Summer Sixteen: Mellon Summer Part I

No, not ?! I’m referring to the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program and the SSRC-Mellon Mays Graduate Initiatives. These programs have anchored me in a supportive community of colleagues and connected me with the resources I’ve needed at every stage of my academic career so far. From the undergraduate program’s website:

The fundamental objective of MMUF is to address, over time, the problem of underrepresentation in the academy at the level of college and university faculties. This goal can be achieved both by increasing the number of students from underrepresented minority groups (URM) who pursue PhDs and by supporting the pursuit of PhDs by students who may not come from traditional minority groups but have otherwise demonstrated a commitment to the goals of MMUF.

A diverse group of two professors and six college students, all smiling, pose for a group photo, standing in a single row, in a college classroom. In the foreground, there is a desk and chair, and in the background there is a whiteboard.
I worked with these future doctoral students alongside fellow Scholar-in-Residence Dr. Shanna Benjamin (right).

My mentor, Duchess Harris, JD, PhD, was in the first class of Mellon fellows at the University of Pennsylvania. Now, as a full Professor and Chair of American Studies at my alma mater, Macalester College, she invited me to participate in her students’ summer seminar as the program’s inaugural Scholar-in-Residence!


CameraZOOM-20160617132333970The Macalester Mellon fellows, who are rising juniors and seniors, were assigned to read Speculative Blackness as part of a summer-long curriculum. Their summer seminar takes them to lectures, museums, science exhibits, performances, and other events while they develop the  research projects that will comprise their work toward their eventual graduate studies. Needless to say, the invitation was an honor and a privilege.

A diverse group of ~100 graduate students and professors, all wearing business casual attire, pose for a photograph in several rows. Some are standing and some seated. In the foreground is a grassy lawn, in the background are the columns and arches of a cloister at a collegiate-gothic style building.
SSRC-Mellon Mays Graduate Initiatives 2013 Summer Graduate Student Conference.

The visit to my alma mater came at a fortuitous time, as I was already slated to rejoin my Mellon colleagues for the Graduate Student Conference at Bryn Mawr College. The last time I participated in this conference was in 2013, where I was a speaker on the Recent PhD Panel that allows newly-minted doctors to give graduate students an idea of what to expect in their imminent future. The Summer Seminar at Macalester took place first, then the Graduate Student Conference. More on that later: first, back to Mac!

For the first leg of my Mellon Summer, in Minnesota, we joined the fellows and my fellow distinguished Scholar in Residence, Dr. Shanna Benjamin, at the University Club in St. Paul. It sounds fancy, but the only requirement for membership is that you’re a college graduate. One thing I appreciate about this fellowship program is that it introduces people from working class backgrounds and people of color who have never had the capital to participate in elite institutions to the spaces that highly educated professionals inhabit. CameraZOOM-20160615193007178 The familiarity that many children of academics have with these sorts of situations is a privilege. Before moving to New York for grad school, I had never been in a space like The Century Association or the Montauk Club, where I’ve since been a couple of times, and I have yet to be invited to the Harvard or Yale Club. Honestly, why would anyone expect spaces like this to be part of their social life if they’d never known professors or crew team champions before? But those are the people who fill the ranks of elite school graduates, and they decide where academic networking takes place. Anyway, dinner was nice. I was also honored (there’s going to be a lot of that in this post!) to stay in the Briggs Alumni House, because I’m one of the alumni. It’s lovely.CameraZOOM-20160616192358080

The real work commenced Thursday and Friday, when I led the students through my intellectual autobiography. This is a useful exercise for everyone, I think– it’s so good to take stock of where you’ve been and where you’re going. I realized I’ve had tremendous opportunity to indulge my intellectual interests as a Mellon fellow and someone with interdisciplinary training, but I’ve also had to carve out a niche for myself and come up with an intellectual rationale for bringing together wide-ranging resources at every stage in my career. I advise you, if you haven’t yet, to try writing your own intellectual autobiography. Or, the way I did it, you might compose it in a graphic format. I used Prezi to present my career overview to the students, and along the way, we were able to engage in great question-and-answer exchanges that really put some muscle on the skeleton of those basic career bullet points: undergraduate major, graduate degree, dissertation topic, first teaching experiences, etc. There’s much more to it. File Jun 10, 12 22 55 PMMy esteemed colleague Dr. Benjamin guided students through writing exercises along these lines, and we both discussed our research pretty extensively in order to make clear that this isn’t just for show: it’s about seeking out and finding the resources you need, learning to communicate with fellow stakeholders in your intellectual pursuits, and getting the job done when it comes to disseminating your work. While much of what we discussed with the Mellon fellows was personal, it was all grounded in the need to articulate the value of what we do. As scholars of color, I don’t know that we always get to say out loud that our knowledge is valuable. I’m glad I get to remind them.

andreflierOn Saturday, June 18, I did a reading at the East Side Freedom Library, a St. Paul, Minnesota institution founded by my former Macalester history professor, historian Peter Rachleff, and his wife, Beth Cleary, a theater professor. This space is just amazing. It’s a historic Carnegie library, and the holdings run the gamut: radical history texts, academic journals, anti-imperialist writings, experimental jazz artist/activist Fred Ho’s archive (including his personal collection of Black Panther comics), and over 2,000 story cloths from the Hmong community. There’s a mural and other original artwork in the space, as well, and public events like my reading Saturday night bring the local community together for learning and collective self-empowerment. I’m proud to be part of it.


Speaking of sources of pride, check out who’s in the audience: the Macalester Mellon fellows!

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Stay tuned; the next post will be about the summer conference, which started just a day after I returned from Minnesota. On my way back, I made it to the Mall of America to replace my yellow Crocs™️ flip-flops.