First 5 Students Seek Doctorates In African American Studies

Julie French

By Julie FrenchThe Daily Northwestern

Northwestern’s African American studies department became the seventh at a national university to offer a doctoral program when its first five Ph.D. candidates arrived on campus last fall.

“There’s definitely the feeling of being part of history,” graduate student Tera Agyepong said.

Agyepong chose NU for its wide array of classes and the personal relationships that can be built with faculty members who aren’t overburdened with too many graduate students. Agyepong is pursuing a law degree and a doctorate in African American Studies with an emphasis on politics, society and culture.

“There’s no other program in the country that has that kind of focus,” she said. Studying how public policy has affected blacks is great preparation for her intended career in academia and pro bono legal work, she said.

NU is now part of an elite group of schools including Harvard University, Yale University and the University of California at Berkeley. The NU program distinguishes itself from others by focusing on the interdisciplinary nature of the field, said Richard Iton, the department’s director of graduate studies.

“It represents a big achievement in terms of putting African American studies on the map,” he said.

The program is arranged around three basic areas: expressive arts, history and social sciences.

“It is important to have an academic program that can allow us to get to the full range of issues of race, because race has something to do with everything we study in the humanities and social sciences,” Iton said.

Because there are so few African American studies doctoral programs, each university offering a program has been able to separate itself from its peers, said Abu Abarry, the director of graduate studies at Temple University. According to Abarry, Temple started the U.S.’s first doctoral program in African American studies in 1991.

Michigan State University, for example, is known for its emphasis on religion and spiritual studies, Abarry said. Berkeley focuses on sociology and gender studies, and Temple offers classes in socioeconomic and cultural studies.

“We are grateful that we have more institutions offering Ph.D.s in the field,” Abarry said. “I think we should have even more.”

Temple currently has about 25 students and as its faculty shrank, the program had to restrict admission. The creation of new programs, especially at prestigious schools like NU, will help further validate the discipline, he said.

The demand for African American studies grew out of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but by the 1980s, when Temple was developing its graduate program, the discipline had reached a low point in interest. As more programs have been added, the popularity of African American studies has increased, Abarry said.

Agyepong said she felt honored to be one of the first students in NU’s program.

“The only disadvantage is not having people to ask who have been ahead of you,” Agyepong said.

Professors sometimes face a similar problem because none of them have a Ph.D. in African American Studies, Iton said. When NU was setting up the program, people from other schools including University of Massachusetts, Amherst were brought in to advise.

This type of collaboration will only become easier with the continuing expansion of the discipline into different areas of the country, Abarry said.

Another program student, Patricia Lott, earned her Master of Arts in African American studies at Berkeley but chose to transfer to NU to finish her Ph.D.

“I felt that I would get much much more support here for the type of work I was doing,” said Lott, who studies the portrayal of slavery by historians and writers.

Lott also said she looked forward to working with and learning from her classmates.

“We will be very proactive and involved in creating the direction and setting the standards for which direction the program will go in the future,” she said.

Reach Julie French at [email protected]