Each year since 1981, the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies has welcomed a collection of pre-doctoral and postdoctoral fellows into the institute’s Residential Fellows program. This fall, seven scholars will set roots in Charlottesville to begin the two-year program.
Named after Black author, publisher, educator and historian Carter Godwin Woodson, the Woodson Institute runs the University’s African American and African Studies major and minor programs and facilitates faculty research into Black history.
The cohort spans demographic and interest areas, with five women and two men, four pre-doctoral and three post-doctoral students and individuals from the U.S., France, Syria and the Caribbean. The seven diverse scholars will join a history of over 200 Residential Fellowship program participants, including Director Robert Trent Vinson.
This year’s fellows were chosen from a collection of over 100 applicants, and will dedicate their time to manuscript and dissertation writing — postdoctoral students will also teach undergraduate classes. Alongside writing and teaching, fellows regularly host community talks to educate students, faculty and staff on their area of academic study.
In discussing the diversity of the incoming cohort, Vinson voiced that applicants are chosen intentionally by a panel of academics and former fellows to represent a range of various disciplines and areas of study into the global Black community.
“We really try to find a balance between continuity and change so that the new group can complement the current cohort but also do something different,” Vinson said.
Vinson was an informal fellow at the Woodson Institute in 1998, at a time when there were only two postdoctoral fellows and four pre-doctoral fellows. When the fellowship program began, according to Vinson, most of the scholars were historians. Today, the fellows embody a range of disciplines — political science, gender and sexuality and anthropology are just a sampling of the list.
Anna Duensing, incoming post-doctoral Woodson Institute fellow, earned her doctorate in history and African American and American Studies at Yale University after growing up in Charlottesville. Duensing told The Cavalier Daily how the opportunity the fellowship program offers to engage with “fundamentally transformative” work with Black studies in a global context was a major draw to the program.
“The interdisciplinary and geographic range of the faculty and fellows' work is especially exciting to me,” Duensing said. “In my own work, I strive to bring an interdisciplinary, transnational approach to global histories of white supremacy and Black resistance, but that work is always ongoing and necessarily collaborative and border-crossing.”
Frances Bell, incoming fellow and PhD candidate in the Department of History at the College of William and Mary, echoed Duensing in choosing Woodson for the exposure it offers to a rich range of subjects within the study of the Black diaspora.
“I’m really looking forward to working with scholars who come from a wider range of disciplines — literature scholars, anthropologists, artists — as well as historians from different fields than my own,” Bell said. “It’s easy to find yourself only speaking to people in your own field, but while that’s important, it’s also invaluable to work with and learn from people with different expertise.”
For many fellows, the strong reputation of the Woodson Institute drew them to applying. Abraham Seda, current pre-doctoral fellow and PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Minnesota, said he was drawn to the program after reading the work of former Woodson Institute fellows.
“In terms of Black Studies, the Woodson was an obvious choice,” Seda said. “Many scholars whose work I admire have been fellows at the Woodson over the years. I was very interested in becoming a part of that tradition.”
Mahaliah Little said the prestige represented in the high percentage of job placement at the University and among other competitive colleges was compelling yet daunting. Since its founding, Woodson has placed over 180 scholars in tenure track positions and post-doctoral fellowships across the nation at universities such as Brown University, Vanderbilt University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I knew when I applied that the acceptance pool would be selective, but my hope to join the Woodson's academic lineage overrode my initial doubts about my odds,” Little said. “I’m so glad I did.”
Many incoming and current scholars spotlighted the value of the biweekly workshop series, during which fellows invite a guest speaker who joins the cohort to provide feedback on their dissertation or manuscript. In each workshop, a fellow shares a chapter of their work and the group engages in a seminar discussion moderated by the guest. Current postdoctoral fellow Little found the workshops to be especially valuable to her work.
“It was electric,” Little said when describing her workshop. “I enjoyed getting feedback on my writing in a low-stakes and supportive environment.”
Vinson highlighted the importance of consistent collaboration between scholars and Woodson Institute staff, a task facilitated by staff members attending both workshop sessions and regular community talks given by Woodson fellows.
“It’s not like we just give them office space and never engage with them, but they appreciate how we look after them,” Vinson said. “We see them as human beings who are important and need to be supported.
Alongside writing and editing manuscripts, a key component to the post-doctoral fellows’ role in the program is expanding their teaching portfolio through offering courses in the Department of African Studies at the University. Vinson believes the fellows are experts, contributing novel knowledge in ways that directly benefit the University community. By offering new classes to undergraduate students, the fellows expand University curriculums while making contributions to ongoing research.
“I look forward to continuing discovering and learning new things and building a community that is deeply humane and ethical and intellectual,” Vinson said.
Collaboration with other fellows and engagement with teaching and research ultimately add to the value the Woodson Institute offers these scholars and helps to make their area of study more meaningful. For many fellows, research is already meaningful and personal — like for Seda, whose work focuses on how African people have created beautiful lives despite the violence they have faced under colonial rule.
“As a scholar from Africa who writes about Africa, I derive a lot of satisfaction from writing about the communities that have played an influential role in shaping who I am as a person,” Seda said.
One incoming pre-doctoral fellow Kelsey Moore plans to use her research on the Santee-Cooper Project and black southern history in the 20th century to challenge and shape current perceptions of black southerners. She hopes that through her work at Woodson she can “expand how historians and beyond think about African American history more broadly.”
The fellows are all excited for the work they will do over the next two years on Grounds — especially Duensing. Having grown up in Charlottesville and now equipped with a past of education and activism around Grounds, she is awaiting to return to the University as a historian in a few months.
“The idea of beginning my career with a return to that community, the possibility of teaching, writing and being in conversation in the midst of that complex political and public history landscape was really appealing,” Duensing said.
No matter their primary area of study, all incoming fellows will add to the blossoming study of African American and African history that the Woodson Institute fosters — a study of both history and the present that all in the University community will ultimately benefit from.