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Humanities Institute


Mellon Research Initiatives

The four current Mellon Research Initiatives, selected in a competitive process in the fall of 2014 and the winter of 2017, are Comparative Border Studies, Reimagining Indian Ocean Worlds, Feminist Arts & Science Shop, and Racial Capitalism. We are especially encouraged by the global reach of each of these initiatives, also evidenced by the international profiles of their Mellon Visiting Assistant Professors.

The Feminist Arts & Science Shop Mellon Research initiative, co-directed by Timothy Choy (Anthropology), Sara Giordano (Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies), and Rana Jaleel (Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies), calls on arts, humanities, and design to establish the first feminist science shop in the nation—one premised on the need for deep engagement among the science, humanities, and the arts. Modeled after the Dutch Science Shops, the UC Davis feminist science shop will provide what no U.S. institution of higher learning can currently boast: a way for local communities and academic experts to engage together in the creation of scientific research agendas.

The Racial Capitalism Mellon Research initiative, co-directed by Mark Jerng (English) and Justin Leroy (History), lays out the historical relationship between race and capitalism and acknowledges that this relationship represents one of the most enduring and controversial debates in U.S. historiography. Sometimes explicitly, often only implicitly acknowledged, it shapes fundamental questions about inequality, value, life, bondage, and freedom, among others, across the disciplines of race and ethnic studies, literary studies, law, economics, sociology and anthropology. This initiative will bring together faculty, graduate students, and scholars and activists from outside Davis to advance a research agenda that focuses on racial capitalism.

A Mellon Research Initiative is an intense and focused exploration, over a three-year period, of a particular topic of great institutional importance at UC Davis. Each initiative receives funding for three years of programming, a two-year Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor, director’s compensation and support for graduate recruitment and research. Proof of the program’s success, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation renewed its commitment in 2014 with an additional $1.725 million to support another four interdisciplinary collaborations through 2021.

Since the program’s founding in 2011, four collaborations have been launched in the areas of early modern studies, environmental humanities, social justice and digital cultures.

These initiatives have allowed UC Davis to work towards these simultaneous goals: 1) we have brought talented recent Ph.D.s to UC Davis through highly competitive searches, benefited from their energy and intellectual contributions to our community, mentored them during those critical post-graduate years, and sent them off to tenure-track jobs; 2) we have increased funding for graduate students, which has allowed us to recruit well and to provide summer funding—it is particularly gratifying that the Dean of Graduate Studies at UC Davis matched the Mellon award designated for graduate students, thus increasing its impact; 3) we have enabled senior scholars to create intellectual communities, both on campus and through invitations for conferences, colloquia and seminars. The bonds established through these initiatives will have an enduring impact.

The Digital Cultures Mellon group has been able to leverage their Mellon Foundation support to build a new community. They have new space, four new faculty coming on board in 2015-2016, and new graduate recruits. Indeed, according to its directors, the Mellon funding is already helping to lay the groundwork towards a Designated Emphasis (D.E.) in Digital Culture at UC Davis.

Rather than build an entirely new community, the Social Justice Mellon Research Initiative spent the last academic year breathing new life into a long-standing and renowned program in Native American Studies, the only program in the country to offer an undergraduate major and minor, a master’s, Ph.D., and D.E., all from a hemispheric perspective. The Social Justice Mellon Research Initiative was intended to build bridges across ethnic and gender studies programs, all co-located in Hart Hall at UC Davis. In year one, women and gender studies took the lead and designed programming around social justice in a feminist, global context. In 2014-2015, Native American Studies shifted the dialogue to encompass the theme of “Global Indigeneities” to address issues of indigenous identities, performance as a means of social action, and indigenous knowledge as a form of healing and revitalization.

The Comparative Border Studies Initiative, led by co-directors Professor Sunaina Maira of Asian American Studies and Professor Robert Irwin of Spanish and Portuguese and chair of the Cultural Studies Graduate Group, calls for a renewed and reoriented cross-regional approach to borders in the contemporary global dynamic.

The proposal explains that the traditional critical tools of North American border studies seem inadequate in a contemporary moment marked by “heightened militarization, vigilantism, violent crime, human trafficking, drug trafficking, and government corruption,” and border studies would benefit from “an infusion of ideas from scholars working on Asia, Africa, and Europe where these issues have been central.”

Building on an existing Davis Humanities Institute research cluster, the Reimagining Indian Ocean Worlds initiative led by co-directors Smriti Srinivas, Professor of Anthropology, and Bettina Ng’weno, Associate Professor of African American and African Studies, shifts the conversation about Indian Ocean Studies “away from historical studies of trade, migration, diasporas and religion” and instead “formulates new directions for the field due to its emphasis on the contemporary, place-making, new networks, and quotidian practices.”

The first two Mellon Research Initiatives (MRIs), Early Modern Studies and Environments & Societies, ended their Mellon programming in the spring of 2014. However, those collaborations are pursuing ways to continue and extend the work that they began as Mellon Research Initiatives. The Environments & Societies group will continue to offer its colloquium in 2016 in partnership with the Institute for Social Sciences. Also, the former co-director of the Early Modern Studies MRI, Gina Bloom, has partnered with the Digital Culture MRI on the development of a Shakespeare video game.

For more information about the current and former MRIs including faculty, graduate students, and event calendars, please visit their web sites:


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This page was last updated: June 1, 2018



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