2020 Rapid Response Grant: “Imagining a Higher Education Career in African American Studies”

November 5, 2020

By Jon Garaffa ’20

This summer, ten African American Studies (AAS) students collectively reflected on the challenges, rigors, and exciting possibilities of pursuing AAS at the graduate level and beyond. This career development opportunity arose through a Rapid Response Magic Project of the Princeton University Humanities Council, “Imagining a Higher Education Career in African American Studies.” Led by Dannelle Gutarra Cordero (African American Studies), the initiative consisted of six weekly Zoom workshops. Across the sessions, the cohort conducted research and co-authored a forthcoming peer-reviewed article about the struggles of emerging scholars in AAS.

The initiative culminated in a September 25 Zoom panel discussion, where the researchers presented on themes such as the interdisciplinary potential of AAS, steps towards reducing racism in academia, archival difficulties in AAS, and the obstacles faced by aspiring professors in AAS. The speakers welcomed questions from other students associated with the department. Fedjine Victor ’22, Makailyn Jones ’22, and Maya Houser ’22 organized the panel, which Turquoise Brewington ’22 and MiKayla Green ’22 moderated. The panelists were Ashley Hodges ’21, Erica Dugué ’21, Aisha Tahir ’21, Germalysa Ferrer ’22, and Josiah Gouker ’22.

Starting as the Program in African American Studies, AAS was established at Princeton in 1969, following demands for representation of African American intellectual traditions. In 2015, the University Board of Trustees granted AAS academic department status and approved an AAS concentration.

The panelists noted that AAS departments offer a unique perspective by harnessing intersections among disciplines. Furthermore, through this crossover, AAS departments can create a lasting effect on these fields.

“People are now relying on African American Studies to better understand what is happening currently in the world,” Hodges said. “It should not be siloed off into one category of work, but rather should be uplifted as interdisciplinary, and sprinkled in everywhere.” Princeton’s department includes faculty jointly appointed in Art and Archaeology, Comparative Literature, English, History, Psychology, Religion, and Sociology, as well as faculty solely appointed in AAS.

However, the field’s interdisciplinary nature can also cause problems for rising AAS scholars. Ferrer found that the best AAS academics are expected to show mastery not only in their main field but in all fields connected to their work, increasing the burden upon students pursuing AAS. Since many AAS scholars are jointly appointed, they must also be willing to teach subjects other than AAS when asked, added Ferrer. Moreover, academic departments can instrumentalize minority professors, valuing them as “diversity hires” rather than as important contributors to their field, Green mentioned. In general, AAS scholars often face budget restraints and a lack of regard for their discipline, according to the panelists.

Arguing that academia has historically been used to justify racism, Gouker said that academia must confront practices rooted in racism and overcome strong resistance to changing them. Dugué added that when professors apply for tenure, others evaluate their curriculum vitae primarily based on publications produced and courses taught, more so than unseen labor put into scholarly activism.

AAS incorporates diverse forms of knowledge, Tahir remarked. Tahir’s research centered on the essential link between learning inside and outside of the classroom. She emphasized ways to value forms of knowledge originating from outside the academy, such as through activism or lived experience. For example, the stories of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals can aid understanding of the prison system.

The panelists considered the Western canon, which covers the books, music, films, and other works of art that have achieved the status of classics. With the early twentieth century came an expansion of the canon to include more authors representative of historically marginalized groups. Yet, the status of the canon is still controversial in academia, and especially in AAS, where scholars are pushing for even greater representation within the canon or even advocating to drop it altogether. Doubting the current canon, however, is often perceived as a challenge to the status quo, and critics of AAS use its lack of conformity to the canon to question the field’s legitimacy. “There is a constant need to self-justify within the discipline,” explained Gouker. “The more established departments don’t have to fight that constant criticism.”

Another struggle involves missing research materials. Ferrer discovered an absence of records about many key Black figures, as many of these items vanished through colonial efforts to take down historical archives. This scarcity creates daily difficulties for AAS researchers, who rely on these now-rare accounts to shed light on African American experiences.

Overall, the summer’s conversations revealed more about the knowledge that prospective AAS scholars are presumed to have, Dugué reflected. For instance, students need experiences that will improve their candidacy for the job market, like working as a teaching assistant concomitantly with completing their doctoral degree. The opacity of these expectations can act as another obstacle to entry, especially for aspiring faculty who lack access to substantial career development resources or a strong network. Hence, more career development opportunities like this initiative would greatly benefit students, helping them to cultivate the competitive credits required to succeed in higher education, according to Dugué.

“However we begin to reimagine academia, we should seek a world in which the most marginalized person can thrive,” Hodges declared. “We should all be as equally invested in uplifting the next person as we are in uplifting ourselves.”

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