African studies redesigns major

The department wants more students to major rather than minor.

Simon Benarroch

Partly by design and partly by coincidence, the University of Minnesota’s African-American and African Studies Department is undergoing a major overhaul.

The most striking change is the influx of new leadership, but with revived outreach and a revised major curriculum, the department’s changes run deeper.

Keith Mayes, an associate professor, took over as the department chair in July, succeeding Walt Jacobs, who led AA&AS for five years.

In the same month, the department’s director of undergraduate studies and the unit’s new outreach coordinator — a position that had been vacant for a year-and-a-half — were filled.

“We’ve had a complete change in the office,” Mayes said.

The transition marks a change the department hopes will allow it to buck the recent trend of students opting for minors rather than majors.

It has addressed this, in part, by redesigning its major curriculum.

This semester will be the department’s first test of a new, more streamlined major, which it approved last spring. As of this fall, new AA&AS students are required to take two introductory courses but can structure their major from there on as they see fit.

Originally the major courses were divided into tracks: local African-American studies, continental-African studies and African diaspora.

This forced students to commit immediately to one track and made it difficult for newcomers to switch to the major with any hope of graduating on time.

“We had too many course requirements and not enough courses,” said Yuichiro Onishi, the department’s director of undergraduate studies.

They discovered students preferred not to specialize but to take classes from across the three tiers.

“We didn’t want to have [students] penalized for not having gone into the major in a deliberate way,” Mayes said.

He said the department also had long made the mistake of assuming students understood what AA&AS actually is “just because of the label on the door.”

Hassan Shahid, a University sociology major who minored in AA&AS, didn’t even know the major existed.

“I minor in it because I like the classes,” he said, “but I don’t know anyone who’s a major.”

Re-branding ethnic studies

Walt Jacobs, the former AA&AS chair of five years, attributes some of the decline in majors to the economic climate.

“These days, folks are looking to major in something more bankable,” he said.

Onishi shares this view of the College of Liberal Arts in general.

He said more and more students are opting for “concrete” majors outside of CLA in fields that produce more reliably profitable degrees.

Nevertheless, he said he believes this shouldn’t become the department’s focus for outreach.

“I can attach various professions to [AA&AS], but I want to find other ways to align ourselves,” he said. “Ethnicity studies are always fighting for legitimacy.”

Onishi said the department should shift its struggle to productive ends by taking cues from the “CLA rhetoric.” That is, to emphasize that the skills to be gained from a liberal arts education — writing, critical thinking, creativity — will give graduates an edge regardless of their chosen field.

With a degree in ethnic studies, he said, “students can become the change they want to see in greater society.”

Expanding the department

Due to CLA spending cuts, outreach was put on hold until a few months ago.

AA&AS outreach coordinator Vanessa Abanu said she wants to let students know about the major early through external and internal outreach.

The department will work in conjunction with Minneapolis Public Schools this October to train 20 to 30 teachers on issues of cultural competency, diversity and public policy, Mayes said.

On campus, Abanu said, the department is working with student groups to ensure their majors have a presence on campus — Monday’s Black Student Union barbeque is one example.

The extent of the department’s on-campus outreach is still being figured out.

Mayes is also working to expand the major to other departments — an emphasis he believed set his leadership apart from Jacobs’, Mayes said.

He talked about forming the kinds of course “clusters” students find in other departments, like a Biology, Society and Environment major.

Connections like these would allow majors to grow in interesting ways, Mayes said.

“They want to pair [their major] and cobble it with something else,” he said. “That’s the kind of dynamism we want to capture.