A Conversation with John A. Hall, Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching

Written by
Julie Clack
Oct. 16, 2017

John A. Hall is the Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching. Hall comes to the University Center for Human Values (UCHV) from McGill University in Montreal, where he is the James McGill Professor of Comparative Historical Sociology.

As a comparative historical sociologist, Hall has always worked on social theory and history. “I go back and forth because most sociology is unaware of the world which isn’t industrial, so it’s not very good. And most historians don’t ask very clear, analytic questions. I like to irritate social theorists and irritate historians,” Hall joked. “But actually, to benefit from both.”

In his current project, Hall is trying to rethink the origins of nationalism. “The standard view tends to say that nationalism came from below; there’s some truth to that, but I think a great deal of what happens depends upon the way in which empires treat their nations,” Hall said. “Empires interfered with nations—a lot—and once you start interfering with nations, you politicize them.” More specifically, Hall is studying this phenomenon in the Balkans at the end of the 19th century. “In the 19th and 20th centuries, nationalism was more important than class in changing the world; the nation-state is the political form of the modern world.”

Hall’s interest in nations and states extends far beyond the 19th century. In 2014, he went to Scotland during the Scottish independence referendum and made his name in Canadian television for predicting the result of the referendum to the correct percentage point. The study of nationalism hits particularly close to home for Hall, who has lived in Quebec for the past 20 years. “If you live in Quebec, you cannot help but think of nationalism more or less every day of your life, as would be true if you were in Catalonia now,” he said.

Next week, Hall will briefly shift his focus from nationalism to another of his interests: teaching. One of the obligations of visiting professors is to convene a pedagogical event. Hall’s event, “Notes from the Field: Teaching Challenges in Context,” will be at Frist Campus Center 330 on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017. Hall has invited three of his colleagues from McGill to come and speak about their teaching experiences. “McGill is arriving here to teach Princeton how to teach,” Hall joked.

Laila Parsons, associate professor of history and Islamic studies, will be sharing her experience teaching the history of the modern Middle East in a politicized realm with Palestinian and Jewish communities. Brian Lewis, who brought sexual studies to McGill, will be speaking about introducing a “new world” to a university. Thomas Soehl will be talking about how educators can teach statistics in a way that people will use it in their work. Finally, Hall will share several tips about keeping students engaged in lectures.

Educators of all kinds, from high school teachers to graduate students to university faculty, are encouraged to attend.