The 54th annual class of Watson Fellows come from 21 U.S. states and eight countries and will pursue unique research projects around the world in the coming year. Among them are two Amherst seniors. Read on to find out where Adebola Oshipitan ’22 and Teo Ruskov ’22 will travel, and how their fellowships will enable them to explore.

Adebola Oshipitan ’22: “Negrophilia: How Blackness Is ‘Loved’ Around the World”

Adebola Oshipitan
“Black culture is loved while Black society is feared and hated.” That’s how Adebola Oshipitan ’22 summarizes the paradox of negrophilia, the phenomenon he will examine through his Watson Fellowship. He plans to spend the year “exploring how the fascination for Black popular culture contrasts with the treatment and appreciation of Black people within various global communities.”

Because the term negrophilia was first coined to describe Black-influenced dance and fashion trends in 1920s Paris, and because Paris has a reputation as a refuge for African American creatives such as James Baldwin and Josephine Baker, Oshipitan will spend time in the City of Light. Working with the Wells International Foundation, he hopes to make connections with Black communities in France and curate online content to help U.S. college students discover the contemporary African diaspora there. 

As with Paris, many famous African Americans—among them Langston Hughes, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington—have written about their observations of Italian culture. Oshipitan says he became interested in visiting Italy because “I knew they had a history of fascism, and fascism is rooted in nationalism and white supremacy within the Western context.” He has been invited to join Sulla Razza, an Italian podcast that focuses on racism and interviews people of color about their experiences in the country.

Also on Oshipitan’s itinerary is Japan. “I took three years of Japanese in high school,” he says, which ignited his curiosity about “how the West informed Eastern culture on how they saw Blackness and Black people.” He will observe the shifting ways in which Blackness is portrayed and perceived, both positively and negatively, in anime and other media. His contacts in the country include an African American organization called Legacy Foundation Japan, Rikkyo University lecturer Warren Stanislaus and Japan Times columnist Baye McNeil.

South Korea is another Asian society that has a fascination with Western Black culture: Oshipitan points out, in his Watson application, how Korean rappers often appropriate Black fashions and hairstyles and African American Vernacular English, and how some even appear in blackface and use racial slurs. He has “connected with visual ethnographer Dr. Michael Hurt, who documents subcultures in Seoul, and Asian Boss, a media company that bridges social and cultural gaps between Asia and the West” to help him examine negrophilia in Korea, and he hopes to learn more about it through interviews with people who live there.

Negrophilia is not just the subject of his Watson project—it’s also the focus of a Special Topics course he’s taking with Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology Rebecca Totton. Oshipitan is a psychology major who has worked with Harvard researchers to study the use of psychedelics in the treatment of mental illness. He’s also pre-med, having served as an EMT during the COVID pandemic in his hometown of Chicago. His other passions include music production and photography, and he foresees his Watson year inspiring him to “make a documentary or write a book,” he says, adding that he’s establishing a presence on YouTube “so I can capture my experience and all the interviews that I conduct.”

Teo Ruskov ’22: “Accents and Expression: Pronunciation in Context” 

Teo Ruskov ’22
“What is ‘correct pronunciation’? More interestingly, when can one say that their pronunciation is ‘good enough’?” asks Teo Ruskov ’22 in his Watson Fellowship application. The answer, he argues, depends upon the person and the context: who is learning a language, how and why. He will spend his fellowship year “using pronunciation as a lens through which to explore various religious, political, economic and cultural realities.”

Having immigrated to the United States from Bulgaria with his parents at the age of 4, Ruskov grew up experiencing “all sorts of little embarrassments about pronouncing things improperly, or not saying things the right way, or not being enthusiastic enough about learning Bulgarian,” he says. So, in devising his Watson project, he “was really interested in finding a large community of second-generation immigrants” like himself. He plans to spend time amid one such community in London, at the Shree Ghanapathy Temple, a space dedicated not only to Hindu religious ceremonies but also to keeping children connected to their South Asian heritage and language. “I’d like to catalog an audio library of singing, chanting, speaking and pedagogy across all parts of the temple.”

Ruskov also intends to bring recording equipment to Benares in northern India. There he will take classical Indian singing lessons with renowned vocalist Devashish Dey and work with Vedic-priest-turned-music-educator Hari Paudyal to practice the strict articulations and pronunciations required for devotional chanting, a tradition in which “a ‘perfect’ Sanskrit verse” is presumed to have “the power to actually, materially, shape the physical world,” Ruskov explains. 

And how is pronunciation taught and judged when immigrants are required by law to learn the language of their new home country? Ruskov will seek answers to this question through volunteer work in a government-sponsored Swedish-instruction program at the Folkuniversitetet in Stockholm.

A religion major and Meiklejohn Fellow from Cumming, Ga., Ruskov is no stranger to language learning. In addition to speaking English and Bulgarian, and serving as a Bulgarian conversation partner at the Five College Center for World Languages, he’s studied French in Lausanne, Switzerland, and has intermediate skills in Russian. (His Watson proposal initially included time at a Buryat Buddhist monastery in Siberia, but the Russia–Ukraine war has made that infeasible.) His academic interest in South Asian religions, especially in the aesthetic aspects of Buddhism, has led him to study the liturgical languages Sanskrit and Pali.

Ruskov intends to pursue this interest through a Ph.D. program and to become a professor. But his Watson year will come first, because “it was really important to me not to go into graduate school with just a lot of textual studies under my belt,” he says. “The most exciting thing for me is going to places and actually having experiences.”