The Faculty of Arts’ 2020 Killam Laureates

Outstanding researchers, students recognized with prestigious award

Donna McKinnon - 14 October 2020

Amy Kaler says that sociology is an absolutely essential discipline if we want to live in a world where there's the possibility of improving people's well-being, both as individuals and as societies.

Kaler, recently named a 2020 Killam Annual Professor, has spent decades studying sexual and reproductive health (especially HIV/AIDS and fertility control) in sub-Saharan Africa, with particular attention to the social, cultural and institutional dimensions of public health intervention. Her research is interdisciplinary — touching on African studies, feminist studies, and religious studies, public health and gender politics in workplaces.

Drawn to personal narratives as both a researcher and as lead of Stories of Change, a Faculty of Arts’ Signature Area of Research and Creative Collaboration, Kaler’s research always comes back to two big questions: what happens when things don't turn out the way they're expected to turn out (in other words, unintended consequences); and how do people try to make their world a better place?

“The answers are completely different whether you're talking about HIV treatment in rural east Africa or Protestant theology in Canada in the 1920s,” says Kaler, adding that the search for those answers is always worth the effort.

The Killam Annual Professorship is granted to members of faculty who are extraordinary teachers and researchers, leaders in their academic fields and communities, and who have received national and international recognition. “It's an honour to be recognized with a Killam Professorship,” says Kaler. “I’ve been fortunate to spend my research career thus far working on questions and challenges that I find intellectually invigorating, as well as useful for understanding why things are the way they are.”

Kaler joins other University of Alberta 2020 Killam recipients, including post-doctoral researchers, faculty, and students, to be celebrated today at a virtual meeting with the Killam trustees. Also announced, Rob McMahon, an Associate Professor with the Media & Technology Studies Unit and the Department of Political Science, has received the prestigious Killam Accelerator Award, granted to early career faculty members whose research output and the impact of their scholarly activity has been deemed exceptional.

The Killam awards date back to 1966, when the U of A received $14 million from the estate of the late Izaak and Dorothy Killam to establish the trust, the single largest endowment ever to a post-secondary institution in Alberta at that time. 

In addition to the faculty-level Killam awards, four Faculty of Arts students received the 2020 Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship, the most prestigious graduate award administered by the University of Alberta.

Rezvaneh Erfani (Sociology): Imagining a New Environmentalism: Social and Political Capacities of Environmental Activism in the Middle East.

“Stories inspire our research, challenge our lifeworld, and strongly impact our ways of seeing and being, not only as researchers but as global citizens in these changing times,” says Erfani. “I collect stories, experiences and reflections of environmental activists in Cairo and Istanbul to understand how they give meaning to their actions, what they dream about individually and collectively, and why bringing about change shapes their identity.

“To me, activists protect the lights of hope in a society and it is so inspiring and important to see how they see the world, society, politics and democracy. They are indications of this verse in Rumi’s words:  تو مگو همه به جنگند و ز صلح من چه آید/ تو یکی نه‌ای هزاری تو چراغ خود برافروز

‘Do not say that everybody is in war and there is no benefit for my peace. You are not one; you are a thousand. Just light your lantern.’” (Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi Rumi)

Erfani, profiled in this 2019 story, is also the recipient of the 2020 Dorothy J. Killam Memorial Graduate Prize — awarded annually to the most outstanding Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship recipients.

Lisa Martin (English and Film Studies): Inklings: An Autobibliography of Creative Writing Practice, Research, and Pedagogy in Post-Secondary Education

“My research investigates what Creative Writing has to offer to contemporary post-secondary humanities education more generally,” says Martin. “This research gives me a chance to reflect on my own artistic and pedagogical practices (I’m a poet and essayist, and I’ve been teaching university-level creative writing, academic writing, and introduction to literature courses for more than a decade).

“I’m excited to be reading and thinking and trying to write explicitly about questions that have been circling these practices for me for years. I’m trying to articulate what is distinctive within the post-secondary context (and valuable in ways that can’t be reduced to assessment by standardized rubrics — something especially relevant to discuss and insist on right now) about Creative Writing as practice, research, and pedagogy. The Killam allows me to focus my attention intensively on this work, and I am deeply grateful for this support.”

Oghenevwarho Ojakovo (Music): The Use of Hausa Islamic/Non-Islamic Songs in the Struggle Against Boko Haram in Nigeria

“My research examines the significance of Islamic nashid (hymnody) as deployed by the militant Islamic group, Boko Haram (BH), to promote its ideologies of radical Islam in northeastern Nigeria,” says Ojakovo. “I am also interested in the use of songs by moderate Muslims and Christian musicians, to counter the ideologies which BH promotes.”

Ojakovo says his passion for this research developed as a music faculty member at Kwara State University located in northern Nigeria.

“During that period, I taught Islamic songs and poems to students and have analyzed and interpreted the roles they play in the daily lives of Muslims in that part of the world. Starting in 2014, these songs began to form a prominent part of the discourse around radical Islamic movements such as BH. Recognizing the role that sung Islamic poetry had traditionally played in the teaching of Islam, and in the spiritual life amongst followers of BH, the promise of counter musical studies in northern Nigeria becomes self-evident. I am thankful to the Killam Trust for awarding me with the Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship for this study. This scholarship means a lot for my future career in music scholarship.”

Amanda Spallacci (English and Film Studies): Reading Contemporary Memoirs about Rape in the Wake of #MeToo

“I am incredibly honoured to win the prestigious Killam Scholarship for my dissertation, where I focus predominantly on the cultural/collective memory of anti-rape activism in the United States, taking five contemporary memoirs about sexual violence as my objects of study,” says Spallacci.

“I conceptualize memoir as an alternative jurisdiction to the criminal justice system; unlike in the criminal justice system where survivors are only permitted to give a testimony of the event, memoir allows survivors to contextualize the rape within the story of their life and to expose the systems of oppression that give rise to these forms of violence. My research is motivated and inspired by the work of intersectional activists, who, following post-emancipation, fought to stop the rape and lynching of Black women and men. I seek to demonstrate how racism, sexism, ableism, and heteronormativity remain foundational components of the criminal justice system, and how memoir can hold this institution to account, by drawing attention to these oppressive forces that disempower survivors who want to report that they were assaulted, the low rate of cases that go to trial, and the even lower rate of cases that result in convictions.”

Congratulations to all 2020 Killam Laureates!