African American Studies Enhances, Restructures its Undergraduate Curriculum

February 25, 2014

During a January 2014 meeting, VCU’s University Undergraduate Curriculum Committee (UUCC) approved new degree requirements for the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in African American Studies. Not since the program’s inception in 1971, and its approval as a degree-granting program in 2003, has the undergraduate curriculum been enhanced significantly to reflect major advances in the field.

“It is important to remember that it was a difficult and long road for African American Studies to transition from a program offering only two courses in 1971, to a minor in 1977, to a bachelors degree program in 2003. There was little support for the transition to a degree-granting program by the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV). VCU, its faculty and students, and the community continued to lobby and push for the affirmation and validation of a degree of study that advanced knowledge specific to the culture, experiences, and history of those of African descent” says Dr. Aashir Nasim, first-year chair of the Department of African American Studies. “Once SCHEV approved the program in 2003, I think the focus remained on achieving the goals and objectives that won initial approval, and less so on ways to make the degree program more innovative and responsive to the changing dynamics of the field and to the needs of employers.”

Dr. Nasim believes the approval of a new curriculum for African American Studies will be a gateway for prospective students who typically would not consider majoring in this field. In fact since 2008 the number of registered majors declined by more than 50%. Importantly African American Studies degree programs across the nation have experienced similar or more severe declines in the past decade. Much of the decline in majors has been attributed to cuts in funding and in personnel for smaller degree programs at some colleges and universities. However Dr. Nasim thinks it may be a combination of several factors.

“In less than a year, our department has been able to increase the number of registered majors by more than two-fold. We now have more registered majors now than in the history of the program. And this actually is before the approval of a new curriculum by UUCC and before the implementation of the curriculum later this fall [Fall 2014].”

“Without question we have benefited tremendously from the support of our College [College of Humanities and Sciences] in allowing our department to be aggressive in hiring dynamic faculty and moving forward with an administrative calculus that bets on growth and not stagnation or decline.” Dr. Nasim also says that a renewed emphasis on high quality student advising has been key in demonstrating to prospective students the vast utility of a degree in African American Studies. On average, Dr. Nasim spends about a quarter of his workweek advising and mentoring research students in his department. “And my faculty spend the same amount of time if not more interacting with students both in the classroom and during students’ on-campus and community events on weekdays and weekends.” According to Dr. Nasim, student engagement leads to student empowerment in the classroom and in the community.

The new major in African American Studies is 30 credit hours and consists of new core courses as well as a new experiential course in applied research or community-based services research. “The goal of this new curriculum, the new major, is to advance the value proposition for our students. That means we are committed to providing students with high quality academic experiences that, once they leave here, they will be prepared for their chosen careers or continued graduate and professional degree programs.” “Our most important measure of success will be our alumni.”

Tess Simms edited this interview. Ms. Simms is a graduating senior (Class of 2014) and a double major in African American Studies and English.