Minority studies program a model of interdisciplinary collaboration

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Since 2000, some of the most exciting and productive academic work at Cornell and across the nation has taken place among faculty and students participating in the Future of Minority Studies Research Project (FMS). Through research, colloquia, mentoring and publication -- and the work of related local groups like the Minority, Indigenous and Third World Studies Faculty Research group -- FMS is revolutionizing intellectual and ethnic diversity in humanities departments.

"FMS is now creating an academic culture that brings together people, from various departments and disciplines, who traditionally worked in isolation," said FMS Summer Institute Director Satya P. Mohanty, professor of English, who last year hosted the institute at Cornell. "Collaboration is not always common in the humanities, but it flourishes here as never before, and these cutting-edge collaborations are attracting publishers' attention."

Significant new work by FMS scholars has been published in a new essay collection, "Identity Politics Reconsidered," co-edited by Mohanty, the first in a multi-volume series devoted to FMS research. Among other issues, contributors discuss the scholarly and political importance of social identity, explore issues of identity within ethnic studies, women's studies, disability studies and gay and lesbian studies, and analyze relationships among cultural autonomy, moral universalism and progressive politics. In addition to Mohanty, faculty contributors to the book include English Professor Paul Sawyer and Dominick LaCapra, the Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies, along with Cornell alumni now teaching at other universities: Paula M.L. Moya (Stanford), Michael Hames-García (Oregon) and Sean Teuton (Wisconsin-Madison).

This year's FMS Summer Institute will be held July through August at Stanford University. Graduate students and postdoctoral faculty participate in a two-week seminar ("Theory From the Periphery: Minority Struggles for Social Justice") followed by a two-day colloquium with FMS scholars from the United States and abroad. Eligible participants include all who are interested in minority studies. Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the summer institute returns to Cornell in 2007. "We are truly a mobile think-tank," Mohanty says. The national FMS consortium has chapters on campuses from Stanford and Syracuse to Michigan and Cornell.

FMS at Cornell is creating a cluster of "Thinking Across Cultures" courses and engaging graduate and undergraduate students to help plan them. Instructors from English, art history, comparative literature, history and other departments will be invited to participate in courses that look at popular culture, music, gender and other subjects, and FMS will offer several freshman seminars in the fall and an upper-level seminar in the spring.

Students and younger faculty demand high-tech teaching and communications, says Mohanty, who in his Goldwin Smith office video chats, blogs and writes online with far-flung FMS colleagues.

"Examining questions of identity and social progress requires collaboration," Mohanty says. "There's been a change of mindset about how scholarly work can be produced. We are, in effect, creating a new language of collaboration in fields where the concept is not understood. New technology facilitates new relationships among scholars and students -- as even Business Week recognized recently, 'E-mail is so five minutes ago.'"

The need for old-fashioned scholarly work presented itself when it came time to index "Identity Politics Reconsidered," and it also presented a learning opportunity. Mohanty tapped Cornell undergraduate researcher Malikie Fornah '06 for the project, which came out so well that Mohanty insisted Fornah be recognized in the book. With FMS research experience under his belt, Fornah is now headed for graduate school, where he will specialize in African-American literature.

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