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Clayman Conversations Departmentalize Now! event looks at Black studies at Stanford and nationwide

screen shot of 4 speakers

Rojas, Robinson, McNair, Glaude Jr.

Sep 28 2020

"The administration here [at Stanford] has long suggested that it values African and African American Studies, but that it can demonstrate this valuing without departmentalizing AAAS," states Clayman Institute Director Adrian Daub. "We at Clayman think that this got it backwards - that valuing means departmentalization. It's not about money; it's not about bias. It's about the way in which an institution signals what counts…" 

Listen to the event on The Feminist Present podcast

Daub moderated an interdisciplinary panel of scholars that included Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Kimberly Thomas McNair, Aileen K. Robinson, and Fabio Rojas for “Departmentalize Now! The Imperative for African and African American Studies,” the third online event in the Clayman Conversations series. The event addressed social movements and activism in support of African and African American Studies on university campuses as well as navigating university bureacracies to institutionalize support for the discipline. 

View video of the event

Rojas, a sociology professor at Indiana University - Bloomington, opened the event with a presentation that offered both a brief history of Black Studies in the United States and specific insights about the founding of African and African American Studies (AAAS) at Stanford. Rojas notes that in the late 1960s, an active period of student advocacy around African American Studies, "...people realize that the bureaucratic structure of the university was not as quick as you might want it to be and not as flexible as you might imagine, so therefore they had to go to social protest." He shared unpublished research for his book, From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline, referencing a 1970 report written by Stanford anthropologist St. Clair Drake. Stanford's first chair of AAAS, Drake  addressed the tensions of moving Black Studies from a movement to a curriculum.  

Drake wrote in a report to funders,  "I've also been continuously aware that the Stanford 'ethos' demands that this program have certain features not found in other programs." Rojas says, "So there's two levels of issues here: What is the Stanford ethos? What is the pushback that people are getting when they're trying to institutionalize this intellectual project?" He follows up that Drake also had to consider how "different people want different things from these programs, and that is a difficulty, that is a barrier that needs to be managed." Drake recognized that these barriers resulted from the paradox that Black Studies attracts Black student activists invested in supporting their communities and white students in search of knowledge to unlearn anti-Black racism.

Returning to the barriers of bureaucracy, Rojas mines experiences at Harvard University for take-away lessons. "When you recruit senior faculty, recruit people who have strong bureaucratic skills," Rojas says. "Just because somebody has a great CV or they're an activist, it doesn't mean they understand how universities work. You have to find somebody who understands the ins and outs of universities and can play that game." He also recommends cultivating allies across campus and among administrators and deans, as well as finding multiple sources of internal and external funding. 

"Once you say we're going interdepartmental, we don't need a department anymore, you're bypassing the major point, which is if somebody has decided this knowledge isn't worth the investment." -- Fabio Rojas

Glaude, chair of the African American Studies Department at Princeton University, provided a perspective on the department that echoed Rojas's presentation. According to Glaude, student activism on Princeton's campus in 1968 led the university to implement a program that "involved curating a variety of courses across the various fields and disciplines" into a "constellation of courses that then would be called African American Studies."

While the founding of this program brought together influential scholars in the field of Black Studies, Glaude says, "because the program did not have hiring ability, there is a sense in which it could not reproduce itself" when scholars departed the university. Hiring ability is "one of the important features of departmentalization" because it offers Black Studies "a kind of autonomy so that you can respond to the natural vagaries of the marketplace."

Glaude describes how proponents of African American Studies at Princeton responded to this crisis. Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah headed a committee that Glaude says sought to "imagine African American Studies in light of Princeton's unique environment - the equivalent of the 'Stanford ethos.'" After one leading scholar at another institution turned down a job offer at Princeton, the committee used the funds to bolster their program into a center as they prepared to grow into a department. 

In addition, as student activism had preceded the founding of the African American Studies program, student activism in 2015 played a role in its shift into a department. Amid nationwide Black Lives Matter activism, "Princeton students took over the president's office," Glaude says, "And one of the demands from the students was a department of African American Studies." These student demands and support from the university in terms of finances and departmentalization enabled Princeton's African American Studies Department to engage in cluster hiring, a corrective to the constraints that had halted their progress years before. 

“Let’s just say up front it makes little sense to be in 2021 and Stanford University [does] not have a department of African African American Studies. Let's just be very clear about that.” -- Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

Glaude offered his own take on the bureauratic process in higher education. “Administrators want to fund African American Studies or build an African American Studies program for basically two reasons. One, they want to keep students from taking over buildings. And … it’s probably the only way they could diversify their damn faculties.  Both of those views ignore the extensive bibliography which constitutes the conversation over time that constitutes the field of African American  Studies.” He sets bureaucratic questions aside to acknowledge this body of scholarship. “There's a whole conversation I could have. …About making the argument around the field and … provide intellectual justification for the field, which I refuse to do. The price of that ticket has been paid already.”
While admitting that Princeton is "late to the game" in establishing African American studies as a department -- they now have three years of graduates -- Glaude  makes clear that Stanford should show the same leadership. “Let’s just say up front it makes little sense to be in 2021 and Stanford University [does] not have a department of African African American Studies. Let's just be very clear about that.”
Daub continues the conversation with a question for McNair, a Stanford AAAS postdoctoral fellow. He says, "You operate fully inside a program. How does that look day to day? What are the aspects of it, whether good or bad, where you sort of notice, what would be different if I were a postdoc in a department right now."
McNair responds that "The major difference is the idea of anonymity. Everybody knows your name in a program." McNair says, "I don't get to be invisible. I don't get to just stay in my corner. You're expected to contribute."Acknowledging that she enjoys and gains from those contributions, McNair says it's also true that other institutions might have created a different set of experiences for a postdoctoral fellow of African American Studies. "One aspect of program versus department is labor," Daub agrees, reflecting on his experience directing Stanford's program in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. He says, "Every time no one stepped up to teach one of our core classes – it was me. I was the teacher." 

Daub asks Robinson, assistant professor of theater and performance studies and a faculty fellow for AAAS, "What are the questions you would be asking if you were to be hired into either a program or a department of AAAS? What would be the concerns you would have of one or the other?"

Robinson has navigated both programs and departments at different universities. She says, "Questions about labor are obviously a very important aspect of that. Who does what labor, and then how is that labor recognized? To what end does that labor go?" 

Beyond considerations of labor, Robinson says, "What is the network one is a part of because as one is on the job market, as one enters a department, as one enters the field, these kinds of networks have different kinds of nodes and different kinds of relations to each other." The nodes and relations in a Black Studies network shape knowledge creation and the value a university places on that program or department's everyday labor. 

 "Departments have a lot of internal funding that they can make decisions on for supporting the curricular decisions they wanted to make, but also for supporting the different intellectual and broader field contributions they were thinking of making." -- Aileen Robinson

Robinson argues these essential questions reveal critical differences in programs versus departments, particularly in terms of funding. "Departments have a lot of internal funding that they can make decisions on for supporting the curricular decisions they wanted to make, but also for supporting the different intellectual and broader field contributions they were thinking of making." A department situates how Black Studies functions as a unit that contributes to the broader role intellectual labor plays in a university. 

Daub asks, "Did the question of tenure come up for you at all because the capacity to hire is also the capacity to tenure ultimately." The link between tenure and hiring poses that problem because of "the idea that maybe your colleagues are not the ones who decide on your own tenure." 

Robinson responds that it did come up in how people question who your colleagues are. She says, "It became very clear that in a program setting that you are joint appointed in to a program, you are ultimately indebted to colleagues in different places outside of the program work." The complexity of the tenure and hiring structure of joint appointments then affects how a faculty member's scholarship takes shape. 

Daub offers the panel an audience question about whether universities should seek to eliminate departments in pursuit of interdisciplinarity. 

Rojas responds, "Once you say we're going interdepartmental, we don't need a department anymore, you're bypassing the major point, which is if somebody has decided this knowledge isn't worth the investment." This response to departmentalization requires reflection. "That's to be disputed and put on the table. You have to ask why it doesn't merit these funds and this amount of attention," he says.

Glaude agrees and points to how Princeton University responded when neuroscience emerged from psychologists and other brain scientists' interdisciplinarity. The scholars of neuroscience collaborate, and the university creates a configuration to organize their work through a department. However, in response to Black Studies, Glaude says, "it's just that when it comes to us that suddenly we need to do away with departments altogether instead of trying to think about the kind of work that we are doing and how do we anchor that within a particular configuration that is recognizable to the university in some way."

Daub invites Robinson and McNair to respond to an audience question about how Stanford should make concessions regarding how activism in the broader community and on-campus shape their plan to pursue departmentalization. 

McNair says, "The reality is that African American Studies, Africology, Black Studies – whatever we name it, whatever we call it – came from community demand." The impetus of community demand introduced concessions for the programs and centers of the 1960s and 1970s and questions arose about who had the qualifications to teach and lead the Black Studies curriculum. 

The community members who had done the work and produced the intellectual thought that guided this activism did not have the credentials recognized by higher education. McNair says that in light of this, "Concessions were made where there was a professionalization if you want a department that leaves certain scholarship out." This tension leaves Black Studies programs or department members to grapple with whether they seek validation from the community or the university. 

"The reality is that African American Studies, Africology, Black Studies – whatever we name it, whatever we call it – came from community demand." -- Kimberly Thomas McNair

Robinson agrees about community significance, citing her experience as a theater and performance studies scholar working in Black Studies as a discipline, whether through a program or a center. She says, "I think that there's something very important about the ways in which faculty hired into a Black Studies program can think with the community of undergraduates, potential graduates, across campus, and the community to think through the different kinds of questions of activism and protest within the manifestation of the field at a university." 

Departmentalize Now! panelists included: Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., the James McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University and department chair of AAS at Princeton; Fabio Rojas, the Virginia L. Roberts Professor of Sociology at Indiana University-Bloomington; Aileen K. Robinson, an assistant professor of theater and performance studies and faculty fellow in AAAS at Stanford University; and Kimberly Thomas McNair, a postdoctoral fellow in AAAS at Stanford University. 

Appearing at the end of the event, Jameelah Morris of the Black Graduate Students Association urged attendees to sign a petition calling for AAAS departmentalization at Stanford and related measures. "Many of you probably have seen a number of the op-eds that we have published to really call Stanford to account," Morris said, "for the systematic failure and institutional neglect of Black studies as an intellectual project and the continued disparaging of that project through initiatives like Impacts of Race in America," a campus-wide cluster hire of Black scholars announced by the Stanford administration in June. AAAS Director Allyson Hobbs and other program faculty and staff, BGSA, the Black Student Union and other concerned groups have been leading education and activism efforts to demand that AAAS be made a department in five years, that a cluster hire increase AAAS faculty specifically, that development resources be provided for fundraising for these efforts, and more.

The Clayman Conversations series convenes intellectual leaders to generate dialogue that speaks to their fields' current issues and debates. The full Clayman Conversations series can be accessed online.

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