History professor wins Burkhardt Fellowship

by Sonia Qin | 3/31/17 2:00am


Two years from now, history professor Naaborko Sackeyfio-Lenoch will be hundreds of miles from Hanover in Chicago, Illinois, working on her research on Ghana’s transnational alliances formed in the 1950s and 1960s at Northwestern University. Sackeyfio-Lenoch recently won the Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship for Recently Tenured Scholars, which grants her about $95,000 and a year-long residency in 2018-2019 as she completes her next book project, entitled “Global Ghana, Itinerant Citizens and the Making of a New Nation.”

This fellowship supports “long-term, unusually ambitious projects in the humanities and related social sciences,” according to the website of the American Council of Learned Societies, which sponsors the fellowship. The expectation is that the fellow produces a major piece of scholarly work.

ACLS director of fellowship programs Matthew Goldfeder said that there were 180 applicants to the Burkhardt Fellowship this year and of those, 22 received fellowships.

Sackeyfio-Lenoch’s work centers around West African history, with a specific focus on 20th century Ghanaian history. She said that her first book project, “The Politics of Chieftaincy: Authority and Property in Colonial Ghana, 1920-1950,” published in 2014, concentrated on the social and political history of Accra, Ghana, during the colonial period prior to 1957. Her new book will look at Ghana’s role in global affairs between 1950 and 1970, an era of decolonization and nation-building.

“Broadly speaking, my research really explores questions of international history, global studies, decolonization in Africa, Cold War politics as they affected African countries and really looking at new types of African internationalist efforts during the post-independence era,” Sackeyfio-Lenoch said.

According to Sackeyfio-Lenoch, her interest in this field of research was generated by personal connections and “intellectual sets of questions that came out of [her] graduate work.” Her mother is from the U.S. and her father is from Ghana, and she was raised in northern Nigeria in a university town, which spurred her interest in global affairs.

“As a child growing up in Nigeria, I was able to encounter many different people from very different international backgrounds, both from across the continent as well as from other parts of the world,” Sackeyfio-Lenoch said. “From an early age, I had always been interested in the international world, just from my upbringing.”

She added that she developed an interest in African history and African studies in college and graduate school, “largely as a way to understand [her] own personal background and [her] own personal history.”

Sackeyfio-Lenoch chose to take up residency at Northwestern University from September 2018 to September 2019. She will engage in colloquia and workshops there and will work on her book project, she said. The fellowship also allots funding for scholars to travel for their research.

Formed in 1919, the ACLS is “an organization made up of and made for the humanities,” Goldfeder said, adding that the council aims to foster interdisciplinary dialogue in the humanities. The Burkhardt Fellowship supports an academic year of residence at a site that the applicant feels would be the most beneficial to his or her work.

Applicants for the Burkhardt Fellowship must write a proposal outlining their project, identifying the “innovative nature of the project and the theoretical approaches, grounding it in the literature to situate where the project fits in terms of the larger scholarly work that’s been done,” Sackeyfio-Lenoch said.

She added that the proposal must be accessible to an audience that does not specialize in the applicant’s research field. For her own proposal, Sackeyfio-Lenoch highlighted her project’s importance in terms of Ghanaian historiography, the history around nation-building, decolonization and post-colonial Africa.

She chose Northwestern because its African Studies program “is a wonderful, intellectually vibrant space for people doing work in African Studies.”

Goldfeder said that he believes Sackeyfio-Lenoch’s project, while it focuses on a particular region, in a particular time period, has broad implications across time and place.

Geography professor and department chair Susanne Freidberg, who was awarded the fellowship in 2009, decided to take her residency at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Freidberg’s research focused on the politics around measuring the environmental footprint of food. She noted that she appreciated the break from teaching that the fellowship provided, because she could devote all of her time to her research.

“In general, for academics, working on long-term ambitious projects, it really helps to have extended periods of time when you don’t have to be thinking about faculty meetings, grading papers and putting together syllabi,” Freidberg said.

Freidberg noted that she made lifelong friends during her time at the Radcliffe Institute and gained knowledge in other research disciplines, allowing her “to think in directions [she] wouldn’t have otherwise gone.”

“The Radcliffe Institute is an institute for advanced studies, so it brings in fellows from all different disciplines, and just having that kind of interdisciplinary intellectual community to talk to can be really mind-opening,” Freidberg said.

Once a scholar wins one fellowship, this is a sign of accomplishment that opens opportunities for that individual to win others, Freidberg said.

Sackeyfio-Lenoch said she is looking forward to engaging with others at Northwestern.

“It’s really wonderful to be able to talk to people and have them inform the work that you’re doing,” Sackeyfio-Lenoch said.