Two U-M professors awarded MacArthur Fellowships
Written by Jared Wadley
ANN ARBOR—Two University of Michigan researchers and one alumna have been named 2017 MacArthur Fellows.
Anthropologist Jason De León and historian Derek Peterson will each receive a $625,000 stipend to be used however they see fit over a period of five years. Both are in the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.
The awards were announced today by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Also known as “genius grants,” the awards are given annually to individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for more in the future, according to the MacArthur Foundation.
“I am proud that two University of Michigan faculty members have been recognized for their outstanding work,” said U-M President Mark Schlissel. “Jason De León and Derek Peterson have given the world greater understanding of people and communities who are too often overlooked by the larger society.”
De León is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology who studies violence, materiality and the social process of migration between Latin America and the United States. He also directs the Undocumented Migration Project, a long-term study that focuses on different aspects of clandestine border crossings. The study uses ethnographic, archaeological, forensic and visual approaches to understand this phenomenon in places such as the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, northern Mexican border towns and the southern Mexico/Guatemala border.
“I think this award is both an important recognition of the work itself and it makes a case that archeology can be a useful tool to study poorly understood social phenomena such as undocumented migration,” De León said. “This award was given to me in name, but I have many collaborators who worked on this project and who made this award possible, including a lot of University of Michigan undergraduate and graduate students.”
De León plans to use the award to fund ongoing and future offshoots of this research, including an ongoing project on smugglers as well as a new archeology and forensic project in Arizona to improve the ability to identify the bodies of migrants who have died in border crossings. He will also use the support to help fund a new touring museum multimedia exhibition tentatively titled “Hostile Terrain” that will use a combination of migrant artifacts and audio and video data to help people understand the migrant experience.
Peterson, a professor in the departments of History and Afroamerican and African Studies, has done scholarly work about the intellectual and cultural history of eastern Africa. His most recent book is “Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival,” which won the Melville Herskovits Award of the African Studies Association and the Martin Klein Prize of the American Historical Association. In 2016, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in African Studies and elected Fellow of the British Academy.
“Winning the award is a great affirmation of my scholarly work,” Peterson said. “Scholars of Africa usually labor in dignified obscurity. This award means that I have a chance to engage with new and wider audiences. I am hugely honored.”
Peterson—who arrived at the university in 2009, a year after the African Studies Center was founded—sees the award as an affirmation of U-M’s institutional investment in the field of African studies. He describes the center as a “vital home” for him because “it draws scholars and students together and enables us to address pressingly important questions.”
Peterson plans to use the award to support ongoing archive preservation work in Uganda. Over the past 10 years, he has worked with Ugandan colleagues and Michigan students to rescue, catalogue and digitize endangered government archives in the west and the south of the country. He will use the MacArthur Prize to develop a new project involving the preservation of radio and television archives of Uganda’s national broadcaster.
In addition to De León and Peterson, novelist Jesmyn Ward was one of the 24 MacArthur recipients. A 2005 MFA graduate of the U-M Creative Writing Program, Ward also won the 2011 National Book Award for her novel “Salvage the Bones.” She is currently an associate professor at Tulane University.