skip gates and the harvard experience

Two weeks ago, I was invited to give a seminar at the Illinois Department of African American Studies. I was hosted by the students in the PhD core course and their instructor, Abdul Alkalimat. The discussion was a very long interrogation of my book, but I’ll share with you one very interesting exchange. At one point, I said something like: “Skip Gates won. His version of Black Studies is the dominant one in the field.” Immediately, people disputed this point and we got into a discussion of what is to be learned from the “Skip Gates experience.”

In case you don’t know the history, it goes something like this. In 1969, the Harvard administration approved a Black Studies program (now called African and African American Studies). By the late 1970s, it was clear that the program was a failure: minimal enrollments, faculty avoided the program, and no research impact. Then, Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr. assumed the chair of the department in 1991. By the late 1990s, Harvard assembled a “Dream Team” of super prestigious scholars that completely reoriented Black Studies at Harvard.

So, did Skip Gates win? This is a tricky issue, so we have to break it down into many parts:

  • Academia is a set of overlapping games. There is no single game that defines all of higher education. Thus, Skip Gates intentionally avoided certain social domains – such as nationalist intellectuals.  But he has carefully cultivated mainstream media and disciplinary connections.
  • Gates clearly won the high status media game. I’d bet that Harvard Black Studies was mentioned more times in the New York Times than probably many Harvard departments.
  • Gates clearly moved Harvard’s program into a new zone of respectability. Sure, there are still the haters, but they’ve boosted enrollments, attracted scholars of unimpeccable credentials, and the department has a new PhD program.
  • Gates won the money game. By all accounts, he spearheaded an incredibly successful fundraising program that has given the program unusual stability and independence.
  • The research prestige game. The Harvard program’s rejuvenation caused a ripple effect where other administrators at research schools started asking how they could renew their programs.
  • The interdisicplinary program format that Gates used is the one found in most programs.

Now let’s talk about the games Gates didn’t win or didn’t care to play:

  • The organic intellectual: As our friend Mario Small pointed out in 1999, other Africana scholars orient themselves towards movement audiences. Gates actively criticized nationalism and hasn’t affected this audience.
  • Intellectual influence: The scholars associated with Gates’ program are hugely influential – in their home non-Black Studies discipline. Gates, for example, is a highly regarded literary critic, but if you look at Black Studies syllabi, you don’t see his work assigned very often. Similarly, the scholarship that informs the typical NCBS presentation doesn’t rely too much on the work of the scholars at Harvard. Harvard isn’t informing the core of the discipline, it’s more like an interdisciplinary area studies program that’s collected the best scholars in fields that happen to study African Americans.
  • The undergraduate game: Even though Harvard’s program is enjoying more success among undegraduates, there’s little evidence that the average program in the country has seen a boost in enrollment.

The jury is out on the following:

  • PhD placement: Their PhD program has only been running for a few years, but one might ask: are the graduates getting well placed? Is there a particularly distinctive style to the research done in their doctoral training? How is placement of African American doctoral degree recipients? For example, would an African American doctoral student be better off in history or the AAS department?

When you get down to it, Skip Gates has accomplished an enormous amount. He’s playing and has won a very specific game: the game of legitimation in elite academia and mainstream intellectual circles. It’s important and it’s a battle that needs to be fought. But from the perspective of the Black Power movement, it’s really only one small battle in a large struggle for recognition in higher education.

Written by fabiorojas

December 1, 2009 at 12:21 am

3 Responses

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  1. Going off your inquiry into the doctoral recipients, we should also consider what kinds of programs are they able to apply for and what are the trends in job openings. Many Black Studies and Africana Studies programs are housed within other departments, still fighting for their position within the university as an independent entity. So like you mentioned, figuring out where these doctoral recipients are being placed is not so much based off of their training, but what academia is allowing to develop. They may be going to say a African American Studies program, but are classified as Sociology given the program is not necessarily independent so the numbers are little off on where they “actually” are.

    Here’s the Harvard program summary and course offerings by track:

    Two tracks: African and African American
    First year- year-long seminar and six courses.
    Second year- AAS seminar, AAS lit course, AAS social science course (social psych focus-Jim Sidanius), AAS research seminar, and two additional courses

    African track courses:
    Foreign Cultures-1
    Freshman Seminars-3 (deal with Africa and AIDS)
    Folklore and Mythology-1
    Art and Architecture-2 (History of courses)
    Social Analysis-1 (Political Economy)
    Women’s and Gender Studies-1

    African American track:
    Foreign Cultures-2
    Moral Reasoning-1 (slavery and Western poli thought)
    Social Analysis-1 (Race and politics in US)

    Looking at this list, it’s fairly obvious that no matter what track you pick, history plays a substantial part in your training. So using the course offerings only, it would seem that a history department would be a better “fit” for Harvard AAS docs. Glancing at their grad student profiles, it seems that history is the major interest followed by literature and social anthropology; again, indicating that history is playing a major in both the training and possibly the students attracted to the program.

    With all of that aside, it seems as if Gates has “won” the battle for establishing a legitimate department within a hostile arena.



    December 2, 2009 at 7:47 pm

  2. Good points, H.B. I think my question has to do less with course work than with professionalization. For example, would a person in the history program have a better shot at top jobs or high prestige publication than an AAS student? It could go either way. I’d like to see evidence on the issue.



    December 2, 2009 at 8:22 pm

  3. Along with what you’re looking at I found some of the recent placements and some of their pubs of recent grads (placement followed by pubs). Notice that only one of these recent grads that I could find were in an AAS department (joint appointment). It seems like American Studies (an interdisciplinary field similar to Black Studies) is a popular location. Obviously if we had the whole list of grads the picture would be more complete.

    Assistant Prof of religion and AAS at an elite private research university-Culture and Religion, Journal of Scientific Study of Religion, Callaloo, Religious Studies Review

    Assistant Prof of English at an elite liberal arts college-university press book, Research in African Literatures, Hemingway in Africa, Journal of the African American Literature, Encyclopedia of Modern Slavery

    Post-doc at elite private research university then assistant prof of American Studies and Women Studies at private research university-Social Text, Feminist Review, International Feminist Journal of Politics, Wisconsin Women’s Law Journal, and Cardozo Women’s Law Journal

    Assistant Prof of American Studies at an elite liberal arts college-Du Bois Review (twice), university press book, Women and Language



    December 2, 2009 at 11:15 pm

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