U of C English Department now accepting only grad students intending to work in Black studies

September 14, 2020 • 12:30 pm

In July I wrote about a statement that the Department of English put on its webpage—a statement about social justice that, I thought, contravened the University of Chicago’s Kalven Principles by allowing an official unit of the University to espouse and adhere to ideological principles. (Kalven encourages individual faculty to state their views, but forbids the University, with a few narrow exceptions, from adhering to any political, moral or ideological principles.) Here’s the statement, which was not an expression of individual opinion but an official position of the faculty of the English department. There are no signatures, and no dissenters.

This, I thought, violated the Kalven dictum that the University must take no political positions lest it lead to a chilling of speech and quashing of free discourse—one of the pillars of the University of Chicago. Departmental statements are equivalent to official University statements because departments are not only official units of the university, but are the very places in which saying “wrong” and “offensive” things could penalize your career, your tenure, and your promotions. Individual faculty are, as always, free to express their opinions, even on a department webpage, so long as they’re clearly described as the opinions of individuals.

But I digress. Note the following statement in the report above, issued July 20.

As part of our commitment to funding and fostering scholarship in Black studies, in the coming academic year (2020-2021) we are prioritizing consideration of applicants who work in and with Black studies for admission to our PhD program.

This has now been changed. First of all, there’s a watered-down version of the above in the English Department “news” section, while a stronger statement has migrated to the main English department page itself.  What’s interesting about the new one is that although it also purports to be the “July 2020” statement, there’s been one change (click screenshot below to see full statement):

The change, in the second paragraph above, is this statement:

For the 2020-2021 graduate admissions cycle, the University of Chicago English Department is accepting only applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies. We understand Black Studies to be a capacious intellectual project that spans a variety of methodological approaches, fields, geographical areas, languages, and time periods. For more information on faculty and current graduate students in this area, please visit our Black Studies page.   

In other words, the department isn’t just prioritizing applicants who work on Black studies, but are requiring all applicants to work on black studies. If you want to study Milton, Faulkner, Donne, Naipal, Marquez, or anybody like these, you’re flat out of luck. This is an unconscionable tilting of a department not just toward one area of English, but clearly towards an ideology that infuses black studies: Critical Race Theory. (You can see this by reading the statements above.)

Now the English department has the right to set its own curriculum, for curricular matters don’t violate the Kalven report (though the statements above do). If they want graduate students only in black studies, well, that’s their right. But it isn’t right. It’s a hamhanded attempt to be anti-racist, but at the expense of the very purpose of the university. What about all those potential applicants who want to study other areas of English, or those many professors in English that don’t do black studies? Well, it’s too bad for them.

And does anybody really think that Black studies anywhere represents an area in which all ideas are entertained and debated freely, and in which there is no received wisdom, and no statement considered off limits because it causes “harm” or “violence”? If you think that, you haven’t been following Critical Theory.

This saddens me—not because the English Department is giving more attention to race, but that it’s giving all its attention to race, at least for the time being. And insofar as Black studies hew to Critical Race Theory, this also represents a chilling of discourse. It’s part of the Awokening of the University of Chicago that I feared would come, but is not only here now, but also seems to have its nose—if not its whole head—inside the the tent.

43 thoughts on “U of C English Department now accepting only grad students intending to work in Black studies

  1. I suspect I’m a dinosaur in these things but it seems to me that studying only one races literature by demand does make the study racist in itself. Seems to me it denies any racial Flexibility

    1. It’ll be wonderful for the student quality and reputation of the English department! Well…the Columbia and Stanford English departments, at least…

  2. This is transparently an academic power-play by an element in the English Department. The woke play-book more and more parallels that of Lysenkoism in the USSR in the 1930s. In consequence, the Humanities in US ivory towers can look forward to a condition like that enjoyed by much of Biology in the Soviet academic world for at least 30 years after the 1930s.

    1. No, because they still train the US elites. For careers in media and also politics, woke activism is quite helpful and it may become indispensable to get a good job in academia. If humanities’ scholars were focusing on scholarship and eschewed activism, they would be less powerful.

  3. Imagine if a chemistry department decided that the next year’s incoming grad students could only study organic chemistry. Insane. Self-destructive, even. Not only does it limit the options for the students who choose to attend that year, but frankly it’s good for students in any sub-discipline to talk with students of other sub-disciplines and study other areas; you learn a lot getting ‘out of the box’ on occasion.

    I went to the U.Chicago English department’s web site. They group their study areas into five clusters, one of which is black studies, so this is a pretty major narrowing. It will be interesting to see if they get pushback from students or faculty in those other areas, even by liberals inclined to support BLM. For example, it would seem perfectly reasonable to me for a professor focused on gender and sexuality studies to object to the ‘sidelining’ of that important area. Also just as a point of interest, it looks like the department has about 60 grad students, which just swagging it probably means they’ll accept about 10 new students this year.

  4. I remember back in the mid-80s when the Geography Department was downgraded to a committee. Perhaps it’s time for the English Department to go the same way.

    1. A well known philosopher once told me that geography is the study of where things are, and that, to at least a first approximation, we know where things are, so that it was not immediately clear what university geography departments were for. 😉


  5. The U of C classicist Allan Bloom (the ninetieth anniversary of whose birth is today), who championed the “Great Books” approach to literature and authored The Closing of the American Mind, would sure as hell be having a conniption over this, were he still among the quick.

  6. Tablet has an intriguing article on this trend (link below). It argues that the generation of “Progressive” post-modernist academics played the role of Dr. Frankenstein with its teaching that “there is no such thing as objectivity or neutrality, and that all knowledge claims are about power.”

    The monster they created is a younger generation of academic scholars described as follows. “The younger academic generation is in no mood to argue about social reality; it is in the mood to assert morality. While the assertion “it is all about power” was meant to induce radical skepticism, a new generation has turned it into a moral certainty. And while the appeal to subjectivism—tell your story—as an attack on objectivity was meant to bring other experiences into the discussion, subjectivism has now become the be-all for a new generation which has adopted its own distinctive form of argument in which grievance is mixed with aggression and narcissism.”

    The new generation aims to turn all discourse in the academic world into its own discourse, as the Berkeley English Department now exemplifies; and it further aims “to enforce through invoking state and bureaucratic power … the norms governing the micro culture of white progressives.”


  7. If it turns out that this is for one year only, it may not be so bad. They do say this for the 2020-2021 academic year. From above comments, we can conclude they have 60 grad students, and that the other areas are well covered.

    If they go back to balanced admission next year, with some new students in all areas including but not limited to Black Studies, it makes more sense. This year would then be a one time catch up to get to a balanced distribution that can be maintained going forward.

    1. It would seem easier to have stuck to their original plan and admitted more people in that area but still admitted people in other areas. This will just build up a lot of ill will toward the department. In addition, they didn’t say this, which they could have were this their intention.

      And don’t forget all the students that wanted to join the department this year. Now they won’t apply, and will probably go elsewhere.

    2. The student listing doesn’t say what they are studying, so it’s pretty much impossible to tell what the breakdown by the five areas is. “Average” would be 12-13 students per area I guess, with 2-3 students per area each year (this does not consider attrition, so each incoming group may be slightly bigger than what I suggested above). Maybe the black studies is lower, maybe not. It’s impossible to tell with the limited data I was able to access.

      One cautionary note; these are small enough numbers that a variation from the mean in one or more areas is probably expected and normal, and may not indicate anything other than the “noise” of student choice of area.

      Which brings up another thought, which is that with BLM in the news so much, any lack of black studies scholars may just fix itself – i.e. the department might reasonably expect that a lot of next years’ applicants would want to study it naturally, without any departmental limitation in place.

      But if they want more students in that area, the obvious (but more costly) solution is to expand the department by several students and maybe a professor or two.

    3. I just poked around the web site for the department for a while. (I was an undergraduate at UC, so I care a bit about the school).

      The graduate admissions page says: “The application deadline for the 2021-22 academic year is December 15th, 2020.” Notice that is for the 2021-2022 year. The application deadline for this year (2020-2021) has long since passed.

      The document update in July is actually a report of what the did with the applicant pool for this year, 2020-2021, namely they accepted only the students for Black Studies. I don’t think it is meant to be a statement of future admissions policy.

      That’s the thread of sanity I am clinging to.

      1. That’s a pretty frayed thread. . .
        a. How come they changed the statement about what they were going to do between July 20 and today if they already did it?

        b. Even if you’re right, and I don’t think you are given the time frame of anti-racism, does it make it any more acceptable to say that they will accept only Black studies students or did only accept Black studies students?

        c. I am not at all sure that the “admissions cycle” refers to last year’s admission deadlines (that wouldn’t make sense for an announcement in July or September rather than to “the admission process taking place in 2020-2021.

  8. My PhD in English (1971) from the UofC was very hard-earned but a beautiful thing to have achieved. Superior fellow-students and a faculty second to none (and I mean equal or better than Harvard, Yale and Berkley). I am so, so distressed by this!

    Granted, fifty years ago there was a similar ‘radical’ protest over an Eng. Dept. curriculum that did not meet the emerging needs of a multi-cultural society. American literature generally was a distant second to English lit., and the English 18th century + an Aristotelian theory of literary form were the centripetal core of study.

    African-American literature was just coming over the horizon as a subject for the PhD. Chicago English brought on its first Black professors with that specialty, and many of the students, myself included, were pleased about this reform. Likewise with feminist criticism and the new scrutiny of women’s texts (this was revelatory!).

    But the topic of study, regardless of the books or the authors, was literature qua literature: how it worked, what it embodied of the societies from which it came, and, yes, the moral universes it represented. One of the major books from the faculty was ‘Fiction and the Shape of Belief,’ by Prof. Sheldon sacks; another was Prof. Ned Rosenheim’s ‘What Happens in Literature;’ and Prof. Wayne Booth’s ‘The Rhetoric of Fiction.’

    All these–and I could name others–were treatises in the serious study of literature as parts of the edifice of humanism.

    All such thought is today widely anathematized in parts of the academy. But, fond fool me, I never thought it would come to the English Dept. of the University of Chicago.

    1. Very well put, Robert. I could say much the same myself. I took a B.A. and M.A. in English in the mid-sixties just prior to your time. Norman Maclean, Elder Olson, Ted Silverstein, Michael Murrin, Stuart Tave, and Richard Stern were the profs I most remember and loved. How could this storied department have fallen so far? I think I saw signs of what was to come in a course given in popular literature by John Cawelti, who pioneered that field and was himself a most interesting and stimulating teacher. Cawelti liked to parallel pulp genre writers with the great classic ones. One of the readings was Conrad’s “Secret Agent”, considered for its elements as a political thriller and its principal character as a precursor of George Smiley. Cawelti himself had many interesting things to say on these lines. However, my fellow grad student classmates could not see beyond what they believed to be Conrad’s retrograde political critique of the spirit of revolution. They either did not notice or did not care about the book’s esthetic merit or the subteties of character depiction in it – in short, its literary values. That was a bit of an eye-opener for me. Many of my fellow-students in that course must have gone on to become profs and to have purveyed views of the sort they were enunciating in that class to their own students. I myself turned aside from the academic life, perhaps mercifully so.

      1. I have had a lasting love for Conrad ever since I read “The Secret Agent,” and met Winnie Verloc–in my view a true feminist hero. I would have been extremely interested in what your Prof. Cawelti had to say, and even more, perhaps, in the views of your fellow students. I wish I were still reading and debating with fellow book lovers.

      2. I had forgotten John Caewelti! Thanks for this! I too took the course you mention. Up to that point, all I had read of ‘adventure, mystery, romance’ was Sherlock Holmes, along with some teenage Dumas pere and Walter Scott. The Prof. led me toward a lifetime of reading crime fiction, added to the science fiction I had already discovered in the public library.

        As a professor myself, I was all for ‘expanding the canon’–in an important sense, I think, the history of literature is the history of reading–yet I always tried to get my students to understand literature from the inside out. Yes, literature is a cultural phenomenon, and a crucial one for social- and self-understanding because language and literacy are so important to our species. But even the most popular literature ought to be read as literature, the ‘inside-out’ approach.

        At least this was the legacy of Chicago English. . . then.

  9. I just want to point out that alongside, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, where there is a strong case for police wrongdoing (although no evidence of racism), they list Tony McDade. I’ve seen this in several similar preambles about alleged racial injustice. Tony McDade was shot shortly after he killed a (black) man with a knife, and was armed with a gun as he advanced on an officer in a shooting stance. The gun is now confirmed by witnesses and video. Prior to that, he had explicitly threatened to murder the victim and several others on facebook, and then expressed his plan to commit suicide by cop using a gun. The idea that this incident should be viewed as racist violence is simply unsupportable, and it’s disgraceful that academics would continue to spread the misinformation.

  10. Having an ENGLISH Dept. must be truly galling. What could it be replaced with? The Word Bureau, where only the correct studies are kept for ethically advanced students.

  11. When I was still active in a biology department, I always resisted narrowly defined faculty searches. Better to cast a wide net and find the best minds. As to grad student prospects, all of whom were brought in for interviews, I favored those who could explain the broad significance rather than the technical details of undergrad research projects that had been involved in and who could ask probing questions and even make useful suggestions when I described my research. Of course, I wouldn’t have even considered asking about their political/social beliefs or activism.

  12. It will be interesting to see how this affects the size and quality of the English grad program. Are they really going to turn down brilliant students who do not want to work on Black Studies?

      1. There is a slight weasel out. They state the students should be “interested in working in or with Black Studies.” A student could feign “interest” and the say it didn’t workout.

  13. What if I’m a non-black student? Can I still apply for Black Studies? My guess is that even if a white or asian kid tried this (and their can’t be many that would), there is no way they would be admitted.

    I think at the heart of this move is a desire to prevent white students from entering the program, period. Overtly banning white, Asian, or other non-black students would be too obvious, but limiting the area of study to “black studies” accomplishes the same thing.

    I hope I’m proven wrong, and that some non-black students are admitted under this new regime.

    1. Will the students that are rejected due to the new rules self-segregate and move to different institutions? Or will the woker department be so prestigious due to its ideological purity that they will redouble their efforts to associate with it?

      1. I think it’s safe to assume that undergrads or Master’s students applying to the top notch English Ph.D. programs, who aren’t seriously interested in Black studies, would just not apply to UofC next year.
        Still, this being grad school, the professors have a lot of sway. If you really wanted to study under a specific person, and that professor really wanted you in their program, I’m sure there’s a way they could make it happen.

  14. Given what Kehinde Andrews (UK’s first professor of black studies) writes, it is clear that black studies is basically and primarily an ideological project (informed by critical race theory) rather than a scientific one:

    “As a discipline, Black Studies centres the experiences, contributions and perspectives of the African Diaspora. The neglect of Black knowledge by society is no accident but a direct result of racism. Black Studies redresses this marginalisation by focusing on those knowledges produced at the margins and aims to create knowledge that can have a liberatory impact. As Malcolm X argued, ‘truth is on the side of the oppressed’, and
    the standpoint of Blackness provides a unique understanding of society. Black Studies is part of the wider movement to decolonise knowledge and to debunk the racist assumptions of the taken-for-granted Eurocentric truth regimes. This has never been a battle that was just academic – knowledge shapes the world. Eurocentric knowledge created the racist social order we experience. Rhodes Must Fall was an inspiration to our founding of the Black Studies degree, further evidence that the student body were demanding change.

    Just as RMF took the work of decolonisation further than the curriculum, so too does Black Studies. A central critique of Western knowledge is the role of the university itself. The separation of thought from practice is an exercise in producing elite knowledge. The esteemed intellectual in the university sits outside and above those communities outside, providing analysis into the problems of society. To decolonise education we must forever leave behind the idea that knowledge can be produced value free. Our politics shape our understanding of the world and the pretence of neutrality ironically makes our endeavours less valid. Knowledge produced outside of the academy is just as important and often more so than that developed within the university. The terms academic and intellectual are not quite mutually exclusive but there is no direct correlation. The links RMF built up to movement off campus are therefore crucial to any truly transformative project.

    In building the very first Black Studies degree in Europe we have embedded the politics and issues of the Diaspora into the course. We have also ensured that students have to engage with organisations that work within Black communities and to apply their knowledge in practice. Learning about Black people is not enough and we are developing methodologies for social change rather than simply analysis.”

    (Andrews, Kehinde. Preface to /Rhodes Must Fall: The Struggle to Decolonise the Racist Heart of Empire/, edited by Roseanne Chantiluke, Brian Kwoba, and Athinangamso Nkopo, ix-xiv. London: Zed Books, 2018. pp. xii-xiii)

  15. The department’s academic program—setting curricular and investigative priorities and concomitantly setting priorities in student and faculty recruitment—-are plainly defined by, and emerge from, the department’s political stance and its views on moral and social issues. After detailing its academic program, the department rounds out its statement in the final paragraph by returning to an explicit declaration of social advocacy: “Part of our commitment to the struggle for Black lives…” Because the department should not be adopting a political stance or taking a position on moral and social issues in the first place, its academic priorities and program that flow from its political stance are, themselves, irreconcilable with the Kalven Report’s view of institutional neutrality. In fact, its academic program seems to be a creature of its social advocacy. In short, the department defines its academic program and priorities according to a political commitment that it should not be making in the first place.

    As a non-academic, I found the following distinction helpful: A history department, say, could certainly define its academic priorities by privileging Marxian analysis. But if it said that because of its commitment to the workers’ struggle, and because it saw that struggle as just and the only path forward, it was therefore prioritizing a commitment to dialectical materialism in its curricular and recruitment decisions, then I would say that, plainly, the department’s academic program was an adjunct to its social advocacy.

  16. Just a quick comment: in a way, the department is actually doing something salutary by openly admitting something that would have just remained hidden by the initial wording. Lots of schools say things like “we encourage/prioritize diversity field X” when what they actually mean to do is only hire or admit in X. They just don’t say that for fear of repercussions/legal stuff. So, U of C English is just saying openly what other departments only say behind closed doors. In other words, this isn’t really a case of that department “crossing a line”, these lines are already crossed countless times per year in academia.

Leave a Reply