Strengths and Weaknesses on Africa at Yale

It’s been a few weeks since my article on the Yale Africa Project went up. I tried to make it as comprehensive as possible in discussing Yale’s African Studies program and what has gone into it, but I also had a word limit that I had thoroughly destroyed already. Since I have a blog and that’s what blogs are for, I’m going to dig a little deeper into what’s going to happen at Yale moving forwards.

One promising point in Yale’s future is the creation a senior faculty position in the English Department that will be focused on African literature. Yale has one professor who specializes in Francophone African literature and has never had anyone in English – this new position will rectify that. Yale has a pretty conservative English department overall, something I don’t know enough about to talk about at length, but it’s clear that this position – which has been in the works for many years and included encouragement from the Council on African Studies – will be the department’s foray into world literatures. Hopefully it’s a change that they will continue to expand into.

It’s important to note that this position – which will make a huge mark on African humanities at Yale – is not part of the Yale Africa Project. That initiative, which is in its nascent stages but which has not (and will not, according to those familiar with it) prioritize faculty hiring, has a clear focus on Yale’s strengths. When it comes to Africa, Yale has huge strengths in three sectors: development economics, corruption and good governance, and public health. The Project aims to reinforce those strengths rather than build up new ones. In the front page of a fancy booklet that is being given to potential donors, Ian Shapiro writes:

Focusing on the pivotal areas of governance, development, and public health, we are interested in understanding and contributing to the ways in which business, the public, and the nonprofit sectors respond to Africa’s challenges and opportunities.

In regards to Africa, Yale has a small faculty in general. The humanities in particular need more focus on Africa. Music, art, theater, and literature are all barely represented. The anthropology department’s focus on Africa is currently very low. The language program won’t be able to offer three levels of language instruction without more support. The library collection is great but has been facing budget constraints that make the future more bleak. The Forestry School has one person working in Africa.

Yale has three pillars of specialization in Africa, and that is where the bulk of this new project is headed. While they are important, I see no reason why Yale shouldn’t put resources in parts of Africa where support is needed the most. Africa is the home of vibrant arts, prize-winning literature, diverse languages, endangered ecosystems, and innovative technologies. I can’t figure out why you wouldn’t want to encourage work on these topics.

The new English position will be a welcome addition to Yale because he or she will help support the humanities in African Studies, but also to work to fill a gap in English’s understanding of different literature. The Africa Project should take a note from this and seek to build up new foundations if it really wants to focus on Africa.

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