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Published February 16, 2022
When John Rees arrived in Laramie from Australia, he was bracing for the snow but was pleasantly surprised by the sunshine. And everything else.
Rees, the Milward L. Simpson Visiting Fulbright Professor at the University of Wyoming during 2021-22, has been teaching two courses: “Religion and World Politics” and “Nationalism in Global Perspective.”
“The university experience offers us a chance to cultivate rich and durable thinking about complex matters -- in our case, the complexities of both religion and nationalism in world politics,” Rees says. “How do we get beyond simply repeating the views of our favorite podcast and go further? The conceptual tools that scholars and policymakers apply to issues over time will help us to do that. If we get these durable ‘ways of thinking’ right, we can apply them to a range of important issues into the future. This is my goal for the students here at UW as we learn together.”
Rees is a professor of politics and international relations in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Notre Dame Australia as well as a senior research associate in the university’s Institute for Ethics and Society.
“I feel extremely thrilled to be a Fulbright Professor in two ways,” Rees says. “The first is to be chosen by the University of Wyoming and to contribute to the teaching program of the School of Politics, Public Affairs and International Studies (SPPAIS). It is an honor to work with colleagues here in Laramie.
“The second is to represent my country, Australia, as a Fulbright ambassador. Building international bonds of friendship through education is something that I have always supported and reflects the closeness of our two nations and the rich history we share.”
Even though the United States and Australia have strong bonds, Rees says the cultural distinctions (and the histories that form them) between the two countries are equally real. The two countries share similar-sized continents, but Australia has a population less than the state of Texas.
“Australia is located in the Indo-Pacific, and our closest neighbors are in Southeast Asia. We have a queen who is seated in Great Britain, and we play cricket,” he says. “The United States is an unquestioned superpower. Australia is often described as a middle power. So, I enjoy asking students here at UW about their opinions on a range of international matters -- not only as citizens of the world but as Americans. These contrasting intuitions can be very insightful and make for fantastic conversation.”
Rees describes UW students as “amazing, very engaged in our subject matter and always keen to discuss issues.”
Rees says he asked his “Religion and World Politics” class to critique a magazine article, titled “Faith in America,” that he wrote several years ago.
“They certainly weren’t shy in offering both praise and criticism,” he says. “We had a fantastic discussion.”
Although he admits it sounds strange, Rees says he tends to veer away from the current news cycle for his classes. Providing a critical distance from daily events can allow students as well as himself to cultivate richer analytical ways of thinking, he says.
“For example, the best analyses of various presidential foreign policies are often written well into the term of the next president in line,” Rees offers. “That being said, we are keeping an eye on the Ukraine crisis because it relates to our subjects in important ways. What are the background issues that relate to both the politics of religion in Russia/Ukraine and the national identities and ideologies of the actors involved? These will be important to explore.”
And about that sunshine.
“Such beautiful days. My home city of Sydney is beautiful in summer. By February, it can get a little too humid for my liking,” Rees says. “So, I am very pleased to be here! Laramie is a wonderful city with a rich history that I am keen to know more about.”
While he has not yet had time to travel to the Snowy Range, Vedauwoo or Yellowstone National Park, he has tried his feet at snowshoeing at Happy Jack.
He admits Australia’s native wildlife is weird, offering “Our snakes can kill you in an instant.” However, unlike Wyoming, his homeland “does not have bears, which sounds pretty scary to me.”
That said, he is open to viewing Wyoming’s wildlife. He recalls seeing a bald eagle for the first time when he visited Washington state a few years ago.
“The power and majesty of that magnificent bird truly took my breath away,” he says. “I would love to experience that again.”
Besides the weather and outdoors, Rees says he has received a warm welcome from UW students and staff, specifically mentioning Stephanie Anderson, professor and head of SPPAIS. Anderson, in turn, has kind words for Rees.
“He has been an absolute delight to work with! We have been able to talk about politics in Australia and the United States as well as religion and nationalism around the world,” Anderson says. “We have compared teaching techniques in our two countries. I know our students have really enjoyed having him here for a different perspective. Moreover, even with the pandemic, he has managed to meet with many of our faculty to create the friendships that last way beyond his time here.”
Rees grew up in a working-class steel town south of Sydney called Wollongong. The son of a Welsh migrant father and a sixth-generation colonial mother, Rees says the “wider world” and “life in my home country” were both important.
“I have always had an interest in society and politics, and my engagement with different religions and broader international issues set me on the academic path,” he says. “One of the most formative experiences was working as an educator for a faith-based international aid and development organization in my 20s.”
There, Rees was confronted with the hard questions of life and death, justice and bigotry, and peace and violence. Academic work that interfaces with the policy world and draws on precedents for how such questions were addressed in the past can make a real difference moving forward, he says.
“I know the Fulbright Commission and SPPAIS are both committed to this, and I feel fortunate to serve them and my home institution -- the University of Notre Dame Australia -- as a teacher, researcher and ambassador,” he says.
Rees wrote the book “Religion in International Politics and Development: The World Bank and Faith Institutions” and co-wrote the book “Contemporary Challenges in Australian Security.”
He received his Ph.D. in international relations from the University of New South Wales and holds postgraduate research degrees in international relations, ancient history and political theology.