Genocide Scholar Retires From University Teaching, Not From Work

July 2, 2012

Samuel Totten worked in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan in January 2011, conducting interviews for his book, Genocide by Attrition: The Nuba Mountains of Sudan.
Samuel Totten worked in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan in January 2011, conducting interviews for his book, Genocide by Attrition: The Nuba Mountains of Sudan.

The world is Samuel Totten's classroom and his students span the globe.

Although he officially retired from teaching at the University of Arkansas this past May, it's hard to imagine anything could slow Totten down in his efforts to educate people about atrocities being committed in the world today, atrocities that would seem to belong to eras of long ago, eras of barbarism. He despairs that many people are too concerned about the Kardashians or American Idol to care. That won't stop him, either. Health issues, possibly stemming from his travel abroad, plague him but as long as he has a computer and phone, he will educate and issue calls to action.

"I am continuing to work on the crisis in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan," Totten said one day this summer from his home on Beaver Lake. "I'm working on an editorial for the Washington Post today. People are literally starving to death, and there are reports of 2- to 4-year-olds digging in the dirt for something to eat. The crisis is continuing unabated, and the international community is doing virtually nothing. The United Nations knows what is happening but no one is doing anything."

Once he gets his health problems solved, Totten is planning to head back to the Nuba Mountains. With luck, he said, he would leave for Sudan again in mid-September.

Samuel Totten
Samuel Totten

Totten, a professor of secondary and middle-level education, reached this place in his life with its focus on international human rights through a long career focused on teaching and writing. Prior to becoming a professor, he taught English and social studies in Australia, California, Israel and the U.S. House of Representatives Page School in Washington.

From that grew his scholarship and subsequent teaching of Holocaust education and, finally, genocide theory, prevention and intervention.

At each point along the timeline, Totten lectured, wrote, taught and created structures to carry on his work around the world, including these places:

  • The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.
  • Refugee camps, Chad's border with Sudan
  • National University of Rwanda, Butare
  • Polish Institute of International Affairs, Warsaw
  • Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Toronto; Copenhagen, Denmark; Melbourne, Australia; Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • The University of Chicago, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Lyndon Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, Syracuse University, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Pace University Law School, University of Arkansas Law School, and some 20 others in Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas

Totten described serving in 2004 as a member of a U.S. State Department team that interviewed refugees of the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, as one of his most significant accomplishments. Based on the data the team collected, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell made the determination that genocide had been perpetrated by the Government of Sudan, and Powell testified to that effect before Congress.

"It was an incredible honor to be selected to serve on the State Department's Atrocity Documentary Project as one of these 24 investigators," Totten said. "To sit face-to-face with people who had just fled a genocide was nearly overwhelming, and to hear their raw stories constituted one of the saddest periods of my life. At the same time, harboring the hope that such efforts might be helpful in stanching the killing in Darfur was one of the most life-affirming events of my life."

An official with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Committee on Conscience recommended Totten to the State Department based on his work at the museum on both Holocaust education and the field of genocide studies. In the early 1990s, Totten had served as co-developer of the museum's guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust. Later, Totten organized the first series of talks at the museum that focused on the occurrence of genocide other than the Holocaust.

"Teams of two were dispersed to refugee camps along the Chad/Darfur border. My partner was an attorney with the U.S. Justice Department," Totten said. "We were given basically a half day of informational sessions regarding different aspects of the crisis, and then my partner and I were flown, in a six-seater plane, south to a tiny, tiny dusty, desert village called Goz Beida. For two weeks, we camped in an old French compound and traveled daily out to the refugee camp to conduct the interviews."

Since then, Totten has returned to Chad twice to conduct interviews in numerous refugee camps.

genocide in darfur book cover
genocide in darfur book cover

Totten and a colleague, Eric Markusen, edited a book published in 2006 by Routledge based on the team's experiences called Genocide in Darfur: Investigating Atrocities in the Sudan. Totten notes that as one of his most significant accomplishments, along with two other books on Sudan that he has written: An Oral and Documentary History of the Darfur Genocide (2010) and Genocide by Attrition: Nuba Mountains, Sudan (2012).

The nation of Rwanda also captured Totten's heart, and in 2007 he received a Fulbright Fellowship to conduct research in Rwanda while developing a genocide studies program at the National University of Rwanda. It was the first graduate degree program in genocide studies on the continent of Africa. Totten eventually implemented it, teaching the first course in the program. Among the 30 students in the course were a current member of the Rwandan Parliament, a Rwandan Supreme Court Justice, and the former Minister of Defense.

oral history darfur book cover
oral history darfur book cover

While in Rwanda, Totten also established a scholarship fund for surviving victims of genocide. With Rafiki Ubaldo of Rwanda, a survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda who served as Totten's interpreter and collaborator, Totten began the Post Genocide Education Fund. To date, four students (all survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide) have earned their university degrees, and currently four more (two survivors of the Rwandan genocide, one a survivor of the Darfur genocide, and one a survivor of the Nuba Mountains genocide) are enrolled in university degree programs, Totten reported.

Totten noted that his wife, Kathleen Barta, an associate professor in the Eleanor Mann School of Nursing, is his strongest supporter.

"As much as she worries about my being in such remote places, many times bereft of the means to communicate except via satellite phone, which I do not carry, Kathleen is astonishingly supportive and infinitely understanding," he said. "Needless to say, I always travel with her in my heart."

As he settles into retirement, Totten is intent on continuing his life's work: conducting research into genocide, including field work in the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile Region in Sudan; completing two books, one on the Darfur genocide and one on the two major instances of forced starvation in the Nuba Mountains; and continuing to serve as co-editor of Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal (University of Toronto Press). He also plans to continue to work with colleague Jon Pedersen on their Information Age Publishers' series consisting of four volumes of Educating About Social Issues in the 20th and 21st Centuries: An Annotated Bibliography, as well as two other books dealing with teaching and learning about social issues.

Educating about social issues Totten book cover
Educating about social issues Totten book cover

Even after all of his research into genocide, his talks with survivors, his conversations with other scholars, educators, politicians and reporters, his radio and newspaper interviews and his writing of journal articles, book chapters, op-eds and open letters, Totten is stumped when asked what it will take for the United States and other nations to take a stand against the genocidal killing going on in the world.

"If countries look out for their own interests first, they're not going to get involved," he said. "If nations have an interest such as economic or political ties in a country where atrocities are being perpetrated, they will probably look away."

When this topic arises, Totten talks about realpolitik, a term that refers to politics or diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than ideological notions or moralistic or ethical premises.

"How does the international community get around realpolitik, knowing that the U.N. is made up of governments that all practice realpolitik?" he asked.

Time and again over the past 60 years, the very heart of the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNCG) – that is, the critical need to prevent genocide – has largely been ignored, Totten lamented.

"To a great extent, the relatively new concept of The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is also being applied in a way that is dictated by realpolitik. All one has to think of, for example, are the current humanitarian crises in Syria and the Nuba Mountains where, respectively, innocent people are being slaughtered on a daily basis and starved to death."

"Both the UNCG and R2P basically assert that we, humanity, all have a responsibility to help our fellow human beings who are being brutally treated, to make sure they are not slaughtered," he said. "But, nations keep ignoring them."

To dilute his usual total immersion in the heavy topic of genocide, Totten also writes fiction, an activity he has done all of his adult life but that picked up during his time in Rwanda. He expects to complete a book this summer and get an agent to begin the search for a publisher, a task not made easier because of his success in the nonfiction publishing world, Totten said.

"It's a collection of 40 related stories that are all fictionalized but based on incidents or stories from my life growing up in Laguna Beach, Calif., during the mid- to late 1960s," he said. "There are autobiographical elements, and at least two dozen individuals in the stories are roughly based on people I knew or know. All the names are changed and I created dialogue and scenes and situations.

"I find writing fiction much harder than scholarly writing," Totten continued. "In fiction, you have to create characters that really seem alive and create a sense of place and time that resonates with the reader. At the same time, my central interest in writing fiction is the exploration of ontological issues faced by all human beings, and thus there is the added dimension of making such stories highly engaging. That said, I love the challenge and the act of creation, as it were."

When he graduated from California State University in Long Beach with a bachelor's degree, in English, Totten's heart was set on becoming a novelist. Over some four decades, he wrote four novels but ended up disposing of them, knowing they were no good and that he would try again someday.

In Rwanda, Totten would write while he was eating dinner in a local café, the Hotel Ibis. By the time he got back to the United States, he had five or six notebooks full of stories.

During his tenure at the University of Arkansas that began in 1987, Totten started the Northwest Arkansas Writing Project, an affiliate of the National Writing Project based in Berkeley, Calif. The writing project offers a summer invitational and other workshops for teachers and writing camps for children. Over the years, numerous teachers in Arkansas have become teacher-consultants through the writing project and taught others in their schools to improve writing across the curriculum.

"The teachers I worked with, I became very fond of," Totten said. "I respected them greatly, and I felt that we were making some strong headway in improving writing in schools. As far as my work at the U of A over the 25 years, the two highlights for me were teaching my classes, as I thrived on the interaction with the students, and working with the phenomenal teachers who took part in the Northwest Arkansas Writing Project."

Samuel Totten is congratulated by Susan Furhman, left, president of Teachers College, Columbia University, and Margaret Smith Crocco, professor of social studies.
Samuel Totten is congratulated by Susan Furhman, left, president of Teachers College, Columbia University, and Margaret Smith Crocco, professor of social studies.
Last year, Totten received the Teachers College Distinguished Alumni Award from Columbia University in New York. He earned a master's degree and a doctorate in curriculum and teaching from Columbia.

In her remarks when presenting the award, Margaret Smith Crocco, professor of social studies at Teachers College, praised Totten for his efforts to raise global awareness of genocide and its horrors. He helped to create the field of study, she said, widening the understanding of genocide.

"Few have done more than you to spark that awareness," Crocco said. "For 30 years, you have documented genocide, compiling first-hand accounts of survivors, investigators and many others."

Crocco also talked about Totten's teaching.

"You believe that students become passionate when they engage in world issues," she said. "In Teaching Social Issues in the English Classroom, you wrote that English teachers have the power to ... encourage students and teachers alike to turn the silences forced upon them ... into eloquent and collective calls for change."

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