Latinx and African Diasporan Art Scholar Joins the Tenure Track at U of Toronto
Maya Harakawa, who plans to turn her dissertation on art and Harlem in the ’60s into a book, will start as an assistant professor in July.
Just this week, Maya Harakawa successfully defended her dissertation. And in July, she will join the University of Toronto’s art history department as an assistant professor of Black and Latinx Diasporas — one of multiple tenure-track positions she was offered during her job search.
Harakawa, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Williams College, received several fellowships during her time at the Graduate Center, including a Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellow in American Art and a dissertation fellowship at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. She taught at City College for three years and also taught her own course at City Tech. Harakawa recently spoke to the Graduate Center about her research, how the Art History program prepared her for the job market, and what she wishes she’d known as a first-year Ph.D. student.
The Graduate Center: What do you think made you stand out among applicants in your field?
Harakawa: I think it was a combination of extensive, hands-on teaching experience, which is something that comes from being in the Graduate Center Ph.D. program, and that my program prepared me very well to speak about my dissertation and my research goals. There’s a lot of emphasis put on being able to concisely convey not just the topic but also the point of view of the dissertation, and to really hone the argument.
Also, because I’m a scholar of African Diasporan art, I think being at CUNY, working with CUNY undergraduates, allowed me to have a holistic identity as a scholar. My research was coming from a larger understanding of questions of race and equity within higher education.
GC: How did the program help you develop ways of speaking about your research?
Harakawa: The program has a lot of mentoring at the dissertation stage, and opportunities to talk about your project, and to make sure that other people are understanding it as you’re developing it. You get different perspectives on how to think about framing your project. And there’s a very rigorous dissertation proposal process that instills in students the importance of being able to articulate the goals and stakes of their projects at a very early stage.
GC: In what ways did your scholarship benefit from working with students?
Harakawa: I’m interested in questions of racism and exclusion in the history of art, and so working with CUNY undergraduates and having to think about what is the goal of art history, how do we teach art history to students who may in any other context be ‘untraditional’ but who are what makes the CUNY system so unique and important — that made me think about what I want my research to do, what I want my goals to be as a scholar, in more of a holistic way.
My dissertation is on Harlem in the 1960s, and Black artists who were either working there or who were making art about Harlem in the ’60s. I was thinking about questions of urbanism and art and race as I taught at City College, which is in Harlem. It wasn’t that teaching at City College made me think explicitly about Harlem, it wasn’t as direct as that, but there was a nice sort of confluence around all these things as I was developing my dissertation topic.
GC: What originally drew you to this particular place and time?
Harakawa: I was really fortunate when I was at the Graduate Center to work with professors who are urbanists — Professor Marta Gutman (Art History, Earth and Environmental Sciences) is an urbanist who works on race, and she was the one who really got me thinking about questions about connections between race and urban places. And Professor Anna Indych-López (Art History), who I also worked with, also got me thinking of questions of race in 20th-century art. I wanted to focus on the post-1960s, so that was my general area of interest coming into the program. My adviser, Professor Siona Wilson (Art History), helped me navigate the different interests that animate my research and how to situate my interventions within this larger field. Her perspective was key in helping me understand why Harlem was an important site for art historical study and how to grow the project as it developed over time.
The ’60s are thought of as this moment where the downtown scene in New York City was getting solidified. It had never occurred to me to think of New York beyond the limits of SoHo, Greenwich Village, and a little bit of the East Village, and this is a larger tendency within our history. Once I started to think more expansively through questions of race and urbanism, I started to think about what places in New York hadn’t been talked about within art history. Harlem is really important in art history because of the Harlem Renaissance, but art historians hadn’t thoroughly interrogated the longer importance of it in the 20th century.
GC: Are you thinking of turning your work into a book?
Harakawa: Definitely. My feeling is that I’ll probably think a bit more about the scope of the chapters that I have, and then probably add a couple of chapters. The GC’s Schomburg Dissertation Fellowship was amazing and allowed me to have access to the Schomburg and to participate in the scholars in residence program, but I didn’t get to finish all of my archival research because of the pandemic. When I was there I had some sense of other areas I’d want to explore in other chapters. I’m looking forward to doing more of that research in the next couple of years.
GC: Is there anything you wish you’d known when you were just starting out as a Ph.D. student?
Harakawa: I think one of the things that made me anxious in my first couple of years was feeling the need to pin down one adviser who was going to be the mentor for the dissertation project. And while I was fortunate to have an extremely supportive adviser who was indispensable to my dissertation and my job search, I wish I’d thought more about building up a cohort of faculty members who can help you and mentor you in different ways rather than looking for one person. I discounted the types of relationships I was forming with different types of professors who might not have been in my specific field but then later, when I was thinking about applying for jobs, became really important in helping me think about the job market more generally, or who would read my materials, and who would mirror the fact that not everybody on the hiring committee would be in my field. Who would be someone I could turn to for more practical advice and not worry about how that might affect an intellectual, adviser-advisee relationship. I would definitely encourage people to think about what it means to have mentors rather than a single adviser.
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