Dr. Walton R. Johnson recently resigned as chair of Rutgers University’s Africana Studies department in protest of a proposal that he says attacks the very existence of his department and discipline.
“The plan to remove African languages and literature from Africana Studies denies the very legitimacy and raison d’etre of our discipline,” Johnson says. “Our discipline is founded on the conceptual, intellectual, and pedagogical basis that it makes sense to have people who study Africa and the African diaspora together in one multi-disciplinary department. That’s our raison d’etre. That’s why we exist. Not just at Rutgers but across the country.”
The Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) is proposing to transfer the African languages and literature components, including faculty and courses, in Africana Studies into a new department of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literature that the school plans to create next year.
SAS Acting Executive Dean Dr. Ziva Galili says that in no way does she mean to question the academic legitimacy of Africana Studies.
“But, at the same time, I believe that students will be served better and languages will be taught better if they are taught in a department that concentrates on teaching languages and literature,” she says. “Language teaching … is not like other disciplines. Historians, political scientists, economists and sociologists have fairly similar formats of teaching.
“The experience of teaching and the experience of learning languages are very different from other areas,” she adds. “Languages have to be taught in small groups, repetition is very important, and there are pedagogical issues that are unique to languages.”
At least two Africana Studies professors—Dr. Ousseina D. Alidou and Dr. Alamin Mazrui—would be transferred totally or partly (partial lines) to the new department if the proposal is approved. Alidou is the department’s director of African Languages and Literature, and Mazrui is a newly hired professor whose expertise is in the political sociology of language in Africa and comparative literature in the African Diaspora and Africa.
In an Africana Studies faculty meeting last week, there was a consensus vote against the proposal. Alidou and Mazrui did not vote, but they did submit a joint statement to Diverse Tuesday in support of the proposal.
“We see strong merit in the plan for several inter-related reasons arising from our many years of experience in African language instruction and programming in the U.S. academy,” the statement says.
The professors gave three reasons for supporting the initiative. First, they contend that the curriculum focus of the department “is primarily North American,” and, “as a result,” the “majority of the students who elect to major in Africana Studies see little relevance in African languages in the pursuit of their academic and professional goals and have tended to regard the one-year African language requirement as a burden rather than an asset.”
Second, their “observations on how African language learners progress in different institutional settings suggest that this new unit will provide a better focus for language learning than Africana.” Third, they insist that the three new hires that SAS is allotting to the department “will significantly improve instruction in Africana” Studies.
Galili also maintains that the Africana Studies department ultimately will be bolstered through the initiative. Its majors, she says, will still have access to the same language courses as before since they will be cross-listed, in addition to the breadth of courses that the department will be able to add with the three professors.
“There are plans to, at one in the same time, strengthen Africana Studies, and also strengthen more generally the teaching of languages and literature from three regions of the world: African, the Middle East and South Asia,” Galili says. “We believe that the department we plan to create, a department that is dedicated to teaching languages and literature, has faculty who are dedicated to and are experts in teaching languages and literature.”
Johnson says the idea that these plans will strengthen the Africana Studies department is “nonsense.”
“That’s an inversion of reality,” he says. “The reality is that, if you’ve claimed that there is intellectual merit for Africanist linguists to be with the linguistics and not with the Africanists, then you are undercutting the very raison d’etre of our department. That is the deathblow. Whether they put other lines in doesn’t matter because they have taken away our intellectual legitimacy.”
“Now at some future point, another dean, perhaps, could think that all of the Africanist political scientists should be in political science, so I am going to move them,” he adds. “If you accept the principle that they are trying to establish here, then you have no case with regard to the further dismantling of our department.”
The proposal has not been officially submitted. It will go before the faculty in SAS during the beginning of the spring semester, when its members will then discuss and decide on it.
“I am not happy that all of this had to become so public,” says Johnson, who publicly announced and explained his resignation and protest through a letter that has been circulating through the Rutgers and Africana Studies communities. “I am hopeful the faculty both in our department and the broader faculty in SAS will handle this matter in an appropriate way.”
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