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African American and African Studies program small but mighty

January 11, 2018

For 15 years, MSU has offered African American and African Studies as a graduate and doctoral program, as well as an undergraduate minor. 

According to a 2002 State News article, when the program launched, it was revolutionary. 

MSU’s program was one of the only doctoral programs of its kind, and the only one of its kind in the Big Ten. 

The first African American and African Studies class had about six students, with two having been MSU undergraduates. 

According to the article, “The introduction of the program puts the university in good company — only five similar doctoral degrees exist in the nation at institutions such as Harvard University and Yale University. MSU hosts the only one in the Big Ten.”

Program director Glenn Chambers said the program was initially introduced to satisfy faculty members’ desires to create the program and the university’s desire to diversify graduate education at MSU. 

Chambers, who has held his position for two years, recounted the story of the program’s conception in 2002. 

“There were several senior faculty members at MSU who thought we should (create a program), and working with the Provost, who is now President (Lou Anna K.) Simon, they went to her about basically creating a program, and they got the support of the university to do so, I think initially,” Chambers said. 

The program was conceived as an undergraduate program, but evolved into a graduate program with an undergraduate specialization. 

“A lot of this I’m getting secondhand, but initially there was a desire to have an undergraduate program, but it ultimately was a graduate program,” Chambers said. “That was, I think, what the university needed at the time in order to attract diverse graduate students and all of that.”

After a graduate program was established, there was a desire to create an extension for undergraduates, and the original undergraduate specialization turned into a more formal undergraduate minor.

“Once the graduate program was thriving and all of those things, over time there was the desire on the part of the program’s faculty and previous directors to extend the program at the undergraduate level,” Chambers said. “I believe in 2010, we switched sort of from having an undergraduate specialization to an undergraduate minor.”

Doctoral candidate Kristin Rowe said she graduated from the University of Delaware with a double major in Black American Studies and English. 

Rowe began studying African American and African Studies at MSU to complete both her master’s and doctoral degrees within six years, and she said she plans to graduate May 2019. 

In the beginning, Rowe said she was unsure of whether or not she would choose to study African American Studies or English in her graduate work. 

“I was admitted into both types, but ultimately I decided to do African American Studies just because I felt that the kind of work I wanted to do, interdisciplinary work, community-oriented work, the type of direction my work was taking,” Rowe said. “So, it would be better to be in an interdisciplinary program like African American Studies.”

The interdisciplinary and intersectional aspects of the program are what Chambers said he considers to be the most important aspects of the program.

He said he hopes students leave understanding the African-American experience is connected to many nations as well as world affairs. 

“We get students from all across the board, all walks of life and different backgrounds who study all different aspects of the black experience,” Chambers said. “But one thing that I want them to understand is that the black experiences, like all other experiences, are global experiences ... that it’s all interconnected. That’s one thing I want them to see: the global nature of the black experience.”

While she has loved studying within the program, Rowe said she thinks the biggest area in need of improvement is that of institutional resources.

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“The program is a program rather than a department,” Rowe said. “So, being a program, we don’t have faculty, we don’t do our own faculty hires, that sort of thing.”

Rowe said another issue with the program not being a department is that graduate appointments are not within African American and African Studies. 

“Institutionally (we could improve) in terms of resources, in terms of having a sort of structural backing, and that affects having a lack of space, lack of faculty and graduate appointments,” Rowe said. “Our graduate appointments are in other disciplines.”

Rowe said she feels the program has prepared her for the career she wants upon graduation. 

She’s hoping to become an associate professor on a tenure track. 

“I was able to do an internship as an administrative assistant at the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit as well as an internship in Praetoria, South Africa with the study abroad program as well,” Rowe said. “I’ve been able to get my work published.”

Rowe said one of the aspects of the program she is most thankful for, aside from professional opportunities, is making connections with the people she met during her studies, including both peers and professors. 

“(I appreciate) a lot of the experiences and opportunities, even just for coursework, and the amazing African-American scholars that I came in with,” Rowe said. “The camaraderie and being in classes together and having conversations.”

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