African American Studies (AFAM) was granted department status by a full-faculty vote on Dec. 4, 2018. The department will be making changes to its major requirements—affecting the class of 2023 and beyond—and has added a minor, which will be available to students this spring.
In addition to these changes, AFAM has hired a new professor, Kaisha Esty, who focuses on gender and African American women’s history. The department is currently searching for an African American literature professor, with candidates delivering on-campus lectures beginning Jan. 29.
Departmentalization is expected to help fix previous issues related to staffing in the program, as well as demonstrate the University’s commitment to African American studies and the growing relationship between the University and the department.
“[Departmentalization] makes me feel like I’m a peer to more established disciplines, like history, literature, or government, and that recognition is important and it is substantial, but it is not necessarily sufficient,” Professor of African American Studies Khalil Johnson said. “We’re a very small group, we’ll be a small group with new hires, but ultimately to be strong enough to sustain ourselves and our students, we’ll probably need even more commitments from the university in terms of new faculty.”
In the past 30 years, AFAM has lost 10 faculty members to other institutions or Wesleyan programs. Currently, the only two professors in the department are Johnson, who is the only full-time AFAM faculty member, and Professor of English and African American Studies Ashraf Rushdy, who is jointly appointed in both English and AFAM. This reliance on other departments’ staffing decisions weakened AFAM.
“When you lose people who are just excellent at what they do, it weakens the program and it makes people take a step back and think, ‘Well, maybe this isn’t something I want to spend one of my four, five credits on,’” Vanguard Fellow Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond ’19 said. “I think something the [department] has to do is sell people back on African American Studies because I feel like it has kind of been trivialized, and I partially hold the larger Wesleyan institution at fault for that. But I do think that African American Studies has been seen as something that you can easily double major in, or tangential to an academic experience as opposed to being a site of radical and really fundamental intellectual thought.”
Understaffing made it difficult to ensure that professors were available to teach the required courses for the curriculum. If a professor went on sabbatical, for instance, AFAM had to find someone to teach their course so that students could fulfill their major requirements. This shortage of faculty also posed obstacles to offering multiple courses on subtopics within the field. Talks of strengthening the African American studies curriculum at the University have been occurring since the Fisk Hall takeover of Feb. 1969, when a group of Black students shut down Fisk Hall with a list of demands for the University. Their demands led to the establishment of the Center for African American Studies and Malcolm X House, as well as the student-founded Ujamaa. AFAM was first offered as a major in 1984.
Since then, student protests—notably, a petition that coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Fisk takeover and the May 2014 campaign, #AFAMisWhy—have called for new faculty hires and University support for the program. Additionally, faculty work within the department laid the groundwork for the departmentalization process that formally began last July.
Provost Joyce Jacobsen formed a task force to understand what departmentalizing would mean for AFAM and how it would help the program. Jacobsen noted that last summer was an opportune time to propose departmentalization, as there was both a large hiring pool and a strong demonstrated interest in AFAM courses.
“We have theoretical and intellectual assets that we can bring to campus and, indeed, students across majors take our classes,” McAlister said. “We have students from every single discipline and tons of STEM students who take our classes.”
The task force was comprised of McAlister, Johnson, Dean of Social Sciences Marc Eisner, and Dean of Arts and Humanities Nicole Stanton, with Eisner and Stanton serving as the task force’s co-Chairs. They compared what other African American studies departments at similar universities looked like and how those structures could be adapted to serve Wesleyan’s unique needs. They then drafted a proposal for the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) requesting departmentalization for AFAM. After passing through the EPC, the proposal was approved by a full faculty vote on Dec. 4.
The department will begin offering a 100-level Introduction to African American Studies course as part of its new major requirements. Majors will also be required to take one 200-level-or-above African American history course, one 200-level-or-above African American or African diasporic literature course, one 200-level-or-above social science course, a junior colloquium, and two elective courses cross-listed with AFAM. Majors also choose a concentration of four courses according to a theme that comprise a coherent course of study, and majors must also fulfill a research component, for a total of 11 courses in the major. Students currently on the major track will continue with the previous requirements: one African American literature course, two African American history courses, a junior colloquium, and three elective courses cross-listed with AFAM.
For the minor, students will be required to complete five semester courses in or cross-listed with AFAM, three of which must be 200-level courses or above. Students must also complete one course in African American history or African American literature and the 100-level introductory course with a B- or better, once the 100-level course is offered. Until then, students may choose an alternative to the 100-level course in consultation with their advisor.
As the department evolves, it hopes to hire even more faculty and expand its focus on the African diaspora in addition to African American studies.
“We look forward to hiring additional faculty and to be able to really spread our wings and do the kind of intellectual work that needs to be done to understand race theory, the shifting nature of racial formations and racism, and still under-researched aspects of Black history in the Americas,” McAlister said.
McDuffie-Thurmond hopes that as the department hires new faculty, it is able to bring on more Black professors, as the Black professors who have left AFAM since 1989 took with them invaluable insights and presences in teaching African American studies.
“On a logical level, I think that it’s critical for students to have Black professors well represented within their departments,” McDuffie-Thurmond said. “It does important work in combating the violent notion that Anglo-Europeans have a monopoly on knowledge and its production, so having Black professors in the African American Studies Department has been a big personal emphasis of mine.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that departmentalization was to take effect on July 1, 2019, but departmentalization took effect on December 4, 2018, immediately after the full-faculty vote. In addition, Provost Jacobsen founded the AFAM task force, not Professor McAlister.
Jocelyn Maeyama can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.