Saturday, January 14, 2012

Academic Myopia or whats the point of African studies?

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a cluster hire in African Studies in Lehigh University (to read, click here), the commentariat opined the uselessness of the hires since there are so few jobs with a major in African Studies. The commentariat had a point, but I'd like to address two sets of concerns: the first, why choose to offer courses in or study something that is not geared towards a profession right out of school (mind you, I graduated undergrad with a degree in business), and the second what are the best ways to go about it.

Anyone who studies the humanities, especially at the graduate level, has encountered the following conversation:

Person 1: I'm an investment banker/junior partner in a legal firm/resident in oncology/make $100,000, sailboat and have a time-share in Maine. So what do you do?
Person 2: I study some-obscure-to-general-public history. (I thankfully study the Mughals; the massive marketing campaign launched by India's tourism industry has meant that I can just tell people I study the folks you brought to you the Taj Mahal... jai ho!) 
Person 1: That's sooo interesting. So what will you do with it?
Person 2: Teach.
Person 1: At a university right? (I am always conflicted about putting an "an" there)
Person 2: Yes.
Person 1 expresses concern facially and a knowing look all at once (a feat!) that says, humanities is a scam, they teach this stuff so they can study it so they can teach it. For the most part, they are right, but it's partly historians fault for that.

So what is the point of it all? First let's address the point of offering courses on area studies or histories of regions like Africa (political and economic exigencies has meant that the question is no longer asked about the modern Middle East, less so with India, East Asia and early Islamic history---people interested in Central Asian studies or Medieval Islamic history [especially social] need to come up with good reasons it seems--I suspect Chinese Universities will at some point begin African Studies programs given their Geo-political/economic interests in the region like American Universities in Middle East Studies programs after WWII, not that I'm complaining).

It seems too pedantic to say this but it is worth saying it, because we, as members of a global community need to know about the world beyond our everyday environs (survivalists who shall not leave the prairies, Upper Canada, or similar are exempt; I say if you are never to come across samosas, falafel, or dim sum then you have earned the right to not know about other cultures). Having been both a student academic adviser and an undergraduate many a moons ago I have noticed two things amongst undergrads: a huge curiosity for the unknown and a corresponding lack of knowledge about it which they could do little about without running afoul with degree guidelines. Students in professional programs often have to extend their stay in university by a semester or year if they simply want to take more than 2 courses or a minor respectively not in their own field of study. The whole point of university is to educate future generations who are knowledgeable, cultured members of society. It's not enough that we churn out a few majors in history of the Middle East or South Asia, I think the point of the history courses is to educate the wider set of people, those studying only ever-so-more-promising-in-terms-of-job-prospects social sciences or much-more-so professional degrees.

It is hard. Most of us who get trained for area studies get trained in elite universities in area studies departments; by the time we get to the Ph.D level we begin to be unable to talk about what we study to people not familiar with our field. (As an aside, try this at your next conference: go up to a person not in your field and ask them what they study, they will probably give you an answer in such non-specific terms, which, if used within field insiders, would be practically meaningless. For instance, I study 16th century social history of Mughal India). (Second aside: I do think partly we handicap ourselves because we underestimate others but having had many an experiences with people who think humanities are a scam I vacillate a great deal on the matter. I feel we may divide people up into those who watch PBS documentaries and those who don't).

No doubt there is a debate going on about how best to spend money, but the one caution I would give to those advocating universities only offering professorships and in turn courses in areas which are marked out as important or job-friendly, I would say this: I understand strategic knowledge acquisition and dissemination, but there is something to be said about people doing pioneering work or keeping certain fields alive. It is a hard balance, but the dictates of cash flow should not be the only factor in our decisions when it comes to knowing about our collective pasts.

Update: This podcast was recently passed along to me by a colleague of mine; a discussion by Martha Nussbaum on the value of humanities in North American academe via philosophy bites. Also worth checking out is a forthcoming article by Carl Ernst, "It's Not Just Academic: Writing Public Scholarship in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies,"  courtesy his website.

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