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Just over a year after a high-profile flap with the University’s top administration and the subsequent defections of two star professors left Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department badly shaken, the department is back on its feet and has hired several new faculty, according to its chair.
Several new hires will shore up the department’s offerings in fields ranging from African languages to hip hop. And the department is gearing up for a major broadening of its scope, embodied by its new name—the African and African-American Studies Department. Concentrators will have the choice of a new track in African studies, offered in partnership with the Committee for African Studies.
Department chair Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr.—who spent the 90s building up the department with support from former University President Neil L. Rudenstine—said that time and effort has healed the department’s wounds.
An anxious climate that grew in the wake of the flap between former professor Cornel R. West ’74 and University President Lawrence H. Summers and the departures of West and colleague K. Anthony Appiah has dissipated.
“The faculty began with a great deal of sadness at the departures of Anthony Appiah and Cornel West, and a great deal of apprehension about our capacity to rebuild, as well as about the administration’s support for the department,” he says. “I’m pleased to be able to report that those fears are all allayed.”
He says the integration of African studies and African-American studies has been a “dream” of his and Appiah’s since they arrived at Harvard in 1991.
According to Emmanuel Akyeampong, chair of the Committee for African Studies, Summers’ interest in development economics and Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby’s appreciation of international studies have fostered an intellectual kinship between the two and the department.
“It gives both Dean Kirby and President Summers an opportunity to put their stamp on black studies in the academy as dramatically as Dean Knowles and President Rudenstine did in the 1990s,” Gates says.
Gates says that he has no doubts about the department’s standing in academia—and high hopes for the new combined programs in African and African-American studies.
“Are you kidding?” he exclaimed. “We are number one by all accounts. And I expect that in five years, Harvard will have a leadership position in African studies similar to its dominance in the field of African-American studies.”
Hip-hop expert Marcyliena Morgan, who was a visiting lecturer last semester, has been hired as an associate professor.
In addition to teaching her popular hip-hop course, she will manage the hip-hop archives that she brought with her from the University of California at Los Angeles.
The archives, located in the Barker Center, consist of various collections of materials that illustrate ways in which hip-hop culture has impacted youth culture. These include records and hip-hop gear as well as academic and journalistic writings and documents of political organizations formed by artists and members of the hip-hop community.
Morgan, who is one of the nation’s leading academic scholars on hip-hop, says she hopes Harvard’s department will lead the maturation of hip-hop studies.
She says that hip-hop’s place in popular culture and its aesthetic basis on the notion of “flow,” or dynamic change, make it a uniquely difficult subject for academia to keep up with.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is raise the level of hip-hop scholarship,” she says. “What we have to do is think clearly about how to talk about hip-hop from various disciplinary perspectives. One of the things we’re trying to do is get beyond the descriptive aspect of hip-hop. We need to develop methodologies to see what’s going on.”
Francis Abiola Irele, “by all accounts the dominant scholar in the field of Francophone African literature,” according to Gates, was hired in the spring.
He will teach about literary movements in America and in Africa and the Caribbean—as well as the continuum between them—and says he also hopes to start a cultural program that will promote modern African classical music and art.
Other new hires include Marla F. Frederick, an incoming assistant professor who will focus on religion as an assistant professor, and the New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, who will be a visiting lecturer on the history of black cinema.
The department also hopes to cross-list courses taught by author Zadie Smith, who will teach several courses with the English department this year as a visiting lecturer.
Gate says the new faculty were not hired in response to West’s and Appiah’s departures but to fill positions that had been previously available.
“You identify subject areas that you need, and you go to the best person in the world to fill them, like all other Harvard positions,” Gates says.
Akyeampong, chair of the Committee for African Studies, says the move towards Africa has been imminent for the past ten years.
“What we have been seeing at Harvard is an increase in demand for African studies,” he says. “We put together statistics on this as we made the case before the University administration, to the point where it was obvious that it would be in the interest of Harvard to replace the certificate [in African studies offered by the Committee]—the value of which was unclear—with an undergraduate concentration.”
He says that world developments in the past 20 years, such as increased African migrations to North America and Europe, catalyzed a major shift in the academic field itself and raised awareness among scholars of bringing together African-American studies and African studies.
In addition, rather than looking for “cultural survivals,” such as African words or religious practices that have been preserved overseas, scholarship now looks at concepts of hybridity and creolization, at how African and American culture have impacted each other.
“What comes out is neither distinctly African nor American,” he says. “Now, we are looking at the cultural interface in very novel ways, at things like material culture and cultural transformations instead of cultural survivals.”
Akyeampong says he is excited about the idea of creating a new area of study—diaspora studies—in the department, which he hopes will help build connections between African and African-American studies.
To encourage Harvard faculty to collaborate on the new field, a faculty seminar will likely be implemented as well.
“It makes sense to come together and create a program in diaspora which will put us on the forefront of this emerging field,” Akyeampong says.
Learning the Lingo
In order to implement the degree program in African studies, Akyeampong says the department will have to introduce language training that “did not exist.”
In the new position of senior preceptor, John M. Mugane, who Harvard hired away from Ohio University at Athens, will lead the African language program.
Mugane, who is also the president of the African Language Teacher Association, says he was initially approached to assist in the search for candidates but became interested in the position after visiting the department.
“It was really refreshing that I didn’t have to explain what the necessary link [between African and African-American studies] is,” he says. “They were already asking even better questions, about how bringing in languages will strengthen some of the courses that are already offered.”
Mugane says he intends to establish programs for the major African languages, covering the widest possible geographic region, at first.
He will teach the East African languages of Swahili—previously the only sub-Saharan African language offered by the department—as well as Gikuyu, a language in which he is an expert.
Applications for the position of a junior preceptor who can teach at least two West African languages (Yoruba and Hausa, Mugane hopes) will be reviewed today, according to Akyeampong. The South African languages of Zulu and Xhosa will also be offered.
But Mugane’s great hope—“call me crazy,” he says—is that all 2,089 African languages will eventually be available for study at Harvard.
He intends to accomplish this feat with a self-instruction program revolving around a series of websites and computer software he has worked on since 1996.
“The challenge is to have a system in place whereby Harvard students are going to be able to learn a language of their choice...an environment where a student has access to a wealth of resources. All this information will be online,” he says.
Websites will offer basic reading materials, pronunciation exercises and film supplements, which students will study under the supervision of a language coach. Mugane himself will coordinate students’ progress.
Most significantly, the curriculum will involve two-hour weekly conversations and final examinations with native speakers, whom the department will locate using a database of African speakers Mugane has been building.
“You’d be amazed at what is in the greater Boston area,” he says.
But in the likely circumstance that native speakers will not be found nearby, Mugane plans to use communications software that will allow students to converse with tutors across the country and overseas.
“There is lag time—it’s not as smooth—but [the technology is] coming,” he says.
According to Mugane, only four or five African languages are commonly taught in American universities. But he currently has about ten being developed for the self-instruction system, ranging from Somali to Sudanese Arabic.
“Right now, there are about 150 megabytes just for the Swahili class,” he says. “Server space will need to be big.”
Despite the enormity of his task, Mugane says it is imperative for Harvard to lead the instruction of never-before taught African languages.
“It’s an incredibly magical method of getting to talk to Africans,” he says. “Some languages are threatened by extinction, so the knowledge you’re getting is like no other. A student might be the only one who knows the language in America. National interests such as trying to fight communicable disease and bring about development cannot be done without considering language.”
—Staff writer Ryan J. Kuo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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