Assistant Professors Tamyka Jordon-Conlin, Deon Knights, Ashanti Shih, and Payton Small taught courses this year that addressed widely disparate topics in music, environmental science, history, and psychology, respectively. But they are members of a cohort of tenure-track Vassar faculty members who will be working together to take some aspects of the College curriculum in a new, multidisciplinary direction.
The four new faculty members are the first to join the College under its Cluster Hire Initiative in the Study of Race, Racism, and Racial Justice. The courses they teach contain comprehensive material in their respective fields of study, but students also explore how the subject matter intersects with issues of racial justice, equity, and inclusion. A fifth member of the Cluster Hire Initiative, Candy Martinez, currently completing a post-doctoral program in Hispanic Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, will join the faculty as an Assistant Professor in the Latin American and Latinx Studies Program in the fall.
Vassar’s Cluster Hire Initiative began to take shape following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the resulting calls for racial justice. “A lot of us at the College did some soul searching about our own history and the culture and structures at Vassar that require serious reflection and change,” Dean of the Faculty William Hoynes said when the initiative was announced in 2021.
In their first year at Vassar, the four new faculty members began to put this vision into action. Jordon-Conlin taught a course on music and other media through the critical lens of Afrofuturism. Knights taught a course that examined the social and political ramifications of oil and gas extraction in Trinidad and Tobago and coal mining in West Virginia. Shih asked her students to scrutinize the stereotyping of Asian Americans in 20th century film and literature. And Small taught a senior seminar on the psychology of race and racism.
Jordon-Conlin said she applied for the position at Vassar in large part because the idea of working with other scholars in widely different fields appealed to her. “I appreciated the intentionality of the Cluster Hire approach,” she said.
Knights, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, said, “Infusing issues of equity and inclusion with Earth and Environmental Science was something I have come to understand our students have been asking for.” His position, he adds, allows him to put the topic into a larger, human-focused, and personal context. “Most of the geology courses I took were just about the rocks, water, and minerals and not about how people are shaped by, and have shaped, the Earth.”
Shih said she is excited to be working with students on subjects like Asian American history that have not been major components of Vassar’s curriculum.
Small is relieved to know the initiative is something the Vassar community supports. “I’ve learned that this initiative is not something the administration was forcing on students or that students were urging the administration to do,” he said. “It’s a shared concern about these issues from both the top down and the bottom up.”—Larry Hertz