African Studies professors push for program expansion

As administrators weigh the creation of a Modern Middle East major and South Asian Studies scholars experience their first year in the program, professors in African Studies are pushing for their own set of curricular changes and expansions.

With the blessing of Yale’s administration and funding from the Provost’s Office, African Studies professors and students have been meeting for several months to identify areas in the major to target for growth and improvement. The main complaints with the department are that there are too few courses, and the courses are too broad, administrators said. In December, members of Yale’s Council on African Studies — which functions as the program’s organizing body in lieu of an independent department — conducted round-table discussions with Africanists from universities nationwide to evaluate their respective programs.

The Council, housed in the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, will decide on their final recommendations by Feb. 1 and submit a report to the Provost’s Office by that month, anthropology professor Kamari Clarke told the News on Tuesday.

“All the indication from both the MacMillan Center and the Provost’s Office is that there’s tremendous support for this,” said Clarke, who teaches courses in African Studies. “I’m hopeful and I think we have the ear of the Yale administration right now.”

Clarke said part of the campaign will focus on attracting support and donations from foundations and individual philanthropists already doing work in Africa. The Council also plans to lobby administrators to make room for more faculty appointments in African Studies, which currently shares professors with departments such as economics, political science and anthropology.

“We’re desperately in need of more African Studies courses,” she said.

Clarke said the program at Yale, like many other area studies programs, arose originally out of a Cold War-era curricular trend that was chiefly organized around geographic distinctions such as sub-Saharan Africa or West Africa. Clarke said at the December meeting professors discussed themes that cross geographic boundaries.

“Focusing on religious movements was one of the early themes that came up,” Clarke said. “Another was thinking about questions having to do with the body and healing and death, but not in the typical AIDS-related way. People talked about performance art, music and forms of creativity.”

Political science and African Studies professor William Foltz, who is retired and plans to attend the Feb. 1 meeting as a non-voting member, said although the University is already strong in African Studies, some distinct improvements can be made.

“I don’t see a crying need, but I’m sure that particularly with more resources one can strengthen things very much,” Foltz said. “There’s an awful lot of strength throughout this University in African specialists. Look at the [Yale University] Art Gallery — the magnificent section given over to African art. Or the tropical epidemiologists working in the medical school. That’s where I’d like to see some money spent. I can think of a number of ways to spend a good bit of money responsibly.”

Semuteh Freeman ’08, who is a student representative on the Council, agreed with Clarke that more courses in the region are needed. Freeman said she thinks that as Yale looks to establish global connections in China and the Middle East, administrators and students should not overlook Africa.

“It hasn’t really been reached out to in terms of creating a program,” Freeman said. “[Students] should realize that there’s an entire continent and there’s so much to look at.”

For African Studies graduate student Andrew Offenburger GRD ’08, changes will hopefully lead to a stronger community of Yale’s Africanists.

“Because [African Studies] is an interdisciplinary program, the students are spread out in all different disciplines,” he explained. “A good thing about that first session [in December] and what will come out of the second [session in February] is that everyone will come together and we’ll see that we’re on the same page.”

African Studies Association President Paul Zeleza will speak at a public lecture Feb. 1, to be followed by Council meetings and working groups.

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