Two Illinois professors awarded NEH Fellowships

Two University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professors – Eduardo Ledesma and Bobby Smith II – have been awarded National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships.

Ledesma is a professor of Spanish and Portuguese and Smith is a professor of African American studies.

“Congratulations to professors Ledesma and Smith on their selection for these highly competitive, prestigious fellowships,” Chancellor Robert J. Jones said. “It’s gratifying to have their achievements recognized on the national level, and we’re proud to have these exceptional scholars on our campus.”

The NEH awarded $32.8 million in grants for 213 humanities projects across the nation, the organization announced Wednesday. The fellowship program supports advanced research in the humanities, and the recipients produce articles, books, digital materials or other scholarly resources.

The NEH received an average of 1,100 applications per year for the past five rounds of competition, according to the NEH website. The program has a 7% funding ratio over that time, awarding 71 fellowship grants this year totaling $3.9 million.

Ledesma’s project “Visually Impaired Filmmakers and Technologies of Sight” has two key aims, according to the project description: first, to raise critical awareness about the work of blind filmmakers, and second, to establish the contours of a blind cinematic style through theories of the gaze and haptic film. It is the first book to study how visually impaired filmmakers use digital media both to make visible the experience of disability and to destabilize stereotypes about the blind. His analysis of films by blind and visually impaired directors, as well as of collaborations between blind and sighted filmmakers, shows how the aesthetics and content of these works represent the experience of blindness. Ledesma’s work bridges film and disability studies approaches to consider how new technologies of vision are giving blind filmmakers access to the tools and techniques of filmmaking and how their innovations are transforming our experience of film and of visual culture.

Ledesma previously received an NEH 2019 Summer Stipend for the project.

Smith’s project “Race, Civil Rights, and Food Access in the Mississippi Delta” is the first book to analyze the interaction between oppressive and emancipatory practices of food power, as exercised in the Mississippi Delta from the civil rights era to today. By documenting this dynamic, the book shifts the way we understand civil rights history and current struggles against food disparities in rural Black communities. According to the project description, it offers a new line of inquiry that uncovers a neglected period of the movement when activists expanded the meaning of civil rights to address food as integral to social and economic conditions. This meaning-making process is used as a model by Black communities today that mobilize around the food justice movement. By making these connections, the book shows how current concerns about food disparities in Black communities are rooted in the civil rights struggle and how Black communities work to create solutions to those disparities locally and nationally.

Smith previously received an NEH 2020 Summer Stipend for the project.

The National Endowment for the Humanities is an independent federal agency and one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States. It supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy and other areas of the humanities by funding selected peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation.