When she was in school, Professor Tiffany Willoughby-Herard’s professors treated her like a colleague. Their respect and trust were important parts of her education, and she has responded by trying to pass on the same qualities to the students she mentors. She considers the greatest gift she can give her students is to help them discard old assumptions and examine questions with open minds. Professor Willoughby-Herard received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Fostering Undergraduate Research from the School of Humanities in 2011 in recognition of the research excellence she inspires in her students.

1. How did you develop an interest in mentoring undergraduate research or creative projects, and what type of projects have you directed?

I developed this interest from a variety of wonderful experiences being mentored by faculty as a junior scholar. My professors trusted me and treated me like a colleague. They disagreed with me when necessary but most of all they trusted me by sharing the very vulnerable process of learning with me. They read constantly and modeled that. They were humble to a fault, had beautiful senses of humor, and always offered me food and shelter.

I have mentored undergraduates in a number of research projects. I will just highlight one: Political Theory, Civic Engagement, and the Black Panthers. In that research project, I collaborated with Professor Mary Lewis of Laney College in Oakland. We organized a class for undergraduates at both San Francisco State University and Laney College where we taught them to conduct oral histories with members of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Students worked in small groups to develop unique themes for their oral history, as well as to conduct, transcribe, and analyze the oral histories. One of the major outcomes of this research was that several of the undergraduates were so excited by the experience of working in African American Studies that they continued their research at the master’s and doctoral level. One graduate student research assistant also presented on the research at the Western Political Science Association meetings.

2. What do you look for and what are your expectations of undergraduates you select to conduct research under your guidance?

A genuine interest in my research. While I am always enthusiastic to help students develop and hone their own research projects, it is always important to make sure that there is a pretty close match.

3. Describe your level of engagement and style in mentoring undergraduates.

Communication and clarity about the stakes of the research for me and the kinds of benefits and added value that participating in this research can be for a student.

I am always hailing potential researchers—even, and especially if they will not do research with me. I think it is important to pass on the idea that we are doing something amazing here at the university/ies/colleges. The time that we take for honing our ability to ask questions, to reflect, to read the social, to master the grammars of history and space matters a great deal. I never assume that students have already been given the chance to see themselves as scholars and producers of knowledge, so I ask them to imagine themselves in the world as people who shape the nature of identity, knowledge, history, and memory and insist that they learn how to do this in the most systematic and formal way possible and thus to discipline their gifts and insights.

4. In your experience, how have your students improved or benefited as a result of their undergraduate research experience?

Independent research enables students to develop their interests by putting themselves and their questions in the context of long-term debates—to communicate with the dead and thus have something worth saying to the living. The greatest benefit for most students I think is pushing aside the claim that “No one has ever thought about this before.” Once that is done, we can begin to get to the hard work of learning the sets of conversations that have been undertaken and the context in which some questions and ways of asking questions have been suppressed and others have been championed. Once students realize that they are in a conversation with ancestors and generations, the process of research and the pace and timelines and registers of communication become more meaningful and accessible. And then, they want to communicate with the living with more courage and clarity about what they really believe and what they have come to know.

5. What have you learned or benefited from guiding undergraduate research or creative projects?

To have a great deal of hope in the generations coming after me and their ability to carry on the legacy of what African American Studies, in particular, means to knowledge production. I am willfully and deliberately naive in such hopes given the context, but I do what my saints require.

6. What recommendations and advice would you give students embarking on undergraduate research or creative projects?

For the social scientists, make sure always to listen to music and read novels and plays, and newspapers and orators from the time period/s and place/s...and for the humanities and arts researchers, make sure that you are reading about the social scientific and scientific and public health and legal debates in the time/s and space/s that you are studying as these things can help locate with more complexity the people, ideas, practices, place/s, form/s, and senses that you are communing with, learning from, and often times repudiating.

Research Interests: South Africa, poor whites, race in foreign policy, diaspora, comparative racial politics, black political thought, third world feminisms, feminist pedagogy, decolonizing theory, comparative political theory, community and civic engagement

Faculty Profile: http://faculty.uci.edu/profile.cfm?faculty_id=5561&name=Tiffany%20%20Willoughby-Herard

Email: twilloug@uci.edu

Past Faculty Mentors of the Month

Dec. '11 Louis DeSipio
Nov. '11 Anthony A. James
Oct. '11 Tiffany Willoughby-Herard
Sep. '11 Angela Lukowski
Aug. '11 Petra Wilder-Smith
Jul. '11 Ron D. Frostig
Jun. '11 Sunny Jiang
May. '11 Samuel L. Gilmore
Apr. '11 Sally Dickerson
Mar. '11 Shahram Lotfipour
Feb. '11 Mark Steyvers
Jan. '11 Benjamin F. Villac