"Liberate your imagination."

Dagmawi Woubshet

Associate Professor, Department of English

Ethiopia, 1989: the Communist regime was beginning to crumble; schools were shut down. That proved the last straw for the parents of Dagmawi Woubshet, who deeply valued education.

Woubshet arrived in the United States at age 13, knowing very little English. He credits Cornell alum Toni Morrison, along with other African-American authors, for enabling him to adopt his new language with pride. “I found myself corroborated in their writing,” he explains. Reading Morrison and others gave him his entry into literature and helped lead him to becoming a literature professor.

“Because of my own background, I’m attuned to the different experiences that students bring to the table and also to the range of intellectual interests that they bring into the classroom,” says Woubshet.

As a man of two cultures, it’s natural that Woubshet works at intersections: between African American studies and gender and sexuality studies, between the relationship between African-American studies and African studies, and between sexuality and race.

He found his academic home at Cornell in the English department, which he came to nine years ago directly from graduate school. “Cornell English has been a prized department in the humanities so I was very fortunate to come here,” says Woubshet, an associate professor.

“The department is an alive and dynamic place to think and work. It’s enabled me to hone my teaching and writing skills, and my voice as a scholar and intellectual.” The interdisciplinary programs in the College of Arts & Sciences have also had a major impact on Woubshet’s work; he has close ties with the Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies program and the Africana Studies and Research Center. “My growth as a scholar and my teaching have benefitted from the interdisciplinary programs that the college fosters,” he says. “The institutional mechanisms are there for a scholar who is interested in connecting different fields of inquiry.”

The university is the last remaining utopia, says Woubshet, quoting Edward Said, because “here you have extraordinary diversity in intellectual interest as well as personal background, because students come here from all over the world and from different corners of the U.S., creating racial, gender, sexual, economic, regional and national diversity. The classroom then becomes a microcosm of a genuinely diverse world. To be surrounded, to think and to live in that environment is an exciting thing.”

“Sometimes I envy students,” adds Woubshet. “I wish I could be a student all over again. The wide range of courses that are offered in the College, the number of majors and minors, is simply impressive.”

As a mentor, Woubshet says his goal is to enable students to discover their own original thoughts. “If they come with a thought that’s inchoate and if by the time they leave that idea is tangible, precise, I think we’ve achieved our purpose and goal indeed.”

Woubshet says teaching is a two-way relationship that provides benefits to teachers as well as students. Teaching, he says, sharpens his thinking, and he describes the seminars he’s taught as a kind of intellectual laboratory. “My students would say, ‘I’m not buying this,’ or ‘Prof. Woubshet, what do you mean by that?’ 'Can you elaborate or contextualize your point?' ” he explains. “Because of that kind of deep and critical thinking and honing of ideas, my undergraduate and graduate students have been responsible for enabling me to be a better thinker.”

 

On a Liberal Arts Education

The liberal arts give you the resources to liberate your imagination, to think critically about the world in which we live, and to develop a self-critical temperament. A liberal arts education can set you up for any profession, but more importantly it gives you the tools to be a responsible citizen in the world. It helps you learn how to navigate your own life and how to conduct an ethical life.

A liberal arts education gives you the tools to be a critical thinker and that’s not just something that’s essential for a literary scholar, it’s a skill that has purchase in the world of business, in medicine, in diplomacy. Especially in the world we live in now with so much strife, the liberal arts education one receives will be instrumental in solving the pressing issues that we face around the globe.

 

Advice to a First Year Student

Be curious. Be unconventional. Take risks. Part of the advantage and the pleasure of being an undergraduate in our college is you have time for exploration before you decide what you want to do -- so be unconventional, take risks, and explore all the riches that the college offers. College is a place where you can reinvent yourself without any judgment. Be intellectually daring, be curious but also don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself in the company of other very bright young people as your cohort, with access to world renowned scholars and facilities.

 

Advice to an Incoming Grad Student

Read widely, expansively. Graduate course work is the time for experimentation, to read widely, and to broaden and deepen one's intellectual interests  -- at least this is how I came to literary studies. I was a history and political science major, but I was curious about how other disciplines, both in the humanities and the social sciences, were thinking about world affairs and human character. One is able to glean insights from these other disciplines. So my advice to a grad student, say in English, would be to take a course in political theory. Take a course in religious studies. Or the classics -- even if you’re a contemporary thinker you never know how that will inform, indirectly, your own particular inquiry. So be curious; don’t narrow your field of vision but think more capaciously, expansively.

When you’re a graduate student, especially early on, your responsibility is to yourself and to expanding your knowledge base. Professionalization matters, but as a mentor I want to stress something else in order to first enable students to discover and develop their own original thoughts. If they come with a thought that’s inchoate and if by the time they leave that idea is tangible, precise, I think we’ve achieved our purpose and goal indeed.

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