The Schaeffer Center

Brian Schiff Named AUP’s Second “Professor of Promise”


Professor Brian Schiff

AUP is pleased to announce that Professor Brian Schiff, Chair of the Department of Psychology, Health and Gender and Director of the George and Irina Schaeffer Center for the Study of Genocide, Human Rights and Conflict Prevention, has been named AUP’s second Professor of Promise. He will hold the title of Esmond Nissim Professor of Psychology for the next five years.

Professor Schiff specializes in researching the concept of collective memory and examining the motivations of the perpetrators of mass crimes. He is interested in the ways in which we conceptualize how groups form social meaning in the context of atrocity. “My work is geared toward understanding and theory,” he explains. “It can broadly be described as anti-racist or anti-hate.” He argues that understanding the motivations of perpetrators appropriately is a necessary first step in the prevention of mass crimes. He is currently working on two research collaborations with AUP students: a book chapter analyzing interviews with the former commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp and a journal article looking at manifestos of mass shooters from around the world, asking how the perpetrators position themselves in discursive spaces.

The Professor of Promise title comes with a research grant that Schiff hopes to use in part to finance travel, in order to deepen his connections to other scholars in the fields of genocide and memory studies. “Hopefully it will open up opportunities to engage with colleagues in other institutions across Europe and in Israel,” he says. In addition, the professorship will allow him to set aside time to work on his upcoming book project, which has the working title Meaningful Violence. The book will look at the symbolic worlds that perpetrator groups create and ask how those narratives are circulated. “I want to explore the basis for the ontological difference between our moral worldview and how perpetrator groups see things when they propose violence."

As well as acknowledging Schiff’s academic research, the professorship recognizes his significant contributions to the founding and direction of the George and Irina Schaeffer Center for the Study of Genocide, Human Rights and Conflict Prevention, which works to promote innovative research, curricula and pedagogies that deepen our understanding of the causes and consequences of mass violence. The Center’s current events include the Figuring Memory seminars, which look at the ways in which collective memory and remembrance practices are used to further social change. “We come at it from a concern that the kind of memory culture we’ve developed as a society isn’t doing what we are saying it is doing,” explains Schiff.

The Center is also organizing two upcoming conferences scheduled for the end of the academic year. The first, which will take place in the Center’s conference space in the Quai d’Orsay Learning Commons, is entitled “The Photography of Persecution: Pictures of the Holocaust” and will look at the role photography plays in representing and understanding the Holocaust. The second will be an interdisciplinary exploration of the ways in which cosmopolitanism has been reconstructed after conflict, held in the town of Cres, Croatia, in collaboration with several other academic institutions.

Schiff's professorship was made possible thanks to a generous donation from the Esmond Nissim Foundation. Esmond Nissim was born into a Sephardic family in 1918. In 1937, after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Nissim family evacuated from their homes in Shanghai to Singapore, where they lived until 1942. They were then again forced to flee following the Japanese invasion of Singapore to what was then Bombay (modern-day Mumbai). In 1947, Esmond, along with his mother and two sisters, arrived in the US, where he took up permanent residence.

Professor Brian Schiff is the second recipient of a Professor of Promise title and grant, following Professor Stephen Sawyer’s acceptance of the title of Ballantine-Leavitt Professor of History.