Black Studies at UChicago: An Interview

Interview conducted with UChicago Ph.D. Student Joel Rhone and Faculty Members Adrienne Brown and C. Riley Snorton.

With the stream of recent POC hires, it seems like the English department has been building to accommodate students interested in Black Studies for quite some time. Exactly how recently did the department make the choice to prioritize Black Studies applications in this year’s admissions cycle?

CRS: As a relative newcomer (I’ve been here for 2 years), it appears that the English department’s recruitment of faculty working in and with Black Studies and across various periods, languages, geographies, and methodological approaches has been a priority for some time.

The decision to recruit in Black Studies this graduate admissions cycle crystalized in our final faculty meeting in the 2019-20 academic year. As we discussed our statement of support of #BLM, the impact of COVID 19 on graduate students and graduate study, it became clear that graduate admissions might be another opportunity to materialize a commitment to Black people, Black thought, and Black Studies.

AB: A large part of the admissions emphasis this year was driven by the range and number of Departmental faculty currently working in and with Black Studies as researchers, mentors, and teachers. Given all of the amazing talent amongst the faculty and our existing graduate students as well as the breadth of their approaches to Black Studies, we feel our department is a compelling place for students working in this tradition from a range of vantage points and perspectives to learn and work. We have faculty and students working in and with Black Studies from the medieval era to the present, working across a large swathe of geographies and linguistic traditions, mediums and genres, and emphasis and method. Our confidence in the deep bench of faculty we have to teach and train incoming students was crucial to this decision.

Could you clarify what it means to work “in and with Black Studies”? Does it mean you won’t be accepting students who don’t share this academic interest?

CRS: Our task in graduate admissions this cycle is to admit and recruit students working in and with Black Studies. The designation of “with” Black Studies speaks to the expansiveness of thinking with concepts in the field across periods, such as the Race before Race initiatives (Noémie Ndiaye), which explores how ideas about race and blackness sensitized literary and cultural productions before its more commonly circulating or contemporary understanding.

AB: Yes, if you look at the range of our own faculty and students who work with and in Black Studies, you will see that this isn’t reducible to one kind of approach or method.  There are many ways to work in and with Black Studies and we have no interest in creating a strict definition about what counts and what doesn’t—rather, we are excited about the various ways students approach working in this capacious intellectual tradition and how it might inform their work, thinking and approach in a myriad of ways.

How does the department plan to support newly admitted Black Studies students? Will there be other changes that accompany this admissions initiative?

CRS: The hope is that this is a part of a longer-term commitment to recruit in this area and to continue to build on the existing community of scholars invested in Black Studies in the English department and at the University. Our commitment is that this is not a one-and-done situation. In addition to outreach and recruitment, the graduate admissions committee is working to find out how to strengthen structures of support for students working in Black Studies and for students of color at the University.

AB: Yes, conversation with our current students on this front is key. On our agenda at the moment is curriculum planning for the next few years, assessing the archives and databases we have to support research, and looking at current the workshops, institutes, and Centers that exist across the campus to support the work of our students.  But this agenda continues to change and grow as we learn more from students and colleagues.

It seems like the influx of Black Studies is intended to meet a specific set of needs in the short term. Is there a long-term agenda for reorienting the department in terms of disciplinary praxis/diversity and inclusion?

CRS: It is difficult to think about the impact of this graduate admissions focus in Black Studies in terms of short- or long-term needs. Graduate admissions has the potential to transform--not just our department but the discipline and the profession.

AB: I wouldn’t describe our admissions initiative this year as an influx but as the next step of a longer process of hiring and program building in English and Creative Writing that has produced a critical mass of faculty and students that we want to continue to support, serve, and build with. Our aim for this initiative is not to serve any departmental needs but, rather, to showcase the range of research approaches and emphases we can offer students.

As a colleague reminded me the other day, Black Studies is bigger than any single discipline; work produced in this tradition has recovered how disciplinarity has been a tool for reproducing inequity. As an English department, we are tied together by an investment in studying the aesthetic in some regard.  But the objects and discourses to which we attend (and even how we think and understand the aesthetic) takes many forms amongst faculty and students. We hope students who come will continue to push the boundaries about where the aesthetic is and the work it does.

With the recent “More than Diversity” statement from faculty and alumni affiliated with the CSRPC, many of Chicago’s professors of color have expressed their exasperation with the University’s half-hearted support of Black studies. How involved is the English department’s decision with the university-wide action steps that faculty of color have proposed in their statement?

CRS: The English department’s decision was not explicitly connected with the More than Diversity statement, even as many of us are signatories.

AB: Yes, the coalition of the signatories is broad and representative of demands for institutional changes that effect everyone on campus. The English department has a lot to offer incoming graduate students working in and with Black Studies. That said, I also believe the University has much work to do in terms of supporting Critical Race Studies as a broader field formation and owning up to its history and present of actions that have harmed local residents on the South Side. I encourage applicants to read the MoreThanDiversity letter as well as the letter Black Graduate Students at U of C have recently circulated to learn more about these ongoing struggles.

Do you know of any measures in other departments similar to those that the English department has taken?

CRS: I do not have any knowledge of any similar initiatives.

AB: No, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been others!  Admissions initiatives aren’t always well-circulated or covered. Our decision, however, is the outcome of our reflection on our recent strengths rather than driven by the efforts of other departments.

How involved have graduate students in English been in this decision-making process?

CRS: The admissions decision occurred at the faculty level. However, Adrienne and I are excited to engage and learn more from current graduate students about their thoughts moving forward.

We’ve talked a lot about supporting and caring for graduate students of color. How will an increase in Students in Black Study/diversity among graduates in general benefit faculty?

CRS: My previous post was in an Africana Studies department. Mentoring and offering graduate level courses in Black Studies is intellectually and politically important to me. The relationship between graduate students and faculty is mediated by a desire to make long term community around overlapping questions and ethical concerns.

AB: I think this initiative is less about benefiting faculty but about showcasing the amazing people here now.  That said, I can say that training students is a joy and a pleasure as well as a commitment.  And I think my colleagues share that sentiment.

It is worth mentioning that this admissions initiative is not just that of faculty explicitly identified with Black Studies. The entire faculty is involved and, like any admissions cohort, the whole faculty is responsible for supporting the students we bring this year and thereafter. We imagine students coming to work with any number of our faculty to support their research, teaching, and thriving.

Given that Black Studies exists as a department on many other campuses, what does the new admissions decision mean for the interdisciplinary bent at UChicago?

CRS: English at UChicago is among the most interdisciplinary departments of its kind in the US. Many of the scholars in our department were trained in interdisciplinary formations, including American Studies, African American Studies, and Cultural Studies.  My commitments to Black Studies enables me to think of myself as a postdisciplinary scholar--that is, that my research is driven by questions and in addressing those questions with any and all necessary tools.

AB: Well put! If you look at the faculty and the range of work overall, there are a lot of objects and approaches on offer (this is not to say we don’t still have hiring and program building to do, however). We find the poetic in a range of places and encourage our students to do the same.