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