Renowned Poet and Scholar Elizabeth Alexander Joins Faculty

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Department of English and Comparative Literature is delighted to welcome Professor Elizabeth Alexander, accomplished poet, essayist, playwright and scholar, to the Department as the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities. “Professor Alexander brings a unique combination of talents to our department and to Columbia,” says Department Chair Sarah Cole, “She is best known as an eminent poet, whose richly distinctive voice is attuned to the history and present of African American experience. She is also a wonderful scholar of African American culture, thoroughly inter-disciplinary, and most recently the author of a moving and beautiful memoir. She joins a department where the study of African American and African Diasporic literature, history, and culture is paramount, and will add to a thriving conversation in these areas. We are thrilled for our students to have the chance to study with her and for all of us to get to know her as a new colleague in our community.” Professor David Madigan, Executive Vice President for Arts and Sciences and Dean of the Faculty, expressed enthusiasm for the hire: “Professor Alexander represents an extraordinary addition to our faculty and to the City of New York. Columbia's steadfast commitment to the humanities defines us and Professor Alexander's arrival strengthens us immeasurably. We are just delighted to welcome her to Morningside.”

Professor Alexander comes to Columbia from Yale University, where she was the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry and the former Chair of the African American Studies Department. Previously, she served as the inaugural Director of the Poetry Center at Smith College and taught at the University of Chicago, where she won the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. Her areas of scholarly expertise include African American poetry and performance, contemporary American literary and visual arts, and African diaspora cultural studies. She earned her B.A. in English at Yale University, her M.A. in Creative Writing at Boston University, and her Ph.D. in English at the University of Pennsylvania. She holds Honorary Degrees from Haverford College, Simmons College, and the College of St. Benedict. 

A prolific writer, Prof. Alexander has published six books of poetry, including The Venus Hottentot (1990), Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001), American Sublime (2005) and Crave Radiance (2010), a collection of new and selected poems. American Sublime (2005), one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, was named one of the American Library Association’s “Notable Books of the Year.”

 In 2009, Prof. Alexander composed and delivered “Praise Song for the Day” for the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Her critical essays are collected in The Black Interior (2004) and Power and Possibility (2007). Her play “Diva Studies” (1996) was produced at the Yale School of Drama.

Prof. Alexander’s recent memoir, The Light of the World, has just been released to great acclaim. 

Prof. Alexander has been recognized by numerous awards, including the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the George Kent Award, presented by Gwendolyn Brooks, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the inaugural Jackson Prize for Poetry.  

In accepting the position at Columbia, Professor Alexander says, “I am very excited, and honored, to be joining Columbia’s Department of English and Comparative Literature as a Mellon Professor. Joining a Department so committed to African diaspora cultural studies will enable me to build on the work I have done in African American studies and the arts during my 15 years at Yale and throughout my career. I am excited not only to learn from my brilliant new colleagues and students, but also to collaborate with fellow faculty in the School of the Arts. The Mellon Professorship uniquely encourages wide-ranging engagement across the University. I look forward to teaching working artists of various kinds, and to bringing conversations on the contemporary cultural scene to the new exhibition and performance space on 125th Street in Harlem. I am eager to see how my thinking, writing, collaborative ventures, and teaching will develop new facets and applications in the midst of the unique cultural vitality and political dynamism of Columbia University and New York City.”