Mellon Foundation Awards UMass Amherst $500,000 for Graduate Certificate Program in Decolonial Global Studies

Interdisciplinary program will foster decolonial-intersectional research and teach the history that dislodges false Eurocentric narratives of global history, culture and politics

A pair of University of Massachusetts Amherst faculty members have been awarded a $500,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create a Mellon Fellows Program and a Graduate Certificate Program in Decolonial Global Studies (DGS). A long-developing vision of Laura Doyle, professor of English, and Mwangi wa Gĩthĩnji, associate professor of economics, the certificate will highlight both the collective histories hidden—or stricken—from view by colonialist narratives and the perspectives and values that can address struggles in the world today.

Laura Doyle
Laura Doyle

Drawing on recent historical research about diverse world regions, the program will unpack the assumptions that impede global studies and still pervade both university curricula and public narratives, especially those that implicitly equate white European identities and cultures and heteronormative practices with modernity, originality and progress.

To be conceived and taught by a team of scholars across the UMass Amherst College of Humanities and Fine Arts (HFA) and College of Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS), the DGS certificate program will also nurture the diversity of UMass faculty and graduate students by fostering an interdisciplinary intellectual community for intersectional, indigenous, decolonial and race studies scholars.

Doyle and Mwangi note that the Mellon Fellows Program will generate new career opportunities for doctoral students, while also modeling practices of collaboration among academic, activist, artistic and public policy change-makers. Mellon Fellows will include UMass Amherst faculty and doctoral students as well as visiting fellows from public-sphere and non-profit organizations focused on national and international issues. Building on their relationships with visiting fellows, some doctoral students will subsequently serve as “liaison fellows” through internships at the visiting fellows’ organizations, allowing them to channel new research into the public sphere and develop career opportunities beyond academia.

Mwangi wa Githinji
Mwangi wa Gĩthĩnji

“Although solutions to contemporary problems are eagerly sought, the general public tends to overlook the crucial insights provided by humanities-based and historically oriented scholars,” Doyle points out. “Yet the world needs such scholars more than ever, just as it needs to honor the histories and knowledge of communities long familiar with political-existential struggles. Humanities scholars are trained exactly to think outside the box, to imagine and make visible what’s been overlooked—to see those purloined letters, lives, and alternative solutions hidden in the open. Most importantly every such scholar understands that language and art encode hierarchies, yet by the same token can creatively undo them. We believe that fostering collaboration across these spheres of practice and thought is an important step toward generating the alliances and insights so much needed today.”

The seeds for the DGS Certificate and Mellon Fellows Program were planted a decade ago in a conversation between Doyle and Mwangi in a coffee shop. Their dialogue about the limits of ahistorical approaches to current inequalities and crises led to the founding of the World Studies Interdisciplinary Project (WSIP), which grew into an international collective of scholars. After a first conference in 2012 supported by organizations across the UMass Amherst campus, Mwangi and Doyle received an initial $175,000 Mellon Foundation grant in 2015 to run “Beyond Medieval and Modern,” a year-long Sawyer Seminar. The seminar undertook an ambitious initiative: to bring together cutting-edge scholars working in different world regions, languages, and disciplines across two millennia to rework the concepts and historical narratives that typically frame stories of globalization, modernity, capitalism, and geopolitics. Building on these and subsequent collaborations, members of the WSIP collective are completing an edited collection of essays that will serve as one textbook for DGC certificate courses.

In founding WSIP, Doyle and Mwangi had also envisioned a corollary curricular change. The Mellon Fellows and DGS certificate programs will enable them to realize this dimension, which they hope will serve as a model for other institutions.

“Many of the challenges and problems that we face today defy disciplinary boundaries and have roots in the distant past, as do our narrow conceptualizations of those problems,” Mwangi observes. “Examining them from a longue durée interdisciplinary framework enables us to see them in a different light and to imagine different worlds. This grant will allow us to construct a course of study that makes this imagining possible.”

Mwangi and Doyle add that “this project also builds on a long legacy of interdisciplinary programs at UMass Amherst that bridge academic and public spheres. In the 1960s, UMass faculty and students launched some of the first Afro-American studies, native studies and women’s studies programs in the U.S.”

They see their project as building on that tradition and they hope to collaborate with these and other programs, such as Native American and Indigenous studies, the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies, the department of Judaic and Near Eastern studies, and the programs in the department of literatures, languages and cultures.

The larger vision of WSIP and the Mellon-funded programs, as expressed in the grant, is to “contribute to the building of a world where encoded assumptions – of white superiority, of masculinist power as the best form of power, of the U.S. as a place owned by the settlers – lose their hold because they have been thoroughly exposed as colonialist and exploitative, and because they are being replaced by truer histories and more sustaining notions of what it is to live in the world.”