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Saturday, Dec 2, 2023

Black Studies major begins inaugural year

Middlebury College will offer a Black Studies major beginning this fall, the culmination of years of effort by faculty, students, alumni and administrators to provide students with a major focused on the black experience. 

Beginning this semester, students can choose from a broad list of existing courses — 26 this fall, 15 next spring and two during the interim 2020 winter term — that will count towards completion of a Black Studies (BLST) major. Included in this list are popular courses such as History Professor William Hart’s African American History class and American Studies Professor J. Finley’s course on Black Comic Cultures.

Debate about offering a Black Studies major at Middlebury has been ongoing for years, according to administrators and professors involved in planning the major. An African American Studies minor has been available since 1999, but faculty have long sought to offer a full major that lets students tackle questions of ethnic identity in more depth. According to those involved in the major's development, the current national moment and the right combination of resources at the college were key in making a Black Studies major a reality this fall. 

“I can’t overstate the significance of Black Studies being offered at an institution that is 219 years old, whose peer institutions all have Black Studies programs in some way, shape or form,” Finley said. “Middlebury College is taking steps to deepen and sharpen its curriculum.”

The new major also comes after last spring’s student campaign to “decolonize” Middlebury’s curricula, when organizers called on Middlebury’s faculty to better incorporate non-white voices in their curricula. Wengel Kifle ’20, one of the campaign’s organizers, said that the introduction of a Black Studies program constituted an important step towards this goal. 

“It is a wonderful and powerful thing for black students to be able to recognize their experiences and their ancestors in the material of what they are learning,” Kifle said. “I believe that it would encourage even more black students to be more confident and passionate in the realm of western academia.”

Students declaring a Black Studies major will be required to take 11 courses, including three “core” courses: a BLST 101 course, a junior seminar on research methods in black studies and a senior seminar. These courses will be available in either the spring or the fall of 2020, Hart said, depending on professor availability. Students will also be required to take either African American History or Intro to African American Culture, both of which are existing courses.

The introduction course was developed by Finley, who specializes in African American studies with a focus on African Diaspora studies. From a pedagogical standpoint, she said, the BLST 101 course will introduce students to sources that seek to convey lived experiences of black people around the world. 

“I think approaching Black Studies  as a field that is fundamentally rooted in the voices and experiences of black people themselves is something that we all decided should be a central epistemological approach in Black Studies  at Middlebury,” Finley said. 

 Aspects of this approach to Black Studies are reflected in some of the courses already available to students. When Hart teaches African American history, for example, he seeks “as rich means as possible” to convey the past. The best way of doing that, he said, is through an interdisciplinary approach. 

“In order to understand the black experience, because black culture has such a rich oral-based tradition, I use documents that historians use,” he said. “But I also use literature, art, painting, photographs, cartoons and illustrations, film clips and other sources to capture stereotyping of blackness.”

As a pedagogical discipline, Black Studies emerged from a push for a broader “ethnic studies” discipline in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1968, the Third World Liberation Front — a multi-racial collective of students at the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco State University — led a five-month strike from classes to demand reform of admissions offices and protest curricula that largely excluded people of color. Their efforts resulted in the implementation of the country’s first Ethnic Studies Department at UC Berkeley, which in turn led Black Studies, Native American Studies, LatinX Studies and Asian American Studies to emerge as their own disciplines.

Just as they did in the Bay Area  in the early 1970s, discussions of ethnic studies played a significant role in the emergence of Black Studies  at Middlebury. According to Chief Diversity Officer Miguel Fernandez, who helped mediate discussions about how to best create the major, conversations touched on the possibility of offering a broader “Ethnic Studies” major many times before faculty and administrators settled on Black Studies . 

Hart said he remembers discussions about offering a Black Studies  major taking place as early as 1993, when he first joined the faculty. 

Two key factors made Black Studies  a reality this fall, Fernandez said. One, the college has enough professors teaching existing courses that could count towards such a major; and two, the current national moment made offering a Black Studies  major a priority. 

“The topic of race is a sensitive one and a difficult one, and one that our country has not wanted to engage in,” Fernandez said. “The last five years have forced this country to talk and think about the black experience in new ways ... There’s a greater national consciousness and the need to address it.”

More broadly, Hart said that an increased awareness of the importance of ethnic studies in recent years contributed to the major becoming a reality. He pointed to a more diverse faculty, the creation of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity in 2014, and President Laurie Patton’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity as other reasons Black Studies  finally became a reality. 

Because the three new “core” courses for the major are not yet available, faculty picture younger students as the best candidates for the major, Hart said. As a program in its beginning stages hoping to attract new students, professors stressed that this discipline is intended for Middlebury students of all ethnicities.  

“Black Studies is not just for black people, and it never was and it never started as something only for black people,” Finley said. “People think that you have to have some sort of biological intimacy with black people or blackness to study black life and culture. That’s not the case.” 

At the academic forum for new students at Kenyon Arena last week, Hart was disappointed when not a single white student stopped to inquire about Black Studies . 

“This major is designed for all Middlebury students, not just students of color,” Hart said. “Learning other people’s histories, cultures, beliefs, values, is one way for this country to heal instead of keeping it bifurcated by keeping certain majors, programs and courses ghettoized.”