In a 2018 article, faculty raised concerns regarding the lack of departmental status for Yale’s Council on African Studies. Now, three years later, six council-affiliated students, faculty and administrators spoke to the News, all expressing varying degrees of satisfaction regarding the program’s nondepartmental status and the state of the council as a whole.
African Studies, which is under the larger auspices of the MacMillan Center, is not a department, but rather a coalition of faculty from departments and programs across the University. While the council does not have hiring power beyond the faculty of its Program in African Languages, students can still major in African Studies and take courses listed or cross-listed under the program. While some Yale affiliates said they wish the program were more well-resourced, others said they are happy with what the program allows them to explore.
“When I said that I was doing African Studies, everyone was like, ‘Wow, I don’t understand why you would travel so far from home to do something that you could’ve done at home,’” Awuor Onguru ’24, who is also a staff columnist, told the News. “I came to Yale’s African Studies program because … doing the undergraduate program I’m connecting myself to all sorts of mentors and peers and people who are excited about the same things that I am.”
Onguru said that she is enjoying going to all of the council-sponsored speaker events. She added that one of her favorite authors, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, is coming to Yale to give a talk on “Decolonizing the American University” on March 17.
Reflecting on her childhood in Kenya, Onguru said she missed out on learning about Kenyan history and learning Swahili — which she said was not mandated as an official language in Kenyan schools until two years ago. She said that majoring in African Studies at Yale was a way to “consolidate that knowledge” she missed out on while also preparing her to work with African literature in the future.
Michael Cappello, professor of pediatrics, microbial pathogenesis and public health at the Yale School of Medicine and chair of the Council on African Studies, expressed his support of the council’s nondepartmental classification, noting that because of the council’s association with the MacMillan Center, the council has advantages not necessarily afforded to smaller departments.
Cappello cited the interdisciplinary nature of the council — whose faculty are mainly derived from other departments and whose students are often double majors — as one main advantage of the council’s nondepartmental status.
There are currently seven declared African Studies undergraduate majors, and all five graduating seniors are double majoring. There are seven students currently enrolled in the African Studies master’s degree program.
Cappello added that directors of the Macmillan Center have been very supportive of African Studies and continuously encourage the council “to develop innovative and creative programs.”
“While it’s true that some of these benefits would also come from being a department,” he told the News, “I’m not sure that the overall strength of our teaching, learning and research activities would have greater impact or be better served under that structure.”
But John Wa’Njogu, director of the Program in African Languages, disagrees.
While there are 59 faculty members currently involved with the council, it only has hiring power for African Language faculty. There are just four full-time faculty members in that program.
“Of course it would be much better if we had our own department, a huge budget to control and hire our own professors,” Wa’Njogu said.
While Wa’Njogu did call the relative lack of council hiring power “a shortcoming,” he did feel that African Studies at Yale has progressed throughout his 20 years at the University, particularly in its hiring of professors whose research interests focus on Africa and its addition of more African language classes.
He added that, though there is “good progress,” there is still more to do — particularly more faculty hiring, recruitment of graduate students from Africa and additional language areas of study — all of which require “more resources.”
Cappello also noted that in the past five years, Yale recruited 10 new faculty members whose work focuses on Africa and that presently, there are four faculty recruitments in which an African Studies scholar is the “lead candidate.”
Ian Shapiro, Sterling professor of political science and former director of the MacMillan Center, considered the council to be in “reasonably good shape at the moment,” largely citing concerted fundraising efforts from grants, the center itself and individual donors. But he noted that the number of Africa-focused faculty at Yale is fewer than at some comparable institutions. UPenn’s Center for African Studies, for example, has 94 affiliated faculty, while Harvard’s Center for African Studies has 112, compared to Yale’s 59.
“That has partly been addressed by the hiring and promotion of African Studies faculty from various departments,” Shapiro told the News.
Kayla Mapotaringa ’21 said that during her first two years at Yale, a large concern of hers was faculty recruitment from the African continent for the African Studies major. But now, she said, she has noticed a visible increase in faculty representation.
Mapotaringa said that her current adviser, assistant professor of history Benedito Machava, is a recent hire from Mozambique. She said the classes he has taught — including “Revolutions and Socialist Experiments in Africa” — often cover overlooked and very interesting parts of scholarship.
She added that there were funding opportunities and a lot of events on African scholarship. Mapotaringa, who formerly served as the Yale African Students Association president, said she usually tells her peers to major in African Studies.
Professor of English Stephanie Newell, who joined Yale faculty in 2015, said that her experience teaching African literature courses at Yale differed from her experience at other institutions. At Yale, she has been able to focus almost exclusively on her area of specialty: media audiences in colonial West Africa and creative writing as articulated through local print cultures.
“When I came to Yale, I was literally appointed specifically to teach my specialist seminar,” Newell told the News. “I thought I’d got to Heaven, and I still can’t get over it that every new course I propose, it can be so specifically exclusively within my specialism that I think nobody’s going to want to take that … and lo and behold there’s always maybe 10 or 12 students that want to take it.’”
She said that at Yale, she not only teaches courses like “Postcolonial World Literature and Theory” — which is listed under English and African Studies — but she also speaks at and attends conferences focused on African scholarship.
While the council does not offer a doctoral program, it does have a Graduate Affiliates program for doctoral, master’s and doctor of medicine students in other programs whose research focuses on Africa. The Graduate Affiliates program currently serves 32 students.
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