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2012 Dean’s Award: Charles Piot

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring

Charles Piot, Professor of Cultural Anthropology, African & African American Studies and Women's Studies, received his B.A. in Religion from Princeton University and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Anthropology from the University of Virginia. He held teaching posts at the University of Virginia and the University of Colorado before coming to Duke University in 1993. During his nearly two-decade career at Duke, he has served as Faculty Director of the Duke in Ghana program, the Duke in Togo program, and the Reginaldo Howard Scholars program. Professor Piot's research focuses on the political economy and history of rural West Africa.

Professor Piot's nominators are awed by his outstanding mentorship and repeatedly stress the impact it has had on their intellectual growth. Two nominators cite his reputation for exceptional mentoring as one of the most critical factors in their decisions to pursue graduate study at Duke. One student recalls a conversation she had about Piot with a cultural anthropologist who received his Ph.D. at Duke: "‘You should go to Duke because you will not find a better Ph.D. adviser than Charlie,' he told me. He was right - and then some. I could not be happier that I chose Duke, and Charlie is the main reason why."

Professor Piot is known for his consistent responsiveness to his students and his tireless support of their research goals. When describing how Professor Piot's guidance helped him prepare a grant proposal for a multi-year research project, one of Piot's Ph.D. advisees notes, "The countless hours Professor Piot spent poring over every word of my less-than-readable proposals, the midnight phone conversations and brainstorming/editing sessions...all of this paid off when, [while I was] hanging out with friends at a local bar on a Friday night, Professor Piot called my cell phone and gleefully reported that I was to be the recipient of two prestigious research grants. Of course, Professor Piot characteristically downplayed the role he played, but I had the good sense to know that these awards would not have materialized had Professor Piot not given of himself to such an extraordinary extent during the preceding months and years."

This characterization highlights the quality that students mention often in their praise of Piot: his generosity. One Ph.D. candidate states outright that "Charlie is quite simply the most generous person I know." His students describe him as someone who is never too busy to edit a paper, offer feedback on a grant proposal, or help a student work through a challenging theoretical concept. "Charlie always makes time to read drafts of his students' and colleagues' work, or to help in any other way," writes one advisee. "In fact, though he is the busiest and most productive person I know, he is also the one who can most be counted on to say yes to an entreaty for help." His generous nature is complemented by his talent for guiding students down the sometimes intimidating path of independent research. As one student explains, "[H]e encourages his students to be fully independent in developing their ideas and projects while backing us up with complete support." Piot's astute guidance is attributable both to his concern for his students and the depth of his anthropological knowledge. Students praise and admire Professor Piot's ability to communicate this knowledge to others, calling him a "remarkably clear and brilliant teacher" who is "an expert at guiding students through the meanders of theory." A review of 2010 teaching evaluations shows Professor Piot ranked in the top 5% of all Duke undergraduate instructors. The first-rate educator is also a model of interdisciplinarity; in addition to working with students in the departments in which he teaches, Piot has served on the dissertation committees of students in English, History, Romance Studies, and Literature.

An essential hallmark of Piot's mentorship is his commitment to molding students into confident and successful educators. Relating how Piot has helped her structure her own course, one Ph.D. candidate writes, "We often sit and discuss strategies for helping students master the material and make it come alive. Sometimes I have questions about how best to respond to students with difficulties, and he always provides thoughtful ideas." And yet, Professor Piot understands that the classroom is only one venue in which an academic must develop a voice. He is an expert at creating alternate and crucial spaces of discourse for aspiring anthropologists, often organizing reading groups, arranging introductions between Ph.D. students and established scholars, or hosting gatherings where students can meet with colleagues and discuss ideas. His professional savvy is further evidenced by his assiduous efforts to prepare his students for the job market; he regularly helps them draft applications and frequently coordinates "practice" job talks where they can hone their interview skills.

Piot inspires his students not only through his mentoring and teaching, but also through a profound commitment to the Togolese community where he conducts much of his research. During the past thirty years, he has formed meaningful relationships with the people there and donates his book royalties to the community's development projects. In his commitment to scholarly excellence and concern for the well being of others, Professor Piot embodies the foundational values of an intellectually rigorous, humane, and transformative academia.