After years of planning, Northwestern University is launching its doctoral program in African-American studies next month, making it only the seventh American university to offer a doctorate in the academic discipline.
Six students will enroll in the program, which will focus on three areas of research: expressive arts, literature and cultural studies; politics, society and policy; and history. Northwestern officials say that in addition, the program will have strong Black queer studies and diaspora studies components.
The creation of Northwestern’s doctoral program comes at a time when some have questioned the effectiveness of Black studies programs, which took hold on American college campuses in the 1960s and 1970s.
Dr. Richard Iton, an associate professor in African-American studies at Northwestern and its director of graduate studies, says the doctoral program will benefit from the universityt’s proximity to Chicago.
“Chicago is well known as a city rich in Black history and cultural institutions,” says Iton. “Within academia, it also is known as home to the largest continent of relatively young scholars working in the field today.”
In addition to Northwestern, Harvard University, Yale University, Temple University, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the University of California, Berkeley, and Michigan State University all offer doctoral programs in Black studies. Officials at each school say their individual programs differ in approach.
Harvard and Yale, for example, emphasize dual training in recognized traditional disciplines such as English, history or sociology. UMass-Amherst, meanwhile, trains students in two tracks: literary and cultural studies and history. Temple, which boasts the oldest doctoral program in the nation and well-known scholars like Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, focuses on Afrocentric ideologies and methodologies.
Northwestern has engaged in a bidding war for high-profile faculty members. Two years ago, the university lured Darlene Clark Hine, one of the nation’s most prominent Black historians to its Evanston, Ill., campus. The department’s faculty roster also includes Dr. Dwight McBride. Other faculty from Northwestern and other Chicago-area universities, including DePaul University and the University of Chicago, will participate in the program.
Some conservative intellectuals like Shelby Steele of the Hoover Institution have questioned the validity of Black studies program, arguing that they have become too activist-oriented and lack a rigorous pedegogical approach.
But Iton scoffs at such criticism.
“Scholars working in this highly interdisciplinary field have done a lot of path-breaking scholarly work in history, the humanities and the social sciences,” he says. “Academic programs are not graded on their activist commitments and African-American studies is not much different in that regard.”
Columbia University plans to expand its existing master’s program into a doctoral program within the next few years.
— By Jamal Watson
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