Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University
In all fields, leadership takes several forms: intellectual, graduate student training, administrative, and editorial. In the field of Black Studies, there is an additional area of leadership that is virtually unique to the field: service to the community, a commitment born of the founders’ desire for progressive social change. Over the course of nearly two generations, Black Studies has made substantial progress in two areas of leadership.
The area in which the most development has taken place is in intergenerational leadership. Much intellectual territory has been covered since Black Power ideologies provided the intellectual wellspring for Black Studies. Debates between Black Marxists and Black nationalists gave way to divisions between Afrocentrics and multiculturalists. The fact that the field has generated several schools of thought ranging from Afrocentric to postmodern multiculturalism, from Black Women’s Studies to Black Queer Studies, suggests that intergenerational leadership is abundant in the field. Without doubt, many scholars are divided over the various developments and desire the rise of some form of orthodoxy, but that is the very nature of intergenerational leadership. Among established scholars there are always those who take issue with current trends, and among young scholars there are always those who go against the tide until they succeed or fail.
Another measure of intellectual leadership lies in the rising publication expectations within the field. When the field was established, the academic world expected most scholars to publish a major work to demonstrate their scholarly ability. For early scholars in the field, this goal remained elusive for a host of reasons, not the least of which were lack of funding and the competing ideal of community engagement. Over the last two decades, the outpouring of works from a handful of scholars of the first generation, along with rising university standards for tenure, has led young scholars to realize that publishing is essential for tenure and promotion, and the trend is likely to continue. As a consequence, intergenerational intellectual leadership is the area of least concern.
Where a concern does exist in this area lies in the field living up to its aspiration of being interdisciplinary. All too often scholars conflate a given theoretical approach to scholarship with interdisciplinarity. Whereas many scholars borrow concepts from other disciplines, few publish works incorporating the basic methodologies from other disciplines. The shared theoretical perspectives, not the shared methodological approaches, make most works accessible and of value to scholars across disciplinary lines. Among the various fields organized around the ideal of interdisciplinary work, Black Studies is far from being alone in falling short. Throughout the academy, the shortcomings in interdisciplinary research are a reflection of the fact that those who trumpeted the ideal were scholars who had been trained in a single discipline. Also important is the reality that there are few, if any, graduate programs with the full complement of disciplines needed to be able to train graduate students broadly.
So that the next generation of intellectual leaders may live up to the idea, there is a need to establish interdisciplinary summer institutes where graduate students and junior faculty can broaden their ken by learning methodologies from leaders in particular disciplines. For the graduate students, such pre-doctoral training would be less likely to reshape their dissertations, but it would allow them to develop second projects that break the mold of the programs in which they are being trained. Similarly, junior professors who participate would also be likely to break new ground on their second research projects.
Along with funding for progress in reaching the interdisciplinary ideal, there is a dire need for graduate funding in general. Funding for graduate education in Black Studies has been scarce everywhere I have taught. With inadequate institutional funding and rare opportunities for outside fellowships, the vast majority of the graduate students in Black Studies have to pursue their work without stipends and research money. At Columbia, I witnessed most Black graduate students finish their programs with debt in excess of $100,000. As chair of the Department of History, I have travel funds for students, but we rarely have fellowships, and the funding level for our research assistants requires that most take full-time jobs along with massive loans. Having served as program chair for ASALH for several years, I have heard similar stories from graduate students who take out loans in part to present papers at conferences.
One of the key problems in intergenerational leadership lies in the administration of Black Studies programs and departments. To be sure, the academy has a general problem in developing intergenerational leadership in departments, programs, and centers. Quite often, the positions are poorly paid and service comes at the expense of scholarship. At universities that do provide post-administration leave, the enticement is not very attractive because internal and external funding is relatively abundant at such institutions for all faculty. Yet the problem in Black Studies units is more acute because the pool of scholars available for administrative positions is much smaller. Whereas English or History departments, for example, commonly have two or three dozen professors, Black Studies departments often have no more than a handful of scholars. Worse still, programs are generally staffed by scholars with joint appointments who are less likely to take on the responsibility of heading a program. As a consequence, those willing to serve often are forced to hold on for years, sometimes decades and once a position opens, it often stays open for years.
An acute problem is intergenerational leadership in service to professional associations affiliated with the field of Black Studies. As a historian, I have served on committees of two mainstream historical associations and as board member of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). The lesser resources of ASALH mean that committee work is conducted without the benefit of adequate paid staff to carry out policy and funding for travel to and from meetings. While I have never participated with the National Council of Black Studies, I do know that they have little staff support. The Association of Black Women Historians and the Association for the Study of the World African Diaspora (ASWAD) carry on their work wholly without staff and funding for participating scholars. Few scholars have the time, ability, or resources to devote to service work that is almost wholly unrewarded by universities in tenure and promotion decisions. As a consequence, a few die-hards do what they can and few mid-career scholars come along to continue the mission. As one of the die-hards, I’ve been advised by a number of leading senior scholars to quit my service before I ruin my career. Undoubtedly it is good advice for the individual, yet horrible advice for the field.
If the field can carry on with less than adequate professional organizations, it cannot do so without scholars willing to serve as senior and associate editors of journals and without funds to print and disseminate them. While the Journal of Black Studies, The Journal of African American History, International Journal of Africana Studies, and others have continued to publish, many other efforts have been less successful. At ASALH, the journal has survived across the generations at great financial sacrifice by its editors, and associate editors are hard to come by because there are few inducements. Journal editing brings about influence over the field, which is an incentive, and it does result in recognition by one’s university. Yet, it is a second job that is often overwhelming. Efforts must be taken to ensure that existing journals continue and other journals are created.
In the areas of service—at educational institutions, with Black Studies associations, and in journal editing—there is a need for non-university funding to enhance intergenerational leadership in the field. For scholars participating as departmental and program chairs, there is a need for a fellowship program for leave time at the end of a period of service. Such an “administrative service fellowship” could be hosted by existing organizations such as the National Humanities Center, the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavior Sciences, and other similar institutions. Grants earmarked for stipends for senior and associate editors can be awarded to journals published by not-for-profit organizations. Grants should also be considered for not-for-profit organizations to enhance staffing so that scholars can focus on policy rather than on volunteers who implement policy.