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The Next Step: A Ph.D. Program

By Andrew S. Chang

Zaheer R. Ali '94 wants to return to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. in Afro-American stuides.

But the University's 27-year-old Department of Afro-American Studies does not have a graduate program.

"I have been [waiting]," says Ali, who concentrated in Afro-American Studies as an undergraduate. "A potential program at Harvard would probably be the strongest program and have the best resources for my interests."

Ali is not alone in his interest in a graduate program at Harvard. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr., the department's chair, estimates, "We have received 1,000 inquiries from people begging to get Ph.D."

The creation of a graduate program has been an integral part of Gates' master plan for restructuring the department since he came to Harvard six years ago.

But he and his colleagues had bigger obstacles to overcome first. Before Gates arrived, the department had one professor.

"It would not have been wise to try to mount a graduate program without enough faculty," Gates says.

Today, the department has 15 faculty members, as well as visiting scholars including Spike Lee and Jamaica Kincaid.

Gates and other in the department believe the time is right to begin to formulate a formal proposal for a graduate program, which could be in place by 1999.

"We're ready," Gates says.

Interdisciplinary Approach

Professor of Afro-American Stuides and of Philosophy K. Anthony Appiah and Professor of Afro-American Studies Evelyn B. Higginbotham have formed a committee to work on a formal proposal for a graduate program.

"I've been drafting some stuff based on discussions I've had with people in the department," says Appiah, who developed a master's program at Yale before coming to Harvard.

At the core of the graduate program in Afro-American Studies will be some kind of interdisciplinary training, similar to the History of American Civilization program that already exists.

"The basic thought is that people have at the core a disciplinary training of some sort," Appiah says.

"[It's important that] we don't duplicate what's already being done in American Civ.," he says.

Ph.D. candidates in the History of American Civilization must fulfill five requirements: American history; American literature; a subfield such as law, education or religion; a field for intensive study, such as Afro-American history or women's literature; and a field from outside the United States.

Appiah says he envisions a program with roughly half the requirements in related fields, such as literature or philosophy, in addtion to courses and seminars in Afro-American studies.

"Many of our graduates will most likely end up in departments of history, literature or sociology [and not Afro-American studies]," he says. "We want to make sure they [have] the necessary courses and preparation."

Gates agrees that the program should have a strong disciplinary base.

"There is no black historiography without historiography," Gates says.

But other leaders in the field do not agree with Harvard's proposed interdisciplinary approach.

"We argue here at Temple that African-American studies is a discipline with unique theoretical and methodological attributes," says Molefi K. Asante, Chair of the Department of African-American Studies at Temple University, the largest such graduate department in the country.

"My one wish for Harvard is to put all their marbles in Afro-American studies and fight to get the discipline recognized in a legitimate way," Asante says.

"I fear the 'old' departments [such as English or sociology] will get credit for their successes. It's what we all committing 'discipline suicide,'" Asante says.

Gates says he wants Harvard's program to be different from Temple's "Afro-centric" program. "We want a real alternative," he says.

Harvard's program, reflecting the strengths of the department, will also focus less on public policy and more on true academic scholarship.

"I don't think we'll be training people who will focus on the applied side," Appiah says.

"We're rather heavy on the conceptual size--we do have two philosophers [in the department]," he says.

The program at Harvard will also likely start out relatively small. Appiah expects the first class of graduate students to be "somewhere in the range between three and 10."

By contrast, Temple has 120 graduate students, with 25 students currently writing dissertations, according to Asante.

"On the one hand, you want a big enough cohort to create a community for themselves. But you also want to be able to give people sufficient individual attention," Appiah says.

But it will still be a long time before any graduate students actually begin to take classes in the new program.

"[A report] might end up before the faculty by the end of the year," Appiah says.

According to Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles, once the formal proposal for the new graduate program is written, it must first be considered by the academic deans, including the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), who will examine the proposed program's curricular desirability and need, resource commitment and "fit" with existing programs.

After discussion with the department and possible modifications, the proposal must then pass the Committee on Graduate Education (CGE) and the Faculty Council before finally reaching the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

"How long [the approval process] takes depends simply on whether everyone likes [the proposal] or whether there are questions, about it," Knowles says.

Appiah suggests that students will not begin study in the graduate program until the fall of 1999 at the earliest. "I expect to go through many formulations and reformulations," Appiah says.

"It's not just bureaucracy," he says. "The process will help us refine the program."

Ali understands that the program will take time to develop.

"It's an evolution," Ali says. "Six or seven years ago, Harvard couldn't claim much of anything in the way of Afro-American studies."

Ali says he will probably begin graduate school, hopefully at Harvard, before the University's Afro-American studies graduate program becomes a reality.

"I'm somewhat anxious to go back to school before whatever passion I have cools down," Ali said.

Nevertheless, Ali says he wants to see the graduate program finally take fruition.

"I'm anxious to see it happen, whether I'm a part of it or not," he says.

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