as powerful as actually experiencing the social situations you talk about in a social science course,” says England. “It is also important, I think, to try to convey the fact that other people, like the Maya, face many of the same life circumstances as anyone else, even if in a different country, a different context and a different culture. I always hope that real examples help students see our common humanity.”

Stuart says part of the students’ initial attraction to the class and to Mayan culture may be that the Maya hold such a powerful place in the modern imagination as an exotic and romanticized ancient culture.

“We’re trying to dispel some of the mystery, and show the ancient and modern Maya as real people with a real history and identity in today’s world,” says Stuart. The ancient Maya did not disappear they transformed. The ancient Maya occupied an area where their descendants live today that includes eastern Mexico (the Yucatan Peninsula), Belize, Guatemala, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador.

Stuart and England are among an elite group of 828 MacArthur Fellows who have been chosen from a variety of disciplines, ranging in age from 18 to 82 at the time of their selection, since the program’s inception in 1981. Recipients receive up to $500,000 in “no strings attached” support from the philanthropic John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation giving its fellows unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create and explore over the course of five years.

Nora England

MacArthur Fellow David Stuart. Read Stuart’s blog “Maya Decipherment.” Photo: Ben Aqua

Stuart, 44, received his fellowship when he was 18 years old, in 1984, making him the youngest recipient ever. He received his award during the gap year between high school and college, when he had a junior fellowship in Pre-Columbian studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., a research center and library operated by Harvard University. It gave him the freedom to travel and do field research as an undergraduate and graduate student while spending extended periods of time in Mexico and Guatemala.

“At the time I used it for travel funds, and a little for then-way-too-expensive computer equipment museum pieces now,” he jokes. “Also I used it to get my life started those many years ago.”

England received her fellowship in 1993, and used it to continue her research and teaching in Guatemala the following year.

She supervised a research team in preparing reference grammars in five different Mayan languages written by native speakers. She was also able to participate in an intensive course to teach linguistics to a group of 45 speakers of nine different Mayan languages many of whom have since made their own contributions to the field of linguistics. She has continued intense research in Guatemala ever since.

“I just was able to do more, especially in terms of training speakers of Mayan languages in linguistic research,” says England. “I also did some teaching at a Guatemalan university that had a linguistics program. And then all that experience has enriched my teaching in U.S. universities immeasurably.

“I would say, however, that the biggest effect that these experiences and opportunities have had here at UT is that I was hired to found and direct a Center for Indigenous Languages of Latin America,” says England. The program is part of the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies.

As for the Maya signature class, England and Stuart are scheduled to teach the course together again in Spring 2012.

England says she hopes the students gain an understanding that there is a great amount of natural human diversity in the world, as well as natural human shared experience. And she hopes that at least some of the students become fascinated with the Maya as well.

Maya Meetings: March 23-27

The Maya Meetings annual conference at The University of Texas at Austin is a premier gathering on Mesoamerican culture in the United States, bringing together scholars and students of all backgrounds to share the most recent insights on Maya and Mesoamerican research. With lectures, teaching practica and research workshops, the meetings are at the forefront of our understanding of the Maya civilization.

The theme for the 2011 Maya Meetings is “2012: Time and Prophecy in the Mesoamerican World.” The meetings will present scholarship on Mesoamerican philosophies of time, calendar and prophecy — concepts that operated in the heart of ancient Aztec and Maya notions of the universe and humanity’s place within it.

Learn more about Maya and Mesoamerican research at the university: