Cuttino Award recognizes Flueckiger’s long legacy of mentorship

By Senta Scarborough | Emory Report | May 11, 2020

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Since arriving at Emory in 1992, religion professor Joyce Flueckiger has nurtured rigorous scholarship and mentorship in students, faculty and others. Her dedication was honored with the George P. Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring.

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When then-Emory undergraduate Harshita Mruthinti Kamath visited the Asian Studies table during orientation, she was immediately impressed by the infectious enthusiasm of the woman who would become her mentor and adviser, Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger.

Kamath was not alone. Flueckiger has made a positive impression on so many people over the years that she was named the 2020 recipient of the George P. Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring. Established in 1997 by John T. Glover 68C in honor of late Emory history professor George Peddy Cuttino, the award celebrates exemplary mentorship. This is Flueckiger’s second award in 2020; she also received the Emory Women of Excellence Award for Mentoring. 

“These awards honor relationships that have been life-giving to me,” says Flueckiger, professor of religion and a past recipient of the Emory Williams Teaching Award. “I have learned so much with students. They are my lifeblood.”

A consultant for acquisitions for Emory’s Carlos Museum’s Asia Collection, Flueckiger is best known for her cultural study of everyday religious rituals and healing practices with a focus on gender in Muslim and Hindu traditions in India. She has written four books; a fifth is in-press and she is working on her sixth. 

Flueckiger has tirelessly planted the seeds of rigorous scholarship and mentorship since arriving at Emory in 1992. She says her “joy comes from watching her students find positions where they can thrive.”

Her mentor lineage is impressive: Fulbright scholars, an assistant professor who won her own university’s top mentoring award and an Emory endowed professorship, the Visweswara Rao and Sita Koppaka Professorship in Telugu Culture, Literature and History. 

Kamath, the first recipient of the Koppaka professorship, says Flueckiger has “birthed a new generation” of scholars following the same student commitment. “Mentoring is a labor you often don’t get thanked for,” she says. “Joyce never expects anything and does it because she wants to.” 

Flueckiger first mentored Kamath as an adviser on her undergraduate thesis and later as her PhD adviser. Then she helped secure the funding for Kamath’s endowed position.

They co-taught one of Flueckiger’s most popular classes, “Dance and Embodied Knowledge in the Indian Context,” where students learn Hindu mythologies of dance, Indian aesthetic theories and performance theory. They then learn to dance from a professional Kuchipudi dancer. Flueckiger’s mentees have replicated the class at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and the University of Miami.

Mentoring beyond the college years 

What sets Flueckiger apart is her approach of teaching and mentoring the “whole person,” something that is shaped, in part, by her study of ethnography. She instills, and is willing to talk about, the importance of work-life balance.

For example, when two graduate students arrived from India last fall, Flueckiger — without prompting — arranged for their airport pick-up, took them grocery shopping, helped them get American phones and helped them furnish apartments during their first days in the new country. 

“I have tremendous respect and affection for her,” says Deborah Lipstadt, the 2019 Cuttino winner and renowned Emory Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies. “I’m impressed by the way she cares about her students and is a really productive scholar. She is what Emory wants when it talks about scholars, teachers, mentors — she’s the whole package.” 

Flueckiger’s mentorship, however, extends far beyond student years. One of her mentees, Jenn Ortegren, is now an assistant professor at Middlebury College and models her own mentoring process after Flueckiger’s. 

“She usually returns a draft of writing within a day — sometimes late at night when it is clear that she has stayed up reading — and she reads the sixth draft with the same enthusiasm and attention to detail as the first,” Ortegren wrote in her nomination letter. “She is tireless in this commitment, which is to say that Joyce does what most graduate students would describe as ideal in a mentor.”

Flueckiger is the recipient of Fulbright and American Institute of Indian Studies research grants, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Humanities. She mentors both students and colleagues in grant writing.

When two graduate students faced losing funding, Flueckiger “called up the national grant agency to fight and make sure we got to keep the grants. If you need something to be done, she will be your advocate,” says Kamath.

Her generosity extends beyond students and co-workers. She has advised on program proposals involving India for provosts, deans and presidents of Emory. “Her fingerprints are all over this university in so many good ways,” Lipstadt says.

Passing along her mentor’s lessons 

Flueckiger’s path to teaching at Emory wasn’t straightforward. With a PhD in South Asian languages and literatures, she was turned down for several Hindi language positions before she began conducting research with Amma, a female Muslim healer with the formal name Rukhiya Bi Qadari. This collaboration eventually led to Flueckiger being hired in the religion department at Emory and her award-winning book, In Amma’s Healing Room: Gender and Vernacular Islam in South India.

Telling the story of her circuitous route to a position that draws on her passions for ethnography is part of Flueckiger’s mentoring. 

“The kind of research my graduate students and I do depends on maintaining healthy relationships,” she says. “I learned from Amma about how to care for relationships. She taught me so much about how to be in the world.”

Flueckiger credits Amma’s mentorship with learning the importance of listening, a trait her students also see in her.

“Despite her extensive knowledge, Flueckiger is always eager to learn something new from her students’ own experience,” former student and Elon University associate professor of religious studies Amy Allocco, who last year won her school’s top mentoring award, wrote in her nomination letter. “Her attitude inspires confidence and ownership among her students,” she says.

Flueckiger plans to retire next year and will finish her book about immigration and belonging in the Himalayan hill station where she grew up in India. To current and future students, she offers the same advice for success she has followed herself: “It takes patience, serendipity and the flowering of seeds planted a long time ago.”