Move to the Head of the Class: Recent Graduate Returns to Teach

September 10, 2007
Sept. 10, 2007 — Just a few short years ago, Vesla Weaver sat in her politics classes in Cabell Hall, taking notes and discussing assigned readings.

Starting this semester, she'll be the one assigning readings as she teaches two classes. Now 27, Weaver returns to U.Va. this semester as an assistant professor of politics, just six years after having graduated from U.Va. in May 2001 with a B.A. in Government (Highest Distinction and Phi Beta Kappa).

This semester, she is teaching an undergraduate course on Race Politics and a graduate course on American Political Development. "It struck me the other day when I was walking down the hall in [New Cabell Hall] and I saw my name on the door," Weaver said. "I was so used to shuttling around these halls for years to meet with professors, go to classes and turn in papers. It was pretty neat to see my name there [on the office door]."

She is teaching alongside associate professor Lynn M. Sanders, who was her mentor and thesis advisor when she was an undergrad, and who shares Weaver's interest in race and politics. Sanders remembers Weaver's thesis about how felony disenfranchisement laws disproportionately impact African Americans, which won the Emmerich-Wright Prize for most outstanding undergraduate thesis. "She was ahead of the curve in writing about the disenfranchisement of felons, which is now a well-recognized topic among scholars," Sanders said.

"She was a star undergrad," noted Jeffrey Legro, professor and chair of Department of Politics. "She was the top student in my own 120-person course on Theories of International Relations, and that wasn't even her area of concentration."

"With a student like her," added Sanders, "when you're a teacher, you try to provide guidance and inspiration, but not do anything that constrains the wonderful energy that a student like Vesla brings."

Her star trajectory continued at Harvard, where she won five graduate and postdoctoral fellowships and four significant academic awards. She also had one paper published, and gave over 20 paper presentations during her six years of graduate work toward her 2007 Ph.D. Working with Professor Christopher Edley Jr. at Harvard's Civil Rights Project, Weaver researched spoiled ballot rates (resulting in ballots being uncounted) during the infamous presidential vote recounts in Florida in 2000. After discovering a disparate effect in minority communities, a resulting lobbying effort to include residual ballots in election reform legislation culminated in a research memo to the Congressional Committee on Election Reform.

In Weaver's final semester at U.Va., as Inside U.Va. reported in 2001, she hoped “to turn her undergraduate thesis ... into a doctoral dissertation and a book written for the general public.” She's on track to do exactly that. She continued studying race and ethnicity in American politics during her graduate studies at Harvard's program in government and social policy.

Her dissertation was a more sophisticated take on the same subject, titled "Frontlash: Race and the Politics of Punishment," in which she developed the concept of "frontlash," referring to white Southern politicians' reaction to the 1965 Civil Rights Act. That legislation upended many schemes, such as poll taxes and grandfather clauses, used since the end of the Civil War to continue to deny blacks the right to vote. In response, white Southerners proactively changed tactics to achieve the same ends by focusing on harsher punishment for crime, which disproportionately disenfranchised blacks. As evidence to support her thesis, Weaver notes numerous speeches by state legislators arguing for such ends and the details of how incarceration rates increased dramatically since 1970. During some periods, the rates increased while the actual crime rate was declining, denoting that rates were not driven simply by a genuine response to crime.

As Weaver continues to research race and politics, her studies have continued to evolve. Her current book project has the working title, "Unstable Boundaries: Skin Color, Immigration, and Multiracialism in the American Racial Order." That's also the title of a presentation she will give at the Miller Center this November, where just six years ago she was a rapt audience member. "She's one of the leaders in the country working on race and ethnicity in American politics," Legro said.

Having returned to U.Va. to work alongside those who helped inspire her just six years ago, Weaver feels like she's back where she belongs. "It's not weird at all to be only six years out of undergrad here. The professors here all treat me as a complete equal," she said.

Her mentors-turned-colleagues share those feelings. "I'm looking forward to working with her as a colleague, to hear her wonderful ideas and learn more from her again," said Sanders. "I'm delighted she's going to be in our conversation as a faculty member, bringing her perspective that I've missed for the six years that she's been away."

Weaver represents the realization of one of U.Va.'s major institutional goals — to foster faculty diversity, and especially to do so by encouraging its own minority students to pursue academic careers. Her current position was made possible, in part, by the award of a 2007 Excellence in Diversity Fellowship from U.Va., the second diversity-focused fellowship Weaver has won (the other being a 2001 Minority Fellow of the American Political Science Association).

"Vesla is a great hire," said Legro. "We are thrilled to have been able to lure her back to Charlottesville."

Weaver has tremendous credibility to encourage other students, especially minority students, to pursue academic careers, noted Sanders. While many high-achieving students tend to pursue more lucrative careers like consulting, investment banking or law, Weaver "embodies how dynamic, exciting, impactful, and engaging a career in research and academia can be," Sanders said.

"Ten years down the road," said Legro, "we will be able to see a group of students that Vesla has inspired to pursue the study of politics. We're hoping to develop more Vesla Weavers."