University News

Brown lacks resources, faculty in African studies

Students, faculty disappointed with lack of courses focused on African continent

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2015

While many European and Asian countries take space in the University’s academic spotlight, a gap remains in students’ academic access to the world’s second largest continent: Africa.

With the revamping of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the University is looking to become home to one of the country’s leading centers for international studies, Provost Richard Locke P’17 previously told The Herald.

But students interested in the countries and cultures of Africa are often left wanting more when it comes to resources and courses offered, as well as the number of faculty members who focus on the continent.

Increasing interest

Only a handful of courses are offered each semester that focus directly on Africa. DEVL 1550: “The Political Economy of Development in Africa,” taught by Patricia Agupusi, a postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute, is one of these courses.

“It’s sad when you see a lot of students very interested in Africa, and they will not get enough knowledge about Africa because there are not enough courses on Africa,” she said, adding that it is a “big issue” on campus.

At Watson, successful programs such as the China Initiative and the Brown-India Initiative have allowed students to hone their interests on certain areas around the globe, Agupusi said. While Watson has improved its Africa Initiative over the years by hosting events that center on Africa, it has yet to become as formalized as peer initiatives, she added.

By increasing faculty and resources, such as funding for students who want to conduct research in Africa, the University can both meet and grow student interest in Africa, Agupusi said.

“You have to have people teaching (about) Africa for people to become interested,” she said.

It seems the University is trying to address its lack of African studies with events held through Watson’s Africa Initiative, but there is still work to be done in the long term to increase student access to the subject, said Wilson Cusack ’16, a student in Agupusi’s developmental studies course.

In the courses that do focus on Africa, the continent’s countries also often “get lumped together,” whereas in the study of other continents, the countries tend to be studied individually, he said.

For example, one course focuses on sub-Saharan African history from the 1940s to the present, but courses about other continents would not be offered in such sweeping terms, he added.

As a “first step” to offer students who are interested in African studies more resources, the University should create a list of professors who focus on Africa across different departments, said Sara Weschler ’10, who was frustrated by the lack of African studies courses available as an undergraduate. Faculty members who focus on Africa are available, but because they are so widespread across disciplines, it can be difficult for students to find them on their own, she added.

With Africa containing nations that are some of the world’s fastest growing economies, such as Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the University should be dedicating more resources to the study of “the last frontier,” Agupusi said.

“If Brown wants to make itself a global university, as it is, you can’t leave out the entire region of Africa,” Agupusi said. “Africa is a region that is rising.”

Interrelated departments

Africana studies is often confused with African studies, but the two are distinct, Agupusi said.

Africana studies focuses on the African diaspora — the culture and connections of Africans who were forced into slavery or who migrated to other continents. Comparatively, African studies focuses on the continent and the countries within it.

The University has a Department of Africana Studies that contains faculty members who specialize in and teach about the African diaspora, focusing on areas such as African-American and Afro-Brazilian studies.

But while many courses offered by the department allow students to study the culture and history of Africa, these studies are often designed to connect the cultures of people with African ancestry to Africa, said Brian Meeks, professor of Africana studies and chair of the department.

One of the department’s major weaknesses is its lack of faculty members whose research and teaching focus directly on Africa, Meeks said. The department is also small compared to those of peer institutions, with just seven available positions, he said. Universities such as Harvard and Yale have more than triple the number of positions within their  departments, he added.

Many of the courses offered in the department are cross-listed in other departments, such as the Departments of English and History, Meeks said. Hiring faculty members who focus on Africa would benefit not only Africana studies, but also the departments in which courses are cross-listed, he added.

Olakunle George, associate professor of English and Africana studies, teaches courses on African texts and literature that are often cross-listed in the English, comparative literature and Africana studies departments.

“I don’t think of (Africana studies and African studies) as separate in the sense of addressing different issues, but rather as interrelated,” George said, adding that Africanists can approach African culture from their varied fields.

George emphasized that faculty who focus on Africa already exist throughout departments at the University, but “Brown can always do better in terms of having more people in their pertinent departments whose focus is on Africa.”

Falling short

Over five years have passed since Weschler, now a master’s student in the Institute of African Studies at Columbia, was an undergraduate. But little has changed in terms of the University’s focus on Africa, she said.

The relationship between “Brown and Africa is a massive disappointment,” she said, adding that she took three courses with Professor of History Nancy Jacobs, one of the few faculty members who focuses on the continent. “There was almost nothing without her,” she said.

Because of the lack of African studies courses, Weschler instead took courses that did not focus on the continent but had some component, such as a final paper, that let her explore her interest in Africa.

Chimezie Udozorh ’16 said she finds herself confronting the same frustrations today, adding that the nonexistence of African languages at Brown is especially taxing.

“There are a lot of students here who are African students, and many have been raised abroad,” Udozorh said. “As a result, they have a hard time speaking their heritage language or don’t know the language of their father or mother.”

Many of these students come to Brown with “hope and excitement” that courses on these languages and cultures will be offered, but these desires are met with disappointment, she said. “There are so many languages and so many rich cultures to choose from. To say that there are zero (courses offered) is so exhaustingly frustrating.”

In an attempt to fill this gap, Udozorh, along with a few other students, attempted to create a Group Independent Study Project on Igbo, a native Nigerian language. The first time they submitted the GISP proposal, it was rejected, as the students were having difficulty creating a syllabus that was appropriate for a language course, she said.

“It was kind of irritating because we’re suddenly expected to be able to make a language course syllabus for a language that we’re struggling with, and that was the only way we could get it approved,” Udozorh said. Eventually, the group got the GISP approved not as a language course, but as one that focuses on the culture of Igbo people, including their language.

Weschler said it is “shameful” that Brown still does not offer any African languages.

Because there were no classes for her to practice her Swahili while she was at Brown, she joined Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment, which paired her with a Swahili-speaking family.

“I found all these different ways to work Africa into my life, but I really had to do all these contortions to fit it in because there were no academic sources,” Weschler said.

The lack of African studies at Brown makes Weschler “genuinely sad,” she said. “I really love Brown so much, and I feel like this lack is a massive intellectual and kind of moral failing of the University, that it has just forgotten, almost, this entire continent.”