A Tale of Two Buildings: African Literature at Yale

When Yale professor of English and American Studies Wai Chee Dimock opined about the sudden, unexpected emergence of African literature and Africanist literary scholarship, she made a lot of people unhappy. I’ll let Aaron Bady’s response speak for itself:

It’s not surprising that African literature is read as emerging: In the long emergency that seems to define Africa in the eyes of the rest of the world—in which “Africa” is a place of starving children, warring clans, and technological backwardness—the idea of African literature can seem positively utopian. It can be a delightful discovery when it seems to emerge. But that discovery says everything about the person making it, and nothing about the literature, which emerged a long time ago. And as long as critics and publishers frame African literature as always on the cusp, it will continue to be an emerging literature whose emergence is infinitely deferred.

Bady makes several very smart, stinging critiques of Dimock’s piece, but also of higher education’s English departments’ willful ignorance of African literature in general, and I encourage you to read the whole thing. Some passages I was particularly drawn to:

If you can name only three African writers and two of them are white South Africans, you have a very odd sense of the literature. But this myopia is also general: English departments do have a very limited sense of what African literature is.

And on recent shifts to see American literature as global literature:

[I]f American becomes a “world” literature, what happens to all the literature that used to occupy that space? Is the globalization of American literature a growing cosmopolitanism or a new kind of Eurocentrism? If American literature becomes a world literature, then is world literature just a new name for the old canon?

And:

For a shift from “English departments” to departments of “Anglophone World Literature” to mean anything, structural change would be required, but I suspect only superficial change is on offer, at best. For anything to change, a ratio of 10 professors of 19th-century British literature to one Africanist would have to seem like a damning and embarrassing (and essentially colonial) hierarchy of value.

The absence of an Africanist at Yale English is something that was part of my (and others’) broader critique of Yale’s lackluster performance in Africanist scholarship, but Yale is an interesting site for this conversation for another reason.

Not a quarter mile away from the Yale English Department is the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. This library is filled with rare artifacts, a vast majority of them from Europe and America. Working at the library for two years, I saw more German magazines and bibles than I did anything from the Global South. The only thing that ever passed my desk that mentioned Africa was the occasional piece of political ephemera from radical black groups in the U.S. (although it is worth noting that the Beinecke’s African American collections are wonderful, though I digress).

The Beinecke Library, a five minute walk for any Yale English professor, is also the recent home of the Windham Campbell Literary Prize, a huge new prize that recently announced its third set of winners. In 2013, the inaugural nine prize winners included two South Africans, Jonny Steinberg and Zoë Wicomb. The following year Aminatta Forna was a recipient. This third round of winners, announced last week, includes Teju Cole, Helon Habila, and Ivan Vladislavić. In addition, 2013 non-fiction winner Jeremy Scahill’s work has included extensive reporting in Somalia, and 2015 drama winner Jackie Sibblies Drury’s work includes a play about Namibia.

All this to say, a stone’s throw away from the Yale English Department, a prestigious literary prize has been awarded to six African writers (five of them fiction writers), out of only twenty-six recipients. While Yale’s English Department is still looking for African literature, the library down the street has found it and awarded it six times in three years. That a full quarter of Windham Campbell recipients have been African, that over half a million dollars have been awarded to African writers by the library next door, and still people like Wai Chee Dimock are not sufficiently aware of the existing vibrancy of African literature, is a shame. When the department held its job talks a little over a year ago, several of the faculty in attendance were apparently (according to others I’ve spoken to) completely unengaged – some did not seem to understand the importance of the applicants’ scholarship. This is a sad fact for an English department trying to hire its first Africanist.

I am not saying that we should pay attention to African literature because it’s started winning Western prizes. But this fact, on top of the diverse and exciting amount of writing going on in and about Africa and the increasing scholarship about writers from Africa and the diaspora, should make it clear to English Departments across the country that African literature is more than a forgotten step-child not worth studying. It should be seen as part and parcel to the canon. But it isn’t. And, as Aaron says, “the result is predictable. Ignoring a field normalizes ignorance of it, and this kind of ignorance of African literature continues to be utterly normal.”

Yale Tries to Sneak Kissinger on Campus

Yale’s Jackson Institute of International Affairs is hosting Henry Kissinger on campus Friday for a ‘private,’ ‘invite-only’ address. Students in select departments received invitations via email that explicitly stated that the event would not be publicized and asked that the invitees keep the event confidential. (I was not invited, c’est la vie).

Kissinger is, of course, everyone’s favorite combination Nobel Peace Prize laureate and war criminal. His presence in campus is itself all sorts of disappointing. No institution that seeks to improve the world should be giving such a person a platform from which to speak. But it is even more disappointing that the event is to be exclusive and therefore limit any sort of protest or honest dialog about Kissinger’s record.

Of course, this isn’t exactly a sudden misstep of Yale’s. The monstrosity that is the Jackson Institute is the current employer of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the man behind JSOC during much of the GWOT. So, really, this is just more Yale being Yale.

Strengths and Weaknesses on Africa at Yale

It’s been a few weeks since my article on the Yale Africa Project went up. I tried to make it as comprehensive as possible in discussing Yale’s African Studies program and what has gone into it, but I also had a word limit that I had thoroughly destroyed already. Since I have a blog and that’s what blogs are for, I’m going to dig a little deeper into what’s going to happen at Yale moving forwards.

One promising point in Yale’s future is the creation a senior faculty position in the English Department that will be focused on African literature. Yale has one professor who specializes in Francophone African literature and has never had anyone in English – this new position will rectify that. Yale has a pretty conservative English department overall, something I don’t know enough about to talk about at length, but it’s clear that this position – which has been in the works for many years and included encouragement from the Council on African Studies – will be the department’s foray into world literatures. Hopefully it’s a change that they will continue to expand into.

It’s important to note that this position – which will make a huge mark on African humanities at Yale – is not part of the Yale Africa Project. That initiative, which is in its nascent stages but which has not (and will not, according to those familiar with it) prioritize faculty hiring, has a clear focus on Yale’s strengths. When it comes to Africa, Yale has huge strengths in three sectors: development economics, corruption and good governance, and public health. The Project aims to reinforce those strengths rather than build up new ones. In the front page of a fancy booklet that is being given to potential donors, Ian Shapiro writes:

Focusing on the pivotal areas of governance, development, and public health, we are interested in understanding and contributing to the ways in which business, the public, and the nonprofit sectors respond to Africa’s challenges and opportunities.

In regards to Africa, Yale has a small faculty in general. The humanities in particular need more focus on Africa. Music, art, theater, and literature are all barely represented. The anthropology department’s focus on Africa is currently very low. The language program won’t be able to offer three levels of language instruction without more support. The library collection is great but has been facing budget constraints that make the future more bleak. The Forestry School has one person working in Africa.

Yale has three pillars of specialization in Africa, and that is where the bulk of this new project is headed. While they are important, I see no reason why Yale shouldn’t put resources in parts of Africa where support is needed the most. Africa is the home of vibrant arts, prize-winning literature, diverse languages, endangered ecosystems, and innovative technologies. I can’t figure out why you wouldn’t want to encourage work on these topics.

The new English position will be a welcome addition to Yale because he or she will help support the humanities in African Studies, but also to work to fill a gap in English’s understanding of different literature. The Africa Project should take a note from this and seek to build up new foundations if it really wants to focus on Africa.

Shameless Self-Promotion: On Yale African Studies

Another brief interlude to link you to an article I wrote for Yale Daily News‘ magazine edition, entitled “Looking for Africa.” It’s perhaps the biggest piece I’ll write on the subject, but I don’t expect it to be the last. It’s only a part of a larger conversation which the Yale community has been having, which I’ve linked to before. I hope you’ll take a look, and of course I’ll continue to write about the issue, as it’s important directly to me but also to the conversation about Africanist scholarship (and area studies) in U.S. universities.

 

Cover art, courtesy YDN Magazine

The Yale Africa Project (as it is now known) can and probably will do a lot for Africanist scholarship at the university, but that’s not difficult given the small and narrow focus of the university’s Africa focus now, but many of us are hoping it will do more. After recent faculty departures and downsizing across the area studies, it is good to see a focus specifically on Africa, but I’m not yet convinced it will fulfill its potential. Unfortunately, a lot of this is dependent on donors rather than university governance, largely because Yale hasn’t committed as much to the campaign as it could. My hope is that, in a couple of years, I’ll be able to say that I was wrong.

I interviewed about a dozen people – professors, former professors, alumni, and students – and sent an e-mail survey to about a dozen African Studies students. I also worked tirelessly with two editors who took a 6,000 word statistic- and quote-ridden article and made it legible. The design team also put together a wonderful graphic for the magazine’s cover that essentially sums up why the piece needed to be written. I want to thank everybody involved for helping make it what it is, because they seriously deserve it. I also want to encourage everybody interested to continue to think about how Yale (or any university) can engage with the scholarship it promotes, and what it means to focus on Africa as a university.

More on Yale-Africa

Pardon the absence, folks. Hopefully this blog will be back up to speed soon, but in the mean time I thought I’d share news on the Yale-Africa front, in the form of two other op-eds in the college daily.

First, the editorial board at the Yale Daily News published an editorial which urges Yale to hire more faculty, which meshes with what most students have been saying:

If the University is to attract students and faculty passionate about engaging with Africa, its core program cannot remain in shambles. Before reaching out to African institutions, Yale must ensure that students have adequate resources to study the continent.

The most significant step is to increase faculty hiring. As a program, African Studies cannot formally hire professors and must lobby departments, such as History, for Africanist scholars. While two Africanist professors will begin at Yale next year, the program will still be reeling from last year’s losses.

Currently, many departments only hire one or two Africanists. Each should have multiple experts on Africa — ensuring that an entire field of scholarship will not be neglected due to the natural ebb and flow of faculty.

To ensure that Africanist faculty will be retained, Salovey should endeavor to find donors for endowed professorships devoted to African scholarship. An endowed chair would allow Yale to transition in new distinguished faculty whenever a position is left vacant.

A week after that, an undergraduate penned this op-ed, highlighting the exclusiveness of some Yale events. She also highlights problems with language study, which has been touched on before, but this bears quoting:

During my freshman year, I was shocked but excited to find a course in Igbo, my parents’ mother tongue and one of Nigeria’s three most widely spoken languages. I took the class, enjoyed it and left for the summer looking forward to continuing my study of Igbo in the fall. Over the summer, I received an email asking me whether I planned to take a course in Igbo my sophomore year. I responded that I did. The next thing I heard was that the Igbo class had been cancelled. I didn’t receive any explanation. I applied to take Igbo through the Directed Independent Language Study program. DILS rejected my application each time, citing the Selection Committee’s challenge of “limited funding.”

As I mentioned a while ago, we’re in the very, very early stages of the Yale Africa Initiative. These are just some of the voices that are chiming in, and we’re all eagerly waiting what else the university will announce.

Yale Looks to Africa, With Blinders On

In his inaugural address last weekend, Yale’s new president, Peter Salovey, talked about Africa at length when he discussed Yale’s educational mission:

 Eleven of the world’s twenty fastest-growing economies are African.3 With the growing influence of the African continent on the world economy, as well as increased migration to, from, and within Africa, this is the moment to bring scholarship and teaching about Africa at Yale into sharper focus. Working collaboratively, we can foster new directions in research on Africa, identify new partnerships with those on the continent, and strengthen our recruitment efforts, all while emphasizing teaching and learning. Our current scholarship on Africa already draws on many disciplines throughout the university — from African language, history, and cultural traditions to global health research, to field experiments in development economics, to issues of sustainability, to research on emerging democracies, to theater projects with Tanzanian artists. For many years, my laboratory collaborated on HIV/AIDS prevention research in South Africa, and Marta is helping with an environmental and public health project involving the Masai.

A greater focus on Africa is just one example of how we aspire to unite research with teaching and learning, how in our research laboratories and our classrooms we can effect change beyond them, and how we can bring the world to Yale and Yale to the world.

This statement wasn’t completely unexpected, to those of us watching Yale’s Africa program closely. Over the summer several administrators have been putting things in motion, and this fall the gradual roll-out of the new Yale Africa Initiative has been ongoing. The Initiative, still in its very nascent stages, aims to be a university-wide shift to focus on Africa. It’s an idea I’m supportive of, but the vision being put forth is less than satisfactory. The vision for a new African focus doesn’t seem to include new faculty, improved language study, or increased course offerings, among other things. I won’t be nearly as in depth on it right now as I will be in the future, mostly because several students (myself included) are working together to draw attention to the pros and cons of the Initiative. This has already begun, in the form of my colleague Akinyi Ochieng’s column at the Yale Daily News, in which she highlights the importance of language study, student recruitment, and career service focus. The middle item seems to be the primary focus of the Initiative, including a recent $1 million gift from a Liberian Yale alum that will go towards financial aid for African applicants, the latter has been talked about to a lesser extent and the former not at all.

This blog will track the goings-on of Yale’s relationship with Africa, African students, and Africanist scholarship. As I anticipate this being a long process, I’m starting a new tag for it. Hopefully the Initiative expands and addresses all the major aspects of African(ist) studies at Yale as it develops. Fingers crossed.

Fixing What Should Be Broken: Grade Reform at Yale

This month, an ad hoc committee on grading at Yale issued its preliminary findings (pdf). The committee’s findings have stirred up some conversation about how exactly to fix what the committee finds is gross grade inflation for undergraduates across the university. This is hardly an isolated phenomenon – almost all schools inflate grades to some extent these days. When I did my student teaching at a high school in the suburbs of Phoenix, it was implicit that students did not fail. Some teachers joked that students must marvel at how their grades went up towards the end of the semester without any additional work on their part. What was happening was obvious. Failing students reflected either failure on the part of the teacher or failure on the part of the school as a whole – and nobody wanted either. Even more importantly, in an age of standardized testing and frequent measurement of “progress,” school funding and reputation, and teachers’ jobs, were always on the line. And so you did what you had to. We even set aside a whole day at the end of the school year for students who were behind to come in and do make-up work while everyone else stayed home. That’s probably the thing I love most about teaching: sitting in a room on the last day of school so the student who did the worst/least could give me a reason to give them a C.

But that’s a story for a separate post, because Yale is Yale. The money and reputation are here no matter what. And most of the students here are incredibly intelligent – even the legacy admissions might not be top tier, but probably still attended private schools with small class sizes and exceptional teachers. So what, exactly, is the fuss about? The report summarizes its findings pretty nicely here:

For many departments now there are in effect only three grades used: A, A-, and B+. For the less generous departments, B is added to this group. Yale is approaching the point, at least in some departments, in which the only grades are A and A-, which is close to having no grading.

This is the finding, and this has been labeled a problem by the committee. A problem which needs to be solved by grading students honestly, doling out Cs, Ds, and Fs, to prove that it’s fair. What I don’t fully get, though, is why grade at all? The only problem with being so “close to having no grading” is that there is still an attempt to grade. The university is so close to not having a grading system, and this report is calling for reforms to bring us back from the brink. But the committee is pushing in the wrong direction – we need to push the grading system over the cliff and never look back. Abolishing grades is really the only way forwards for students, but also for faculty – same as it ever was.

Instead, the committee makes a couple of recommendations.

Change from a letter system to a number/percentage system. The committee says “If, say, only three grades are used, A, A-, and B+, the choice between an A and an A- or an A- and a B+ is of considerable consequence, which is not true if one can use many numbers. The consequences of the unavoidable randomness that occurs in any grading system are less serious with more grading choices.” But that doesn’t solve the perceived problem. The problem isn’t that Yale only has A, A-, and B+ grades – it’s that Yale professors fail to use grades B through F. Changing from letter to number grading doesn’t do anything but lead to a preponderance of Yalies receiving 97s in all of their classes. Am I missing something in this solution?

Suggest distributed grading. This part is hilarious. The report says that distributions may violate some department’s policies and that the committee doesn’t want to impose on professors’ discretion, not to mention the inherent unfairness of grading on a distribution. And yet, it issues “guidelines” to departments that include 4-5% in the 60-69 range and 0-1% in the 59 (fail) range. As a former teacher to middle class youth headed to state school, I’m trying to imagine the outcry if every class of 30 Yale students had 1 or 2 close to failing, and it hurts my brain.

The clear solution, to me, is get rid of grading. Presumably, students at Yale are doing plenty of learning and doing plenty of work. The problem is just that they’re all receiving As for it. Rather than fight to maintain an ineffective grading system and hand out a few token Cs to verify the fairness, why not do away with it? The listed bad effects of grade inflation – cheapening of the grade, more difficult to interpret grades, etc. – all vanish with the grading system. If nobody is getting a worthless letter or number on their transcript, nobody will care what it’s supposed to mean. If you hire competent staff and foster a strong learning environment, you can be sure most of your students are “passing” – then just let the teachers teach and let the students work.

This is especially possible at Yale, where the classes are small, manageable, and demanding. Grades are, after all, a mechanism that makes measuring students’ abilities easier to do. But when classes are mostly seminar-sized, a professor that is involved in the class and aware of her surroundings could easily surmise who is struggling and who is succeeding. If she has students that are struggling, she can help them as much as is deemed necessary. Boom, no grades needed. Instead, there’s a system now where professors condense 13 weeks of conversations and one or two research essays into one of five letters. I really don’t see the point. If the grading system is so ineffective that there may as well be no grading, then let’s do it. Abolish the grading system, and we’ll be able to move on like nothing ever happened.

I Went to David Brooks’ Class So You Don’t Have To

When it was first announced that NYT columnist David Brooks would be teaching a class at Yale on humility, a lot of people were quick to point out how ironic it was. When the syllabus was first posted this week, Twitter just about exploded as people pulled quotes like “We will pay special attention to those who attended elite prep schools and universities” from the syllabus (keep in mind, it’s a course on humility, at Yale, taught by David Brooks). The syllabus includes readings by or about famous-but-humble minds like Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Moses, Augustine, and none other than David Brooks.

So I decided to go to the first class yesterday with no intention of actually staying. While it wasn’t that excitingly terrible or good, I did end up making a few observations, and of course there were a few points of “you can’t make this stuff up.” Like when we were trying to cram into the room and he needed to get past dozens of students to get to his seat, and he raised his hands and (I kid you not) said “I feel like Bono!” Or when he was explaining office hours (which are Monday nights at either a cafe or a bar) and said that meeting with students individually was exciting “certainly for them but also for me.” I storified some other observations which I’m restating here:

  • Brooks acknowledged that parts of the syllabus smack of rich or powerful white men, but the first day still begins with Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall.
  • Of the ~55 students that attended the first day, I counted 8 women and about 10 non-white males. Only 20 will be admitted, so it will be interesting to see how that turns out.
  • After reading 10 definitions of humility, Brooks literally said “God had Ten Commandments, so I figured I’d stop there.”
  • I learned that Brooks has met Obama, Bush, Clinton, Biden, and McCain. On day one of a class on humility.

Connecticut Colleges Respond to Sandy

Saturday and Sunday, virtually all of the schools in Connecticut announced closures for parts of this week.  Preschools, primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools across the state will be closed at least today, if not tomorrow or later. Even the University of Hartford, an hour north of the coast, will be closed through Wednesday. Across the state, bus systems closed last night, soon after New York’s MTA system was closed, and highways will be closing in a matter of hours.

Along the coast, universities and campuses in Stamford, Bridgeport, and New Haven are shuttered ahead of what promises to be a mighty hurricane. In New Haven, we’ve been watching the news pretty regularly to see how things go, and I’ve been keeping my e-mail open to see if Yale would close. By Saturday evening, all of the colleges in New Haven (University of New Haven, Southern Connecticut State University, Albertus Magnus College, and nearby Quinnipiac University, Sacred Heart University, and University of Bridgeport) had announced at least Monday and Tuesday closures. All of the colleges except Yale.

Yale waited until late afternoon Sunday to announce Monday’s closure, and they have yet to announce plans for Tuesday. The university seems to have begrudgingly cancelled classes yesterday afternoon, and I don’t see how it will remain open tomorrow, when the storm is at its worst. It’s a bizarre way to handle what is predicted to be a surge twice that of Irene.