Featured Alumna: Melani McAlister ’84
Melani McAlister ’84 is Chair of the Department of American Studies and Associate Professor of American Studies and International Affairs at George Washington University. She is the author of Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and US Interests in the Middle East (Univ. of California, 2005, o. 2001). The book is an interdisciplinary study of the ways in which culture, media, and US policy intersected to construct a “common sense” about US power in the Middle East. It has been taught widely in college courses in Middle East studies, cultural history, religious studies, and American Studies.
Dr. McAlister is also interested in the politics of religion and international relations. She is co-editor, with R. Marie Griffith, of Religion and Politics in the Contemporary Unite States (2008). Her current project is Our God in the World: The Global Visions of American Evangelicals, a broad-reaching study of evangelical internationalism since 1960. Aspects of this work have been published in several leading academic journals. She has received fellowships from Princeton University’s Davis Center for Historical Studies, The Princeton Center for the Study of Religion, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication.
Prof. McAlister has been invited to speak to more than 50 universities or public audiences about her research, including as keynote or plenary speaker for a number of international conferences and workshops across the Middle East and Europe.
McAlister has published in a broad range of academic and general interest publications, including the New York Times and Washington Post, and has been featured in interviews with BBC, CNN, NPR, and al Jazeera, among others. Prof. McAlister has been involved in several professional organizations; she served on the International Board of the Center for American Studies and Research at the American University of Beirut from 2005-13, the editorial boards of American Quarterly and the Journal of American History, and as a member of the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom. She currently serves as a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians.
McAlister on UNC
“When I was at UNC in the early 1980s, there was not yet a Global Studies major or anything like it. I put together my own major in “International Studies” after I got the bug for learning about the Middle East during a summer internship. I’d come to UNC as a Morehead scholar (hailing from a small town in NC where few people seemed interested in the rest of the world), and in the summer of 1982 I interned at Newsweek. There, I was assigned to be a fact checker on stories dealing with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. I was hooked. I came back to be very involved in the Campus Y, where my friend David Brown and I began Human Rights Week—a project that continued for 30 years at UNC! As a senior I wrote a thesis on human rights in the Middle East. My advisor was the warm and wonderful Herbert Bodman, who taught in the history department from 1960 to 1989. We had my thesis defense in his house, where we talked about ideas and drank sherry.
“With such wonderful mentoring, I felt empowered to apply for a Fulbright Student scholarship, and I spent the year after college at the American University of Cairo, learning Arabic and Middle East history. It was one of the hardest and also best experiences of my life. I had the chance to interview Egyptian feminists, including Nawal Sa’dawi, and to learn about their work on women’s rights and economic justice. When I returned to the US, I took a job as a political organizer for a peace group in Boston. I had two major program areas: working to help change US policies in the Middle East and working for women’s and LGBTQ rights in the US and globally. In that role, I developed public educational programs about the first Palestinian intifada. I was also a local organizer for the first lesbian and gay march on Washington in 1987. It was an exciting time.
“After several years of doing that, I decided I was tired of thinking about international affairs! I decided to go Brown University for a PhD in American Studies, where I planned to study performance art. But global issues haunted me after all, and I wrote my dissertation on US images of the Middle East. That became the basis for my first book, Epic Encounters (University of California Press, 2005).
“When I joined the faculty at George Washington University, I was committed to the transnational focus that was becoming more common in the study of US history and culture. Our American Studies program at GW includes a rather relentless focus on the US in the World, and many of our students study abroad. I’m also the faculty adviser for DPE, the foreign affairs sorority at GW—an amazing group of young women.
“When UNC started sending me information about Global Studies, I was so delighted. This is just the kind of program I would have loved! I see the courses and the travel, and I know that students are having great experiences. The program seems rich and rigorous, but also teaching students how to think about making their education work in the larger world. I wish we’d had it when I was at UNC! (Then again, we had Michael Jordan.)”