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.