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An old department with very current value

Published: August 24, 2012
Section: Editorials


When this paper reported last year that the African and Afro-American Studies department would search for a new chair and gain a hired professor along with it, we took it as a sign that Brandeis was committed to the history and importance of the discipline. Professor Chad Williams, formerly of Hamilton College, has now been named to lead AAAS and we think the message that this brings bears reminding.

The study of African and African-American culture in the United States traces its own history to a select number of schools, and Brandeis’ department is one of the oldest in the country. It became possible to major in AAAS at Brandeis in January 1969.

In the 2008 Curriculum and Academic Restructuring Plan, however, AAAS barely escaped demotion to program status. Some schools in the area and with whom Brandeis regularly competes for students, like Tufts and Boston University, offer concentrations in African-American studies or general “Africana,” however, without full-time, departmental status.

That our department is now gaining additional faculty and has named an incoming chair is encouraging news.

Coming from the liberal-arts Hamilton and specializing in the study of African-American military and political environments of the World War I era and the effects on national life, Williams’ appointment is an opportunity for the university to increase awareness about the department, potentially by highlighting its reliable slate of courses.

The department is broad, with courses on history, political economy, women and gender studies, development, and literature. But it could be deeper: Most courses have plenty of open spaces, and the decline in student numbers was a factor in its potential downgrading from department to program status. But, even with fewer professors than the average department, AAAS has managed to offer eight courses this fall. The department, given a reprieve and now a new lease on leadership, should do everything it can to promote a greater student participation rate.

What’s more, new chair Williams himself will teach the introductory course.