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2009 Dean’s Award: John D. French

May 12, 2009
John D. French

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring

John D. French received his B.A. in history from Amherst College, his M.A. from the University of Pittsburgh, and his Ph.D. from Yale University. He has been on the faculty at Duke as a scholar of Latin American history since 1992. Professor French has exercised a “hands-on mentoring style” that served as the example for mentoring guidelines issued by Duke's Department of History in 2005.

"What I believe sets John apart from other mentors is his commitment to fostering a supportive and nurturing community for Latin Americanist junior faculty and graduate students in our department. Although John is the senior Latin Americanist in the department, he is constantly looking for ways to bring faculty and graduate students together as both colleagues and friends. He understands that the most significant intellectual exchanges and personal connections often occur outside the classroom and realizes that it is critical for students to have networks of support and camaraderie throughout their graduate career. During my six years at Duke, John has hosted an annual end of the year dinner at his home, organized regular Friday night social events for Latin Americanist students and faculty, arranged mock job talks for students on the job market, and taken students out to dinner to celebrate personal and professional milestones. These events have allowed me to develop close relationships with all of the Latin Americanists in my department and sustained me during challenging periods in my graduate career."

John shares his time, wise guidance, and energy equitably with all students that are fortunate enough to have him as an advisor.

"Unlike most of John's mentees, I did not enter the department as one of his students or begin my graduate career as a Latin Americanist. Indeed, I entered the department with an interest in African-American history and planned to work with two other professors. However, when the two professors I came to work with both went on leave my first year, John voluntarily stepped in and served as my mentor throughout the year. Although John was not my official primary advisor at the time and I had not expressed any interest in studying Latin America, he still met with me on a regular basis to discuss my research interests, helped me to select appropriate classes, and supported me through the challenging transition from undergraduate to graduate work. When I decided to apply for a research grant to explore an MA thesis topic in the field of modern Caribbean History, John walked me through the complicated process of grant-writing and read at least half a dozen drafts of my proposal over a two-week period."

His hands-on style also extends to maintaining meaningful communication during seasons that take him away from campus.

"Although John was not in residence during my first year in the program, he made a special effort to communicate with me over telephone and e-mail to discuss class selection, paper topics, and grant proposals. Whenever he was in town, he set aside time to meet over coffee or a meal. These interactions cultivated a personal relationship of trust between us at this early stage in my graduate career. His dedication and careful guidance during this period led to my receiving several fellowships to support international travel for research and language study in the summer after my first year."

Nominators recognize and are able to articulate many aspects of excellence in mentoring because of the example they see in Professor French.

"Throughout my graduate career, John has demonstrated all of the characteristics of an exceptional mentor: he has been a knowledgeable academic advisor, enthusiastic student of history, an inspiring teacher, and a caring and trusted confidant. Although history is a discipline based on an apprenticeship model of graduate training, John French remains a rare jewel. He is both a respected scholar in the field of Latin American History and an acknowledged ‘model mentor' by students and colleagues across the university."