URBANA — Four years after officially graduating from a program to a department, the Department of African American Studies at the University of Illinois is home to a small but growing number of students and faculty.
With roots beginning in 1969, African-American studies became an interdisciplinary minor in 1988. Two decades later in 2008, the UI Board of Trustees approved the establishment of the African-American studies major within the bachelor of arts degree. A year later, four seniors graduated with the degree.
Department staff and faculty now are working toward building a doctorate program in African-American studies.
About 30 students currently are majoring in African-American studies and about eight will graduate this spring, but that number "pales in comparison to the number of students taking classes," which is about 800 per semester, said interim department head Margareth Etienne.
"A big part of the educational mission is educating all the students," she said.
About 40 courses are offered each semester either as African American Studies courses or courses cross-listed with other departments such as history.
Some students are interested in African-American studies, some are majoring in sociology, some are pre-law who will take a class on hate crimes or civil rights, some may take a course looking at the black experience in Paris or the history of the black Renaissance.
Students tackle questions such as how is race as a concept formed and developed, and they learn to master research methodology, Etienne said.
That entails learning research methods, including working with statistics and interpreting data.
If a student wanted, for example, to dig into the topic of sentencing disparities based on race, he or she "can't grapple with it until they look at the data," Etienne said. Or, if someone plans to pursue a job in social work and work with African-American boys, "it's important to have some sense of what the history has been as well as what the data says" about that field, she said.
The reasoning behind teaching those skills is the student will leave the university with real skills he or she can apply to other disciplines, she said.
"Our students have gone on to become teachers, doctors, lawyers," Etienne said.
The department has built a core group of faculty and many affiliates. When it began, the department's faculty all had 50-50 joint appointments with other departments, such as history or education.
"We are now moving in the direction of 100 percent faculty, which will be important to have for the Ph.D. program," Etienne said.
Because of the university's previous hiring freeze, the department slowed down its pace of hiring faculty.
"But we're now rebuilding and have gotten the ability to do some hires. We're rejuvenating that," Etienne said.
Among the successes in recent years: recruiting "star faculty" and bringing assistant professors to tenure. The department also plans to offer more outreach programs in the coming years.
"A big part of our educational mission is in the classroom, but ... a big part of what we can do is outside of class and bringing speakers to campus ... to engage with K through 12 education," she said.
During Black History Month, the department has sponsored several speakers to campus on topics such as the hip-hop generation, President Barack Obama's policies in Africa and the evolution of black studies as a discipline.
More information about the department can be found at http://www.afro.illinois.edu .