UI professors awarded yearlong humanities fellowships

Bobby Smith II, LAS assistant professor in African American studies, poses for a headshot.

Photo Courtesy of Bobby Smith II

Bobby Smith II, LAS assistant professor in African American studies, poses for a headshot.

By Alexandra Gergova, Staff Writer

The National Endowment for the Humanities has announced that two University professors were awarded NEH Fellowships. The fellowships are part of a program seeking to elevate and support projects in the humanities that frequently take on the form of books, articles and digital mediums. 

According to the NEH’s digital announcement, $32.8 million were awarded in the form of grants to support 213 humanities projects spanning 44 states. Of those $32.8 million, $3.9 million were specifically allocated towards 71 fellowship grants. 

For both Eduardo Ledesma, LAS associate professor of Spanish, and Bobby Smith II, LAS assistant professor in African American studies, the 12-month period, which the allows them to pursue their projects independently without simultaneously balancing their academic responsibilities, stand as part of the reason for their applications.

“What really attracted me to the NEH program, or the NEH fellowship, is that it gives scholars the necessary time off to actually complete their projects,” Smith said. “I know that in order for me to complete my book project, it will be good for me to get time off — release from teaching, release from attending meetings and things like that. It gives me 12 months just to sit and actually complete my book project.” 

Besides the provided time off, Ledesma additionally notes that an important aspect of being a faculty member involves applying for and receiving grants.

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Eduardo Ledesma, LAS associate professor of Spanish poses for a headshot. (Photo Courtesy of Eduardo Ledesma)

“As part of our faculty work, a chunk of the work that we do is research,” Ledesma said. “And as part of the research component of being a faculty member, getting grants is kind of an important thing.”

Smith’s book project titled “Race, Civil Rights, and Food Access in the Mississippi Delta” chronicles the link between food and social injustice that affects Black rural communities, which is rooted in the civil rights struggle.

“My book project seeks to historicize (how food is also a part of a larger conversation around social injustice and social justice), and it uses a concept known as food power,” Smith said. “Food power in many ways is the way in which food can be used as a weapon. Food can be used as a tool of resistance, and food power gives us the kind of language to capture that. My book project maps that whole idea across the context of the Mississippi Delta.”

Smith’s project, which started around 2015 and 2016, was inspired by a book that Smith read while in graduate school at Cornell University titled “I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle” by Charles Payne. 

“It was in that book that I learned about an event called the Greenwood Food Blockade, which was my entry point into conversations about food and the civil rights movement,” Smith said. “But the book wasn’t about food. The book that helped me think about my own project or how I came into this work was again a larger story just about the civil rights movement in general. My project takes a piece of that history and turns it into a project in and of itself.”

Smith was previously awarded the NEH 2020 Summer Stipend to pursue research for the contemporary component of his project.

“I actually traveled to Mississippi over the summer to do some contemporary research, some interviews and some other things, working with a black youth forum there in the Delta,” Smith said.

Ledesma’s book project titled “Visually Impaired Filmmakers and Technologies of Sight” elevates and studies the existence of visually impaired filmmakers, focusing on how filmmakers use digital mediums to reflect their experiences and transform cinematic culture. 

Besides gravitating toward this concept in small part due to his own visual impairment, Ledesma was also fascinated by patterns that frequently occur in films composed by visually impaired filmmakers. 

“A lot of the films, even when they were not specifically about vision loss or they were not necessarily documentaries about vision loss, still try to kind of mimic through their style what it would be like to have less than perfect eyesight,” Ledesma said. “And they also tried to focus on things like other senses, so there might be a little more emphasis on sound or texture or on other ways of perceiving the world that don’t necessarily align with vision.”

In addition to the $60,000 fellowship grant, Ledesma was also a recipient of a $6,000 NEH Summer Stipend in 2019. The stipend was used for time to write an article about his book project.

Ledesma looks forward to his book project because of the way it can break stereotypes and preconceived notions of filmmaking. 

“One of the stereotypes that most people would probably have is like, ‘Well, if you don’t have eyesight of poor eyesight, the last thing you’re going to be doing is working on visual media,’” Ledesma said. “There’s actually a very large number of people that are blind and visually impaired that work with visual media, so I think I think it’s important that one of the goals of the project is to kind of break that stereotype or that misperception.”

As the two professors continue to work on their distinct projects, Smith notes the importance of evolution and change in these types of projects, which is something the NEH Fellowship helps with.

“My project is still evolving as I continue to write it, as I continue to do it,” Smith said. “And again, that’s also what the NEH gives me time to do: to be able to embrace the evolution of my project. These kinds of fellowships give scholars a chance to sit and think with their work.”

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