With faculty support, Sahle reshapes African and Afro-American studies department
Being a department chair is demanding enough. Replacing a long-time chair who resigned and was forced to retire after being implicated in an internal investigation makes the job even more challenging. Adding responsibility for creating positive change from the outset ratchets up the pressure considerably.
That’s the situation Eunice Sahle faced when she became chair of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies on Jan 1.
Sahle, an award-winning teacher and scholar with expertise on the political and economic development of Africa in the context of globalization, already has been influential in reshaping department policies and boosting faculty morale. She took over from Evelyne Huber, who began the reform process during her service as interim chair during the fall semester 2011.
The Gazette spoke with Sahle about the direction in which the department is heading. Joining the conversation were Kenneth Janken, director of undergraduate studies, honors coordinator and Summer School administrator; and Reginald Hildebrand, associate professor and recipient of a 2012 Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
What made you agree to become department chair?
Sahle: Actually, it took a lot of persuasion from [Senior Associate] Dean Jonathan Hartlyn, but it was really the support of the faculty that made me decide. Further, I thought that if I did nothing else, I could establish a model of shared governance – and I’ve done that. I created the model even before I officially became chair, and we implemented it this spring.
We have various departmental committees, and every faculty member is involved in one way or another on a committee. That’s a significant change.
Sahle: I have created a policies and procedures manual for the department. It outlines general departmental policies as well as details about new policies on exams and grading and the core items that have to appear in every syllabus, among other things.
In addition, we have an independent studies contract for the department, which is even stricter than the one approved by the College of Arts and Sciences. Since we introduced the contract, we have had zero independent studies courses. When conducted properly, independent studies courses are important learning tools for students. The department looks forward to majors and their advisers submitting proposals for such courses in the future.
Janken: Transparency is a key part of this change. Prior to this, the way independent studies were conducted was not a good situation pedagogically and could be open to academic abuse.
Now there’s a contract that has to be approved by several layers. An instructor has to approve it; the department’s Academic Affairs Committee has to approve it; and the chair has to approve it. This way we know what’s going on, and it ties good governance with good scholarship.
How do the faculty feel about the changes that have been implemented?
Hildebrand: From a faculty member’s perspective, we were so pleased that the dean appointed Eunice to become chair. She signals loud and clear a restoration to what has been part of the tradition and identity and DNA of this department: a commitment to historical studies, human rights and ethics in the context of a globalizing world. That is the reputation she has as a person and as a scholar.
In addition, Eunice does all that we as a department strive to do. She’s conversant with, and claimed by, people doing work in the United States, Africa and the Diaspora beyond the U.S. because she has been involved in all those things.
I’d also like to clarify that even though things were not fine before, this does not suggest that all things were being abused or were conducted in an unethical way. We appreciate the new guidelines – they reflect where we ought to be – but the fact is that we were not going to do unethical things without them.
How is the curriculum affected?
Sahle: We’ve worked very hard to create a new curriculum in a very short amount of time. We’re looking forward to its implementation in fall 2013. That has been an exciting major development for us.
Janken: The state of knowledge continually develops in any field, so this is an important catch-up for us and it’s something we have talked about for a good while. Once implemented, the new major and minor requirements will catch us up to where African studies and African American and Diaspora studies are.
The structure will make sure that students understand those fields in relation to each other and in relation to the rest of the United States, the western hemisphere and the world. No matter what career they choose, our students will be able to talk knowledgeably about the state of the world and the state of the black world.
How did you approach the curriculum changes?
Janken: Over the years, we had many water cooler discussions, and about a year ago we started more formal discussions. Once Eunice was appointed chair, she gave the department’s Academic Affairs Committee a deadline to codify the changes. We were able to draw on faculty members’ and students’ understanding of the curriculum, what needed to be strengthened and how to bring it in line with current thinking and solving the 21st-century problems of the world.
Sahle: I am very pleased that our faculty has embraced it, because even under the best circumstances, it can be difficult for faculty to buy into such a significant change.
Hildebrand: I was on leave last semester, but recognizing the product of the work that was done, the number of reforms and the hours the committee chairs have put in under tight deadlines, what we accomplished in one semester would be typical for a department to take a couple of years to work through.
And it has been done in the spirit of collegiality by people who are all focused on the same goals. It shows the kind of thinking and commitment we have and what our values are – and have always been.
What about the department’s name?
Janken: We will change the name, and I expect it to be effective next academic year when the new major and minor requirements are in place. The department will become the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies.
We’ll have a new subject code, too – AAAD. While the languages we offer – Kiswahili, Lingala, and Wolof – will retain their old subject codes, they will continue to be a vital part of the department and the University. Undergraduates can fulfill their foreign language requirement in our department, and we strongly encourage students in the African studies concentration to do so.
But it is not only our majors and undergraduates in the college who benefit from our offerings in Swahili, Lingala and Wolof. Undergraduate and graduate students in several professional schools such as medicine and public health have taken our courses and developed a speaking ability to further their international research and service agendas.
What’s the next step?
Sahle: Over the coming academic year, the Academic Affairs Committee will develop for the faculty’s consideration a set of thematic tracks for students majoring in African, African American and Diaspora studies.
Let me offer a little background information first. As before, the department will offer a single B.A. degree in African, African American and Diaspora studies with two separate concentrations: African studies and African American and Diaspora studies.
With the new curriculum, all majors take four courses in common and six electives in their concentration. We would like our majors to select electives that would enrich their studies in a systematic way.
As I said, what the tracks are, how many there are and how many courses there would be have not yet been decided. But it makes sense to offer a track on history or cultural production or gender or national-global politics, which will offer students a chance to focus their attention on major questions and issues delineated by those tracks.
The thematic tracks have an additional benefit: They help identify teaching areas we would like to develop with future hires.
What else do you want people to know?
Hildebrand: I am proud to be part of a department where there are so many distinguished teachers who have excelled in the classroom, in their research and in service to the state and beyond – and who have been recognized for their work.
Because we’re both interdisciplinary and global, there are many opportunities for interactions between faculty and students. I can honestly say there are very few places where you can have the kind of experiences our majors will have.
Editor’s Note: Early next year, the department will host an interdisciplinary scholarly conference on the work of American sociologist, historian, author and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois. The Gazette will include information about the conference in an upcoming issue.