Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Speaking frankly on the black studies thing at the Chronicle

There has been some acrimonious blogging about black studies departments at the Chronicle of Higher Education (initial post here), and now the blogger in question has been booted from the blog. I think that was absolutely the right response to a tremendous backlash.

But one thing I hate, when we get these backlashes, is for people to be delicate about critical views that they hold so as not to rock the boat. It's OK to be a little critical and controversial, and you shouldn't let the heat of the issue make you bashful about that.

In the interest of not being bashful in the face of a big backlash, I wanted to elaborate a little on a thought I expressed at Brad DeLong's blog at the very beginning of the controversy.

One thing I pointed out was that it's not clear to me exactly what value-added black studies departments (and women's studies departments, for that matter) provide in addition to, say, an existing sociology department. My experience at William and Mary was that the black studies and women's studies departments drew heavily on sociology students and faculty (my major advisor taught in both the sociology and women's studies departments and one of the members of my thesis committee taught in both the sociology and black studies departments). I don't know how generalizable this is (particularly for black studies, which can bring in a lot of history and regional studies people too), but I get the impression this is how these departments work in most universities.

In that sense, I can sympathize with the idea that in some cases what we've got is a proliferation of small departments where a larger, more comprehensive sociology department might be better. Economics departments, for example, usually have separate seiminar schedules for different fields. This helps foster the diversity of the research interests in the department. A large sociology could do the same (with field divisions between black studies and women's studies, for example). It seems to me that would be a much stronger approach, rather than having anemic, embattled, special departments.

That's a decision for each school to make based on it's own particular situation - but I can definitely understand that objection to black studies departments.


So - that's my "there's something to talk about when it comes to black studies" comment that I'm not going to shy away from just because there's been so much heated discussion.

Mine is not the argument made by the blogger that's been fired. Her post dismissed the field of study itself, and she dismissed it by mocking students' dissertations as being "left-wing claptrap" and of low quality. The dissertations listed sounded like interesting and valuable scholarship to me (and - to reinforce my point about - they sounded like the sort of dissertations you might also expect to see in sociology departments). I think it was the right decision to can this blogger.


  1. My wife got her Phd in English as a "19th century african americanist". She has since moved away from academia, but while she was adjuncting and looking for a job one thing that I liked about her job opportunities was that she could apply to and teach in different departments. We don't really get that opportunity in Economics. I think there is something to be said for organizing a department around a field and then bringing in different disciplines.

    1. That's a good point - and some of these departments may truly be interdisciplinary, which is obviously something different. I guess I just wonder more about the departments that are just mini-sociology departments. Why not have a bigger, richer sociology department?

      Economists seem to have pretty good luck in business schools and public policy departments. Given that American University isn't a top-tier department, I've always wondered if I'd have better luck in a public policy department than in an economics department.

  2. Whatever the merits and demerits of her critique, "an internal investigation into UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies has found evidence of academic fraud involving more than 50 classes that range from no-show professors to unauthorized grade changes for students."

    Read more here:


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