Q&A: Professor Ato Quayson talks AAAS departmentalization

April 27, 2023, 1:12 a.m.

For 50 years, African and African American Studies (AAAS) existed at Stanford as an academic program: the first ethnic studies program at Stanford and the first African and African American Studies program at a private institution in the U.S. In 2021, after half a century of student and faculty activism calling for the program to be expanded into a formal department, a task force charged with recommending a new framework for the study of race recommended the departmentalization of AAAS at Stanford.

The Committee for the Departmentalization of AAAS was created and tasked with outlining departmentalization plans. The committee’s chair, English Professor and Chair of the English Department Ato Quayson, will become the inaugural chair of the AAAS department.

The Daily spoke with Quayson about AAAS and its future as a department.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: What’s the difference between a department and a program?

Ato Quayson [AQ]: The undergraduate curriculum is normally delivered, or powered by, departments. Departments are in charge of designing and planning long-term curriculum. Programs — inter-departmental programs (IDPs) — are different. In the English department, my colleagues here and myself have a required set of teaching obligations every year, and you have to deliver it. If you don’t deliver it, you could be asked questions. The IDPs and AAAS program depend on the goodwill of professors. Now, this goodwill dependency means that their foundation courses are typically taught by visiting faculty, lecturers — and so they’ve been doing well … but the consistency is not always there for the simple reason that they don’t have the steadfast commitment. We are not obliged to teach anything for AASS; it’s goodwill. Typically the courses are cross-listed courses, but the academic faculty are not obliged to teach it in those. So the first thing is continuity of quality delivery, because the department can hire faculty and the faculty have a commitment to teach and serve at the department level.

The second thing is: let us say the English department wanted to develop a new area in media and literary studies. We could go to the library and tell them “you know what, we want you to put together all relevant media and literature resources in the world and make it available for us.” A program has no power to do that — to requisition resources. Only departments can do that. Even now, I’m already in conversation with the Green Library for me to share with them what I think are resources we might need to start a new department. This is huge, because the university can also assign a budget. The department, it’s a different ballgame. It’s a major upgrade in power … over what a program can do.

[TSD]: What sparked efforts to departmentalize AAAS and what did the process look like?

[AQ]: The process was long. The program is over 50 years old. It was set up in the late 60s, after student rights demonstrations and student demands. It was a program that was run very efficiently, but there’s always been demands for departmentalization, endlessly. There’s a history of it. Always asking or demanding. Students asking. Faculty asking.

Now, something changed after George Floyd. George Floyd made the demands seem more plausible to the university. George Floyd, let’s call it the moment of George Floyd, changed The University’s attitude toward, you know, Black studies or African American/African studies. To cut a long story short, a committee was struck to look at Black studies — not just African American Studies, or AAAS, but what the atmosphere of Black Studies was like. The first recommendation they came up with was to set up a department. Another very important recommendation was to set up an Institute on Race. As soon as the recommendation came down from the committee, I was a part of the committee. The provost lit up. She was extraordinarily supportive of the entire process from departmentalization.

I was chair of the committee, and the committee was fact-finding. We’ve met a lot of people, invited people to talk to us. The committee met from April 21, 2021 to roughly May or June 2022. This is the process: lots of conversations. We invited our competitor institutions from all over the country: Harvard, Princeton, Michigan, UCLA. We found the best practice — “how did you set up your department,” and so on, at Columbia. We got really good advice and feedback, and we … fed all that advice into our own document. The provost received the report. All the while, the provost gave us indications that we should dream big. She actually said it to us at the meeting: “Dream big.” So we’ve dreamt big. Right now, where we’re at, the curriculum has just been approved. In the final phase, it has to be presented to the Senate. There’s a difference between the curriculum and the department. The curriculum will start in the fall of 2023. But the department will start in 2024.

[TSD]: Why do you think it’s important that AAAS is its own department?

[AQ]: Part of the answer has to do with the fact that a department is much better for delivering excellence than a program. It can deliver more and it has a commitment of Academic Council faculty, better programming, better curricular and extracurricular programs.

But the other thing is that Stanford is way behind its competitors. It’s embarrassing. Harvard set up its department, not program, in 1968. Princeton set up its department way, way back. For most universities it’s been in different phases. First, in the late 60s, there was a clutch of AAAS departments. Then there was a hiatus until the early 2000s, then another clutch of them. More recently, from about 2017-18, Columbia is blowing up. Columbia set up a department of African American and African Diaspora Studies. The University of California, Santa Barbara also set up theirs. This was just last year.

So Stanford is actually embarrassingly behind its competitors, but … we have to get on with it. The second reason why it’s important to have an AAAS department, as opposed to simply a program, is that it also helps in recruiting both students and faculty. Many great Black faculty that have come to Stanford that have left — they come, but there’s no community. The department will meet that need. So we can attract some of the brightest minds. Not just Black but Black identifying [folks]. So the department’s not an enclave. It’s for Black people and anyone who identifies with the excellent project. That is so basically Stanford can catch up. We have lots of bright students with no clear focus. A department will fix that.

[TSD]: What will AAAS, the major, look like as a part of a department? 

[AQ]: It will have three tracks. It will have the African American Studies track and the African Studies track; both of these are already available at Stanford in different configurations. But it will have a third track also: a Global Black Diaspora Studies track. The breadth requirements will require that each of the tracks — if, let’s say, you were doing an African American Studies track, you have to take some courses in African Studies and also in Global Black Diaspora Studies. That’s very different from how things are right now.

The second distinctive feature is that it will have an inbuilt community engagement aspect. Community engagement will be a requirement. They will take it for units. Community engagement will be descriptive, so some part of the course you will have to identify a community. There’ll be a director of community engagement in the department who assists, advises and places students. Community engagement can cover a lot of things. It can cover Black organizations, not just in the Bay Area; presumably much of the research could be further out. 

[TSD]: As the current chair of AAAS, what is your vision for the department and the future? 

[AQ]: Let me preface this by saying: I am an optimist. I see beautiful things. Let’s start from basic student members. I see, I envision, I project that it will have to be popular. Religion currently has something like 14 majors. History has something like 61 majors. English has 130 majors and is one of the biggest in the humanities and social sciences. The AAAS program has 15 majors. My projection is that, in five years, we should be hovering around 50. This is my dream … it would take a very long time to be as big as English, but we can definitely outstrip religion and linguistics.

The second thing is that we will get to put out intellectual programming. This is not just courses …because I always think beyond Stanford, but in the region, in California, and well beyond, we want to be a hub. Think of the metaphor of a beehive. Everyone is coming to take a bit of the holy circle and also deposit what they have and so on. To be a depository of excellence. It’s my job to think like that — it is going to be big … Everyone will be there.

There was a news item that they wrote introducing me as a new chair, and I said that I don’t care where you come from. You could be Korean. You could be German. You could be Greek. I don’t care, but you should be able to align yourself with an excellent project represented by AAAS. We’re not setting up an enclave. This is a department of the University. Department of excellence. I want as many people as possible to identify with what it is to Black culture, Black society, to understand “American” differently. America is understood in a variety of ways. There is still room to define what it is to be American through them.

[TSD]: What is the current status of AAAS now and what should we start to expect from it in the future?
[AQ]: It’s near completion. Curriculum has been approved, spaces are being sorted out. They’ve assigned this space, it’s going to be refurbished and we’re ready to roll. We have a certain number of faculty internal to the University who’ve already agreed to join the department. We’re also contemplating some brand new hires. In the next five years, we’re going to hire quite a few people. The future is bright, it’s golden and it’s wonderful.

Judy N. Liu '26 is the Academics desk editor for News and staff writer at The Daily.

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