The Test of Time

Every program does not necessarily become its own field
or discipline or department. The test really is time.

—Mark Sanders, Professor of English and African American Studies and Chair of the Department of African American Studies

The Test of Time
Programs, departments, and the changing landscape of knowledge at Emory

Every program does not necessarily become its own field or discipline or department. The test really is time.
Mark Sanders, Professor of English and African American Studies and Chair of the Department of African American Studies

Because it’s an emergent property of the people who are here, a program can respond to and provide the most cutting-edge intellectual environment at that moment.
Paul Lennard, Director of the Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology

“There ought to be something in Atlanta.”
How a program became a school

Departments and programs featured in this article

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Academic Exchange How did African American studies initiate the process of becoming a department?

Mark Sanders In 2001 we articulated the problems of program status. In particular, we couldn’t hire and promote autonomously. We couldn’t host a tenure home. If we saw an area in which we needed to hire, we had to go to another department, persuade that department that doing a joint appointment with us was in their best interest, somehow get at the top of their priority list, go through the process of getting approval for the search, and do the search. Then once the person got here, particularly if they were a junior person, we were always trying to negotiate the relative input of African American studies at the various stages of evaluation, particularly at the fourth-year review. So all of these things were kind of tenuous, and largely the success of those initiatives was driven by the success of personal relationships. Also in terms of the curriculum, in our own major, so many of our courses were emanating from other departments that we felt we couldn’t really design or update the curriculum in ways we thought best realized our instructional mission.

AE What are the particular problems of being in a relatively new field?

MS African American studies came into the academy largely through student protest. Students really demanded that this intervention be made in the curriculum and that people be hired and this intellectual work be done. And so for some there has been a question for African American studies around legitimacy—that this was a way to placate students. Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, a way for administrators to get students’ feet off their desks, which is how Stanley Crouch describes it. That history and overtly political dimension continue to raise the issue of legitimacy within the academy for some. (I can say quite clearly that I have never heard that claim here at Emory.) So for me it’s very important to think about the ways other disciplines have come into being. And I think African American studies has a similarity with other disciplines in that at a certain point it became painfully clear that certain areas of knowledge were not being pursued, and they needed to be pursued.

AE Do you think the university has too many new “programs” and
“centers” and such cropping up?

MS For those who feel that the strength of the college rests in departments, the flourishing of programs siphons off resources and power, so that work isn’t going directly into departments. One of the ways some have addressed the problem is to say we really don’t need all of these programs. But I take issue with that position. I
think it’s exactly the way in which departments come into being, through first an identification that a longer-standing discipline is unable to do all the work that needs to be done to address a certain set of issues. So people in one longer-standing discipline begin working with people in other departments—pooling resources, pooling time, writing things together, and so forth. That might happen at a number of different universities, and these people begin to have conversations and conferences, they begin to publish, and you begin to take on these institutional accouterments. Every program does not necessarily become its own field or discipline or department. The test really is time, not an ahistorical allegiance to departments as such. I think it is blatantly anti-intellectual, to say that no, we can’t pursue that because we want to put all of our eggs into the departmental basket. I think it denies the history by which many departments actually came into being.

AE What did you learn from the process of developing your department’s tenure criteria?

MS We thought it was important to put in our report that at some point the college would need to revisit how it thinks about evaluation more generally. There are ways to improve the process for jointly appointed people. Take, for example, venues for publication. How are they valued in a longer-standing department versus African American studies? Some longer-standing departments would insist upon essays appearing in an established and flagship journal for that discipline. But African American studies as a field has a number of journals, and certainly someone coming through African American studies as a junior person would be expected to publish in those journals. One way to alleviate the problem is going in to advise junior faculty that they need to publish in both places. Another way we suggested was there be one review committee with representatives from both departments. We really do hope the college will better attend to theoretical and methodological differences.