How and why did you initially become involved in the ASA?
I learned about ASA as a graduate student at Michigan State University and from friends doing research in Africa. Two of my three PhD committee members – William Derman and David Robinson – were Africaspecialists who encouraged me to attend the annual meetings. David Wiley, then director of the African Studies Center, also promoted the ASA. Once I began attending annual meetings I was drawn in, although the cost of the trips made regular participation sometimes difficult. It was exciting to learn about current research and new developments in the field through the range of presentations by established and emerging scholars. It was also a wonderful opportunity to get to know others, including scholars whose works I had read. In addition, I found the meetings more congenial than those of the much larger American Anthropological Association where it was more difficult to meet people and where job interviews and the pressure to “meet the right person” made for a more competitive atmosphere.
Why did you choose to become involved in the board?
I was nominated to be a candidate for the Board of Directors and accepted to stand because I considered it an honor to be actively involved in the ASA. Given my experience organizing academic and outreach events, and seeking funding for them, at two major African Studies centers, I felt that I could contribute to the ASA and take on new challenges. The period of my tenure on the board (2002-2005) was a time when the association’s financial resources were very limited so that we had to think creatively about activities. The exchange of ideas with the other board members, their camaraderie, and the spirit of cooperation that prevailed made it a pleasure to serve. I learned a great deal and began thinking about new ways in which the association could promote and strengthen the study of, and with, Africa. My new tenure on the board will be an opportunity to build on this experience.
When you started your career, where did you think it would lead you?
Like most young anthropologists, I expected to have a traditional academic career moving from assistant professor to full professor teaching, conducting research, writing, and publishing. But jobs were not plentiful even then and my short term positions did not lead to a tenure-line job for a number of reasons. The opening for an assistant director at the University of Florida African Studies Center thus seemed an excellent alternative opportunity and I was delighted when I got the job. I worked with the Center administrative team and with colleagues to plan and implement program activities; became involved with the Tanzania study abroad program and exchange; and did some teaching. This range of activities expanded after I moved to Indiana University to take up the position of associate director. For example, I was able to participate in new faculty-led projects; join the Africa Today editorial team; serve on master’s and PhD committees; and begin and direct a new summer study abroad program in Senegal. While the demands of these positions leave little time for research, I never gave up on it and was continually inspired by colleagues and students.
What would you do for a career if you weren’t doing this?
I really can’t imagine another career that would have enriched my life with as many different experiences or with the diversity of people I have gotten to know and, in many cases, develop long-term relationships.
What do you like most about the ASA Annual Meetings?
What stands out for me is the intellectual excitement at the annual meetings; the engagement with colleagues, many of whom become friends over time; browsing the book exhibit and discovering new work; and, yes, the dance party.
What are you looking forward to most at your first ASA Annual Meeting as Vice President?
This is an exciting time to become re-engaged in the leadership of the ASA, thanks to the work of the board of directors and the fine team in the ASA Secretariat over the past few years. I really look forward to getting to know the current board and to begin laying the groundwork for building on some of the recent new initiatives, such as the emerging scholars’ network and the innovative presentation formats, in order to expand the study of Africa with Africa and other parts of the world as set out in my statement of candidacy. I would also like to learn details of the work board members have been doing in response to the changed political environment in which we find ourselves.
If you could give one piece of advice to a new member of the ASA or a first time attendee of the Annual Meeting, what would it be?
Don’t be shy about approaching scholars you would like to meet. They may seem too busy but most will be delighted and make time to talk to you.
What is your non-work favorite book?
That’s a difficult question because I don’t usually think of books I read in this way. Obviously I enjoy some more than others but I don’t make overall comparisons. I enjoy fiction from different parts of the world for the keen and nuanced insights writers offer and express in beautiful prose. I especially like immigrant and historical novels, although I don’t limit my reading to them. Right now I am reading Kamel Daoud’s Der Fall Meursault – eine Gegendarstellung, a German translation of Meursault, contre-enquête. I also rediscovered my love for poetry when Patricia Jabbeh Wesley visited Indiana University last academic year and read from her work. The poems in her When the Wanderers Come Home are very powerful. Those in the “Coming Home” section really moved me and allowed me to relate to Liberians at an emotional level as they make their lives after the civil war.
Tell us something that might surprise us about you.
Hmm. Apart from yoga, “Zumba Gold” was the class I liked best at the Bloomington YMCA for the past several years. The instructor used Salsa, Bollywood, and other danceable music that made exercise fun and put everyone in a good mood. It was a great way to end a work day. I always left feeling upbeat and refreshed.