Creating New Narratives: Lalitha Vasudevan | Teachers College Columbia University

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Minority Post-Doctoral Fellowship Program

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Creating New Narratives: Lalitha Vasudevan


A year as a TC minority post-doc inspires a scholarly stance predicated on openness to new knowledge

In Fall 2004, Lalitha Vasudevan – one of two newly arrived Minority Post-Doctoral Fellows at Teachers College – sat in her spacious new office in what is now Zankel Hall and thought: Now what do I do?

“It was a great moment,” recalls Vasudevan, now Associate Professor of Technology & Education in TC’s Department of Mathematics, Science & Technology. (Minority post-docs are not guaranteed jobs at TC.) “The blank walls were a reminder that it was on me to make things happen. My faculty colleagues were wonderful resources who took me to lunch, engaged in dialogue with me, and invited me to participate in department meetings, but they didn’t tell me what to do.”

The TC Minority Post-Doctoral Fellow Program was founded 20 years ago to give young scholars entrée to New York City and the many networks that have grown out of the College's storied history. Offering a stipend, housing, a reduced teaching load and mentoring, it supports what Vasudevan calls “knowledge production that shapes new narratives and new understandings of what’s normal.” She herself has gone on to study “the lived experiences of African-American adolescent boys” and, more recently, court-involved youth, including those in foster care. But even more important, she says, being a TC minority post-doc enabled her to approach scholarship itself with fresh eyes.

This is the first in a series spotlighting 20 years of the Minority Postdoctoral Fellowship Program at Teachers College

“In grad school, you are pushed to cultivate scholarly expertise by developing a conceptual framework and set of methodologies, somewhat to the detriment of your own intellectual curiosity,” she says. “Then, to build a career, you’re advised to stick to what you know. So before seeking a tenure-track position, I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do next.”

Minority Postdoctoral Fellow Spotlights

Initially TC seemed “huge and daunting.” Still, the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, where Vasudevan had focused on literacy studies “steeped in anthropology and ethnography,” had given her a useful cross-disciplinary orientation.

“My approach as a post-doc was to be open to seeing what was possible. I adopted a stance of unlearning things in order to better understand where I was and what I was trying to do.”

Practically speaking, that entailed taking long, reflective walks that began on the Upper West Side and sometimes ended up at the base of Manhattan, as well as doing a lot of cold calling and emailing. Ultimately, a hallway conversation set her on her current scholarly path. 

“A colleague and I were passing one another, and she said, ‘You’ve got to look up so-and so.’ That chance encounter led me to a program for incarcerated youth and an ongoing, participatory, community- based ethnographic research project with that organization.”

Since then, Vasudevan has co-edited two books, Arts, Media, and Justice: Multimodal Explorations with Youth (2013) and Media, Learning, and Sites of Possibility (2008), along the way winning TC’s Strage Prize for Junior Faculty. In addition to her appreciation for the “lived experiences” of young people, she has championed the benefits of cultivating students’ creative agency. She heads both TC’s new Media and Social Change Lab, which convenes interdisciplinary groups of students to explore the relationship between media and scholarship, and the College’s Center for Multiple Languages & Literacies. With faculty members Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz and Laura Smith, she co-leads the College’s Civic Participation Project, a forum for the TC community to discuss issues related to social inclusion, as well as those raised by the Black Lives Matter agenda.

“Being at TC has been an honor and a privilege,” Vasudevan says. “I’ve worked with people from across the College, and relationships from that post-doc year are still bearing fruit. It’s been a good ride.” – Joe Levine


Published Tuesday, Jan 12, 2016

Lalitha Vasudevan
Lalitha Vasudevan, Associate Professor of Technology & Education