Courses on Africa dwindle

Rebecca Fabbro ’09 wanted to take a course in African history after years of studying the history of Western countries, but when she opened the Blue Book this semester, she was surprised to find “essentially nothing” that fit the bill, she said.

“There were [approximately] 10 courses on … lesbian and gay history, and so many courses on Jewish history,” Fabbro said. “It seemed to me that, while those are important things to study, entire continents get ignored.”

A shortage of African history classes is one of a number of gaps this semester in the African studies program, which has suffered from the departure or leave-taking of several affiliated professors this year. Some African studies majors said they have had trouble fulfilling program requirements, while history and anthropology majors said they have felt the absence of courses on Africa in their own fields.

The Anthropology Department lost two leading Africanists last semester. This semester the History Department is offering two high-level seminars on Africa, “Slavery and the Slave Trade in Africa” and “West African Islam: Religion and Public Policy,” but no introductory or lecture courses. Other areas of African studies have been affected as well — professor Charles Udry is unable to teach his usual economics course in the African studies program because of his responsibilities this semester as chair of the Economics Department.

“Some of the most senior people have retired, and that’s been a major loss,” said Ann Biersteker, director of undergraduate studies for the Council for African Studies.

Biersteker said she thinks the problem is not that too few courses are being offered this semester, but that the departure of so many professors has led to topical gaps in existing course offerings and has placed a strain on the remaining faculty.

“My feeling about it is that it’s not so much the absolute number of courses as the number of faculty members,” she said.

Branford College Dean Thomas McDow has taught a course listed in the African studies program in the past, but is taking a leave from instruction this semester to focus on writing. He said the departure of the professors, while regrettable, is part of the normal academic cycle.

“My feeling is that it’s just situational,” McDow said. “There’s no grand conspiracy.”

Biersteker said one of the problems confronting the African Studies program is that it has to rely on formal departments to hire replacements for departed professors, since it does not have that power as a non-departmental program.

History Department chair Paul Freedman said that because Michael Mahoney — one of two professors in his department who specialize in African history — is on leave, offerings are less plentiful than they have been in the past, but he expects the situation will be temporary.

“We regret it for this year, but it’s not part of a pattern,” he said. “It’s not from some policy of ours that we’re not interested in Africa.”

Students in the African studies major said fewer course offerings in certain concentrations within their program has made it difficult to fulfill their requirements.

Beth Dickinson ’07, an African and international studies double major, said she chose not to write an extended senior essay because the departure of so many professors made it difficult to find an adviser.

“It’s definitely a really big problem,” she said. “There just isn’t the staff to do that right now.”

Yoona Kim ’08, an African studies and ethics, politics and economics double major, said she is concerned that the dearth of survey courses will discourage students who have little knowledge of Africa from exploring the subject for the first time.

“I think the biggest problem with this semester is that there are no lecture courses,” she said. “For freshmen who are interested in African studies, I think the fact that there are no classes for them to take could deter them from the major.”

Yale’s Council for African Studies was recently declared a National Resource Center, and will receive funding from the U.S. Department of Education that it will use next semester to hire a faculty member. But because the program is not a department, it cannot make permanent appointments.

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