Sue Peabody: History

Sue Peabody had her most productive year ever during her professional leave, though it didn’t unfold exactly as she had planned. “Scholarship takes on a life of its own,” Peabody said. “You follow where it leads you.”

Recipient of a prestigious fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, Peabody is writing the first-ever biography of a French colonial slave, a man named Furcy. On Bastille Day, she signed a contract with Oxford University Press, which will market Furcy to both academic and trade audiences. “I want my work to reach beyond academe,” Peabody said. “This is how we change historical understanding.”

Sue-PeabodyAs she began her leave, however, a French colleague insisted it was time to write a long-planned book together, and Peabody realized that the French book really had to come first. Together with Pierre H. Boulle, she completed a book on the evolving rights of blacks in France at the time of slavery, which will be published in France this fall. In addition, she completed seven articles for French, Canadian and American journals; made presentations at three international conferences; turned a special issue edited with a Brazilian colleague into a book; and completed an annotated bibliography for Oxford Online.

Rather than a distraction, the unexpected projects proved a boon to Furcy’s biography, expanding Peabody’s research and clarifying the historical context. “I was able to discover how French policy regarding blacks and race changed in the 19th century,” Peabody said.

The ACLS fellowship supported her salary and travel for research to Aix-en-Provence and for conferences in Martinique, Vienna and at the University of California, Berkeley.

Having a year to devote to research and writing was invaluable. Not only was she able to recover the lives of people rarely given center stage in history but her new book sheds light on how the modern concept of human rights has evolved.

“Particularly at a young campus like this, faculty are called to pitch in, and teaching and service demands are quite extraordinary,” she said. “Professional leave enables us to begin or further lines of inquiry, gives us space for reflection, and provides an opportunity to do research and meet colleagues around the world who enable us to see our work critically.”

Doing her own research prepared Peabody well for the freshman research class she is teaching this semester.

“I feel refreshed, confident in what I know and eager to take on new challenges in the classroom,” she said.

Peabody will complete one last research trip to the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Réunion in January to finish the book and present her findings at a conference on slave resistance.

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