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Student Spotlight: Mark W. Deets

Mark W. Deets, History

What is your area of research? 

I study modern African history, focused on colonial and postcolonial (i.e. after 1850) Senegambia. My research studies the ways that people from Senegal’s Casamance region thought about space and place since 1885. I show that while postcolonial (i.e. after 1960) separatist elites counter-mapped certain social spaces as Casamançais “places” of familiarity and belonging against state cartographic practices, ordinary Casamançais did not always concur with this socio-cultural “mapping” of their territory. Rather, they thought of spaces like the river, the rice field, the school, the forest, and the stadium in their own, local terms.

Why is this research important? 

This research is important because it provides a new way for historians and policy professionals to think about social space. Because Casamançais linked their separatist nationalism to these social spaces the way they did, this research may provide us with new approaches to peace—not only peace in the Casamance where fighting resumed in 2006 and where we still lack a permanent peace accord – but in other places where socio-cultural identities may be up for contestation and negotiation. This research is also important because it demonstrates the power of ordinary people to shape their identities in ways that match their own values and interests in spite of the powerful influence of larger nationalist forces.

What inspired you to choose this field of study? 

I served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 20 years before starting my graduate studies at Cornell in 2010. From 2005 to 2007, I had the privilege of serving as the U.S. Defense and Marine Attaché to Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Cape Verde. A few weeks before I reported for duty at the U.S. Embassy in Dakar, the Government of Senegal and the Movement of Democratic Forces of the Casamance (known as the MFDC, its French acronym) signed a cease-fire in the separatist conflict that had crippled the region since 1982. As the U.S. Ambassador had helped to broker this cease-fire, I became involved in the process to reach a lasting peace as the Ambassador’s military representative to the Senegalese Armed Forces and Gendarmerie. At these meetings, I found it odd that no one ever pulled out a map to clearly delineate the MFDC’s territorial claim. What I heard instead was repeated references to cultural spaces where Casamançais identity was allegedly manifest in ways different from the Senegalese. Over time, these references added up to a discourse about familiarity and belonging in various natural and built spaces where people from the Casamance felt “Casamançais” and different from the Senegalese. Thus, I devoted a chapter to each of these spaces in my dissertation (titled Mapping a Nation: Space, Place and Culture in the Casamance, 1885-2014.): The River, The Rice Field, The School, The Forest, and The Stadium.

How else has your background as a Marine influenced your work at Cornell? 

I would not have come to Cornell if it were not for my military experience. From 2007 to 2010 (so, in between serving as the DATT in Dakar and retiring from the Marine Corps to come to Cornell), I taught history at my undergraduate alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy. I was planning on retiring from the military in 2010. I looked at various options, from serving in the State Department or with an NGO to entering the corporate world. But none of them matched the excitement I felt when I walked into the classroom and engaged with my students at the Naval Academy. I got a charge out of watching them become excited to learn about a part of the world that few of them knew much about before taking my course. Their experience matched mine to a certain degree, as I studied Africa for the first time in 2003 through the lens of national security for my first master’s degree at the Naval Postgraduate School. Thus, when a friend of mine among the faculty at Annapolis started talking about his graduate experience at Cornell, I took an interest. The rest, if you will forgive the pun, is history.

What else has influenced your thinking as a researcher or scholar? 

My advisors. I have had the great fortune to work with some of the finest scholars in the world here at Cornell. Judith Byfield, the chair of my dissertation committee, influenced my thinking in profound ways. She brought my attention to the ways power has been wielded by African nationalists over time and particularly to the people who have been marginalized in that process. As most nationalist leaders were men with formal—often missionary-provided—education, that left a lot of people out of “the nation”: animists, women, peasants, youth, and the illiterate masses of the postcolonial world. Thus, as I returned to Senegal and The Gambia for dissertation research in 2012 and 2014, I was keenly aware of the class differences between the elite people I had associated with as a diplomat and the peasants I hung out with (I partly based my research on 38 oral histories I collected during fieldwork) as an academic researcher. The other members of my committee—Sandra Greene, Ray Craib, and Ziad Fahmy—also influenced my research in profound ways. I could not have asked for a better group of mentors.

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree? 

It was a combination of factors. As an older graduate student with a family, I was drawn to the small-town yet multicultural atmosphere of Ithaca. Ithaca was also more affordable than Philadelphia or New York, where some of the other top-tier schools that I was considering were. Ithaca seemed like a good place to raise a family, and it has been. My family and I have been sad to be leaving the quality relationships and sense of community we have had here. We had some of that in the military, too, but this has been different, in a good way. To be honest, I was also drawn to Cornell by its Ivy League pedigree and the quality of the faculty in the History Department, especially in terms of African history. In my field, Judith Byfield and Sandra Greene are among the most highly regarded historians in the nation. Although I was intimidated at first, I knew that if I wanted to become one of the best, I had to work with the best. I have been grateful for that opportunity.

What’s next for you? 

I will be teaching African and World History at The American University in Cairo. We will land in Cairo in mid-August. Should be nice and toasty by then, especially after seven years of Ithaca weather. But I’m looking forward to the challenge and to the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way to the intellectual community of AUC.

Any advice for incoming graduate students who are also veterans? 

Yes. I would tell them to plug into the VA Healthcare System right away. I did not do that until after about five years at Cornell. I just used Cornell Health since it was easy and readily available. But vets need to get into the VA system as soon as possible to continue their record of service-related healthcare issues. I wish I would have learned that earlier. We are fortunate to have the VA Outpatient Clinic in Freeville. So, we have options nearby. If the clinic in Freeville cannot handle the issue, then we have the VA Hospital in Syracuse. I would also tell veterans to try to give something back to the veteran community if possible, whether it’s connecting with other vets through the Johnson School’s outreach to veterans, becoming part of the Cornell Team Red, White and Blue, or helping to run the Warrior-Scholar Program at Cornell. There are plenty of opportunities to give something back, and I found that reconnecting with other vets helped me as much as it helped them.

Interview by Sally Kral, communications and outreach assistant in the Graduate School