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Orin Starn

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring
Professor of Cultural Anthropology and History

Orin Starn


Orin Starn earned his B.A. at the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. from Stanford University. He worked for many years in Peru among other places and is the lead editor of the popular The Peru Reader. His other books include Ishi’s Brain (about the life of the last survivor of California’s Yahi tribe); The Passion of Tiger Woods (about the superstar golfer’s place in American culture); and The Shining Path (about a Peruvian guerrilla insurgency, with Miguel La Serna). He is currently doing research about the role of in our society, including working himself in an Amazon fulfillment center.

Starn has won Duke’s  undergraduate teaching award. He has chaired 25 doctoral committees, co-writing a book with one of his mentees. Many of his mentees have come from groups underrepresented in the academy, including many international students. He has served on graduate committees for students at Stanford, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and many Duke departments.


What do you think are the most important qualities of a good mentor for graduate students?

It’s as much as anything to be a good listener. Students have their own visions and ideas; sometimes they know a lot more than me. It’s not my job as an advisor to try to impose my agendas or steer their views, as was the case in the hoary old master-apprentice model of advising. I try to offer a sounding board, good advice, and to help students find out where they want to go—and get there.

How do you balance mentoring graduate students with all the other demands on faculty’s time?

Sometimes it feel like complaining about overwork is the favorite faculty sport, despite our many privileges. I actually feel we have plenty of time, at least once you’ve jumped through the tenure hoop. Mentoring can involve its fair share of grunt work like editing proposals and the like, , but you also learn a lot from students. I view it less as a demand than a pleasure for the intellectual exchange and getting to know terrific new people with great talents

The benefits of a mentoring relationship for the mentee are obvious, but what do you, as the mentor, gain from it?

Mentoring often leads into lifelong friendships. I’ve gotten to visit and reconnect with former students around the world—Taiwan, Turkey, Peru, Germany, Italy. And to mix work and pleasure I like to meet students in that classic old Durham spot, the Green Room for a beer and a game of pool.


Excerpts from Starn’s nomination

“Dr. Starn’s approach to mentorship always sought to affirm my full humanity, offering support through major life transitions, and modeling an inspiring work/life balance. Our interactions were always more than transactional — he shared stories about his family life and health challenges, humanizing his experiences in ways that shaped my own sense that my scholarship and personal life are deeply enmeshed in one another.”

“Professor Starn did not only make my transition and adjustment to the new environment very smooth he also supported me in diversifying and deepening my scholarly interests. By and large thanks to his support, I had an intellectually inspiring and perspective wise broadening graduate school experience.”

“For six years, Orin gave generously of his time, expertise, and wisdom. He answered every email within 24 hours (even while traveling for his own research, and amidst his own writing projects)—supporting me through constant engagement and check-ins.”