Dec. 3-9, 1999
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Grant will help Woodson Institute map new curricula focusing on race and ethnicity

Automation could revolutionize medical research
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Grant will help Woodson Institute map new curricula focusing on race and ethnicity

Rethinking African and African-American studies

By Robert Brickhouse

Reginald Butler
Reginald Butler

U.Va. humanities scholars are undertaking a major grant-funded project to develop new approaches to teaching and research in African and African-American Studies.

The Carter G. Woodson Institute, which administers the African and African-American Studies program, has received a three-year, $250,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, which has a long history of supporting innovative research and teaching initiatives in African-American Studies at U.Va. and other universities. Working with a wide range of faculty members and visiting scholars, the institute will focus on three related initiatives:

  • the development of a model undergraduate program;
  • the establishment of a postdoctoral research center devoted to studies of race, ethnicity and society in Africa and the Atlantic World;
  • the creation of online resources that will enhance teaching and research in the field.
map
Special Collections Digital Center, Alderman Library
The Africa and Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade teaching module will include digitized historical maps, as shown, with magnified details for closer examination.

The Woodson Institute has been laying the intellectual foundations for reconceptualizing the African and African-American Studies program over the last two years through an ongoing interdepartmental faculty and graduate seminar, "Changing Cultures of Race in the Modern World," said historian and institute director Reginald D. Butler. The institute also recently hosted an annual summer seminar, "Rethinking African-American Studies: New Approaches to Teaching and Research," with scholars from small liberal arts colleges and historically black colleges and universities in the mid-Atlantic region.

Butler said the call for a rethinking of the broad field of African and African-American Studies follows social, political and intellectual developments.

African-American Studies programs emerged some 25 years ago in response to the social and political dynamics of the African anti-colonial and American civil rights movements, he said. "Scholar-activists developed innovative courses that centered on the history and culture of Africans and African Americans, from slavery to freedom. Their work challenged dominant narratives of racial, regional and national identity but left the history of race, as a shifting social category, largely unexamined."

Today a new generation of scholars, steeped in the latest theoretical work on race and ethnicity, is reconsidering the traditional organizational themes and pedagogical assumptions of African and African-American Studies, Butler said.

The typical African-American Studies survey course, he noted, follows a linear historical narrative that moves from Africa and the origins of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to America and the black freedom struggles that culminate in the 20th-century Civil Rights movement. "A reconceptualized course, taught from an interdisciplinary and global perspective, might compare the diverse cultures and histories of peoples of African descent across time and space, with no fixed point of origin or destination. Instructors would be free to focus on subjects that might not fit within the traditional narrative, such as Afro-Brazilian culture or West Indian independence movements," Butler said.

The Ford Foundation grant provides funding for a broadly collaborative re-examination of the African and African-American Studies curriculum at U.Va. The Woodson Institute has invited five outside consultants and more than 30 University faculty from 12 departments to participate in the redesign of the program, beginning with the introductory African and African-American Studies courses (AAS 101 and 102). It is virtually impossible, Butler said, for a single faculty member to cover adequately the wide range of subject matter deemed relevant to the reconceptualized field. The solution lies in greater faculty collaboration in the teaching of the introductory courses, he said. Starting next semester, these courses will be team-taught, with lectures given by U.Va. faculty, Woodson postdoctoral fellows and visiting scholars. A faculty coordinator will lecture on key topics, supervise teaching assistants, and ensure overall thematic coherence.

About 50 undergraduates currently major in African-American studies at U.Va. but many times that number take some of the wide range of courses offered as part of their liberal arts education.

The grant also includes funds for the creation of online resources aimed at enhancing classroom teaching. To encourage a global perspective, these resources will be organized as "modules² corresponding to three broad areas within the African diaspora, or places of resettlement away from ancestral homelands. The areas of study will be Africa and the trans-Atlantic slave trade; South America, Central America and the Caribbean; and North America.

To be developed in close collaboration with participating faculty members and technical advisers, each module will include syllabi, reference tools, databases and digitized texts that teachers may use in developing courses, writing lectures or leading discussions. Scot French, the institute's assistant director, will coordinate this interdepartmental teaching and technology initiative, which will eventually be available on the World Wide Web for other institutions to use as a model. The institute also plans a multimedia reference library with books, films and music related to the new program. U.Va.'s Virginia Center for Digital History and the Digital Media Lab of the Robertson Media Center will consult on the development of online resources.

The Ford Foundation grant also provides for the establishment of a Center for Advanced Studies of Race, Ethnicity and Society in Africa and the Atlantic World, housed at the Woodson Institute. The term Atlantic World is used to emphasize historical connections between Africa, Europe and the New World that continue to shape social and cultural transactions of the late 20th century. The center will award three one-year postdoctoral fellowships to scholars whose work on race and ethnicity in Africa and the diaspora will contribute to the reconceptualization of the African and African-American Studies program, Butler said.

The Woodson Institute will work closely with other interdisciplinary seminars at U.Va., such as the Forum for Contemporary Thought and the Atlantic World Colloquium, which looks at the interactions of people originally from or living in Europe, Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean, to invite guest speakers who may contribute to the new project, he added.


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