AHA Member Spotlight: Brandi Townsend
Brandi Townsend is an assistant teaching professor at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. She lives in Santiago, Chile, and has been a member since 2007.
Alma maters: BA, Murray State University, 2006; MA, University of New Mexico, 2009; PhD, University of Maryland, College Park, 2015
Fields of Interest: gender, sexuality, 20th-century Latin America, oral history, memory, human rights
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
I grew up in a small town in Tennessee, where my parents were high school teachers. I thought I would follow in their footsteps, but I later decided to teach history at the college level. I had always found history fascinating, but in world civilization class during my freshman year at Murray State, I began to realize how deeply history is embedded in both everyday experiences and overarching structures. I also became involved in the campus women’s center and discovered that the ideas about gender equality and women’s rights I had been rumbling with since high school (in the middle of the 2000 election) were important issues that merited more investigation. My sophomore year, I studied abroad in Segovia, Spain, and that experience led me to apply to graduate programs in European history. During my senior year of undergrad, I won a scholarship from Rotary International to study in a master’s program at the University of Concepción, Chile, but that would not begin until a year and a half later. Meanwhile, I completed my master’s course work and thesis research at the University of New Mexico. While writing my thesis on gender and memory during the transition to democracy in Spain, I did my scholarship year in Chile. I then pivoted to focus my PhD research on gender and memory under the Pinochet dictatorship. At a human rights organization’s archive in Santiago, I found some boxes with documents on pioneering therapy programs. I thought this would be a unique way to understand how people affected by state violence worked through unspeakable, traumatic memories to rebuild their lives and reconnect to struggles for democracy. I completed my PhD at the University of Maryland, College Park, with supportive professors—especially my advisor, Karin Rosemblatt—who valued my ideas and helped me appreciate their importance. I gave several talks in Chile and felt the pull to move down here after graduation and become part of this vibrant intellectual community. I taught classes at several universities for a couple of years before taking a full-time gig at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, where I have helped open up teaching and research lines in gender history.
What do you like the most about where you live and work?
I can teach courses like “History of Gender in Chile,” which would be too specific for the US. In Chile, however, it draws students across many disciplines. Many are just beginning to learn about feminism, and they want to find out the historical roots of gender norms and inequalities. I came to work here when the student feminist movement was gaining ground, and they had been asking for more courses related to gender. The students, by the way, are outstanding! It’s rewarding to make a small contribution to the important work they are doing.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am currently working on my book manuscript, Gender, Trauma, and Human Rights in Chile under Pinochet, 1973–1990.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?
My master’s students have gotten me more interested in cultural history of gender and the body. During the COVID crisis, though, I have been honing my leadership and teaching skills.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?
Mental health teams’ documents featuring testimonies of men who’d been sexually tortured were probably the most surprising, since folks tend to assume that sexual torture was reserved for women, except in anomalous cases. I am finding that is not true.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
I could list a hundred history books, but I will venture to recommend some works that are helping me find peace and courage in these apocalyptic times: Dr. Kristen Neff’s Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, and Dr. Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead. Both are grounded in rigorous scientific research.
What do you value most about the history discipline?
The insight history provides into who we are is what I value most. It goes back to freshman Brandi in world civ class, who recognized that history shapes how we move through the world, and that understanding how history works can empower each of us to make change.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you?
It helps me stay connected to the US academy, even though I am in a different country.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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