Academic Spotlight
Faculty Research, Performance and Exhibitions

Bowdoin Postdocs Infuse Disciplines With High Octane Teaching

Story posted November 15, 2011

Postdoctoral fellow Desdamona Rios engages students in a discussion in her Psychology of Women class

Rodolfo Edeza '13 calls it "one of the best courses I've ever taken. Our work from that class is changing the lives of people every day."

It was Mariana Cruz's spring 2011 course Latinos/Latinas in the U.S. As part of the class, students developed unique service projects with Maine's Latino/Latina communities—including creating curriculum for migrant students and partnering with a Portland non-profit develop to research safe houses for abused women.

"I'm an activist-scholar. Education is an opportunity for personal and community empowerment and this is central to my teaching" says Cruz, a Bowdoin pre-doctoral fellow in education. "Typically, Latino communities get positioned as problems to be solved. My community-action approach seeks to counter this."

Cruz is one of a growing core of new scholars who are bringing innovative research and diverse viewpoints to Bowdoin classrooms.

Mariana Cruz

In recent years, the College has stepped up its participation in several post-doctoral fellowship programs, and currently has 13 fellows teaching courses in religion, neuroscience, dance, gender and women's studies, classics, Africana studies, English, education, history, environmental studies and mathematics.

Bowdoin has been paving the way for diverse scholars for many years as a member of the Consortium for Faculty Diversity (CFD). A new fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has allowed the College to add four new postdoctoral fellows, in addition to several existing grant-funded and endowed positions.

"These are the very best new scholars in America," says Associate Dean for Faculty Development Bill VanderWolk. "They are coming to Bowdoin when they're just hitting the ground. Their research is right on the cutting edge of their respective fields, they have teaching experience, and they are in-tune with what's happening in graduate schools today."

Post-doctoral fellows have a reduced teaching load, which gives them time and support for launching the next stage of their research and preparing to go into the job market as freshly minted Ph.Ds.

Hopefully, their Bowdoin experience will persuade them to pursue careers in a residential liberal-arts setting.

Aba teaching
Aba Mbirika in the classroom: "Combinatorics is a whole new math they’re seeing. Students are using their brain to think in mathematics, not just do mathematics. There's a bag of tricks, but combinatorics relies on your creativity. I think that’s exciting for students."

"Many of these scholars may not know a lot about the liberal arts," notes Dr. Kerry Pannell, Dean of Faculty at Depauw University and coordinator of CFD, a consortium of 40 liberal-arts colleges and universities. "They may initially be thinking about major research institutions. We want to help diverse scholars finish their Ph.Ds and attract them to liberal arts teaching.

"Bowdoin has such a strong reputation and has been a longtime supporter of the program," added Pannell, "so it's well known among these scholars."

Mathematics postdoctoral fellow Aba Mbirika knew early on in his doctoral studies that he wanted to teach in a liberal arts setting. "I didn't want to teach in a factory, with 300-person classes," he says. "I like knowing all of my students' names by the second day of class."

One of the unexpected boons for him at Bowdoin, he says, is a new research collaboration with a colleague in the math department, Tom Pietraho. "He's in a different area of math, but we intersect in combinatorics, which is my field, so I'm hoping to help with his research. So far, I've learned a lot of exciting mathematics in an area previously unknown to me."

Because Mbirika's teaching load is limited, he has more time to work on new and continuing research, a luxury not afforded most new faculty members. "I'm blessed I can spend 10 hours a week on research," he says. "It doesn't sound like a lot, but to have that uninterrupted time is amazing."

Bowdoin's current postdoctoral teaching fellows are: Cassandra Borges, classics; Tristan Cabello, Africana studies; Megan Cook, English; Mariana Cruz, education; Lori Flores, history; Megs Gendreau, environmental studies and philosophy; David Howlett, religion; Lisa Mangiamele, neuroscience; Aba Mbirika, mathematics; Nyama McCarthy-Brown, dance; Desdamona Rios, psychology and gender and women's studies; Trevor Rivers, marine biology; and Raj Saha, mathematics of climate change.

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