A “Kinsley gaffe” comes when a politician inadvertently reveals a politically inconvenient truth. Perhaps in higher education, we can now speak of an “Alabama gaffe,” named for the University of Alabama, which recently decided to combine (“blend” was the university’s preferred verb) its women’s studies and African-American studies programs, creating a new entity called the “Department of Gender and Race Studies.”
Although the University doesn’t say so, it’s clear that financial concerns are playing a role here—especially given that virtually no students (16 in all) are affiliated with the two programs, either as undergraduate majors or as graduate students.
That said, universities everywhere are facing budgetary shortfalls—so why combine these two departments? Such a move would make little intellectual sense if the two programs were actually engaged in the pedagogically diverse scholarship, since they wouldn’t seem to have all that much in common. What common roots would apply to, say, a study of the pro-life movement among women of faith and an examination of the roots of the African slave trade? But, explained the new “blended” department’s chair, DoVeanna Fulton Minor, Ph.D, the move makes sense, because “together we create a critical mass of faculty and students who have similar research interests and can work together.”
Minor’s scholarship seems to reflect this vision of focusing on what was common to the two departments (black women, with a heavy dose of subaltern studies). In a perfect manifestation of the race/class/gender trinity, she published a book with SUNY Press called Speaking Power: Black Feminist Orality in Women’s Narratives of Slavery.
In any event, politics, rather than pedagogy, appears to be the chief bond between the two “blended” departments. The Tuscaloosa News summarized Minor’s rationale: “Both African-American and women’s studies emerged at the same time in the early 1970s, and both focus on similar themes of human and civil rights, albeit with different groups and different histories.”
Minor also told the paper that combining the two departments would help stave off unnamed “critics” of the programs—undoubtedly people who wonder why the university needs to subsidize academic units devoted to amplifying the “human and civil rights” mindset of academic radicals from the early 1970s. It’s especially hard to argue that the contemporary academy—with humanities and soft social sciences departments largely dominated by advocates of the race/class/gender point of view—has a pressing need for additional departments whose raison d’etre is employing even more professors whose scholarship will examine issues of race, class, or gender.
The new department will increase Minor’s visibility as a public intellectual; she has opined, for instance, that “marriage signifies inheritance as well as the way in which one traces one’s lineage. The woman taking the man’s name signifies her leaving her own family and taking on the identity of the husband and his family, which is why it has been problematic for women.” Minor also welcomed to the Alabama campus Cornel West, who she praised for his “sharp and piercingly profound” insights on race and American culture.