Dr. Jordan Kellman is an historian of science, a francophile, and one of the two new Associate Deans of Liberal Arts. He talks about how he came to UL, and how his work here tightly fits with his interests.

Jordan Kellman, Department of History & Geography, University of LouisianaTell us about yourself.

I'm from Urbana, Illinois. I grew up in the backyard of the University of Illinois, my father is a musicology professor there. I became interested in the history of science as an undergrad at the university.

I thought I would be a science student, but I found my science classes to be obsessed with problem-solving... or maybe with teaching problem-solving.

I wanted something else. I was interested in finding out how people knew the things they knew. Then I was talking to the professor of my chemistry course of 300 students. He told me I should look at history and the philosophy of science. So I took both of those, and wound up in Paris for my junior year, and studied both. I fell in love with the history of French science.

And you learned French.

I knew some already, and learned a lot more that year. When I came back I decided to pursue graduate studies in the history of science. I went to Cal-Berkeley for my MA, and Princeton for my PhD.

It was actually when was I working on my dissertation that my wife got a job at LSU, and we moved to Baton Rouge before I was even into the writing process. So I taught classical civilizations and the history of science at LSU in the history department and the honors college there. I loved teaching, and I really loved the students we have at the public institutions in Louisiana. It was through that process that my wife and I decided that we really wanted to stay here.

In the year that we decided to make a transition I had two job possibilities. We were on the verge of moving to North Carolina, when I got a call out of the blue from Richard Cusimano with the history department here, asking if I was still interested in a job I had applied for.  My wife and I were delighted to be able to stay in Louisiana. So I commuted across the Basin for two years, and then we moved to Lafayette in 2004.

The job here was a perfect combination for me, for my academic interests and for my own path in life, because this is the only university in the US that counts French as an official second operating language.  But it's also a University where francophone topics, French history, and French culture are supported, and reverberate in the community.  That's a really an unusual feature of UL that should be more widely broadcast, and more widely known in the academic community.

At the same time I had the good fortune to join a history department that is extremely collegial, and that has created an ideal environment for me to pursue my interests in 18th century history, colonialism, and the history of science.

I've also had the good fortune to work with the French department here, which has a unique and outstanding program in global Francophone Studies.  The French faculty here have been a pleasure to be associated with.  My academic life is bilingual, and this has been a unique opportunity.

Tell us about your research.

My research focuses on French scientific travelers in the 17th and 18th century.  These were astronomers and botanists and naturalists who climbed aboard sea-faring vessels, and accompanied the cutting edge of colonial expansion attempting to digest the radical profusion of the natural world they encountered.

Most recently I've been investigating a botanist who studied the plant life of the Caribbean, and who published the first comprehensive treatise on ferns.

I've also recently been researching a scientific debate that raged over the origin of the deep red dye that was common in Europe, the one based on cochineal which produces the color vermilion.  At that time, it was unknown if the dye ultimately came from an animal or a plant. The tiny black grains which produce the dye arrived by the ton from Mexico, already toasted, and the debate raged for decades about whether it was a seed of the prickly pear cactus, an insect that lived on the cactus, or an airborne plant that landed on the cactus.

They didn't resolve the debate until the 18th century.

You recently moved into an administrative role.

This January I was appointed to be one of two Associate Deans of the College of Liberal Arts, and that has opened up a whole new field of inquiry and activity for me.

I have great hopes of working to position the College in a relationship between academia and the public world in which it exists. Teaching students to think critically about received ideas, to digest information and creatively process diverse points of view, is what the liberal arts have always been about.  And these skills, far from being outdated, are actually becoming the only compass our graduates will have to navigate the world of information they are deluged with.

Most recently I have been involved in our ten year SACS [Southern Association of Colleges and Schools] reaffirmation bid.  That has been a fascinating process of getting to know the people and processes that make up the University. A self-study like this is an excellent opportunity for a university or any institution to take stock of its strengths and weakness and to examine how it works, from the most minute corners of small offices and how they operate, to the macrostructure and how different academic units relate to one another.

The best thing about the SACS process for me has been meeting the hundreds of dedicated people across the campus, whom as a faculty member I wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to meet, and learning how much of themselves they invest in this University and the success of our students.

What was your first impression of UL?

The thing that jumps out of my mind is that when I came here for my on-campus interview, I stopped for gas on my way out of town.  The bill came to a few dollars and change.  I took out my wallet, counted out the number of dollars and was fumbling for the change, when the woman behind me-- I got the impression she was student-- said, "I have the 43 cents, here." 

For no reason.  That is something that would not have happened elsewhere.