Scripps College Assistant Professor of English Michelle Decker has won the Arnold L. Graves and Lois S. Graves Award in the Humanities. The $10,000 award will help fund a research and teaching project titled Indian South African Poetics: Politics, Aesthetics, and Form.
Administered by Pomona College under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Graves Award is offered biannually to young faculty in the first decade of their careers to “encourage and reward outstanding accomplishment in actual teaching in the humanities.” The funding will allow Decker to conduct two months of research in Durban, South Africa—the city with the largest population of people of Indian descent outside the subcontinent—to study Indian South African literature. Her findings will inform a book project she is working on as well as a class on Indian South African expression she plans to teach when she returns to Scripps.
Decker’s interest in South African art and literature stems from a Swahili class she took as an undergraduate; she was fascinated to learn about the many Arabic and Sanskrit influences that had made their way into Swahili through pre-European maritime trade. Her graduate research focused on colonial and post-colonial literatures of the Indian Ocean, especially texts written in Swahili, Arabic, and English from areas of Africa that border the ocean, from Egypt to South Africa.
“I became interested in modes of aesthetic expression and understanding that aren’t just about Europe vs. East Africa,” says Decker, observing that several prominent anti-apartheid activists were of Indian descent, but that their contributions are still not as widely known outside South Africa.
Although her specialty is literature from regions bordering the Indian Ocean, the classes Decker teaches at Scripps focus on writing from many parts of the world. “Because I am the lone person in my department teaching non-Western literature, I’ve tried to be much more capacious in my view,” she explains. Last semester, she taught a seminar on queer post-colonial literature and theory, which brings two previously disparate fields together to focus on sub-Saharan Africa while also giving students the opportunity to incorporate readings drawn from other parts of the globe.
Prior to coming to Scripps in 2015, Decker had not thought about teaching at a women’s college and the benefits that being at such a school might bring. Since then, she has cherished the opportunity to mentor young women through her classes and seminars. “To have these opportunities, particularly at a small college where there’s freedom, there’s a place for creativity, and students are excited to learn and be challenged not just by the content of the course, but also by assignments and other modes of creative and rigorous thinking—that has been really fantastic,” Decker says.
You can read more about Assistant Professor of English Michelle Decker here.