Fleming Receives MacArthur Grant
Published: Thursday, September 26, 2013
Updated: Thursday, September 26, 2013 02:09
In the middle of the day on Sept. 5, professor and chair of the history department Robin Fleming received a phone call. The voice on the other line began by asking, “Can you speak confidentially?”
The speaker went on to inform Fleming that she had been selected as one of the 24 MacArthur Fellows for 2013 and would receive $625,000 over the next five years.
“I spent the rest of the day worried that I had made it up,” Fleming said. An express letter she received the next day confirmed the phone call, however—she was the first Boston College professor ever to receive a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. These grants are given each year to anywhere from 20 to 40 U.S. citizens or residents who demonstrate remarkable innovation, dedication, and creativity, whatever their field. Each recipient is nominated anonymously by a peer in his or her field.
“It’s every academic’s dream, but nobody actually thinks they’re going to get it,” Fleming said.
Fleming stressed that the credit was not all hers, and that it would have been impossible to do the work deserving of such a grant without the strong support of an incredible department behind her, or without the constant stimulation that comes with being in a vibrant intellectual atmosphere like the one at BC. She credited her colleagues, graduate students, and undergraduates with making it easy for her to wake up every day excited about her work and the research she was doing.
Although she herself has known for almost a month now that she was named as a Fellow, she was instructed not to tell anybody until yesterday. A few days after the phone call, the MacArthur Foundation sent a TV crew to BC to do an interview with Fleming and film her as she taught a graduate class. “I told all my graduate students it was for the History Channel,” she said. “But it was a big lie.”
She was finally allowed to tell people at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 25. “I told everybody I could,” she said. “I just put it on Facebook. It’s a good way to get it out.”
MacArthur Grants famously come with no strings attached, meaning recipients can spend the money in any way they choose, but Fleming already has plans on how to use the money to advance the research she has been doing for some time now. A medieval historian, Fleming is particularly interested in reshaping the way that people study that time period. She hopes to deconstruct the traditional ways of viewing that era in order to achieve a more comprehensive picture of the world at the time.
In order to accomplish this, she has reached out to other disciplines, particularly archaeology, because she believes adding another dimension of research to be invaluable when it comes to truly understanding the medieval times, or any subject matter.
“There’s a really big line between history and archaeology,” Fleming said. “I want to move that line, and the only way I think to do that isn’t to read archaeology or for archaeologists to read historians, but for us to actually write stuff together. Fight it out, figure out what we’re doing before we get it on the page, and I think that might help move the conversation in different ways.”
She remarked that a move toward interdisciplinary study was a trend not just in her work, but in research in general and also in the curriculum at BC, noting that the proposed revisions of the core placed a much greater focus on classes that cross disciplines.
“A lot of the lines between disciplines were drawn in the 18th or 19th century,” she said. “They were great lines for then, but they’re not such great lines for us, and you can just feel it if you’re an active researcher. The chemists feel it, the biologists feel it, we feel it.”
She believes that incorporating this philosophy into the undergraduate courses is essential because it distinguishes a college education from a high school education by making it not just more in-depth but also more sophisticated and cutting-edge, introducing students at a young age to the ways that the innovative thinkers of our time are approaching issues.
Fleming also believes strongly that to find success like she has, the key is to focus on those things about which one is passionate.
“It doesn’t matter what you study—if you’re engaged in it, you’re going to do better,” she said. “So don’t major in ‘X’ just because you think it’s going to get you a job. You’re much better off doing something that you love. And think outside the box. Say, you know I’m interested in biology and I’m interested in history, and go do something about it.”