At the height of the pandemic in 2020, without ever visiting the campus, Dr. David A. Canton accepted the position of director of the African American studies program at the University of Florida (UF). His mission is to transition the long-time program into a department. Doing that at a prestigious Research 1 institution was too important to pass up.
Two years in, Canton is preparing a proposal that outlines the reasons for making African American studies a department, and the benefit it would bring to the university, to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in which it is situated, and to the community. The college’s dean, Dr. David E. Richardson, will review the proposal and give comments and suggestions. There will be a university meeting in January to review the proposal.
“We were very fortunate to find someone with that kind of ambition and interest in building as David Canton,” says Richardson. “He saw that he had an opportunity to do something that he really wanted to do … take it from a program status to a department status, which represented a significant commitment.”
UF’s African American studies program was started in 1969. In the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there were protests on campus.
“Students organized Black student unions demanding more African American studies courses, Black faculty and staff,” says Canton. “The campus movement helped open the space for Black studies, and Black studies as a discipline in return would provide the curriculum that looks at the African American perspective. Also, conducting programs in the community. These are still things that the African American studies program is doing in 2022.”
There had been previous conversations about transitioning the program to a department, but those had not moved forward. In 2020, that plan became concrete, and the search was on to find a director who could do that.
A graduate of Morehouse College, Canton earned a master’s degree in Black studies at The Ohio State University and a doctorate in history at Temple University. He joined the faculty of Connecticut College in 2003, and was an associate professor of history, director of the African American studies program as well as interim dean of institutional equity and inclusion, chair of the history department and director of the Center of the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity. He is the author of Raymond Pace Alexander: A New Negro Lawyer Fights for Civil Rights in Philadelphia. He is working on a biography, Lawrence Dunbar Reddick: Activist/Historian.
Canton began his position at UF in July 2020 and was given five full-time, tenure-track lines to hire, demonstrating the commitment to transitioning to a department. Canton, who is also an associate professor of history, hired two faculty members in year one. Last year, he hired another faculty person. Two new hires are expected this year.
“Many of our peer universities have departments,” says Canton. “It’s beyond time for University of Florida to have an African American studies department. The other part is increasing the number of student majors through being more active on campus. … We’re getting out there, having programming, engaging with students and bringing in scholars from the discipline.”
This year, there will be more events on campus, which helps build momentum. The film “Nope” will be screened followed by commentary from someone who studies Black horror films. There will be a table talk with a faculty member who will discuss research. In March 2023, UF will host the National Council for Black Studies conference.
The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences promotes career readiness skills, so every discipline is developing the students’ verbal and written skills. Canton says he will assign his students to create a podcast on a topic from the class. In terms of visual communication, students prepare a PowerPoint presentation with graphs and data.
Canton says there is a learning curve coming from Connecticut College, a small liberal arts college, to UF. He says he greatly appreciates the resources and the exposure for faculty and student research, but he is still adjusting to not having as much personal contact with students.
“I taught Quest course (part of UF’s general education curriculum) with 66 students and a TA (teaching assistant); I never had a TA in my life,” Canton says. “I had to get used to that. It’s the culture of an R1.”
Richardson says Canton’s move to an R1 meant moving away from the informality he had at Connecticut College. “There are a lot of guardrails around how these resources can be allocated and extended,” says Richardson. “He absorbed that in a relatively short amount of time. Then, in my view, he has grasped the advantages that he has here, and he has been able to sell those advantages to faculty candidates who have applied for positions here in which they’re 100% dedicated to the same project that he is.”
Canton is trying to bring to UF a small college feeling for students. After an event, students are encouraged to come and talk to the presenters, which hopefully will make students want to take African American studies courses. The presentations spark interest and possibly ignite a passion for learning more, which is how he found his career in academia. He entered Morehouse intent on majoring in biology and going on to medical school. While he loved history, the only career option he could envision was becoming a high school teacher, which didn’t interest him. Eventually with encouragement from his then-girlfriend, now-wife, he became a history major.
“Once I became a history major, I joined the history majors club and became active,” Canton says. “That’s when my light started to shine. I started hanging out in the department, going to conferences in Washington, D.C., being exposed to the life of the mind. Finding my passion all started with changing my major. I use this model when I advise students.”
As a first-generation college student, Canton didn’t know about doctorates or writing a dissertation, but a professor provided guidance. Once he learned more about life in the academy, he liked the idea of the lifestyle, which included travel, attending conferences, meeting people and having time for his family (Canton’s wife is also a professor). Now empty nesters, when his kids were growing up, he and his wife were present at baseball games, recitals and other activities.
Canton encourages students to identify what they are passionate about. He understands they may feel pressure to pick a major seen as practical, but he explains there are many practical applications for African American studies — from law to medicine to business to academia. “We have all the data that shows you can still go to med school,” he says. “You have to believe the process in terms of doing well in your classes, getting involved in campus activities and getting competitive internships.”
As of 2021, 20 universities offer doctoral programs in African American studies. For undergraduates, there are over 200 either departments or programs.
“The most exciting part of this is how this unit can come together in the years ahead as they get to what one might call a critical mass of faculty who are in sync in terms of what they want to accomplish…in a departmental unit,” says Richardson. “David Canton is someone who grasps that capability and that future significantly. … I’m confident that he has a vision about the future of African American studies as a national or even international discipline to which he will bring innovation and innovative ideas.”
Canton was born in 1968 and says in his lifetime he’s seen a discipline born out of struggle embraced by scholars and more prominent than ever.
“This discipline is cutting edge because of the changing demographics of this country,” says Canton. “Whether it’s environmental racism, police brutality, infant mortality rates, all these issues are studied in African American studies departments and programs across the country.”
His advice to present-day graduate students is to develop excellent writing skills and to build a writing portfolio, which can include op/eds to book reviews. When Canton completed graduate school, the goal was to get a tenure-track job, but today’s graduate students should be open to different career possibilities. “I tell young graduate students if you’re going to become an academic, you have to definitely be published earlier than when I went to school,” he says. “You have to be more engaged in the discipline at a much earlier stage because tenure-track jobs are very competitive. At the same time, do not close the door to non-tenure-track academic jobs—consulting, non-profits, government. There are plenty of other areas where you can use your research skills, your writing skills and those career-ready skills.”