Blog Post

“Scholar, Speaker, and Strategist:” An Interview with Marcia Chatelain

Dr. Marcia Chatelain

Marcia Chatelain is a Provost's Distinguished Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and was previously Assistant Professor of Honors at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. In 2016, the Chronicle of Higher Education named her a Top Influencer in Higher Education. She is a Harry S. Truman Scholar, a Ford Foundation Diversity Fellow, a German Marshall Fund of the U.S. American Fellow, a Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life Amethyst Award recipient, and a French American Foundation Young Leader. Dr. Chatelain has also received Georgetown's Dorothy M. Brown Teaching Award, the Edward Bunn, S.J. Award for Faculty Excellence, and the College Academic Council's Faculty Award.

She is the author of South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration (Duke, 2015) and the forthcoming From Sit-In to Drive-Thru: Black America in the Age of Fast Food (Liveright, an imprint of W.W. Norton & Company). An activist-scholar, Dr. Chatelain is on the coordinating committee of Scholars for Social Justice and created the Twitter campaign #Fergusonsyllabus in August 2014 as a response to the crisis in Ferguson, MO. A frequent commenter on social issues across various media forms, Dr. Chatelain most recently co-hosted an arc of the Undisclosed Podcast entitled, “The Killing of Freddie Gray.”

At Georgetown, Dr. Chatelain teaches courses on African American history, food studies, and women’s activism. Her Ph.D. in American Civilization is from Brown University.

On your website, you identify yourself as a “scholar, speaker, and strategist;” did you always define your career this way? Was activism something that was always part of your scholarship as a historian, or did that evolve for you?

That is something that has evolved for me over the past four years, as I have explored different types of leadership in different spaces. More and more, I’ve become a public-facing speaker, and have begun to see myself in the role of translator between scholars and a larger public, especially related to issues like Black Lives Matter and Georgetown’s engagement with its historical ties to slavery. As scholars, we develop a capacity for problem solving within our own disciplines, and I think there is a demand to turn that knowledge toward the public good. We also owe a great debt to the larger public, especially those of us whose research is publicly funded. Our work is not our own; it comes out of a public investment and requires a broader audience to underwrite our research. In turn, we should advance our abilities to meet the needs of society.

You serve on the coordinating committee for Scholars of Social Justice (SSJ), which began in the summer of 2017; how did you get connected to that project?

Barbara Ransby reached out to me and asked me to get involved. I saw SSJ as amplifying how scholars identify themselves as activists, and how much of a role we must play in organizing. The possibilities are endless when we put our heads together, and SSJ has been and continues to be such a powerful tool for mobilization in the space of social justice. I became a professor because I wanted to organize and mobilize my students. For me, the activism comes first, and my teaching and scholarship grow out of the desire to effect informed and lasting change. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that in my current roles, and SSJ works to protect scholars who are far more vulnerable and doing this work.

At HASTAC, our focus is on the intersections between scholarship and technology, and this is a space you seem quite comfortable navigating, from #Fergusonsyllabus to your podcasting work. In your podcast, Office Hours: A Podcast, which you launched in 2016, you move beyond the boundaries of the classroom and traditionally-structured office hours to record conversations with students. What attracted you to these various media forms and what new capabilities have they given you as a scholar, teacher, and activist?

Podcasting and social media expand the size of the classroom. They also democratize access to knowledge. For students and the larger public, they are an invitation to learn. Of course, there are issues with technology; building community in person is always best. But technology serves us in our work of translation and helps us to make our ideas meaningful in people’s lives. It also allows us to reach people in more isolated communities who wouldn’t otherwise have access to those ideas. I think it’s important to go to where your students are, and I consider it a gesture of goodwill to have a presence online, in those spaces where my students see me.

I loved South Side Girls and am so excited for your forthcoming book, From Sit-In to Drive-Thru, for which you received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). In this more recent work, you argue that fast food franchises have been a mixed blessing for African American communities, and I wonder if you consider the rise in social technologies a similarly mixed blessing? On the one hand, social media allows for the level of connection and community organization around social justice issues you’ve just mentioned, but it also creates the potential to spread false information and manipulate user data. How can scholars work in this space to balance these competing forces?

Scholars can’t be afraid of social media and technology. We need to take our bodies of knowledge and reinterpret them so that more people can have access to it; our job is to produce knowledge and share it. No, technology isn’t perfect, but neither is robust study. We learn to cope with the uncertainties within our discipline, and we need to learn to cope with the uncertainties of interdisciplinarity and public-facing scholarship also.

I’m grateful that there are so many wonderful scholars in the field who bring really good digital humanities projects to my students. I especially love Miriam Posner’s curiosity and find her work appealing and fresh. We have the potential to upend assumptions about what knowledge looks like, and organizations like SSJ are pivotal in resisting incredibly difficult forces, making clear that people are willing to advocate and protect scholars and the work that they do.



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