The inaugural Provost’s Graduate Academic Engagement fellowship cohort

The Provost’s Graduate Academic Engagement fellowship supports scholarship and civic engagement in West Philadelphia.

Two men stand in front of the brick and stone stairway leading to the Penn Museum
Paul Wolff Mitchell (left) and Michael Vazquez (right) are the inaugural Provost’s Graduate Academic Engagement Fellows.

“What does it mean to produce knowledge today?” Paul Wolff Mitchell asks this question with intensity, as if this is the question he’s going to be asking for the rest of his life. This ethos drives Mitchell, an anthropology doctoral student, and Michael Vazquez, a philosophy doctoral student, both selected as the inaugural Provost’s Graduate Academic Engagement Fellows at the Netter Center, for 2019-21. 

The two-year fellowship is open to all Ph.D. students across Penn. It includes support to attend and present at conferences, the opportunity to design and teach an academically based community service (ABCS) course (or engage in other kinds of research and teaching in connection with the Netter Center), and a $5,000 research fund in the first year. This is followed in the second year with a full fellowship to research or write. 

“The work of our two inaugural fellows,” says Provost Wendell Pritchett, “embodies the highest goals of the University: innovating new educational opportunities, bringing together graduate and undergraduate students, and making a tangible difference in our community. We are indebted to Ira Harkavy and the Netter Center for leading this program. As a Penn graduate student myself many years ago, I worked with Ira to integrate civic engagement into my scholarly work, and co-taught an ABCS course with Professor Walter Licht. 

“It is personally rewarding to me to be able to create a formal mechanism for such important work. I encourage all doctoral students to consider applying, and I look forward to the exciting projects that future fellows will create.”

The fellowship is designed to support graduate students whose work centers on engaged scholarship, and it will elevate the education and training of the next generation of academics, says Harkavy. Mitchell and Vazquez were selected because of “their exceptional academic work and demonstrated commitment to engaged scholarship, including their interest and enthusiasm for teaching ABCS courses that would make a difference at Penn and in West Philadelphia,” Harkavy says.

The fellows, their faculty sponsors, and some 20 additional faculty members from across the University have been meeting during a monthly seminar to discuss engaged scholarship. “A powerful result of this seminar,” says Harkavy, “has been the creation of a network of faculty who mentor the fellows, sharing ideas and advice on teaching, research, and career development.” 

Mitchell says being part of the inaugural cohort is “an honor, and it’s also exciting. It signals a strong commitment on the part of this University toward rethinking what engaged scholarship means, even on the graduate-student level. I will be able to write a better dissertation and become a more responsible scholar as a result.”

Mitchell, who is also a fellow in the Penn Program on Race, Science, and Society, examines race and science in the context of the 19th century, particularly the historic use of the human skull to measure and explain human difference as a way to create and justify racial hierarchy. He is working with the cranial collection of Samuel George Morton, about 1,000 skulls collected between 1830 and 1851, which are now housed at the Penn Museum. These crania were sent to Philadelphia from across the globe and measured in the first major quantitative study of its kind. “Arguably, the origin of American race science is here in the Penn Museum,” says Mitchell. 

He encountered the collection as an undergraduate during an introduction to human evolution course, when the skulls were brought out to talk about human variation and race. Mitchell’s first summer job at Penn was to work on a database of CT scans taken of these skulls. Ultimately, the collection “felt so intellectually and ethically complex and textured that it became the focus of my dissertation,” says Mitchell, who is fascinated by the “social histories of who gets collected and who gets to study them and create knowledge.”

How did the Penn Museum acquire these skulls? Who can tell these histories? And what should be done with this collection, which includes the remains of enslaved, marginalized, and indigenous people? Next fall, Mitchell will bring Penn undergraduates and Philadelphia high school students together in asking these questions as part of an ABCS course supported by the Netter Center. 

An archive of letters sent to Morton describes the history of many of the crania, says Mitchell, who is working with the American Philosophical Society as well as the Library Company of Philadelphia with support from the Penn Libraries to digitize these documents. Penn undergraduates and students from area high schools will work collaboratively to transcribe and research this correspondence trove as part of the ABCS course. Mitchell will then compile this information on a public website, including scans and transcriptions of the letters, as well as information about the collectors, the individuals who were collected, and the historical reception and influence of Morton’s race science. He hopes this will be used as a resource for scholars and educators to engage with the history of race and science in the United States. The fellowship, Mitchell says, “allowed me the creative and provocative space to think through how these collections are being used.” 

Mitchell is trying to reconcile the historical record with restorative practices within anthropology, wrestling with questions of what it means to steward and curate these collections, and what ethical practices of repatriation and representation look like, especially in cases in which kin cannot be determined. “The fundamental questions of what this collection means today are what I’m trying to grapple with,” Mitchell says. “All of this is personal for me. I tried to get away from these skulls,” he says, but “wanted to have a part in bringing these stories to light because I think in so many ways, this collection embodies the politics of knowledge production. I feel haunted by these remains and their legacy.”

Michael Vazquez is considering ethical issues from a philosophical standpoint. “I think philosophy is interesting because of all the disciplines, it’s one that thrives on intractable questions,” he says. “I don’t think good philosophy is just answering questions; it’s also cultivating certain habits and virtues, careful thinking.” Vazquez believes that “research, teaching, and service are bound together in some way and should mutually inform one another “There’s a felt need to reunite these three dimensions, and that’s where the fellowship comes in,” he says. 

Man in flowered shirt points at a blackboard where class assignments are written
Michael Vazquez discusses class assignments.

Vazquez studies the Stoics, a Hellenistic school of philosophy with a highly developed and systematic framework covering ethics, physics, and logic. The primary sources have been lost to time, so the information we have comes from later philosophers who quoted them, says Vazquez. “I get to put together the puzzle.” 

The other piece of his academic career lies in community engagement. Vazquez is teaching an ABCS course this spring on discussions as they relate to democratic society. As part of the course, students will go into Mastery Charter School’s Shoemaker Campus in West Philadelphia once a week and help students “to navigate complex issues that are salient to their experience,” Vazquez says. This partnership, called the “Ethics Think Tank,” will culminate in philosophical op-eds with contributions from both Penn and Shoemaker students. “I think that’s production of knowledge right there,” Vazquez says, “cultivating certain skills and habits: clear thinking, clear writing. The product is in some sense the skills that we can impart and the conversations that we can have together.”

As part of the course, undergraduates read “What Deliberative Democracy Means,” a chapter in “Why Deliberative Democracy,” co-authored by Penn President Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, as well as an excerpt from Gutmann’s 2004 inaugural speech introducing the Penn Compact, a plan for the University that included core principles of increasing access, integrating knowledge, and engaging locally and globally. The class discussed the Compact as an example of public philosophy in a recent session attended by Gutmann. 

Woman in mid-ground talks to a group while others look on
President Amy Gutmann (far right) guest teaches an ABCS philosophy course. 

“Democracy is about disagreement,” said Gutmann. “One of the things I care about so much as president of the University is encouraging students and helping students to argue across divides.” This dialogue, said Gutmann, is vital to the public good and “never has education been more important as a way of engaging civically.” 

Gutmann concluded by asking the students to write her a paragraph about what they learned and how civic engagement made a difference in their own thinking. Philosophy is at “the absolute cultural core” of the University, she said. 

The ancient Greeks had “no gap between engagement and philosophy as a practice,” Vazquez says. “It was both theoretical and practical. This is something I keep in mind when I do public philosophy.” Vazquez cites Epictetus, a Stoic who viewed philosophy as a way of life and endeavored to help his students move to another level of self-knowledge or understanding. This is a “compelling vision of what education can be like,” Vazquez says. “Philosophy should be transformative, making our lives better.” 

Vazquez is motivated to teach this service-learning course through the idea of making philosophical thinking accessible to all members of the community, encouraging them to cultivate habits of mind and to reflect upon and pursue their own conception of “the good life,” he says. “This fundamental ethical commitment to ‘respect for persons’ has been a central impetus for me.” The origin of this concept dates back to the Stoics and continues through the history of philosophy, Vazquez adds, noting that the concept “really crystallized for me while reading the work of Dr. Gutmann and other democratic theorists.” 

The Academic Engagement Fellowship shows how ideas and practice are interwoven, he says. “You can’t meaningfully do philosophy by yourself. It’s a kind of conversation. Part of those conversations are by yourself and part of that is reasoning and thinking with each other,” Vazquez says. “Dialogue is at the heart of philosophy. We’re not in the armchair by ourselves.” 

A group stands at the front of a classroom
President Amy Gutmann and Michael Vazquez (center) are joined by Cory Bowman of the Netter Center (far left) and Karen Detlefsen (far right), visiting with students in an ABCS philosophy course.

In the inaugural address that Vazquez’s students are reading, Gutmann said, “effective engagement begins right here at home. We cherish our relationships with our neighbors, relationships that have strengthened Penn academically while increasing the vitality of West Philadelphia.” Through the Provost’s Graduate Academic Engagement Fellowship at the Netter Center, Mitchell and Vazquez are working to engage with the broader West Philadelphia community and strengthen their scholarship in the process. 

The application deadline for the 2020–22 fellowships is March 2.