Dr. Jo-Ann Gross, Professor of History, achieved noteworthy success in December 2012 when she was inducted as an honorary foreign member into the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan.
It is a rare and prestigious honor to be inducted into this scholarly academic institution, especially as a foreign member. Dr. Gross, whose field of expertise is the history and culture of Islamic Central Asia, was nominated based on her research, publications, and, most importantly, her contributions to both broadening the understanding of Persianate culture and history in Western society, and to advancing scholarship within Tajikistan.
“My election, which I consider to be the highlight of my career,” says Dr. Gross, “was for my scholarly contribution in terms of individual research, but also for my support of the educational development in Tajikistan.”
She has been traveling to the region to study the history and culture since 1979, during the Soviet period. Other than longer stays during sabbaticals, she generally travels there each summer for about one month, but the time commitment varies from year to year depending on her research.
Nearly two decades ago, she founded a grant to help support the publication of scholarly works in Central Asia. This grant is the Central Eurasia Research Fund, or CERF, which publishes scholarly texts in Tajiki, Farsi, and Russian across a variety of disciplines, including history, archaeology, ethnography, poetry, sociology, art, culture, and linguistics.
Dr. Gross currently serves as Director of CERF, which hosts an annual competition for its publication funding and has published 18 books to date.
Dr. Gross is also very involved with the Association for the Study of Persianate Societies (ASPS), a non-governmental organization for researchers and scholars interested in the culture and civilization of Persian-speaking societies and related regions.
She helped open ASPS offices in Central Asia, with the most recent location in Khorog, the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan, which is a remote region of Tajikistan located in the Pamir Mountains that is often overlooked.
The Association for the Study of Persianate Societies publishes the Journal of Persianate Studies and has hosted a biennial convention since 2003, where scholars come together from Central Asia, India, Pakistan, China, Iran, Afghanistan, Europe, the Balkans, Japan, and the United States.
“This is a great opportunity, because everyone we have worked with and everyone from our branch offices comes together and exchange ideas,” says Dr. Gross.
The very first biennial conference was held at the branch office in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. The next biennial conference will be held in Sarajevo, Bosnia in October 2013. In 2015, she hopes that the ASPS will come full circle and return to Tajikistan for the seventh biennial conference.
Dr. Gross also mentors Central Eurasian scholars, helping them gain access to Western scholarship in a region of the world where Western sources are very limited. For example, she recently mentored one scholar on historical methodology and current western research in that scholar’s field of interest.
“It’s been very exciting, gratifying and enriching for me to be able to interact with scholars in this way and to make a contribution to their development,” Dr. Gross says.
Currently, Dr. Gross is working on launching a summer internship program for undergraduates from TCNJ and other U.S. colleges and universities as part of America’s Unofficial Ambassadors, a citizen diplomacy initiative of the nonprofit organization Creative Learning, based in Washington D.C.
Through this initiative, students work in schools and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the Muslim world, where they create people-to-people partnerships that dispel stereotypes. When they return, unofficial ambassadors foster cross-cultural understanding by sharing their experiences through blogs and presentations in their communities.
There are three programs already in place: one in Morocco, one in Indonesia, and one in Zanzibar. Dr. Gross hopes to make Tajikistan the fourth program location by summer 2014.
This summer, Dr. Gross will return to Central Eurasia with seven TCNJ students for her Maymester study-tour course “Travels on the Silk Road of Central Asia,” which will take place abroad in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Dr. Gross first taught this Maymester course, which is linked to her spring seminar “Politics, Culture, and Identity in Central Asia,” in summer 2010, and looks forward to leading the trip for a second time.
“It’s exciting for me,” says Dr. Gross of the Maymester course, “because it’s such a big part of my life and a place that not many students have an opportunity to visit. I get the chance to introduce them to the people, land, and culture of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, to discuss their experiences, and to share my knowledge with them.”
As far as her own research goes, Dr. Gross is currently working on a book about Islamic shrines in Tajikistan, entitled Muslim Shrines and Spiritual Culture in the Perso-Islamic World. This work is under contract with I.B. Taurus Publishers and will appear in the International Library of Iranian Studies book series.
The book focuses on how sacred landscapes are created, and what written and oral traditions are connected to them.
She combines archival research, working in manuscript collections, with field research that involves visiting the shrines and interviewing people associated with them.
After visiting over 250 such shrines, she says that the kinds of shrines differ depending on location, culture and history, ranging from sacred piles of rocks to ornate buildings.
“The thing about these sacred places is that they are really living monuments,” says Dr. Gross. “Whether they are built in the tenth century or recently, they continue to be modified over time. These sacred places are very much alive.”
She further explains, “I’m very interested in what you could call shrine culture: How are shrines built? Why are they built? What role do they play in communities? What traditions are associated with them? What stylistic aspects are there in different regions? What role does the shrine play in local culture? In the understanding of Islam? And how does meaning change over time?”
The book is composed of a series of case studies about different shrines across the region, and how they have developed over time.
Dr. Gross has used her scholarly work in the classroom before, incorporating published articles, as well as her last book, The Letters of a Fifteenth-Century Sufi Shaykh, into seminars and other courses. She hopes to integrate this new book into her courses on Islamic history, Sufism, and Iranian and Central Asian history.
“There’s very little that’s been published on Tajikistan, especially on the history,” she says. “There is a lot more that has been published on the politics, but on the history and culture there’s not much, so I definitely want to use in the classroom, and I hope that others will too.”
Other recent projects include co-editing a book about Sufism (the mystical aspect of Islam) in Central Asia, which developed out of a conference at Princeton University that she co-organized with a colleague. She also guest-edited a special issue on the Pamir region for the Journal of Persianate Studies, meant to bring attention to this important yet understudied region and its place in the broader field of Persianate studies.
Speaking about her induction into the Academy of Sciences, Dr. Gross says: “It will help me to continue the kind of work I am doing in Tajikistan now. I think the recognition will help support not only my scholarly activities, but also the collaborative efforts that I am involved with, including ASPS activities, and I think it will strengthen the links I already have.”