Professorship brings noted Middle East history scholar to Penn State

Susan Burlingame
March 09, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Laura Robson has been named the inaugural William L. and Donna F. Oliver-McCourtney Professor of History in the College of the Liberal Arts.

Her appointment is possible due to the generosity of Penn State philanthropists Donna Oliver, a 1967 liberal arts alumna, and her husband William ("Bill"), a 1967 alumnus of Penn State’s Smeal College of Business. The Olivers took advantage of the Tracy and Ted McCourtney Endowed Professorship Matching Gift Program to create the professorship.

A scholar who specializes in the Middle East and especially the Arab world, Robson joined the history faculty as the Oliver-McCourtney Professor in 2020 after a decade at Portland State University, where she was associate professor of history. She examines questions of ethnic politics, forced migration, and mass violence in the Middle East and beyond.

Though she grew up in western New York, Robson was born in Australia to an American mother and a British father. The two met in Western Samoa while her mother was in the Peace Corps and her father was in the British overseas civil service. They moved to Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and finally Australia after their tours of duty were over, eventually landing in the United States.  

Noting that her parents’ international lives may have played a role in the career she would later choose, Robson said several factors led her to studying the Middle East.

“I was a double major in college — music and history,” said Robson, who is a classically trained pianist as well as a Middle East scholar. “I was interested in the classics and in ancient history, but my interest in studying the Middle East probably dates to an archaeological trip to Turkey that I took as a senior in college. It was a part of the world I had never thought about except through ancient texts, and it was eye-opening to see that it was a real, vibrant, modern place.

“There’s a classic trope in Middle East studies that people have too often thought of the Middle East as a place of ancient rather than modern history,” she continued. “For me, it was a profound experience to actually go there and realize that I should have been thinking about what is happening in the Middle East today.”

After simultaneously earning a bachelor of arts degree in history and a bachelor of fine arts degree in music at Tulane University, Robson spent two and a half years in the United Kingdom, where she earned a master of music degree in piano performance from London’s Royal Academy of Music and a master’s degree in ancient history from The Queen’s College of Oxford University. She later earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate in history from Yale University.

During her first summer at Yale, Robson took an Arabic language course in Beirut, Lebanon — an experience that solidified the focus of her research and scholarly work, which had until then focused mainly on British imperialism in the Middle East.

“It was such an amazing experience,” she said, adding that Beirut continues to be one of her favorite cities. “I realized I didn’t want to study the Middle East from the perspective of imperial history, though I am still interested in experiences of empire and decolonization. I wanted to be studying the Middle East from a Middle Eastern perspective. The experience resulted in a kind of shift in focus for me.”

Robson’s shift in focus ultimately resulted in five books, most recently “The Politics of Mass Violence in the Middle East,” published by Oxford University Press in 2020. She has contributed scores of book chapters, scholarly articles, book reviews, presentations, and much more. Since 2016, she has been an editorial board member of the Edinburgh University Press book series on “Alternative Histories: Narratives on the Middle East and Mediterranean,” and she is a current member of the American Historical Association, the Middle East Studies Association of North America, and the Syrian Studies Association.

The benefits of the professorship

Robson said coming to Penn State as the Oliver-McCourtney Professor represented a “tremendous opportunity” to move to a major research institution.

“I saw there was real energy behind Middle East hiring in the history department. I am one of three recent hires, and there were already some really wonderful scholars studying the Middle East,” she said. “I saw this as an opportunity to be in a program-building moment and to work in a department that was becoming an intellectual center for some of the core issues in my research and writing.”

Michael Kulikowski, Edwin Earle Sparks Professor of History and Classics and head of the Department of History, said, “We were very fortunate to persuade Dr. Robson to join our faculty, and she now stands at the heart of the department’s emerging strength in Middle Eastern history. She’s not just a very distinguished scholar, she’s a prolific one who commands a wide audience beyond the Middle East and in partition and refugee studies more generally.” 

Robson said, “Holding the Oliver-McCourtney Professorship is a huge honor. This is a tremendous professional opportunity and an amazing perch from which to think about the really big issues of our time.”

Robson plans to use some of the resources from the professorship to work on a digital humanities project on the global histories of statelessness, which refers to populations of people who have no recognized citizenship. In partnership with a colleague at the University of Manitoba, Robson plans to create digital resources on the political phenomenon of statelessness in the modern world.

“Statelessness is a global issue, affecting a wide variety of populations and individuals who live without formal national citizenship,” she said. “This project is trying to shine a light on these issues and think about the histories of how this has happened in various places and times and circumstances. As is true for many contemporary history projects, it is also trying to point a way toward new conceptions of political belonging and to imagine different futures for these communities and individuals.”

The project, she said, will involve students and serve as a teaching tool in the classroom.

“We need to involve students in thinking about the best ways to reach public audiences and provide important intellectual resources for scholars and others who might make use of it,” she explained. “Once the pandemic is past, I am hoping the project will enable in-person events so students will have the opportunity to interact with intellectual leaders in the field and think deeply about the questions of statelessness in the modern world and how it relates to their own lives.”

When Donna Oliver learned of Robson’s appointment as the inaugural Oliver-McCourtney Professor she said, “We are so happy that our gift enabled the history department to recruit a scholar of Dr. Robson’s caliber and that she now has resources to grow as both a scholar and a teacher. We’re thrilled that she studies the Middle East and that she is now part of a remarkable cohort of Middle East scholars at Penn State. Perhaps even more importantly, Dr. Robson is passionate about her work; surely that passion will result in her being an inspirational teacher who inspires her students.” 

Last Updated March 25, 2021