Who Gets Their Own Academic Discipline Anyway? A Commentary on the Naomi Schaefer Riley/Black Studies Controversy
by Fabio Rojas - June 29, 2012
This commentary is a response to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Naomi Schaefer Riley on the continuing relevance of Black Studies. I discuss the different ways that academic disciplines justify themselves and argue that Black Studies has come a long way but still needs to address longstanding problems.
Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a comment by Naomi Schaefer Riley on black studies. In a short blog post, Schaefer argued that the discipline of black studies is hopeless.1 Choosing a few titles and abstracts of incomplete doctoral theses, she dismissed the entire field. Not surprisingly, there was an outcry. There were charges of sloppy reporting, racism, and anti-intellectualism. There were countercharges of political correctness and low intellectual standards. The Chronicle of Higher Education fired Schaefer, who became the martyr of the week in the eyes of those who think that American colleges are run by Bolsheviks.
The controversy over Schaefer Rileys article is unfortunate because her blog post raises an important question: Who deserves an academic discipline? Has black studies met this standard? This is an extremely important question for scholars and administrators. Scholars need a community, a place they can call home. The quality of the community determines the quality of the output. Administrators are tasked with deciding which programs and departments merit financial support.
Scholars justify new disciplines in many ways. The most common justification is the emergence of new knowledge. As science and scholarship progresses, knowledge becomes more complicated. New knowledge simply cant be taught or developed within an existing discipline. Examples abound. The rise of computers in the 1960s required academic departments dedicated to algorithms and computing. Brain science required a split from biology and traditional psychology programs.
Disciplines can emerge from intellectual conflict as well. For example, in the 19th century, scholars became interested in the human mind, which had traditionally been the purview of philosophers. An older generation of philosophers refused to make way for psychology, and there was a struggle within the discipline. By the early 1900s, psychologists were creating their own academic institutions.2 Disciplines often appear in this way. Older generations cant or wont accept new research. Scholars secede and form a new discipline.
Finally, there is politics. Disciplines form when political forces shake up the university. Black studies, as well as other fields based on social identity, like womens studies, was created in response to the protest movements of the 1960s. While there was a long-standing interest in black history, it was only in the 1960s that scholars and student activists felt compelled to start a discipline.3 There are other examples. In the 1950s, area studies programs (e.g., China studies or Russian studies) were established to train bureaucrats and experts for the Department of State.4 Earlier, in the 1880s, American social science disciplines, such as economics and sociology, were created by Christian progressive reformers who thought that social science could be used to instill proper moral behavior in the masses.5
The range of justifications shows that disciplines are often created for both political and intellectual reasons. There is rarely an immaculate conception where scholars uniformly agree that there definitely needs to be a new discipline. This is new knowledge is usually bundled with we cant get this done in the old structure.
Academic justifications may not last, and fields of inquiry disappear. Philology, the study of how language and written culture evolve, used to be a high-status field in the academy. In 2012, its a historical relic. Almost every contemporary humanities scholar has migrated to a modern language department. Classical studies programs (e.g., Greek and Roman culture) face a crisis because they attract few students. Attic Greek simply doesnt attract students the way it used to.
Black studies does have a strong prima facie case for continued support. The history and culture of black America is deep and deserves an extended examination. The academy tolerates other fields focused on specific countries (e.g., China studies) or groups (e.g., Jewish studies) without much controversy. One of the virtues of the higher education system is that it is easy to add interdisciplinary programs that focus on issues that dont squarely fit within existing disciplines.
We can also ask if black studies programs have effectively used the resources that have been given to them. Do black studies programs produce high-quality scholarship? This is an inherently difficult question because black studies draws on so many other disciplines. How can one evaluate a discipline composed of literary scholars, historians, economists, and musicians?
There are some clues. For example, elite universities have been able to attract scholars with strong reputations to teach in black studies units. The programs at Harvard, Yale, and Northwestern have established themselves in this fashion, bringing internationally recognized research projects to their campuses. In 2008, I wrote an article in the Journal of Black Studies arguing that elite private schools develop their black studies programs with outsiders who have scholarly records in allied disciplines.6
There is other evidence of success. Recent black studies Ph.D. graduates have found employment in traditional departments. For example, the list of recent Ph.D. graduates from the Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst shows alumni working in history and English programs.7 Given the stiff competition for faculty jobs in these fields, it is a sign that black studies is taken seriously. Hiring committees at these universities could have easily given these jobs to graduates of English or history departments.
Black studies has a valid mission and is slowly but surely meeting the stringent test of the academic job market. But that doesnt mean that black studies is without criticism. Many programs, especially at less elite schools, have trouble recruiting majors, which suggests that black studies programs are failing to make a compelling argument that is it a desirable course of study for most undergraduates. These programs are often poorly integrated with the rest of the university system.8
At the level of graduate education and research, black studies programs can no longer justify themselves solely by their topic of study. The older disciplines have become much more open toward the black subject, and there is a modest but substantial presence of Black scholars in most social science and humanities fields. The presence of research on African Americans leaves black studies susceptible to the argument that it is redundant. The only way black studies can counter this argument is by producing research whose quality matches that of the works by scholars trained in the traditional humanities and social science programs. Is there a black studies Ph.D. graduate whose work on gender and race rivals that of sociologist Patricia Hill Collins? Or a black studies Ph.D. holder whose research on black voters equals that of political scientist Michael Dawson? It is relatively easy to recruit exceptional scholars from other fields into black studies, but it is much harder to produce and cultivate scholars from within.
The coming years present a number of challenges for black studies programs. The growth in Ph.D. programs at elite institutions has not been matched by an increased fervor in the hundreds of colleges offering undergraduate degrees and certificates. Furthermore, black studies programs need to develop a research agenda that will have an impact across the academy. This requires that black studies shift from a stance of opposition to competition. Black studies programs should no longer be viewed as small, interdisciplinary alternatives to the academic mainstream. Instead, black studies programs should view themselves as competitors willing to displace existing disciplines as the source of the best scholarship on the African diaspora.
1. Naomi Schaefer Riley, The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations, Brainstorm (blog), Chronicle of Higher Education, April 30, 2012, http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/the-most-persuasive-case-for-eliminating-black-studies-just-read-the- dissertations/46346.
2. Joseph Ben-David and Randall Collins, Social Factors in the Origins of a New Science: The Case of Psychology, American Sociological Review 31, no. 4 (1966): 45165.
3. Fabio Rojas, From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).
4. Bruce Cumings, Boundary Displacement: Area Studies and International Studies during and after the Cold War, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 29, no. 1 (1997): 626.
5. Thomas L. Haskell, The Emergence of Professional Social Science: The American Social Science Association and the Nineteenth-Century Crisis of Authority (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977).
6. Fabio Rojas, One Field, Two Tracks: Publication Patterns of Professors in Doctoral Africana Studies Programs, Journal of Black Studies 39 (2008): 5768.
7. Ph.D. Alumnae/i. The W.E.B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, http://www.umass.edu/afroam/alumni/index.html (accessed June 7, 2012).
8. Fabio Rojas and Donald Shaffer. What Have We Learned from the Black Studies Experience? Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society 10, no. 4 (2009): 44247.