Mellon Seeks Exceptional Duke Humanities Faculty for New Directions Fellowship

Mellon Foundation.

Deadline: August 23, 2019

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has invited Duke University to nominate one candidate for consideration by Mellon for a New Directions Fellowship.


The fellowship program provides support for exceptional faculty members in the humanities (broadly defined to include the arts, history, languages, area studies, and zones of such fields as anthropology and geography that bridge the humanities and social sciences) who received their doctorates between 2007 and 2013.


The fellowships cover salary and fringe benefits for one academic year and two, two-month summers, as well as tuition or course fees associated with the fellows’ training programs and project related travel. Most awards are between $200,000 and $250,000, with a cap of $300,000, and may be expended over a period not to exceed three full academic years.

Fellows will be expected to pursue systematic training and academic competencies outside their own distinctive fields in order to advance a cross-disciplinary research agenda. This fellowship does not aim to facilitate short-term outcomes, such as completion of a book. Rather, it is a longer-term investment in the scholar’s intellectual range and productivity.

Key Dates

  • Letter of Intent Deadline: August 23, 2019
  • Committee Decision: September 9, 2019
  • Finalist Proposal to ORS: September 19, 2019
  • Mellon Decision: September 26, 2019

Duke’s Internal Nomination Procedure

Each candidate should provide a 750-1000 word statement briefly documenting his/her plans for future research and anticipated program of study this new work requires. The statement should provide an explanation of the overall significance of the proposed activities and how this new direction will build on an applicant’s current strengths, widen their intellectual horizons, and facilitate exciting new research vistas. If selected as Duke’s nominee, the candidate will need to develop a longer version of this document (2000 words plus 300 word summary, each non-negotiable limits), also highlighting research accomplishments to date. They will also need to arrange for a letter of appraisal from an informed senior colleague (e.g., department chair), a budget and budget narrative, and a CV no more than five pages in length in 12 pt. font.

  • Please submit your 750-1000 word statement via email to Amy Feistel no later than noon, August 23, 2019. If you have any questions regarding the nomination process, you may contact Carol Vorhaus, Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations, by email or by calling 919-681-1967.
  • Applicants should take care to write for a scholarly audience with a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and intellectual interests.
  • Applicants should familiarize themselves with the fellowship-specific application guidelines described online here.
  • After the internal deadline, proposed nominations will be forwarded to a nominating committee. Applicants may be offered an opportunity for conversation with members of the nominating committee.
  • All applicants will be informed of the committee’s decision by September 9, 2019, and the chosen nominee will be given assistance from the nominating committee and the Office of Foundation Relations in preparing materials for submission to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
  • The finalist will be required to submit their final proposal to Duke’s Office of Research Support no later than September 19, 2019 in order to meet the Mellon Foundation’s deadline of September 26, 2019.

Contact Information

For additional information on this funding opportunity, contact Carol Vorhaus (

Duke Professor Takes an Interdisciplinary Approach to Understanding the History of a Musical Instrument


From its origins in Africa to its evolutions in the Caribbean and US, the banjo has a long and rich history—but one that’s “frustratingly hard to get at,” says Laurent Dubois, professor of romance studies and history at Duke.

“When you get into what we call black music or Afro-Atlantic music, it’s 600 years of currents of exchange,” Dubois says, “and for most of the history it was never written down. It’s extremely rare before the 19th century that’s there’s any written music.”

Dubois, who specializes in the history and culture of the Atlantic world and who also plays the banjo, set out to produce a book about the history of the instrument. Recognizing that formal training in music and ethnomusicology would enrich his work, he applied for a New Directions Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

dubois_cmsThese prestigious fellowships assist humanities faculty who seek training in areas outside their specialties. About a dozen scholars are selected annually and can spend up to three years pursuing new areas of knowledge.

The first Duke faculty member to be selected, Dubois received the fellowship in 2010 and began taking classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke. “It allowed me to slow down and become a student again,” he says.

It wasn’t easy. At Duke “I took a music theory class and found it extremely challenging,” he laughs. “It was an undergraduate course and I was by far the slowest student, but I learned a ton.” He participated in graduate seminars at UNC with David Garcia and at Duke with Louise Meintjes and Paul Berliner. “Those were really interesting departures for me,” he says, pointing to one class that bridged the pra

ctice of music—he learned to play the mbira, an African thumb piano—with “highly theoretical questions of how we think about music across cultures.”

When he began his book project, Dubois planned to use written archives to write about discourses around music. “Being able to take these classes really reconfigured that,” he notes, “so that the music itself became much more central.”

He also spent time working with instrument makers. “A couple of the biggest insights in the book came out of that dialogue and helped me understand big historical things like why instruments were made in certain ways at certain times.”

Yet writing about music is a strange thing, he says, since music transcends the limits of language. “The reconfiguration of thinking that I went through because of the fellowship made me realize I could only do certain things in the digital form, precisely because I wanted to move beyond just using words.”

Therefore he capitalized on the fellowship’s flexibility to expand into digital projects, which he hadn’t planned. This time he sought out Duke students rather than faculty experts. In partnership with Mary Caton Lingold, a doctoral student in English, and David Garner, a doctoral student in music composition, he created a website called Banjology. The site aims to share research along with musical transcription and analysis and to serve as a resource for musicians.

Most banjo songs had never been written out, Dubois notes, and he relished the rich discussions about how to transcribe them. “That was incredibly interesting. Certainly both of them have taught me probably more than they’ve learned from me.”

banjo-in-african-diaspora30His journey also led to new collaborations with faculty. “I deepened my connections with people in the music department, and I discovered how many people at Duke are musicians or have music as part of their practice. I started collaborating with Mark Anthony Neal, who writes a lot about music, and Cecelia Conway at Appalachian State. I did an event in New Orleans that involved putting African musicians and New Orleans musicians in dialogue with scholars. That was great. It created a set of connections for me that are ongoing.”

New Directions Fellowships are intended to be long-term investments in scholars’ intellectual range and productivity. “What the fellowship encouraged me to do was just slow down,” says Dubois, “to explore areas and to understand the fields of music, music theory, ethnomusicology…and I ended up discovering this whole field called organology, the study of musical instruments. All those sorts of things will probably influence me long term, and I can point students to these resources.”

Dubois earned an interdisciplinary doctorate in history and anthropology and has been “quite interdisciplinary all along,” he says. But the fellowship more deeply anchored his sense of what it means to work across disciplines.

“The prestige and support offered by the fellowship gave me a sense of freedom and space to explore,” he notes, “and helped to embolden me in terms of my approaches and ambitions for my work.”

Dubois’s book on the Afro-Atlantic history of the banjo will be published this Spring by Harvard University Press. “I think my book took longer to write because of the fellowship, and as a result it is a lot better in the end,” he adds.

Looking ahead, he thinks his teaching and research “will be much more musical and cultural than before. I feel much more comfortable doing that kind of work. I was a musician before, but this gave me a much richer spectrum of ways of thinking about it.”

Photo 1: Dubois onstage at an event hosted by Duke University Libraries at Fullsteam Brewery about the history of the banjo; courtesy of Duke University Libraries; Photos 2 and 3 courtesy of Laurent Dubois