Woodson Fellowships Making Widespread Impact on the Academy

December 7, 2011 — The University of California, Berkeley; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Michigan; Princeton University – these are just a few of the schools where former fellows from the University of Virginia's Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies have secured academic positions.

The institute, part of the College of Arts & Sciences and a national model now in its 30th year, continues to make an impact in diversifying the faculty ranks and academic topics related to the African diaspora at universities all across the country.

Five or six pre- and post-doctoral students are selected to receive a two-year Woodson Fellowship each year. As a result, the budding scholars get the time and attention they need to complete quality work in a supportive community. The current Woodson fellows – not all of whom are African-American – are working on a range of topics from the implications of the emergence of Chinese language instruction in Africa to the influence of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement on international human rights law.

The purpose of the fellowships, according to institute director Deborah McDowell, a U.Va. English professor, is "to focus exclusively on either finishing their dissertations or converting a dissertation into a monograph." Pre-doctoral fellows have no teaching or administrative duties; post-doctoral fellows are required to teach only one course per year.

One current pre-doctoral fellow, Anita Wheeler from Howard University, is working on her dissertation documenting and analyzing a wholly unstudied phenomenon: the social, political and economic implications of the emergence of Chinese language instruction in countries such as Rwanda and Kenya. These are two of the places where Chinese-African business relations are still developing, she said. She is looking at whether Mandarin will potentially displace colonial languages as the communication vehicle for trade, development and diplomacy, and seeking to explain the complex of motivating factors for this phenomenon.

"Wheeler's project is timely, creatively interdisciplinary and promises to shed light on a critical area in international diplomacy and commerce," McDowell said.

Tim Lovelace, another pre-doctoral fellow, has U.Va. degrees in politics and law and is working on another graduate degree in history.

His research investigates how civil rights activism in the U.S. South informed the development of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Lovelace seeks to correct the conventional histories of international human rights law that describe legal histories according to and about the top players, but obscure the process of legal transformation begun on a grass-roots level.

Lovelace's study argues instead that international legal transformation often begins not with state actors or traditional legal practitioners, but with social movements and ordinary people. The non-state actors are essential to international human rights lawmaking, primarily because such law directly responds to the subordination and resistance of these individuals on local levels, he said.

"Much of the work on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or ICERD, depended on the work of the activists protesting Jim Crow laws," he said.

When the late historian Armstead Robinson founded the Woodson Institute in 1981, Waldo Martin, now a history professor at the University of California, Berkeley, was teaching at U.Va., and he was here a few years later when McDowell was hired in the English department.

A member of the institute's executive board, Martin said, "The quality of the program is first-rate. The Woodson Fellowships are as good as it gets in this country."

Most fellowships only last for a year, he said. "Two years makes it very special, coming at a critical stage in writing and research."

He and past fellows attest to the Woodson Fellowship program's exemplary reputation and track record for leading to jobs.

"The Woodson Institute is a tremendous asset to the University of Virginia, of which I'm an undergraduate alumna," said Brandi Hughes, an assistant professor of American culture and history at the University of Michigan who completed her dissertation with a Woodson Fellowship. "But even more importantly, the local contexts of its work in Charlottesville are deeply involved in shaping the state of the field of African and African-American studies nationally and internationally," she wrote in email.

"The fellowship also provided physical space to work (without distraction) and a ready community to lean on for advising about research and writing – and about the transition to the professorship," Hughes said. "The ability to share my work with this wide-ranging community was essential to clarifying the arguments of my project and for preparing me for the interviewing process of the job market."

Sandy Alexandre, an assistant professor of literature at MIT, concurred in her email. "Working in an interdisciplinary fellowship program with such a diverse group of fellows, whose various fields of inquiry differed from yet often complemented mine, allowed me to see my work more clearly.

"In many of my job interviews, my potential employers spoke highly about the national reputation of the fellowship program and often commended me on securing such a competitive fellowship," she said.

"I was also in a better position than a lot of these candidates, precisely because I had had that invaluable, uninterrupted time to deepen my argument and, consequently, grow more articulate about it and more confident as a scholar."

Parker Shipton, professor of anthropology and a research fellow in African studies at Boston University, ended up writing three books out of his Woodson Fellowship. The first one, "The Nature of Entrustment: Intimacy, Exchange, and the Sacred in Africa," won the Herskovits Award of the African Studies Association in 2008. The second and third books were finalists in subsequent years.

A list of the current fellows and their projects can be found here.

— By Anne Bromley

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

Office of University Communications