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25 Best Practices

"Building Bridges"

Stanlie M. James, University of Wisconsin

African American Studies in the early twenty-first century is con­tend­ing with the harsh realities of budgetary cutbacks (especially in the public institutions). At the same time the cutting edge of the “in­ter­discipline” of African American Studies must incorporate mul­ti­cul­tu­ral, diasporic, and global dimensions even as it works to thor­ough­­ly integrate a gender analysis and critique. It seems to me that both agendas could be enhanced by a strategy of “building bridges.” The Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Wis­con­sin has already engaged in several forms of bridge build­ing and is con­tem­plating several new ways of building bridges.

Graduate Bridge Programs

UW-Madison has a relatively small faculty (which recently has grown even smaller) and limited resources for financing graduate students. With these critical restraints, we decided that we were not in a position to establish the kind of rigorous PhD program that would be expected at our institution. We also realized that while many students were committed to pursuing graduate train­ing in the “interdiscipline” of African American Studies, some were also in­ter­est­ed in programs that would somehow combine train­ing in the dis­ciplines as well, thus making them very market­able for ca­reers in the academy.

To that end, we have developed and formalized relationships with the English and History Departments into bridge programs. The bridge programs allow students to simultaneously apply for ad­mis­sions into the Afro-American Studies MA program and the PhD programs of either English or History. Upon completion of the MA degree focused respectively in either our Literature and Culture area or our History area, students “cross the bridge” into their respective PhD programs. Thus students have a “specialty” MA in African American Studies along with a PhD in a dis­ci­pline. This has allowed us to focus on strengthening our MA pro­gram while at the same time it helps both English and History not only to recruit students with a specialized background in African Ame­rican Studies, but also to enhance their rather anemic endeavors to recruit minority students into their programs. Before the bridge program was established the English Depart­ment had awarded only one PhD to a Black student in its history!

These programs have been so successful that we have been ap­proached by other units interested in establishing additional bridge programs with us, including the Art History Department and the Library School. We are now considering those additional op­tions.

A second example of our bridge building efforts at UW-Madi­son is the Black Studies Consortium. Madison—along with Mich­i­gan State University, University of Michigan, and Carnegie Mellon—es­tab­lished a Black Studies Consortium with two rounds of funding from the Ford Foundation. Our agenda was to build re­cip­ro­cal re­la­tionships with the Black Studies programs in the con­sortium that would enhance our scholarship and foster in­tel­lect­ual relationships between institutions. Each institution was re­spon­si­ble for de­vel­op­ing programming in a specific area. Thus we at UW were responsi­ble for developing a year-long seminar for fac­ul­ty and graduate stu­dents on Black Women’s Studies. To that end, we put together a two-semester seminar and invited about a dozen of the top Black Feminist theorists to come in over the course of the year to work with students in the seminar and to give a public lecture. Graduate students from the other con­sor­tium institutions were able to fly in to attend one or two seminar classes and lec­tures of specific the­o­rists and to have pri­vate conferences with them. In addition, most of our invited guest lecturers were inter­viewed for the award-winning Wisconsin Public Radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge, which is na­tionally syndicated thus helping to disseminate in­for­ma­tion be­yond the walls of the acade­my. The next year Carnegie Mel­lon sponsored a similar year-long seminar on Blacks and Ur­ba­ni­zation, and the consortium also sup­ported Michigan State’s an­nual Race Conference.

This particular program provided faculty with an opportunity to work closely with others across institutions while at the same time providing graduate students with an opportunity to build net­works across the institutions. Recently, I had an occasion to meet a young assistant professor who had graduated from Michigan State. He reminded me that he had participated in the program and found it quite useful at the time. He noted that he had estab­lish­ed a network of his cohorts through the consortium that con­tin­ues to maintain contact as they negotiate the process of tenure at their re­spec­tive institutions. Unfortunately we were un­able to move toward consolidating and institutionalizing this pro­gram­ming after our fund­ing ran out. We continue to think about new ways to revitalize this endeavor.

Recently our department is thinking about ways to build ad­di­tion­al kinds of bridges at UW. As previously mentioned we have come to the realization that twenty-first-century African American Stud­ies will also need to move beyond the Black/white binary by en­larg­ing our focus to incorporate multicultural and international di­men­sions to the curriculum. To that end, we will need to build bridges to the Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies, American Indian, and Asian American Studies Programs, but this will need to be carefully pur­sued in a manner that respects the integrity and au­ton­­o­my of our department. We are engaged in several different ini­tiatives that will contribute to our multicultural endeavors. For ex­am­ple, one mem­ber of our faculty does sociological research on relationships be­tween Asian Americans and African Americans (in­clud­ing inter­racial marriages) and has subsequently developed cross-listed classes that originated in Afro-American Studies. At one point he served as chair of the Asian American Studies Pro­gram.

We have also sought to establish and consolidate a relationship with the Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies Program through a joint appointment of an assistant professor with the tenure home being in Afro-American Studies (our partner in this endeavor is a non-ten­ure-granting program). Unfortunately that particular endeavor was not successful, but we do intend to continue to pursue similar op­tions. Last summer the Chicana and Latina Studies Program spon­sored a course that took students on a bus tour through the southwest to visit historical monuments and museums, and to meet with activists and other authorities regarding the histories of Chi­ca­no/a, Native American, and African American struggles for free­dom in that part of the country. Students from all three pro­grams participated, and our expectation is that we will develop ad­di­tional programmatic building on that first effort.

Our faculty continues to build bridges through deepening our link­ages with other units across campus. Several of our faculty hold joint appointments with the Women’s Studies Program, Art His­tory, Psychology, and Liberal Studies. Others have formal affili­a­tions with the Women’s Studies and African Studies Programs and also with the African Diaspora Research Circle while, one faculty member is de­vel­oping a relationship with Theatre and Drama.

The Afro-American Studies Department fosters the develop­ment of these bridges primarily because they enhance our intel­lect­u­al development and contribute to our scholarly research en­deavors. We are quite cognizant of the fact that African American Studies and other ethnic studies programs are fragile en­ti­­ties quite vulnerable both to budgetary constraints and con­ser­va­tive political backlashes. Our intention in developing a wide-rang­ing network of bridges across the campus is also quite prag­matic, as it serves to ensure our survival as a viable department by firmly anchoring the department in such a way that it would be­come extremely disruptive to the institution to contemplate our dis­mantling.


Best Practices Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

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