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Thursday, November 30, 2023


Task force strengthens African American Studies

Dean John Roberts of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences has appointed a task force to further develop the African American Studies curriculum by strengthening the minor and developing a proposal for a major.

Roberts said that one of the group’s goals is to make courses toward an AAS minor more easily accessible to students, emphasizing their availability outside of just the AAS department.

“The task force’s work will also focus on finding ways to better highlight the large number of faculty and courses at UH that explore the experiences of African people on the continent and throughout the diaspora,” Roberts said. “Since many of the African American Studies courses are taught in departments other than African American Studies, the task force is charged with developing ways of making sure that students will be able to more easily find and register for these courses.”

Specifically, the team will work on developing a process to make sure that these courses are regularly cross-listed and made available in one place to make things easier for those pursuing the minor.

Roberts appointed the members of the task force on Jan. 31 during a coming together of faculty who teach African American Studies courses throughout CLASS, according to a UH press release.

Rheeda Walker, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, said she is excited to be a part of a team that is attempting to help bring to light the largely unnoticed rich cultural history of African-Americans in the U.S. and the diaspora.

“In academia, more effort is needed to stimulate scholarly activities and also community connections that bridge people to our cultural roots,” Walker said.

James Conyers, director of AAS since 2002 and chairman of the task force, said he agrees and that making more courses accessible to students is a good move to broaden the curriculum.

“The minor will also have an international focus, so it isn’t going to just focus on African-Americans in the U.S., but also it will have an international focus that will extend to Latin America and the Caribbean,” Conyers said. “Already we work with Africa with our study abroad program to Ghana. This is an excellent addition for us to have.”

The task force will focus on only the proposal for a major, not a department, at this point in time. Conyers said expansion to a department may be able to happen much later down the road. For now, supplemental courses from history, comparative cultures, English, sociology, music and theater are available to students, providing them about 60 hours just in undergraduate AAS and another 30-plus hours in other departments in CLASS.

Conyers said developing AAS is a great opportunity to keep up with competition.

“First of all, there is only one university in the state of Texas that offers a degree in African American Studies,” Conyers said. “That’s University of Texas at Austin. So, we would be the first urban university in the state of Texas to offer a degree in AAS.”

Conyers is excited to continue working on this development because students have long been expressing their desire to further their studies in the subject.

In his own study, Conyers looked at a random sample of 18 national universities. He found that, nationally, only two universities did not offer the degree in AAS out of the group studied — UH and the University of Utah. He also found that, of the Category 1 schools — meaning universities that are located in a large metropolis — UH is the only university that does not offer a degree in African American Studies.

“The thing is, we’ve got the student population that is interested in the subject area,” Conyers said. “We don’t have challenges with attracting students to our courses. I just think it’s a good move forward for us, it’s a good fit for the University and it identifies that we are competitive with our peer institutions inside and outside of Texas.”

Walker said she agrees and that there is no better place to further develop a strong AAS program than at UH.

“Where better to do that than at the Carnegie-designated Tier One public research institution that happens to be situated in the fourth-largest city in the U.S., of which almost 25 percent of the population is made of black adults and youth and within a community that values education and upward mobility?” Walker said.

Today, UH is distinguished as one of the most diverse research institutions in the nation. In addition, its African American Studies program is 45 years old this year, making it one of the oldest in the country.

Conyers said he thinks the minor’s success will extend itself onto the major if approved in the future.

“It’s just completely positive,” Conyers said. “If you look at our peer institutions, this program has been successful. UH doesn’t exist on its own — we have other universities that are our Tier One peers. Look at the University of Louisville: it offers a bachelor’s and a Ph.D in AAS. Go to the University of Memphis: they offer a bachelor’s degree and a graduate concentration. So, I mean, I don’t think we really have to convince people.”

Roberts said that as CLASS dean, his primary goal is to provide a strong and viable curriculum.

“Like many of the other cultural studies programs in the college, the study of the African-American cultural and historical experience is significant not only to the development of American culture but also to the development of world culture,” Roberts said. “Our goal is to make sure that UH students have an opportunity to explore that experience in the classroom setting and to make it the focus of their academic studies if they desire.”

It has been three years since UH received its Tier One status. Conyers said that since then, the school has taken steps to complement that status. He said developing AAS is an extension of the continuous effort for the school to better itself.

“Leadership in the University is moving towards building everything up, especially with the Tier One concept,” Conyers said. “That exists throughout the entire campus. It’s not just science and engineering or hotel and restaurant management or business. Tier One is Tier One, and that means that everyone, including the faculty, has to grind a little bit more. We need more programs that can graduate students, programs of substance. It’s going to be really great for the University as far as grants, alumni, graduating students and enrollment — everything. It’s a win-win all the way around.”

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