African Studies Council plans program overhaul

In response to continued criticism from students and faculty that the African Studies major curriculum is outmoded, the Council on African Studies has drafted a proposal to overhaul the major in the hopes of aligning it with current models of global study.

“The ultimate goal is to make an interest in Africa more mainstream [in Yale],” said anthropology professor Kamari Clarke, who is spearheading the revitalization effort.

At its meeting last Friday, the Council on African Studies, composed of faculty, staff and students, drafted specific recommendations to reinvigorate the program’s curriculum and administration. After faculty members and current students in the program read and edit the proposal, the Council will submit it to the Provost’s Office for approval as early as the third week of February, Clarke said.

“African Studies is taking responsibility for redefining itself,” Clarke said. “In many ways, it’s necessary.”

The most significant initiative — which Clarke said was “one of the most exciting” the Council came up with — calls for the reorganization of the African Studies program’s current structure, making it more intercontinental in scope and bring the program away from the failing “Cold War model,” a curricular trend that focuses on geographic distinctions such as West or sub-Saharan Africa.

The Council’s other recommendations include granting the Council the power to make academic decisions about the program, rather than leaving that power to faculty members’ cross-listed departments, hiring more cross-listed senior faculty members and being more proactive in working with other academic departments.

The recommendations, which the five Friday meeting attendees interviewed said are “ambitious,” aim to promote a multidisciplinary study of the continent and to appease African Studies students, who have complained for years about the lack of extensive curriculum beyond introductory classes, Council members said. The proposal, if approved, is designed to breathe fresh air into what faculty and students perceive to be an increasingly outdated program.

“For years, students have been wanting more options, more courses,” Council undergraduate representative Semuteh Freeman ’08 said. “It’s pretty clear that it’s very hard to go through the blue book to find courses about Africa.”

African Studies majors interviewed said they currently see problems in the major’s course offerings and look forward to the hearing the recommendations.

Ruth Botsio ’09, a political science and African studies double major who attended the December meeting, said the lack of structure and course offerings in the program has deterred students in the past from staying with the major.

“In one department, you can talk about women in a particular country and the issues affecting them in a single decade, and then you look at this one, and you see a course on the entire continent covering over two centuries,” she said.

Botsio said she is pleased with the proposed changes because they indicate increased attention to the program from administrators.

Alex Jenson ’09, the only undergraduate student taking African Studies as a single major, was able to elect this option because he is also pre-med. He said he is wholeheartedly behind the Council’s recommendations, which are “exactly the right issues to hit on.”

“I’m in no way disappointed with what the African Studies program has been doing recently,” Jenson said.

Historically at Yale, there has been a shift for more continent-wide cross-regional studies in African Studies. In the 1970s, Yale was considered one of the epicenters of South African studies in the world, said Pearl Robinson, the 2007 president for the national African Studies Association. She said the anti-Apartheid movement is responsible for the shift from the program’s specialization in one area to its current movement towards cross-regional work.

“If Yale wants to pride itself as a global university, it has a real opportunity to start with Africa,” Freeman said.

In 2001, a financial-aid plan that shifted aid money from Yale’s Graduate School to the Center for International and Area Studies was detrimental to the African Studies master’s program, faculty told the News that year.

Ann Biersteker — who has the responsibilities of the directors of both undergraduate and graduate studies for African Studies — said at the time that it caused trouble with allocating money to incoming graduates.

“Basically, we have no money for incoming students,” she said in a February 2001 interview. “It’s going to be really hard to recruit students.”

Biersteker, who spoke to the News on Sunday night, is in favor of the initiatives and will provide feedback to the current draft over the next week.

Over the past two years, several professors who specialized in African issues have departed for other positions, forcing Council members to ask other departments to fill the academic gaps, Biersteker said Sunday. This drain on the program is partially responsible for the Council’s recommendations, she said.

Under the new recommendations, the Council hopes to attract African scholars — both faculty and students — to Yale by augmenting recruiting efforts and appropriating funds to students for faculty-driven research projects in three broad themes: Dynamics of Migration and Refugeeism, Globalization and Pluralism; Land and Property; and Arts.

The discussion about the program’s revitalization began several months ago and was continued formally at a December meeting at Yale with Africanists hailing from several universities and colleges, including Columbia University. The move for reform comes on the heels of revitalizations of numerous African Studies programs across the nation and within the Ivy League. As long as Yale’s African Studies program has strong leadership while pushing for such large changes, the Columbia model, which aims to strengthen course selection across disciplines, including anthropology, history and arts, will be a fitting one for the University to follow, Robinson said.

Clarke said the support she has received from the Provost’s Office has convinced her that the administration will be open to most of the recommendations — something she hopes will facilitate real changes in the current program.

“This is the moment for growth,” she said.

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