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Emory establishes first African American studies PhD program in the Southeast
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Elaine Justice
Emory University faculty members Carol Anderson, Dianne Stewart and Walter Rucker

Faculty who were instrumental in establishing Emory’s new African American studies PhD program include (from left) Carol Anderson, former chair of the department; Dianne Stewart, interim chair of the department; and Walter Rucker, chair of the faculty committee that shepherded the program.

African American studies faculty at Emory University are energized as they begin the rollout of a new PhD program that will be the first in the Southeast and the first at a private university in the South.

“I couldn’t be more excited or more proud that we are launching our African American studies PhD program,” says Carla Freeman, interim dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences. “Our faculty have invested years of strategic planning, imagination and bold ambition to develop the curriculum and recruit top scholar-teachers working across the humanities and social sciences in this vibrant interdisciplinary field.”

The new program had no trouble getting the word out; an announcement on social media earlier this fall received some 20,000 shares. The program is currently taking applications, with the first doctoral students set to enroll in fall 2023.

African American studies has a long history at Emory, which established the first undergraduate major in the interdisciplinary field in 1971, making it the first degree-granting African American studies program in the South.

“The PhD program in African American studies is something that we have worked so hard for and is so necessary, given the situation where we are right now in terms of understanding the inequities in America, how we got here and how we get out,” says historian Carol Anderson, Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies.

Anderson, former chair of the department and who is on leave for the 2022-23 academic year, has been a major force in championing the program, and momentum, along with hiring, has been building for the past half-decade, says Walter Rucker, professor of African American studies and history, and chair of the faculty committee that shepherded the program from proposal to implementation.

“Independent of any other events in the wider nation or world, we already knew that an African American studies PhD would be a profound thing for Emory,” says Rucker. He points to faculty who have joined the department in the last six years, among them former directors of graduate studies and scholar/researchers who have trained graduate students at top programs across the country.

“Having that critical mass [of faculty] and knowing we could be the first PhD program in the Southeast, we realized we had an opportunity to create something unique,” he says.

With 14 core faculty and 40 more affiliated faculty throughout the university, “Emory will have the largest graduate faculty of any African American studies PhD program in the nation,” says Rucker, adding that the program “is a unique and unrivaled configuration that will provide a rich intellectual space and training for doctoral students.”

The new program’s core faculty includes scholars with research specializations in a broad range of fields, including American studies, anthropology, art history, comparative literature, creative writing, educational studies, English, history, music, political science, religious studies, sociology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

The program’s affiliated faculty are based across the university, from Emory and Oxford colleges, to Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, Rollins School of Public Health, Goizueta Business School, Emory School of Law and Candler School of Theology.

“The size, interdisciplinary breadth and depth of that talented pool of faculty cannot be overstated,” says Rucker.

Dianne Stewart, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Religion and African American Studies and interim chair of the department, says the goals in planning for the new program were to synergize the intellectual expertise of faculty in the department, and “to translate our vision in such a way that would feature our program’s distinctiveness as well as its integral contributions to Emory’s Laney Graduate School and the wider landscape of African American studies PhD programs across the nation.”

The program intends to be cutting edge, says Stewart, with faculty and students engaging in vital “theoretical conversations and debates that are happening now.” These include: What does it mean to train for a PhD in African American studies? What does it mean to become a public scholar?

“The mission of African American studies from the discipline’s inception has been to produce original knowledge in service of both the academy and communities of African descent across the nation and the world,” says Stewart.

Each student in the program will receive specialized training in one of three fields: gender and sexuality; social justice and social movements; or expressive arts and cultures.

“What is so powerful about this PhD program is that it not only trains scholars, but also trains people to work outside the academy so that they can bring that expertise to public policy positions, to cultural arts positions, to NGOs. Emory has as one of its core principles harnessing our intellectual firepower to positively transform society, and the PhD in African American studies is well within that tradition,” says Anderson.

“We want to make sure we pour as much mentoring and advising as we can into each student,” says Rucker. The program will include professional development workshops that are created and orchestrated by the program’s core faculty. “We want to make sure that students have real engagement with alternative career pathways from the very beginning.”

“One of the signatures of this program is its recruitment of faculty who are true builders,” says Freeman. “They are not just intellectual leaders, they model the inextricable connections between graduate and undergraduate education, and between scholarship, teaching, campus leadership, civic engagement and social justice. That these faculty will mentor the next generation of leaders is truly inspiring.”

“Emory’s mission is to create, preserve, teach and apply knowledge in the service of humanity,” says Kimberly Jacob Arriola, dean of the James T. Laney School of Graduate Studies and vice provost for graduate affairs. “Our doctoral program in African American studies truly brings that mission to life. We cannot wait to see all the ways in which these scholars will go out and change the world for the better.”

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