Commentary: Future of African American Lit in question

Photo by Astrid Gamarra

Ramapo College is set apart from other institutions because of its ability to grant students a well-rounded education. With “international and intercultural understanding” at the forefront of its mission statement, Ramapo provides students with vast exposure to the arts, specifically through the humanities.

But as registration continues for the upcoming school year, many students believe the current state of Ramapo's African American literature courses must be adjusted. The late Professor Joe Johnson taught the courses as a tenured faculty member, but upon his retirement in 2017, the College relabeled the line as a full-time, non-tenure track line dedicated to African American literature. Many students believe the line's place within the College's catalogue must be solidified and returned to its tenure-track position. No degree in Africana studies, American studies, or literature is complete without courses that highlight and explore the African American experience through literature.

Over the past week, students have collaborated on petitions urging President Peter Mercer to keep the line open for a future tenure-track position. One of the first students to take initiative regarding this issue is fourth-year literature major Alexandra Davies. Her reasoning was simple:

“I care about what I study, I’m passionate about it. I would hate for future generations of Ramapo students to not have a well-rounded study of American literature,” she said. “This is just a microcosm of the problems we have regarding diversity at our school.”

According to Davies, around 700 signatures have been collected. A diversity meeting, open to students and faculty, was also held on Apr. 3 where the issue was discussed.

“Being on a campus where there’s already a tremendous lack of diversity, it would be tragic to see Ramapo drop courses on African American literature,” said fourth-year student Isaiah McCall. “It’s a shame that faculty and students have to fight to keep courses available that showcase a different, and much needed perspective of the world.”

As stated in the student petition, “teaching African American literature is critical to cultivating students’ understanding of the lived experiences of African Americans and promoting a positive campus climate for students of color.”

Campus action has begun not only to keep these courses in the catalog, but to ensure that the position be filled by someone who can personally connect to the material, and speak to the African American experience.

“If you don’t have someone of color teaching African American literature,” said senior Kevin Edwards, “it creates a distance between the professor and the subject, even between the professor and their students.”

As stated in the College’s mission statement, Ramapo is committed to promoting diversity and inclusiveness. However, it is not enough to simply offer these courses. “Developing and retaining faculty and staff who reflect and are committed to diversity and inclusiveness,” is even cited as a specific goal in the College’s 2018-2021 Strategic Plan. African American literature courses without a professor of color will ultimately decrease minority representation, silence voices crucial to our understanding of history, and be detrimental to said diversity and inclusivity.

Since this matter is still unfolding on campus, it's unclear what the outcome will be. However, it is an issue that calls into question our school’s dedication to diversity and overall core values. Not only would an absence of this faculty line affect the authenticity of these courses, but put a significant crack in the very foundation Ramapo prides itself on.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified the African American literature track as an adjunct position. It is a full-time, non-tenure track line. Additionally, the article indicated students feared “the potential erasure” of African American literature courses at Ramapo College. Dr. Susan Hangen, dean of the Salameno School of Humanities & Global Studies, addressed this in a message released to the Ramapo News. “Studies in Arts and Humanities is a General Education course that is taught by a wide range of faculty,” she said. “It is in no danger of being cut if we do not get a tenure track position for African American Literature.”