Mentorship and Professional Development for Researchers of African Americans and the African Diaspora

No one disputes that mentorship and network-building are the stuff of professional development for young scholars and students. Arguably, mentoring is especially important in interdisciplinary fields such as African American and African diaspora studies, an area of scholarship that some consider less legitimate than “traditional” disciplines (see Robin Kelley’s recent article on this) and that others discredit as yet another “studies” field. Creating structures and opportunities for students and emerging scholars, then, becomes critical for their ability to find and build community and support for their scholarly interests and production as well as gain and acquire access to vital knowledge and strategies for navigating the profession successfully and productively. 

The IAAR has had an important but probably under-recognized history of mentorship. When I was a postdoctoral fellow in the late 1990s in what was then the Carolina Minority Postdoctoral Fellowship, my fellows cohort had an informal attachment to the Institute (as the IAAR is often termed). Then IAAR director, Gerald Horne, hosted dinners to allow us to connect with one another and talk about our work. As one of the most prolific writers of African American and African diaspora history, Professor Horne represented an example of the possibilities of scholarly achievement for those of us just starting out. Reginald Hildebrand, who was IAAR’s interim director in 2010, brought undergraduate AFAM majors to work with him at the IAAR and he described to me an impressive set up in which he gave these young students significant research opportunities and an ability to see how a scholarly research center operates. And, when William Darity, Jr. became director in 2002, he announced that he would make mentorship of junior faculty a priority at the IAAR.  He continued IAAR’s formal relationship with the postdoc program (retitled the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity by that time) and invited postdocs to present their work in the IAAR colloquium series, which many did. Darity also arranged for the Moore Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (MURAP), a program for mentoring undergraduates in research and developing future academic careers, to be housed in the IAAR where the program still exists and thrives under now program director Professor Rosa Perelmuter.

We are still committed to mentorship and scholarly community building. Following feedback from a forum that we hosted last semester, I developed a Brown Bag Talk Series for graduate students –a group around which the IAAR had never formally held a mentoring arrangement (although certainly, many individual graduate students have gained experience presenting research and working at the IAAR over the years). The goal of the series is to allow graduate students the chance to hone their presentation skills and essentially workshop their research with peers and faculty from across campus, receiving feedback on works in progress that ideally can assist with development and refinement of ongoing research projects. Yesterday, we had our first talk by Orisanmi Burton, a second year doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at UNC-CH. He presented a fascinating case on what he calls a “contemporary prison reform movement,” the formal and coordinated efforts by a collaborative of formerly incarcerated self-proclaimed black radicals. The group’s mission: to work on reducing the number of people who are incarcerated by becoming formally involved in shaping prison reform policy, a new twist in black radical activism according to Burton. Among the small but engaged group that attended Burton’s talk, only two said they are working on something about prisons, which meant that the exchange included input from people pursuing other topics in the broader field of African American and diaspora studies.  A few hours after the talk Orisanmi emailed to thank me for the opportunity to present his work.  Speaking directly to my goals for the series, he said that immediately after the session he went straight to the library and began incorporating the feedback he received into his current writing on the project. He also said he expects that it won’t be long before the community of graduate students interested in IAAR grows and our brown bag series becomes even more active.

I hope he’s right because that will mean the IAAR continues to a serve as a valued resource for the professional development of young and emerging scholars. It’s a tradition worth upholding and we are at the ready.