In this “New Faculty Spotlight,” the UC Davis Humanities Institute interviewed Beth Ferguson, assistant professor in the Department of Design, and Jacinda Townsend, assistant professor in the Department of English – two new faculty members bringing artistry, creativity, and a spirit of experimentation to UC Davis.
The UC Davis Department of Design welcomes a new assistant professor with expertise in sustainable transportation as part of the Department’s initiative to grow an industrial design focus. Beth Ferguson is director of Sol Design Lab, a design/build studio that specializes in solar charging stations and public art. She has collaborated with public utilities, festivals, urban parks, and universities to position solar energy as a civic and public resource. Ferguson is already engaged in teaching and research on campus, and hopes to bring her innovative solar charging stations to UC Davis, just as she did in her former position at University of Texas at Austin (read more here about her work at UT).
Ferguson explained that she founded Sol Design Lab as a graduate student in 2009 because she needed somewhere to charge her electric scooter on campus. Her solution was to build a charger with a solar panel and an old-fashioned gas pump, and then she prototyped the concept at the popular South by Southwest festival to great success. Ferguson has since engaged thousands of participants in the development of projects such as solar charging stations, up-cycled public furniture, Climate Kits , civic emoji for climate change, and ecological maps.
At first, Ferguson didn’t anticipate that her solar chargers would be used for purposes other than electric bikes: “You put things out into the world and aren’t sure how people will use them,” she said. “I designed for electric scooters, but it was 2009 and everyone had dead smartphones at big events.” Now in 2016 she is working with Austin Energy and Bay Area electric scooter share systems to design solar charging stations for solar powered mobility.
That spirit of invention, experimentation, and access is key to Ferguson’s teaching and design work: “Making solar energy free and available to the public is part of the fun of the project. In design education, you have young people who want solutions to reduce their carbon footprint – they are willing to experiment with energy use and transportation, and hungry for those maker-skills.”
Ferguson is currently teaching a course on sustainable design, allowing students to explore principles and practices for sustainable design in the context of the current environmental crisis. She plans to reach out across the campus and build collaborations with other interested folks working to find creative, tangible, and renewable solutions to the energy and climate challenges facing the world today.
Award-winning author Jacinda Townsend joins the UC Davis Department of English as a creative writing assistant professor. Townsend received widespread acclaim for her novel, Saint Monkey (Norton, 2104), which explores the friendship of two young African-American women in rural Kentucky in the 1950s as one goes to New York to pursue her musical dreams while the other remains behind. Saint Monkey won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction, was the 2015 Honor Book of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, and was longlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and shortlisted for the Crook’s Corner Book Prize.
Townsend, who is from Kentucky, expressed that the novel is “a love letter to my parents’ generation,” and in particular, people from a “part of Kentucky that has disappeared culturally”—an area around Lexington where African-Americans, freed from slavery, were hired immediately to care for horses and developed the equine industry there in the mid-nineteenth century.
In addition to her fiction writing, Townsend brings experience teaching writing workshops that is key to starting a MFA program at UC Davis. Townsend’s own MFA is from the acclaimed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she plans to bring that rigorous peer-review workshop process into her classroom. Equally important, however, are the technical aspects of the craft so that students may “learn to read as writers, and not just as readers,” she explained.
The humanities have been profoundly meaningful to Townsend since music “literally saved [her] life” as a child by offering a way to “get through school and hard patches.” Her writing practice emerged from the same perspective about the vital power of the humanities. “The humanities are the bedrock of what we do as humans, how we pass on society, culture, propagate the species,” Townsend added.
Her current project, Kif, promises to be another powerful and affecting novel that engages more explicitly with political concerns. Based on her “accidental knowledge of slavery in West Africa” gained during travels in Morocco, Mali, and Mauritania, Kif is both the story of a girl who escaped slavery and an African-American tourist seeking out kif, or Moroccan hashish.
Townsend recently read from Kif as part of the Creative Writing Program Reading Series, and her next appearance is on November 12 at the Pence Gallery in Davis, as part of Stories on Stage.
– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies