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Ralph Litzinger, Ph.D.

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


Ralph Litzinger is an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Duke. He received his Bachelor’s degree from Evergreen State College and his Master’s and Ph.D. from The University of Washington.

His research focuses on nationalism, ethnicity, and post-socialism in China. Throughout his time at Duke, Litzinger has been intent on raising the university's profile in China. He directed the Duke Engage Migrant Education project, a ten-week immersive project at a middle school for the children of migrant workers in Beijing.

Recently, Litzinger’s work has focused on advocacy work surrounding the environment and migrant labor education. He has published numerous essays on anti-dam protests in China, the privatization of nature, and self-immolation as a form of protest among Tibetans. His publication “Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet” was one of the most downloaded articles from The Society of Cultural Anthropologists.

On Mentoring

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

Becoming a good mentor requires years of work, of self-cultivation, of learning how to listen and notice. Balancing the art of critical feedback and care takes years of work and self-reflection. Good mentors must also be attentive to the fact that our students come from very different backgrounds, from different racial, ethnic, gender, non-binary, and social classes, with different skills and insights that are not always measured by grades or class performance. I have had students who grew up in nomadic families on the grasslands of Tibet, students from rural North Carolina, and students from extremely wealthy families. There is ultimately no correct mentoring style for everyone.

Who are some good mentors you have had, and are there mentoring practices or traits from them that you have tried to incorporate into your own approach to mentoring? 

I have had extraordinary mentors at Duke. And yet, as an anthropologist, some of my best mentors have been colleagues in China, from Tibetan Buddhist monks to environmental activists to teachers running non-profit schools for migrant kids from the countryside. From them, I learned that mentoring takes enormous labor and sacrifice and that failure is more common than success. The Duke students who I have taken overseas bring to their work purpose and ambition, and the will to get things done, now! This is why we love them. But, in these other contexts, away from the university, I have tried to teach them to slow down, to notice different temporalities and ways of being in the world. I’ve tried to teach the value of deaccelerating, shifting one’s expectations, and adapting to ever-changing and uncertain circumstances.

How have you evolved as a mentor compared to when you first started mentoring? 

I came to Duke directly out of graduate school. When I arrived, I was made director of undergraduate studies. I also started our department’s first focus program at that time and lived with my students in Wilson Dorm as faculty-in-residence. I honestly didn’t know what I was doing. Fortunately, I had good mentors in those early years, who were gentle and constructive in their advice and criticisms. These early experiences shaped my mentoring skills as I moved through my career. I learned to be a better listener, to encourage students to take risks with new kinds of courses and endeavors outside of the university, but to also remember, no matter what they pursued, that a Duke education is a profound privilege that should never be taken lightly.


Excerpts from Litzinger's nomination

“I am grateful for a mentor like Ralph who was able to model the seriousness of the work, but also how to maintain a sense of humor and humility in the process.”

“A crucially enabling feature of his mentoring style that perhaps surprises his mentees derives from his own history of activism and advocacy work out in the world. He shows students ‘how to move through concerns rather than just sit in them.’”

“During my master’s program, he fervently encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology upon recognizing my passion and dedication to this academic field. As I navigated my application process, I was fortunate to receive invaluable assistance and guidance from him.”