Brett Shadle Named Chair of History at Virginia Tech

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Brett Shadle
Brett Shadle

As Brett Shadle’s first-year-experience class listened attentively to a guest lecturer discuss research on Mexican history, a history major sat rapt. At the end of the talk, the student, who was of Mexican heritage, left in a state of awe. He had never before heard his country’s history represented in the classroom.

“That’s the kind of experience we want to provide for students,” said Shadle, professor and newly appointed chair of the Department of History. “We want to reach out to everyone and let them know no matter what their race, gender, or sexuality, we’ve got classes that cover most interests.”

Shadle, who has also been a core faculty member of the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought since 2005, brings his experience and interest in international history and education to his new position. This is happening at a time when the department is working on diversity and inclusion. The previous chair, Mark Barrow, began this process, which Shadle is continuing by overseeing the department’s efforts to create a diversity plan.

Before becoming chair, Shadle worked with a department committee that brought all the history faculty members into a conversation about making their area a more welcoming place. They are exploring how the department can better support their faculty, with a focus on those who spend a great deal of time mentoring and connecting to students from underrepresented populations.

“The faculty in this case,” Shadle said, “many times take on greater, unofficial obligations to students or with the Cultural and Community Centers. We want to make sure we know about the extra burdens that faculty in underrepresented communities have across the country, and ensure we recognize and reward those efforts.”

Shadle is no stranger to such areas. His academic expertise is in the history of Kenya, refugees, and race, and he is active with several university initiatives in international service learning, such as through the Global Education Office and VT Engage.

“As chair, I want to continue to work with global education and do what I can to promote it,” he said.

Shadle encourages students who are embarking on study abroad or service-learning trips to be self-reflective during their travels. He prompts them to think about what they bring to the experience and what they can provide, cautioning them against serving for self-promotion or out of pity.

With this, he will continue to serve as the faculty advisor for a student organization, the Coalition for Refugee Resettlement, which volunteers at two Roanoke high schools and a middle school. As tutors for both families and individuals, the students provide homework help for those who are elementary to high school age. They also assist adults in learning English and preparing for the naturalization exam. The populations the organization helps are from such countries as Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Somalia, and South Sudan.

Shadle is proud of the coalition’s achievements, such as when it received the 2019 University Student Leadership Award for the Greatest Impact on the New River Valley Community.

Shadle has his own share of university awards. He was a Virginia Tech Engage Faculty Fellow in 2014–15 and has received two awards from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences — the Excellence in International Initiatives Award in 2014 and a Certificate of Teaching Excellence in 2012. He is the author of two books: “The Souls of White Folk: White Settlers in Kenya, 1900–1920s” and “‘Girl Cases’: Marriage and Colonialism in Gusiiland, Kenya, 1890–­1970.”

Between 2012 and 2014, Shadle served as a member of the East Africa section of the Fulbright National Screening Committee. He holds a doctorate from Northwestern University and bachelor’s degree from Northern Illinois University.

As Shadle embarks on his first semester as chair, he looks forward to working with a strong and vibrant department.

“We’ve really hired good people,” he said. “I see our department having a lot of energy across teaching and service. We have so many well-respected experts in their fields — award-winning teachers, influential writers, and people who get invited to review manuscripts, serve on editorial boards, and participate in professional associations. They invest a great deal of their time producing and disseminating knowledge, nurturing critical skills in our students, and making the university and the community better places.”

Written by Leslie King