The American Studies department held a mixer for faculty, majors and interested students in the Swan-Dumke Commons Oct. 24. In addition to exposing students to American Studies, the mixer served as an introduction to the new Black Studies program and associated faculty, bringing in dozens of students who were curious about the program. Occidental College administrators proactively moved to create a Black Studies program in response to the list of demands produced by student protesters last fall.
The American Studies department hired two new professors — Erica Ball and Courtney Baker — in August to help shepherd the program’s development. Before coming to Occidental, Ball was the chair of the African-American Studies department at California State University-Fullerton, and Baker was the director of the Africana Studies program at Connecticut College. Both professors are working with faculty and administrators to make the program operational.
“I believe that the swift response and establishment of the program was definitely due to the occupation, but there was definitely an interest in it beforehand,” Braelin Stockton (senior), an American Studies major, said.
Stockton added that while there are courses offered at Occidental that would fit in with a Black Studies program, such as Religious Studies 245, “African-American Religious Traditions,” or English 142, “Joyful Noise! On Black Literature and Musicality,” it is gratifying to see the development of a program dedicated exclusively to Black Studies.
Baker and Ball are aware of the long-held desire for Black Studies on campus, and have dedicated time since their arrival to familiarizing themselves with student personalities and the campus climate, they said. Both expressed a commitment to creating a program that is right for Occidental, and added that this kind of careful consideration can take time.
“Professor Ball and I are deeply committed to transparency and to collaboration, with the understanding that at some point things need to come out of the discussion room,” Baker said.
The exact nature and mission of the program has not been decided. At present, due to Ball and Baker’s expertise, Black Studies is placed within the American Studies department, but Baker said that the program may grow beyond this regional focus.
“I think something that would be great for Oxy would be a program that is not simply U.S.-focused but is global in its perspective,” Ball said.
Regardless of its departmental placement, Black Studies is by nature a highly interdisciplinary field, according to Ball. The program will likely draw on faculty from numerous areas of study, such as history, Media Arts and Culture (MAC), English, art history and Politics. Many faculty members responded positively to a survey of possible interest, and have been in talks with Ball, Baker and administrators.
Baker said that the program will start small, but will likely grow in coming years. Both are hopeful that there will eventually be a Black Studies major.
There was a full table of students who talked to the professors at the mixer, and both professors have seen excitement from students regarding the classes they are teaching next semester. Ball and Baker will each introduce two new courses in a Black Studies model in the spring. Ball will teach American Studies 268, “American Beauty: Race, Fashion, and the Female Body,” as well as a first-year Cultural Studies class called “Race and Popular Culture.” Baker will teach American Studies 240, “African-American Women Writers,” as well as “African-American Film: 1967 – Present,” which is cross-listed as American Studies 252 and MAC 252.
According to Stockton, both professors demonstrate their commitment to addressing student needs.
“I’m actually in Professor Ball’s class, ‘The American South’ [American Studies 310] and she asks for our input often,” Stockton said.
According to Ball, this student input will be an important component for her when planning the next phase of the program.
“Our next step is to kind of move the ball forward and incorporate students into the process, and move towards something that’s a bit more concrete,” Ball said.
Stockton, Ball and Baker all expressed disappointment that current Occidental students will likely not get to take advantage of the Black Studies program in its entirety. Even so, they are positive that the program will be an attractive option for future students and a positive contribution to the institution.