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Meet the New Faculty

In fall 2021 we welcome a large and exciting cohort of new faculty—virtually a dream team—who are bringing their expertise and energy to every department in the School of Communication. This is probably the most diverse group of hires the school has ever assembled, a monumental step toward achieving Dean Johnson’s goal of greater representation and equity among faculty and, in turn, the student body. Get to know the newest members of our community, and keep an eye out for more exciting changes to come.

Tenure-track Faculty

Nadine George-Graves

Nadine George-Graves will chair the Department of Performance Studies with a joint appointment in the Department of Theatre as Northwestern’s Naomi Willie Pollard Professor.

“I’ll be coming ‘home’ to Northwestern after receiving my interdisciplinary PhD in theatre and drama in 1998. I’m excited to be leading the performance studies department, which is at the forefront of critical research in performance theory and devised performance for meaningful impact,” says George-Graves, who serves as executive co-editor of Dance Research Journal and is a past president of the Congress on Research in Dance. “Together with a joint appointment in the theatre department, I believe I’ve found a home for all aspects of my work as an artist, scholar, and administrator. I’m honored to be joining the distinguished faculty in both departments. My hire is a part of a ‘dream team’ hire with several other leading artists and scholars dedicated to research in theater, dance, race, gender, and performance studies. The possibilities for the future are endless!”

George-Graves previously chaired the dance department at Ohio State University and has also taught at Yale University and the University of California, San Diego. Her work focuses on the intersections of African American studies, critical gender studies, performance studies, theatre history, and dance history. She has written The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville: The Whitman Sisters and the Negotiation of Race, Gender, and Class in African American Theater, 1900–1940 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000) and Urban Bush Women: Twenty Years of Dance Theater, Community Engagement, and Working it Out (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010), in addition to editing The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theater (2017), a collection of border-crossing scholarship on embodiment and theatricality.

Moya Bailey

Moya Bailey joins the school as an associate professor of communication studies. Previously an assistant professor in Northeastern University’s cultures, societies, and global studies department and its women’s, gender, and sexuality studies program, Bailey is the digital alchemist for the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network and the board president of Allied Media Projects, a Detroit-based movement media organization that supports a growing network of activists and organizers.

Her work focuses on marginalized groups’ use of digital media to promote social justice and how race, gender, and sexuality are represented in media and medicine. Looking forward to continuing her work at the School of Communication, she says, “I am so excited to start my lab, the Digital Apothecary, where I see myself and collaborators creating the online salves and medicines that make our collective experiences of the internet more just.”

Author of Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance (NYU Press, 2021), she also coauthored #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice (MIT Press, 2020). For the 2020–21 academic year she was an MLK Visiting Scholar at MIT. Bailey holds a PhD from Emory University.

Melissa Blanco Borelli

Melissa Blanco Borelli joins the school as an associate professor of theatre and the new director of the dance program. A writer, dancer, and cultural critic, she was previously a senior lecturer in dance in the drama and theatre department at Royal Holloway, University of London.

“My research interests include Blackness in Latin America, critical dance studies, popular dance on screen, feminist ethnography, auto-ethnography, and feminist historiography,” says Blanco Borelli. “I most recently finished a UK Arts and Humanities Research Council–funded grant project that focused on embodied performance practices, memory, and archives. We worked with Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities affected by the Colombian armed conflict and created a web-based digital archive that features their worldmaking creative practices.”

Blanco Borelli holds a BA in music and international relations from Brown University, an MA in communications management from the University of Southern California, and a PhD in dance history and theory from the University of California, Riverside. As she begins her time at Northwestern, Blanco Borelli says, “I am excited about expanding the ways in which the study of dance in the classroom and the studio aligns with our contemporary moment where social media, social justice, and global embodied knowledge shape the way we experience the world.”

Marisha Speights Atkins

Marisha Speights Atkins comes to Northwestern as an assistant professor and the director of the new Pediatric Speech Technologies and Acoustics Research Lab (PedzSTAR) in the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Her research focuses on testing automated methods of tracking acoustic vocal biomarkers for the early detection of speech disorders in young children.

Collaborating with computer and data scientists who specialize in machine learning, she works to develop innovative computer-based approaches for classifying children with articulatory difficulties. Her lab also conducts research on aspects of articulatory and acoustic phonetics, child speech production, and listeners’ speech perception to develop software tools for quantitative screening of developmental speech disorders and assessment of decreased speech intelligibility. Atkins earned her PhD at the University of Cincinnati.

“I’m looking forward to building new relationships with exceptionally talented colleagues and students,” she says. “I hope for rich collaborations, exciting new projects, and fun adventures in the Chicago area.”

Dotun Ayobade

Dotun Ayobade, an assistant professor of performance studies and African American studies,

researches how embodied forms of popular culture shape the meaning of community, justice, and activism in postcolonial West Africa.

“It is a delight to be resuming a dual appointment at Northwestern,” says Ayobade. “My work in performance theory, critical ethnography, African popular culture, and feminist theory has been shaped by Northwestern scholars, many of whom have worked at the intersection of African American studies and performance studies. I am excited about teaching and mentoring students as well as collaborating with Northwestern faculty who push the boundaries and excavate the intersections of these fields.

“These two programs not only boast distinguished histories in their respective fields but have also continued to chart new and innovative paths in the humanities more broadly. The active and ongoing partnerships between these programs, as well as the robust activity around Africa, made a compelling case for joining Northwestern. I’m genuinely thrilled about the opportunity to contribute to the University’s community of learners, thinkers, and creators.”

Ayobade is currently working on the first book-length study of the storied lives of Nigeria’s Afrobeat Queens, an iconic collective of women who supported the activism of famed Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. Slated for publication by Indiana University Press and tentatively titled The Afrobeat Queens: Gender, Play, and the Making of Fela Kuti’s Music Subculture, the work examines how the Afrobeat women fashioned performance strategies to negotiate agency and visibility when confronted with authoritarianism and social rebuke. Ayobade’s research for the book earned him a Salomon Faculty Research Award as a faculty member at Brown University as well as a 2014–15 Graduate School Named/Endowed Continuing Fellowship at the University of Texas at Austin, where he received his PhD and also taught.

Tracy Conner

Also joining us this fall is Tracy Conner, whose arrival has been previously publicized.

Tracy Conner, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders, is an interdisciplinary linguist who combines theories and methodologies from formal and socio-linguistics as well as sociology and psychology to address issues of linguistic (in)justice and (in)equity. As an experimental syntactician, Conner studies the syntax and morphosyntax of African-American English and ellipsis phenomena. She’s interested in how theoretical descriptions of dialects of English can be extended to impact broader areas such as education, speech pathology and social justice for dialect speakers. A new stream of research focuses on describing the linguistic properties of gaslighting using tools from semantics and pragmatics as well as theories of language and power.

Joining the faculty in January

Tommy DeFrantz

Tommy DeFrantz, professor of theatre and performance studies, comes to Northwestern from Duke University, where he has been professor and chair of African and African American studies and professor of dance. Previously he served on the faculty at MIT, where he chaired the program in women’s and gender studies and led the concentration in physical imagination. He holds a PhD from New York University.

“I focus on dance, live-processing interfaces, and African American cultural formations,” says DeFrantz. “I also direct a research laboratory, SLIPPAGE:Performance|Culture|Technology, that explores emerging technologies in performance. The lab embraces a value system of antiracist, protofeminist, queer-affirming method to construct alternative models of history. I’m excited to bring the laboratory into residence at Northwestern University.”

DeFrantz’s books include The Routledge Companion to African American Theater and Performance (with Renee Alexander Craft, Kathy Perkins, and School of Communication emerita professor Sandra Richards); Choreography and Corporeality: Relay in Motion (with Philipa Rothfield); Black Performance Theory: An Anthology of Critical Readings (with Anita Gonzalez); Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance; and Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture. He has served as president of the Society of Dance History Scholars and as a consultant for the Smithsonian Museum of African American Life and Culture, where he contributed concept and voiceover for a permanent installation on Black social dance that opened with the museum in 2016.

Also hired this year for fall 2023 is Mercedes Spencer, who will join the communication sciences and disorders faculty. Stay tuned for her introduction.

Non-tenure-track Faculty

Kent R. Brooks

Kent R. Brooks is an assistant professor of instruction for the school at large and the director of Northwestern’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. A BMI-affiliated composer, he is a two-time recipient of the Waljo Gospel Music Award. Brooks was commissioned to compose and perform “Heal the Land,” the theme for the Raleigh-Durham area’s first observance of the Black Churches Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS. In 1999 he assembled a 200-voice choir to perform “Let Your Dreams Take Flight,” the theme for the Special Olympics World Games. The following year saw the premiere of his string quintet A Prelude for Spirituals and his Fanfare for Celina, which opened the inaugural International Igor Stravinsky Festival at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned his master’s degree in 2000. For four seasons Brooks performed annually with the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra as chorus master and arranger for its annual community gospel concert. In 2008 the GSO performed his original gospel ballad You Are My Everything. For the Springfield (Ohio) Arts Council he served as music director for productions of the musicals Footloose in 2013 and Grease in 2014. Before coming to Northwestern, Brooks was the director of worship for High Street United Methodist Church in Springfield, Ohio, and taught music at Wittenberg University. He transcribes and arranges for the Gospel Music Workshop of America, the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, and the Hampton University Church Music Conference.

David Chavannes

David Chavannes is an assistant professor of instruction in the radio/television/film department’s MA program in sound arts and industries and the theatre department’s music theatre program. He holds a doctorate in Africana studies and ethnomusicology from the University of Pennsylvania and master’s degrees in choral conducting and collaborative piano from the University of Kansas and University of Maryland, respectively. Chavannes blends music and sound performances to animate and interrogate histories of race, gender, sexuality, immigration, and knowledge. He recently received a grant from the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation to complete his dissertation, which responds to the ecological and sociopolitical legacies of British colonialism in the Caribbean by revealing a speculative narrative through fragments of sound and text. His fields of expertise include archival and oral history, Black queer and Black feminist theory, and LGBTQ+ studies as well as music composition, education, and performance.

Derrick Fields

Derrick Fields joins the radio/television/film department as an assistant professor of instruction. A 3-D artist and game designer, he worked as the lead artist at Uplift Games, a remote-first game studio that developed Adopt Me, the most-played game on the popular Roblox platform. In his work and art, Fields focuses on creating narratives at the intersection of African American and Japanese culture. A graduate of Kent State University, he is currently creating Onsen Master, a game described as a combination of the anime movie Spirited Away and the beloved time-challenged team game Overcooked.

Rick Incorvati

Rick Incorvati is a professor of instruction and adviser in the communication studies department. Previously he was a professor of English at Wittenberg University, where he taught courses on British romanticism, gender-queer literature, and social advocacy writing. He has edited playwright and social reformer Thomas Holcroft’s novels Manthorn and Alwyn, the Gentleman Comedian. Incorvati’s article on Holcroft and rhetoric appears in Reviewing Thomas Holcroft. Winner of the Barbara Klass Sokol Progressive Activism Award, the Lillian Franklin Diversity Award, and the Lou Laux Environmental Sustainability Award, Incorvati earned his PhD in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

E. Debbie Lee

Debbie Lee is a pediatric speech-language pathologist and learning disabilities specialist. She has extensive experience in public and private schools and in home-based private practice.  Debbie’s primary areas of interest include speech, language, and learning in preschool and school-aged children and the role of schools in providing excellent, equitable support for all children. In addition, Debbie is passionate about the importance of school-based speech-language pathologists as agents of change in schools.


Kirstyn Sunday

Kirstyn Sunday joins the communication sciences and disorders department as clinical assistant professor of instruction. After earning a master’s degree in communication sciences and disorders at the University of Florida in 2018, she completed her clinical fellowship and began her career at the University of Wisconsin Voice and Swallow Clinic. Her clinical interests focus on adult dysphagia evaluation and management. Sunday provides care to a variety of patient populations in inpatient settings, with a particular interest in voice and swallow rehabilitation for the head and neck cancer population.