Ethnic studies becoming a growth industry

January 31, 1991|By Eric Addison

The 1990-1991 academic year has been the best of times and worst of times for Daphne Harrison. Dr. Harrison, who has been chairwoman of the African-American Studies Department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County since 1981, and a faculty member there since 1972, has seen a resurgence of interest in the department's courses after a decrease in enrollments in the 1980s.

But she has also seen an increase in racial and ethnic conflict on college campuses nationwide.

"We have more students now than ever before," she says. "I'm happy that they recognize the importance of what we're trying to teach. They need to know and understand what they are going to confront in the corporate world."

In Maryland, Morgan State University, University of Maryland/College Park and UMBC are the only schools with autonomous African-American studies departments. At UMBC, the department has eight full-time and four part-time professors on its staff, many of whom have degrees in more than one discipline, or have otherwise shown an aptitude for employing the multidisciplinary approach Dr. Harrison feels is necessary for effective teaching.

Dr. Harrison has a master's degree in music and a Ph.D. in education. She teaches women's studies courses as well as music history. She has written a book called "Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s."

A native of Florida, she was an participant in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a movement which brought about the creation of black studies programs on college campuses throughout the nation.

"An enormous amount of scholarship has been spawned in these past 25 years. We now have a whole new generation of scholars who are followers of people who taught during the civil rights era," Dr. Harrison says.

"Of course I can't say that this scholarship would have not occurred without African-American studies departments, but I doubt it, at least not in terms of the quantity and quality of it."

Two of the most active areas of research in the field today are philosophy and literary criticism, Dr. Harrison says.

"We now have a group of young black scholars who are seriously addressing philosophical questions. Alain Locke to them is in many ways an icon. Locke is an outstanding philosopher who addressed the whole issue of African-American culture and aesthetic at a time when people didn't even raise such notions," she says.

In the face of all the progress in the field, more and more people are challenging the right of African-American studies and other ethnic studies departments to exist.

Some argue that ethnic studies departments are not important enough to have their own bailiwick, Dr. Harrison says. "To me it's a non-argument. Both general and specialized studies are valid in the same environment."

"But that does not excuse other departments from infusing all of their courses with information that is available about any group, culture or region that they haven't previously dealt with," she adds.

"Another argument is that ethnic studies have too much of a political slant, and knowledge should be apolitical," she says.

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