After Finding an ‘Intellectual and Political Home’ at The Graduate Center, Alumna Lands Postdoc at UC Berkeley

Mae A. Miller (Photo courtesy of Miller)

Mae A. Miller (Ph.D. ’20, Earth & Environmental Sciences) is a first-generation college and graduate student from rural Ohio. Her dissertation, Oceanic Groundings: Black Internationalism and Maritime Radicalism in the Early Twentieth Century, weaves together Black women’s travel memoirs, oral histories of jazz and maritime labor in Britain, plays and novels, and archival materials from Trinidad, Netherlands, the United States, and the United Kingdom. 

Last month, she began a two-year President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, where she will continue her work on political consciousness formation, social reproduction, multiracial solidarity, and transnational movement. She spoke to us from London, where she is now working remotely while researching at the British Library.

The Graduate Center: What do you hope to accomplish in your new position?

Miller: I hope to accomplish four things during the postdoctoral fellowship period. First, I’m going to make appointments with a dentist, optometrist, and all of the medical specialists that I have not been able to afford to see regularly for five years due to my ineligibility for health care through The Graduate Center. Second, I hope to make substantial progress on the book manuscript based on my dissertation. This will entail completing the remaining archival research at various collections in the United Kingdom, United States, and South Africa when it is feasible and safe to do so. Third, I will publish portions of my research in academic journals as well as online magazines and platforms for broader audiences. Fourth, I will continue to work remotely with museums and archives in the U.S. and UK to develop educational materials for middle and high school students based on histories of Black radicalism and the Third World Left. 

GC: What helped you prepare for this next stage of your career? 

Miller: Graduate school can be an extremely isolating experience. I have been fortunate to have been a part of multiple writing communities in my department, with friends at other universities, and through Black Arts Retreat over the years. Each of these groups has been about collective care as much as intellectual exchange. We’ve tried our best to challenge the neoliberal university’s pressure toward individualism, competition, and constant drive to always work faster and harder. We’ve studied Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life to Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement to build relational and radical forms of collective learning, writing, and living.

My advisor, Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore, often quotes Ella Baker’s phrase: “Make a life, and the living will follow” to me. It’s a very different approach than the standard “publish this many papers, apply for that, jump through these hoops, and get a job” line that many of us are used to hearing. Of course, we do some of that too. There are no guarantees in the academic job market, but I’ve found that when I let my creativity, curiosity, and fully human complexity drive my actions instead of focusing on what I “should” be doing, my relationship to doing “the work” in the fullest sense shifted and was strengthened.

GC: What helped you stand out from other applicants?

Miller: One of the reviewers of my successful Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship (declined for the UC President’s Postdoc) wrote, “This is quite a fascinating archive and deeply interdisciplinary project. I do wonder if it might be TOO intellectually capacious to do well, but the theoretical and archival ambition of it is part of its strong appeal.” I suppose it was this boldness of research questions and design across continents and genres that appealed to the postdoc selection committees as well. 

Over the years, I’ve realized that narrowing a project and refining a project aren’t the same thing. I’ve studied the work of scholars like Michael Denning and Lisa Lowe who, in many ways, have taken the world as their unit of analysis through their explorations of transnational circuits and cultural production. Having financial support from the Ford Foundation, National Science Foundation, African American Intellectual History Society, GC Early Research Initiative, and various specialty groups of the American Association of Geographers gave me the time and resources to carry out the project. At the same time, I was able to work through many of my ideas and archival materials in the courses that I taught at Vassar College and the Museum of the City of New York.

GC: What advice do you have for students who hope to follow a similar path?

Miller: I’ve experienced a lot of institutionalized racism and sexism over the course of my academic journey. Sometimes that looks like violence and exclusion. Sometimes that looks like tokenization and exceptionalism. My advice to anyone who wants to follow a similar path is to make communities of comrades and mentors who are willing to fight for you, your work, and a better world. As graduate students — specifically, as students of color — we are often taught to see our entry into elite institutions as a marker of self-worth and the quality of our work. I left another “top ranked” Ph.D. program and chose to make an intellectual and political home at The Graduate Center where I learned how to ask and answer bold questions and where my work flourished. I would tell those who want to follow a similar path not to be afraid to walk away from any institution if it is clear that it can no longer support you. 

Submitted on: SEP 10, 2020

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