“Works in Progress” Seminar Brings Together Top African American Studies Scholars
Thames Street in Newport, Rhode Island is a picturesque street in a picturesque New England town. Upscale shops, Gilded Age mansions, and boutique inns draw in tourists every summer. But for a few days of the season, this small corner of Newport is also a hub for scholarly progress. On July 30, 2019, more than a dozen scholars from across the country made their way into the lobby of the Francis Malbone Inn and spilled out into the flowering courtyard of the nearly 260-year-old building. They made introductions. They sparked conversations. The Newport Works-In-Progress Seminar had begun.
This annual, three-day workshop is organized every year by Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Distinguished Professor of Humanities and Chair of Vanderbilt’s Department of African American and Diaspora Studies (AADS). The workshop brings together scholars of color to share their articles, books, or projects in the field of AADS, and receive feedback from a panel of experts that will move their work—and the field—forward. The seminar is a product of Vanderbilt’s Callie House Research Center for the Study of Global Black Cultures and Politics.
Sharpley-Whiting felt it was important to create an environment to receive critical feedback and engage with one another. “It’s a space for faculty of color, because they don’t have many spaces,” Sharpley-Whiting said.
When building the workshop, Sharpley-Whiting took inspiration from both Harvard University’s W.E.B DuBois Research Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. She chose to host the seminar in the beachside New England town of Newport, where the Vanderbilt family had a strong presence at the turn of the 20th century.
“It’s just a lovely environment…very conducive for relaxing, writing, and getting scholarly feedback,” Sharpley-Whiting said. She believes that it is an intellectually dynamic space that provides attendees with an opportunity to take risks and explore their work in new ways. The goal, she said, is for these scholars to walk away with concrete suggestions for revising and strengthening their research projects.
Workshop participants come from a variety of disciplines within African American and Diaspora Studies. Attendance is by invitation only, with scholars selected based on the richness and importance of their work.
“It’s a selection process,” Sharpley-Whiting said. “It’s based on the work you’re putting out. Is it interesting work? Is it field-changing work? The people we’re inviting are either movers and shakers—or they’re going to be!”
“Whenever we have the opportunity to have conversations across disciplines and fields and different methodological approaches to our scholarship, it always benefits everyone within earshot,” said Eric Pritchard, associate professor in the department of English at the University at Buffalo, and a participant in this year’s cohort.
Pritchard specializes in rhetorical studies with an emphasis on black, queer, and feminist rhetoric, as well as fashion and performance. The impact of the workshop on his work was almost immediate: Pritchard said he’s not only working on revisions to the work he brought to the seminar, but he’s also incorporated some of these new ideas into classes he’s teaching this fall.
“It is a very generous—and for many people a once-in-a-lifetime—opportunity to be able to sit with your work, with your questions, in a beautiful space like Newport, Rhode Island, amongst really smart, generous colleagues. You really can’t ask for anything more,” Pritchard said.
The workshop is structured to give participants equal time to work and receive feedback. Mornings are for writing, and afternoons are for presentations and input. For future seminars, Sharpley-Whiting hopes to expand to a five-day format that allows scholars more time to revise their work. But even under the current three-day format, Sharpley-Whiting is thrilled with the outcome of the Newport Works-In-Progress Seminar.
“It’s an enriching space,” she said. “I think people feel very empowered when they leave. They’re energized to continue their project.”
For more information on Vanderbilt’s Callie House Research Center for the Study of Global Black Cultures and Politics, please visit their site.