Grant funds new positions, research opportunities

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Author: Margaret Su

Occidental received a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in spring 2015 to increase undergraduate research in the curriculum, particularly in the arts, humanities and social sciences. The primary outcome of this grant will be the hiring of three postdoctoral fellows who will have a two-year appointment in their respective departments beginning fall 2016.

All departments in the humanities or social sciences were able to apply for a two-year fellow during summer 2015. The three departments chosen were Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture (CSLC), American Studies and philosophy. These departments were selected by a committee comprised of Associate Dean for Curriculum and Academic Support Amy Lyford, Vice President for Academic Affairs Jorge Gonzalez and Director of the Center for Digital Liberal Arts Daniel Chamberlain.

The purpose of the postdoctoral fellows in each of the three departments will be to assist in increasing undergraduate research in the curriculum both through their own expertise and by taking on some of the courses that existing faculty would normally teach. This will allow such faculty to focus on the introduction of new courses designed to enrich undergraduate research, according to Philosophy Professor Clair Morrissey.

“At a baseline level, they will give extra energy to the departments they’re joining,” Chamberlain said. “They’ll contribute extra expertise, they might be able to help offer a slightly expanded range of course offerings; certainly they’ll be able to teach courses that will allow our mentoring faculty to offer new courses.”

According to Chamberlain, integrating undergraduate research into the curriculum is an effort that Lyford has been working on for years. The acquisition of this grant, Chamberlain said, is merely the latest manifestation of that effort. Lyford, with Chamberlain’s assistance, was the principal investigator, taking the initiative to apply for the grant and draft the proposal.

Increasing undergraduate research within the curriculum is a key component of the grant’s purpose. However, according to Morrissey, the postdoctoral fellow will also focus on community-based learning and incorporate digital scholarship into courses and research. Collectively, these practices are considered high-impact because they reach a relatively large number of students.

Although the majority of the Mellon grant will be used to fund the three postdoctoral fellowships, the funds will serve a variety of other purposes. For example, the money will also be put toward the Center for Community Based Learning’s Education in Action program, stipends for the faculty who will be mentoring the postdoctoral fellows, course development stipends and student summer research opportunities.

American Studies and philosophy will be accepting applications for the positions through Dec. 15, while CSLC’s deadline is set for Feb. 1. All three departments will make hiring decisions in spring 2016.

Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture

As CSLC — previously German, Russian and Classical Studies — is a newly-formed department, Department Chair Damian Stocking said the hiring of the postdoctoral fellow will be helpful in supplementing course offerings and increasing the number of faculty, particularly with the recent resignation of former German professor Jürgen Pelzer.

“We hope that [the fellow] will connect with some of the languages we teach and some that we don’t,” Stocking said. “Ideally we’d like to have a comparative literature person who could discuss things like what it’s like to be a Turkish or Syrian speaker in a German city, for example.”

Stocking wants the fellow to be able to integrate research into the city of Los Angeles.

“We want them to promote the mission of this department, which is to open the school up to international perspectives from a linguistic, cultural and literary point of view,” Stocking said.

The purpose of CSLC, according to Stocking, is to examine and understand the ways in which language and literature help constitute cultural difference. Ideally, Stocking said, the fellow will contribute to this goal while also opening Occidental up to the diversity of experience associated with the presences of multiple cultures.

American Studies

Although the current department chair of American Studies is Xiao-huang Yin, Associate Dean for Core Curriculum and Student Issues John Swift served as interim chair while Yin was in China during 2014–15 as a Fulbright professor. Swift thus played a large role in writing the department’s proposal for the fellowship.

“[Yin and I] decided that we would look for someone with a specialty in what we call global U.S. or transnational U.S.,” Swift said. “Someone who specializes in the ways in which American cultures are interrelated with issues of the contemporary world.”

According to Swift, applicants are also asked to have some interest or expertise in undergraduate research, digital technologies and community engagement.

The American Studies department, which was developed in the early 1970s, has gradually lost faculty members — who have not been replaced — to retirement over several decades, according to Swift. Currently, Yin is the only tenure-track professor in the department.

“I’d like to see the department take a much more active role in defining culture and the study of culture at Occidental College,” Swift said. “I think that it’s been hindered for years and years by being understaffed.”

Philosophy

According to Philosophy Department Chair Carolyn Brighouse, the department wants a fellow interested in mentoring historically underrepresented groups. In the field of philosophy this includes women, students of color and first-generation college students of any racial or ethnic group, according to philosophy major Laura Koeller (senior).

“The world of academic philosophy is unfortunately at this point an old white dude’s game,” Koeller said.

Despite the fact that Occidental’s philosophy department is unusual, according to Koeller, in that three out of its four faculty members are women, the faculty are nevertheless trying to further expand and diversify — a process that Koeller acknowledges cannot happen overnight.

“We’re looking for someone who is creative, who is energetic and who is interested in progressive pedagogy, thinking differently about how to teach philosophy while at the same time remaining committed to the core of critical thought,” Morrissey said.

Another qualifying factor is that the postdoctoral fellow should have an interest in community-based learning. According to Morrissey, it would be advantageous for them to have a research program or scholarly interest that could be enhanced by a presence in LA and via a connection to different cultural or community institutions. One such community institution is the LA River School, with which the philosophy department already has a robust partnership, according to Brighouse. The fellow would have the option of either helping to expand that partnership or developing new partnerships of their own.

Morrissey considers this postdoctoral fellowship a unique position; very few positions in philosophy have this focus on community-based learning or undergraduate research.

“We’re really excited that the college was given this grant,” Morrissey said. “We’re eager to jump on the opportunity to rethink our curriculum.”

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