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Cornell, Syracuse and Binghamton universities jointly offer Africana seminar

Students attending classes at Cornell University's Africana Studies and Research Center routinely come from different colleges and departments within the university. But in one such class, they come from different universities. Cornell, Syracuse and Binghamton universities, in collaboration with Morgan State University, a historically black college in Maryland, are jointly offering a graduate-level seminar in black studies this semester for the first time. The seminar was made possible by a three-year, $250,000 grant from the Ford Foundation and will be offered again in the fall of 1997 and 1998.

This semester titled Black Intellectual Traditions: Humanistic and Social Scientific Approaches, the four-credit seminar was developed by faculty from the three upstate New York universities, all offering programs in African or African-American studies and within a two-hour's drive of each other. It is designed to strengthen ties among upstate New York universities; enhance student learning and research in African, African-American and African-Caribbean studies; and extend the long-standing relationship between Cornell and Morgan State University, which currently has five students in residence at Cornell.

Students enrolled in the seminar -- six at Syracuse, six at Binghamton and 12 at Cornell -- have met for two-and-a-half hours simultaneously on Thursday afternoons at their respective campuses to hear lectures on enslavement, colonialism, resistance and other themes.

On four of those Thursdays, all 24 students have convened for one large class -- held twice at Cornell, once at Syracuse and once at Binghamton.

According to Cornell's Robert L. Harris Jr., associate professor of African-American history and director of the project, its greatest strength lies in broadening students' exposure to various specialists and specialties.

For example, he said, at the group session in Syracuse, students from the other participating campuses heard a guest lecture from that university's Horace Campbell on colonialism in southern Africa; and at the group session in Binghamton, they heard from Binghamton's Tiffany Patterson on African-American women's history.

Leonese Nelson, a Syracuse University student, said, "For me, the best part of the class was constantly hearing different speakers and getting their different perspectives, rather than just hearing lectures from the same person each week."

Bruce R. Hare, a Syracuse professor of African-American studies and sociology and site coordinator for the program there, said another major value is in consolidating limited resources. "The cooperative notion of this model is one that says we live in a time when there are more limited resources, so we need to work more collaboratively," he said.

Harris added, "The seminar is something we now have that might have required more time on the part of our faculty to develop individually. So the three seminars that we are developing [for the three years of the grant] become a permanent part of our curricular development; they don't go away, and we can draw upon them as we see fit after the end of this project."

The biggest challenges in developing the seminar, Harris said, have been in coordinating the schedules of the core faculty -- who, in addition to Harris and Hare include Don Ohadike, Cornell associate professor of Africana studies, and Carole Boyce Davies, Binghamton professor of Africana studies; ensuring that the seminar meets requirements for all four participating institutions; and narrowing down required readings.

This semester, those readings numbered more than 50 and represented authors from Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter Woodson and Marcus Garvey to Paulo Freire, Angela Davis, Gloria Hull and Cornel West. Still, at the semester's final group gathering, at Cornell's Africana Center on Nov. 21, some students said the syllabus did not go far enough in reflecting the diversity of black intellectual culture and thought.

"As a black Latina, I feel left out of this and my other Africana classes and discussions," said Cornell student Rosa Clemente. Binghamton student Shara McCallum questioned the absence of black women poets from the syllabus. And others expressed concern that not even this two-and-a-half hour class left enough time for discussion. Harris said he and the other participating faculty will carefully consider such concerns in fine-tuning the seminar for next fall.

Though the 1996 seminar officially ends this month, much of the discourse it has generated will continue this spring, when students and faculty from the participating universities may meet for small workshops and collaborative research projects with funding from the grant. One such research project might focus on black women writers and include Syracuse faculty members Micero Mugo and Janis Mayes, Binghamton's Boyce Davies and Cornell's Anne V. Adams.

Other developments from the seminar may include compiling into a book students' research papers -- whose topics this semester included Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s and American welfare-rights pioneer Johnnie Tillman -- and creating a list server on the World Wide Web, where students can pick up from where they left off in their conversations at semester's end.

"The joint meetings, in particular, generated such intellectual excitement among the students that they wanted a way to continue these conversations with each other," Harris said. "And I think anytime we stimulate students into wanting to talk about academic matters, we've accomplished something."