African and African-American Studies?

Three news stories about African and African-American Studies departments have emerged over the past week. Oddly, people haven’t tended to put them together.

The Chronicle of Higher Education fired Naomi Riley  from their Brainstorms blog for writing a response to an article about African and African-American Studies programs.

If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.

Everyone in academia knows this. Say it, however, and 6,500 people contact the Chronicle demanding your head. Shame on the bloggers who remain! I would have resigned over her ouster.

Julius Nyang’oro, Chair of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is under investigation for “teaching” courses that never met.

 An internal probe released late last week found 54 classes within the African studies department in which there was little or no indication of instruction. The probe also found at least 10 cases of unauthorized grade changes involving students who had not completed their course work or a final exam before the class ended.

Nyang’oro is the instructor of record for 45 of those classes, and university officials say they follow the same pattern: A course typically intended for classroom instruction was converted into an independent study format, which meant no classes and an expectation that a paper or other project would be produced at the end.

In the other nine classes, university officials could not determine who was supposed to teach them, and found no evidence of classroom instruction. Professors who were listed as instructors said their names were forged on grade rolls for the courses. The unauthorized grade changes also stem from those classes.

Now something very strange was going on here. Superiors had to know something was going on. The facts are simply astounding:

The 45 classes represent nearly two-thirds of the 75 classes that Nyang’oro was listed as teaching from the summer of 2007 through the summer of 2011, the period that UNC academic officials examined….

The summer pay is given to professors for teaching classes outside the normal spring and fall semesters. Professors have to get those courses approved by the university before teaching them. The summer sessions last roughly a month, so classes typically meet more often and for longer periods of time to cover the material.

Nyang’oro received $120,000 in summer school pay during the four-year period that was under review. University officials say the other eight summer school courses he taught were in a classroom setting and are not in question. They were all introductory courses offered by the African studies department. He was paid $8,400 for being a summer school administrator for three sessions, university records said.

Where to start? He “taught” 75 courses over 4 years? Does this include individual instruction, dissertation supervision, and the like? He was paid $30,000 per summer for the teaching, plus administrative compensation? Who authorized that? What did they know, and when did they know it?

Here’s what happens with summer teaching at my university. Faculty are given an opportunity to teach a course; relatively few do. Maximum compensation for that course is $9,000. The most someone could earn over four summers would be $36,000, unless some very unusual circumstance intervened. (I once taught a second course during a summer, when another instructor resigned at the last minute.) He was evidently teaching two courses every summer, supposedly for real, and then a bunch of bogus ones? This, in addition to being department chair? And no one noticed that the classes weren’t actually meeting? As Chair, he had a staff. Surely they knew what was going on. Were there student evaluations of these “courses”?

Nyang’oro, by the way, was not spending that time doing research. Since 2000, according to Google Scholar, he has published an introduction to a section of a book, two short articles, and a couple of book reviews. That’s pretty meager.

Paul Mirengoff points to a larger problem:

According to the findings of the investigation, the department of African and Afro-American Studies offered 616 classes from the Summer of 2007 through the Summer of 2009. This fact alone raises questions for me. How serious could this many courses, offered by one backwater department, be?

Indeed. That comes to almost 90 courses per semester. I can find only 48 sections of courses on their web page for the current semester, and seven for the summer. I can’t explain that. But I can’t help noticing that faculty in that department are listed as teaching three organized courses per term (that is, courses that meet in a classroom, as opposed to individual instruction, dissertation students, etc.). In Philosophy at UNC, faculty teach only two per semester. Is that because of low enrollments in African and Afro-American Studies? And does it lead to resentments—resentment that can turn into feelings of entitlement and then into fraud?

Finally, at Arizona State University, Professor of History Matthew Whitaker, who specializes in African-American history, has been accused of plagiarism.

The committee examined allegations of plagiarism in six books or articles by Whitaker and an October 2010 speech he gave at a rally on the historical roots of Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s controversial immigration law.

Some of the accusations focused on chapters that Whitaker contributed to an encyclopedia-style textbook for young readers called “African American Icons of Sport: Triumph, Courage, and Excellence.” Several paragraphs on boxing icon Muhammad Ali and tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams were taken from Wikipedia.

In a letter to ASU, Whitaker said he gave an outline to a freelance editor to fill in with facts and references and “unfortunately and unknown to me, the freelance editor inserted verbatim sections from Wikipedia and other online sources without rewording them and without quotations or attribution.” He called the published errors “regrettable.”

In the speech, which is posted on YouTube, Whitaker speaks to a crowd at North High School in Phoenix. Portions of his remarks match or are similar to several paragraphs in a 2006 Washington Post story headlined “U.S. Immigration Debate is a Road Well Traveled” and generally are in the same sequence. In some places, Whitaker adds his own flourishes at the end of sentences or skips sentences as they appear in the story. In the video, he does not mention the source of the information.

Jonathan Bailey, a former journalist who runs a copyright and plagiarism consulting business in New Orleans, examined Whitaker’s YouTube speech at the request of The Republic.

His analysis using a computer software program found that about 30 percent of Whitaker’s speech was taken from other sources, including the newspaper article and a blog post from the anti-war website The World Can’t Wait.

In his speech, Whitaker cites the blog’s author at one point after he has quoted some of the material.

Bailey said he could “pretty much read along” from the newspaper article as Whitaker spoke. For a university professor, that sets a poor example for students, Bailey said.

“It’s a very passionate and compelling speech,” he said. “He said his points very, very well. It just happened to come from the Washington Post and a blog.”

A “freelance editor”? Who is to “fill in facts and references”? But wouldn’t that be another problem—publishing someone else’s work as if it were your own? Even if that person doesn’t plagiarize?

It appears that Naomi Riley noticed the tip of an iceberg.

UPDATE: I meant to conclude this post with some reflections on what’s wrong. Three observations in addition to the obvious point that political correctness gets in the way of academic judgment:

  1. Interdisciplinary studies programs outside the hard sciences tend to be a bad idea. Faculty are incapable of making sensible academic judgments about people in disciplines different from their own. When people doing literature are being hired and evaluated by people trained in history, sociology, etc., things gets random quickly. Notice that doesn’t apply to the Whitaker case; he’s in a Department of History. But he also looks terrific on paper.
  2. African and African-American Studies, as a field, lacks unity, and is thus worse off from the start than Asian Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, etc. There’s nothing wrong with the study of Africa; there’s nothing wrong with the study of African-Americans. But thinking the two fields belong together seems to me to rest on a confusion.
  3. Students getting degrees in African and African-American Studies can easily emerge not knowing much of anything at all, even if everyone involved is doing their jobs and doing them well. Add up contemporary African politics, the history of slavery, the sociology of the urban ghetto, African-American poetry from the 1920s to the 1950s, etc., and what do you have? A student who knows a little bit of politics, a little bit of history, a little bit of literature, and little bit of sociology, etc., but not really much of anything. Thirty years ago I was part of a group in Cognitive Science trying to decide whether we wanted to become a degree program. We decided not to, on the ground that people working in the field needed to be thoroughly grounded in one of the relevant disciplines—linguistics, computer science, psychology, neuroscience, or philosophy—and then in addition learn enough of the other fields to do work in the area. We didn’t want to produce people with a little knowledge in several areas but no real depth. Unfortunately, African and African-American Studies scholars tended to make the opposite choice.

3 thoughts on “African and African-American Studies?

  1. I’d like to chime in with some personal experience. As a Latin American Studies major, there was some course overlap with some Black Studies (as they were then known) courses offered in the Five College area. I went to Amherst College for a course on African Influences in Colonial Brazil. I can say without equivocation, without qualification, and without a shadow of a doubt it was taught by the least qualified professor I had in my undergraduate years (runner up: Politics in Latin America, also taught by a minority hire; 2nd runner up: Modern Latin American Literature, taught by a visiting prof from Latin America who had a “pre-game” for the male students who went to Amherst that the only two female students were never invited to: we all got A’s, but my friend and I were the only ones who didn’t giggle uncontrollably or search for Doritos during class). In the Black Studies class, I had the distinction of being the only freshman, the only woman, and the only person of pallor. To his credit, the prof was very nice to me, in marked contrast to my fellow students. To his discredit, he got a little too nice to me.

    I learned a whole lot that semester but nothing about African Influences in Colonial Brazil.

    As to substantive criticism, my experience more broadly taught me that “interdisciplinary” studies, especially in the Liberal Arts, exacerbate the curricular problems of LA. They become an even more incoherent hodgepodge of coursework for the undergraduate degree. I can’t think of a single “[blank] Studies” that isn’t a joke, frankly, and they are notorious for scholarly lassitude, anti-Americanism, and rampant Leftism. 30 years ago, I was young and naïve, but that didn’t keep me from being blackballed by the chair of my department when she ascertained, correctly, that I was insensitive to her need for blandishments and suckuppery. I just didn’t think that a tenured professor would stoop to wield punitive power against an undergraduate because of personal (and political) distaste.

    I’m glad I got that off my chest.

    1. Anti Americanism? U an keep your jingoism an patriotism. Black studies are important to black people an also other studies like Latin are important to their culture, they aren’t to say just get get a job in that field, but they are for the mind, black people an Latin people need a sense of history they are doomed to assimilation without it, u guys have always been free. Without me learning African American history an learning that our black history didn’t begin with slavery it opened up a whole new world. An yes like in the case with athletes these type courses are abused, but that is the universities fault, sports is nothing but a racket where the white man reigns supreme, they dont pay them players yet they get millions of dollars to coach when that money to go towards cheaper education. Those studies are only a joke if the university makes them a joke, thats why the USA has so much mental illnness, too many cultures are confused an so assimilated that they go crazy trying to be something they shouldnt be trying to be. Double consciousness.

      Big problem with education is “goal-orientation” instead of “study-orientation. You NEVER trust the same exact people/system that has murdered you for fun and sport in the past and never payed for their crimes. I feel that educating a man in an area that interests him will empower him to seek knowledge in all areas. Knowledge is truly additive. An that has to start at younger ages than college.

      As a free people, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves and rediscover our Identities. Knowledge of self is the key to unlocking the door to the future. – Richard B. Moore

      When you strip a people of their culture language & land you destroy the natural fibers of their identity and communal connection. Iyanla Vanzant < An thats why these black athletes have no back bone or knowledge of self, cause of the racket that is sports an the white coaches who go around recruiting them in middles school putting all kinds of illusions in their heads of money an fame for a damn BALL.

  2. My paternal grandfather came from Ireland in the late 1890’s. I wanted to know more about my ethnicity so when I was a senior I found a really big book on Irish history (circa 1938) and devoured the book over one summer between semesters. That set the stage for further research as the years went by. Including two trips to the land of my ancestors. I certainly never lamented that I wish I could take an “Irish studies” class at a university. Most of these “studies” classes seem to be just more leftist, class propaganda taught by charlatans for a lot of money. These kids need to recognize industrial bullshit when they see it. Get some advice from an older, wiser person of whom you respect.

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