Scholarship and friendship take root at New Faculty Program dinner


April 15, 2014 | Angie Barker

UNC newcomer Stephanie Elizondo Griest walked away from IAH’s inaugural New Faculty Program dinner in November with new friends, new research collaborators and a new feeling – that she might have found “home.”

“I’ve met some of my closest friends at the university through the IAH. They are the perfect matchmakers,” Griest said.

For old-timer Mark Crescenzi, the dinner event offered a breath of fresh air.

“It was amazing,” said Crescenzi, Bowman & Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Associate Professor Department of Political Science. “I was really surprised at how much energy was in that room. I found it invigorating to know this kind of research was going on and we had hired all of this great talent. It was fun to watch and I learned a lot.”

Griest and Crescenzi were two of 39 faculty members who participated in a fall dinner that paired junior faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences with senior scholars for an evening of conversation. The dinner is one of a series of events by IAH’s New Faculty Program, launched this year to welcome and engage new faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences in interdisciplinary conversations about the arts, humanities and qualitative social sciences and life beyond departmental borders.

For Griest, the dinner yielded personal and professional benefits.

“I’ve traveled nonstop for a long time, so home has special meaning for me,” Griest said. “This program has very much made Chapel Hill feel like a community for me. I know a lot of other new faculty at other universities, and when I tell them about this, they say they wish they had this, too. It’s very innovative.”

Griest traveled the world as a travel writer before landing at UNC as assistant professor and Margaret Shuping Fellow of Creative Nonfiction in the department of English and comparative literature.  She now teaches travel writing and has begun work on a new book about life on the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada.

She found herself seated at dinner between Susan Harbage Page, assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, and Emilio del Valle Escalante, associate professor of Spanish.

“Susan has been traveling to the Texas-Mexico border photographing objects people leave behind in transit. That’s what I write about,” Griest said. “We ended up over winter break traveling to Brownsville together. She photographed the border wall while I took notes. We got lots of ideas for collaboration and she has become one of my best friends here.”

Escalante, meanwhile, studies indigenous resistance movements in Latin America.

Literally, half of my book is about that and half is about life on the border,” Griest said. “So, at the dinner, I’m sitting next to two experts who are studying the same things I am in a different way, and now both are close friends.”

Crescenzi, a political scientist who studies peace and conflict statistics, also discovered common ground with fellow dinner guests.

“I was seated between two new faculty members – a historian on my right and an ethnomusicologist on my left,” he said.

Historian Michael Morgan “studies world politics, which is what I study, but from a different approach. It was neat to hear him talk about that with all the enthusiasm a new faculty member brings. His research on the Helsinki Final Act documents this remarkable event that emerged in the most unlikely circumstances. This is the seed that leads to the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] and a new emphasis on human rights. It is such an important period in our history, and Morgan’s work tells us a lot about its origins,” Crescenzi said.

“To my left was Chérie Ndaliko. Never in a million years would I have expected there would be any overlap with our research,” Crescenzi said.

An Africanist and ethnomusicologist, Ndaliko “does a lot of work in Kivu, a war-torn region of the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Crescenzi said. “She does fascinating research on the kids there and how they use film and music to cope with war and its aftermath. She’s one of a new breed of scholar, socially engaged with the people she is researching. It’s so bold. It was fascinating to hear about the interaction between her research and engagement. And I think she was surprised when she realized I knew where Kivu was.”

Crescenzi sees many benefits from the New Faculty Program beyond making newcomers feel welcome. It provides opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas and scholarship across disciplines and is energizing for faculty at any level.

“It’s beyond a great idea. It’s an essential idea,” Crescenzi said. “Very quickly, as new faculty, we get focused on the business side of things – trying to get tenure, teach classes, find your way in your department. This is an opportunity I wish I had had. People all over the arts and humanities are connecting in ways that just would not have been possible otherwise.”


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