By Anne Bromley
Deborah E. McDowell’s colleagues at the University of Virginia call her a “trailblazer,” note her collaborative activities, and point to her commitment to diversify not only the faculty on Grounds, but throughout the nation. In September, the University’s Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center gave McDowell the 2018 Zintl Leadership Award for these and other long-time efforts.
McDowell, who joined the English department faculty in fall 1987 and holds the Alice Griffin Professorship, has directed the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies for the past 10 years. She has worked to elevate and expand African-American and African studies on Grounds through courses and programs for the University and surrounding communities. Under her leadership, the Institute gained departmental status last year, with the support of Arts & Sciences Dean Ian Baucom.
In her remarks at the award ceremony on Sept. 26, Women’s Center director Abigail Palko praised McDowell’s “dazzling array of literary criticism” and noted that she has “mentored cohort after cohort of emerging scholars at the Woodson Institute, each of whom has gone on to add their own contributions to the field, ranging from Africana studies to anthropology to history to literature to political science to religious studies, and on and on.”
The Zintl Leadership Award annually honors a female UVA employee whose service surpasses job expectations and whose excellence in her work makes a direct and significant impact on the core academic enterprise of the University.
“Although I was initially apprehensive about and afraid to take on the work of directing the Woodson Institute, I would come to see that much in my life had already prepared me for that work in ways that I did not perceive at the time,” McDowell said in her ceremony remarks.
A well-known writer, scholar and editor of African-American literature, McDowell’s publications include the books, Leaving Pipe Shop: Memories of Kin, about growing up in Bessemer, Alabama (1997) and “The Changing Same”: Studies in Fiction by African-American Women (1994). Her publications also include contributions to the University’s understanding of its own history. She wrote an introduction, “Higher Education for the Public Good,” for the 2017 book The Key to the Door: Experiences of Early African American Students at the University of Virginia, edited by Maurice Apprey, UVA’s dean of African-American affairs, and Shelli Poe.
“For over three decades, Deborah has been one of the world’s leading scholars of African-American studies, an institution builder, defining public intellectual, a tireless advocate for diversity in scholarship, uncovering and examining the uncomfortable truths with which our society continues to grapple. A colleague who has defined who this university is, who we have not been, and who we must be,” said Dean Baucom at the award ceremony.
Today, the Woodson Institute includes 14 core faculty members, several of whom hold joint appointments in other departments, such as history and sociology. The institute also supports an average of 10 scholars from universities around the country for two-year, pre- or post-doctoral fellowships. They work on dissertations or book manuscripts, receiving expert feedback along the way, and some teach undergraduate courses.
Receiving the Zintl Award is “a very pleasant surprise,” McDowell said. She doesn’t take all the credit, however, pointing to the support and efforts of others on Grounds, especially mentioning the faculty members who’ve been affiliated with the Woodson Institute for many years. Her greatest honor and opportunity, she said, has been working with students, faculty and the Woodson Fellows. “Whatever I have achieved on behalf of the institute has involved an ensemble cast,” she said.