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Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies

Photo by Jim Lanier, courtesy of T.S. Bremer. For more photos from this summer′s program, check out Professor Bremer′s website.

By Katie Cannon ′15

If you salivate at the mention of both “scholarly journals” and “Central BBQ,” Rhodes has a program designed to help you satisfy both of those cravings: the Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies, a 7-week summer research fellowship in which students pursue an academic exploration of some aspect of the Mid-South. For passionate Rhodents, it’s an irresistible opportunity to spend the summer totally immersed in all things Memphis while researching a topic guaranteed to spark your interest—because you chose it yourself. Interested in activism? Justice? Storytelling? Dance? Hip-hop? No matter what rings your intellectual bell, Memphis has a diverse, storied past and a vibrant present just waiting to satisfy your curiosity.

“It’s the formula for a perfect summer,” says Emily Clark ’15, a current participant in the program. Emily’s in the midst of researching the legacy of Ida B. Wells, the journalist, suffragette, and civil rights activist who was driven out of Memphis in 1892--a project that she hopes to one day include as a chapter in a book. “Ida B. Wells has always been an interest, but after studying her dynamic blending of gender and race activism, she became an idol,” says Emily.

While Emily, an English major, relishes the idea of writing a 40-page paper for her project, students inclined to explore other mediums are welcome to do so. Phoebe Driscoll ’15, for instance, plans to film a documentary about jookin, a form of street dance that originated in Memphis in the 80s. For her, the program encourages a deeper understanding of Memphis—the Memphis that you don’t see in travel brochures or on the evening news. “It’s important to expand one’s knowledge of the city beyond the overused slogan: ‘Home of the Blues and BBQ,” says Phoebe. “I’ve enjoyed exploring jookin—often dubbed as an ‘urban ballet’ of sorts—because it’s been largely overlooked in a city well known for other forms of creative expression.”

Premiese Cunningham  ’15 also appreciates that the program allows her to study something outside the typical realm of scholarship: hip-hop. “I’m a huge fan of rap music and I feel that it’s often neglected in academia,” she says. “I decided to apply for the Institute because I thought it would be a great platform for my area of interest.”

Beyond the particularities of the students’ projects, however, the program instills a greater curiosity about Memphis in general—and, by extension, the world. In the words of Professor Charles McKinney, co-director of the Institute this year, Memphis is “habitually underestimated.” While many are willing to write it off as a cultural novelty, just Graceland and good eatin’, they are “quick to forget how large Memphis looms in the national imagination,” he says. “It is a major force in the shaping of American culture; its economic innovations have literally impacted the entire planet.”

That’s why the program begins with an introduction to our city, a journey through 901 past and present that highlights the most significant landmarks in Memphis history and culture. One such trip this year took the group to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music--yes, one of Memphis’ stereotypical hooks, but a well-earned one. The museum is under the Soulsville Foundation umbrella, which also includes the Soulsville Charter School--one of the top charter schools in Memphis--and Stax Music Academy. So in the neighborhood where Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MGs, and  Isaac Hayes once recorded game-changing hits, new generations of students from the area prepare for college, and, if musically-inclined, can enroll in the music academy, where they study the skills, musical and otherwise, needed to make their way in the industry.

Other sites on the grand Memphis intro-tour include historical landmarks and venues marking the city’s evolution: the Civil Rights Museum, Bellevue Baptist Church, the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, and Caritas Village. The visits are tailored to address the issues that deal with the student’s individual projects, but they also reveal a Memphis that students might not have discovered from behind Rhodes’ pristine gates—in the words of McKinney, Memphis is “one of the most unique, complicated, frustrating, and fascinating places in the nation.”

Despite all its fruitful scholarly fodder, Memphis has been chronically under-researched—but that’s what makes the program so appealing, so exciting: “There are scores of untold stories waiting to be uncovered,” says McKinney. With the Institute, Rhodes students can be pioneers in their field of interest. Working one-on-one with faculty mentors, Institute fellows aren′t just learning about Memphis, but gaining skills they′ll use for the rest of their careers by beginning a real portfolio of work--before they′ve even finished undergrad. Students can delve still deeper into their projects by enrolling in a direct enquiry or honors research during the school year, or even perfecting their work for publication.

For Lanier Flanders ’15, who is researching the juvenile court system, the key is to let Memphis do the talking, to “trust those sparks of curiosity or nagging questions, even if the direct connection to my original project seems unclear.” Lanier’s learning is transcending her topic, bleeding into her personal academic philosophy: “It’s important to have a flexible attitude and literally go where the research leads,” she says. Lanier’s ready to “embrace the ‘messy’ quality of research” and simply “absorb as much knowledge as possible,” she says.

As these students study Memphis’ transformations, they undergo their own. But some things about Memphis never change. As Emily says, “Memphis isn′t perfect, but there′s something about it that seems to inspire people to fight, even when the fight isn′t easy.  From 1890 to today, I want to show that has remained the same.”