Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Faculty Involvement
Diversity Digest Volume 9, Number 2

Diversity Digest
Volume 10,
Number 1

Download our print issue (PDF)
Campus-Community Involvement
Student Leadership: Making a Difference in the World
Access to Education, Opportunity to Serve
Berea College: Learning, Labor, and Service
A Developmental and Capacity-Building Model for Community Partnerships
The Power of a Sustained Relationship between Community Partners and Colleges and Universities
Faculty Involvement
Prequel to Civic Engagement: An African American Studies Research Seminar
Service Learning and Policy Change
Facilitating Student Growth as Citizens: A Developmental Model for Community-Engaged Learning
Student Experience
An Intentional and Comprehensive Student Development Model
Bonner: More Than a Model, a Lived Experience
Relationships First
Commitment to a Cause
Institutional Leadership
Preparing to Serve
Checklist from the President’s Chair
Curricular Transformation
LifeWorks and the Commons: A Model for General Education
The Case for Studying Poverty
Engaging with Difference Matters: Longitudinal Outcomes of the Cocurricular Bonner Scholars Program
Resources for Civic Engagement
Serving, Voting, and Speaking Out: Bonner Students Reflect on Civic Engagement

Prequel to Civic Engagement: An African American Studies Research Seminar

By Alexander X. Byrd, assistant professor of history, Rice University

Like other fields midwifed by student protest and activism into the intellectual life of American universities during the civil rights movements of the 1960s, African American studies has come to be described by its most accomplished practitioners as a “socially engaged” or “prescriptive” field of inquiry. The discipline, consequently, is supposed to be focused not simply on the creation and dissemination of new knowledge but also on the question of how African American studies scholarship might ameliorate and transform the often troubled condition of its subjects (see Bobo, Hudley, and Michel 2004; Marable 2005).

Bonner scholars from Earlham College work with local community members.

Bonner scholars from Earlham College work with local community members.

This is a tall order, and it is what aligns African American studies with the present push for richer civic engagement programs at colleges and universities committed to liberal education. The potential symbiosis, however, is also rife with possible problems. At liberal arts institutions that are also research universities, and for younger scholars whose research lies outside the social science fields particularly suited for civic engagement, it is not immediately clear how or whether to proceed.

As a student of eighteenth-century Afro-America and a beginning assistant professor at a research university, I answered this question by fashioning a course outside my immediate research area that might serve as a precursor to the kind of praxis that is so important to African American studies and as a lead-in to the kind of socially relevant research central to civic engagement. The resulting course, titled Seminar in Contemporary African American History: Blacks in Reagan’s America, is designed to immerse students in recent scholarship on the contemporary black condition, and then to provide a space for them to test and measure that literature in collaboration with an individual African American.

To these ends, the students read ten to twelve recent monographs on contemporary black society, and from the second week of class on, students—sometimes working in pairs—are also required to begin seeking a collaborator for the seminar’s research project. Their assignment is to create a piece of reportage that uses a single life to illuminate one of the course’s core questions. The interviews and site visits involved in the seminar project require students to shuttle between a deep engagement with African American studies scholarship and the lived experiences of contemporary American blacks.

Bonner student leaders come together twice a year to build a network, share best practices, inspire each other, and attend leadership training like the COOL conference at Harvard College.

Bonner student leaders come together twice a year to build a network, share best practices, inspire each other, and attend leadership training like the COOL conference at Harvard College.

Precious few young people understand with any depth the different ways of being black in America. The racial and economic segregation that again prevails in many of our public schools means that popular culture, not personal interaction, is a primary means through which many white students experience black culture and society. Many African Americans, though black themselves, do not necessarily emerge from secondary school with a firmer grasp of the matter. Black students are not immune to the miseducation often provided by pop culture, and there is the additional problem of misunderstanding one’s own blackness as definitive of blackness. For students in the course who have had limited interactions with African Americans and African American scholarship, the readings and interviews open up new experiences and new learning. The same is true, though, for students with a grasp of a particular variety of American blackness. For these students, the readings and the opportunity to interview African Americans from various religions, socio-economic classes, or other identity groups expose them to experiences of blackness beyond the ones with which they are familiar.

The course is also designed to introduce students to the professional work of history, particularly how historians deal with and filter sources and information. One of the goals, therefore, is to help students critically analyze and assess how they interact with, make decisions about, and present their source material. A second, related goal is to help students recognize that any text or story is always filtered through the person relating it and thus to encourage them to treat both academic material and personal experiences with healthy skepticism. Developing this deepened critical thinking and awareness, as well as skepticism, encourages more responsible, engaged citizenship.

Three students who took this course during their sophomore year decided they wanted to do more to connect their academic work with the surrounding communities. During their senior year, they recruited additional students and worked with me to develop a yearlong independent study course. With a grant from the university, they produced a book of essays and photos developed out of their exploration of three Houston neighborhoods.

Offering this type of course, particularly early in the college experience, whets students’ appetites for learning that links academic work with community exploration and engagement. It is work, I hope, that begins to prepare them to address, in their own generation, the complaint W. E. B. DuBois made of his: “We seldom study the condition of the Negro to-day honestly and carefully. It is so much easier to assume that we know it all. Or perhaps, having already reached conclusions in our own minds, we are loath to have them disturbed by facts” (1903, 137).

Syllabi and representative student assignments from the seminar described in this article can be found at cohesion.rice.edu/humanities/hist/people.cfm?doc_id=1794.


Bobo, J., C. Hudley, and C. Michel. 2004. The black studies reader. New York: Routledge.

DuBois, W. E. B. 1903. The souls of black folk: Essays and sketches. 2nd ed. Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Co.

Marable, M. 2005. The new black renaissance: The souls anthology of critical African-American studies. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Questions, comments, and suggested resources should be directed to campbell@aacu.org.
Copyright 1996 - 2014
Association of American Colleges & Universities | 1818 R Street NW, Washington, DC, 20009