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Emory and Stanford professors win ’Deis $25k Gittler prize

Published: November 4, 2011
Section: News

Brandeis University selected Emory University Professor Emerita Frances Smith Foster and Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson as winners of its third annual Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize. Led by President Fred Lawrence, the Gittler Prize selection committee awards recipients $25,000 for their intellectual excellence and this is the first year the prize will be shared between two winners.

President Fred Lawrence said it was the “quality, creativity and lasting impact in their respective fields of inquiry” that originally interested him in Foster and Carson’s work.

“The committee was very impressed with the scholarship that Professor Foster and Professor Carson have produced,” President Fred Lawrence said. “There was a consensus that they were both highly deserving and that their research interests are, in many respects, complementary.”

The Gittler Prize was founded by Joseph B. Gittler, a sociologist who taught at many leading universities and also honors his mother, Toby Gittler. Previous recipients of the prize include George Washington University Professor of Islamic Studies Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Princeton University Professor of Philosophy Kwame Anthony Appiah.

Carson was selected in 1985 by the late Coretta Scott King to edit and publish the writings of her late husband. As the director of the King Papers Project and the director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, Carson has spent decades producing six volumes of King’s speeches, sermons, correspondences, publications and unpublished writings. At the Research and Education Institute, Carson works to make King’s writings available to various audiences.

“We try to make it available to anyone of any age,” Carson said. “As well as globally available on the Internet. Our task is to make sure the research on all of the educational work is really solid. Once we have the research, we want to make sure it doesn’t just stay in the world of scholars.”

Carson described Mrs. King’s request for him to work on her late husband’s writings as a pleasant surprise.

“I did feel at the time it was a great responsibility,” Carson said. “I wasn’t sure I wanted that responsibility because it requires spending most of your career studying one person. I don’t think I would’ve done it for anyone other than Martin Luther King Jr. I felt this was something special that I should do.”

Carson said he will give his prize money to the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. “I feel like it’s not just a prize for me, it’s for the institute,” he said.

Foster, an authority on African-American family life and slavery narratives, has published more than a dozen books on her research and is a fellow of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis. Foster is also a fellow of the Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Religion at Emory Law School and a past fellow at Harvard Divinity School and the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard.

Foster said she went into the field of African-American studies by both chance and choice.

“I was an English major who graduated without having studied any[one] but Euro-American writers, mostly male,” Foster said. “I had, however, gone to racially segregated schools and I knew there were African-American writers. I knew, too, that there were women writers.”

After she graduated from Miami University, Foster traveled south to a historically black college with a class in African-American literature.

“It was the ’60s and I believed that knowledge is power and that the revolution needed teachers who could teach more of the truth,” Foster said.

In addition to teaching classes on African-American and women’s literature and culture at Emory, Foster has edited works including The Oxford Companion to African American Literature and The Norton Anthology of African American Literature.

“My research has changed my life,” continued Foster, “by giving me empowering information and I am thrilled when others tell me they never knew what I’ve told them, that they have reconsidered or reconstructed their lives in light of what they have learned.”

Unlike Carson, Foster plans to use the Gittler Prize money for personal use. “I am going to take my family on an outing,” Foster said. “I have a son and daughter-in-law in Ohio, a daughter and son-in-law in California, and four grandchildren. We have never had a vacation together. I think we might go to Disney World!”

Unlike many academic awards, the Gittler prize is awarded as a surprise to recipients and does not have an application process.

Foster said she was stunned to receive the phone call telling her she had won the Gittler Prize.

“I felt, I think, like those who win a MacArthur Award. I had no idea I had been nominated and of course I wondered who did this and why. When it was explained to me, I felt gratified and fortunate,” Foster said.

Carson too welcomed the surprise.

“I was surprised,” said Carson. “I was recommended for the prize and I am very grateful. You don’t often get recognition or support for your work unless you spend a lot of time promoting yourself. This is the kind of prize you enjoy the most because you feel like you’re doing useful work.”

Foster will receive the Gittler Prize and deliver a lecture to the campus community later this month and Carson will do the same in mid February.