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Academe’s Willful Ignorance of African Literature

Every now and again, people declare that African literature has arrived, or is arriving, or will arrive soon. It’s not surprising that African literature is read as emerging: In the long emergency that seems to define Africa in the eyes of the rest of the world—in which “Africa” is a place of starving children, warring clans, and technological backwardness—the idea of African literature can seem positively utopian. It can be a delightful discovery when it seems to emerge. But that discov…

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The Lonely Shame of Student Debt

The phone rings. I answer. Credit-card collector—again. A pleasant voice on the other end of the line: “Can you please verify the last four digits of your Social Security number?” I verify. The voice then asks me if I consent to letting them use my phone number to contact me about my credit-card debt. I say no, I do not consent. “Well, how would you like us to contact you to give you updates about your account?” You can send the updates in the mail, I tell the voice. “Very well, plea…

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Why Did UMass Ban Iranian Students From Some Graduate Programs?

After a week of outrage over their decision to ban Iranian students from certain graduate science programs, officials at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst backed down on Wednesday, stating that they had “always believed” the ban conflicted with their institutional values. In the future, the university announced, the admission of Iranians would be handled on a case-by-case basis, rather than simply being prohibited outright.

The reversal represented a triumph for those who had mobilized …

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Journalism Curricula? Get Me Rewrite

A year ago, in February 2014, the metrics on journalism education were trending in worrisome directions. Enrollments were down at some of the most prestigious programs in the country for the second year in a row, and a Poynter Institute study revealed that journalism faculty members viewed their programs as far more central to the journalistic enterprise than their professional colleagues did. More troubling, almost 40 percent of educators themselves acknowledged that their programs were not kee…

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We Can’t Judge Community Colleges’ Success by the Numbers

I am a community-college teacher jumping with joy at President Obama’s America’s College Promise proposal, which would undoubtedly send more students to community colleges. But I can’t help but ask: Doesn’t he know that, by federal accountability standards, we’re an abysmal failure?

As Eduardo Porter writes in The New York Times, “precious few of the students at community colleges are likely to complete their education.” He has some “bottom of the barrel” (his words) statistics to show i…

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A Literary Scramble for Africa

Hiring: an annual ritual at the MLA. This year the Yale English department advertised a position in the 20th and 21st centuries. What we were really looking for, though, was something much more specific: Anglophone world literature. Already we had hired a senior Africanist, so Africa was not a high priority for us; we were looking for (and were sure we would be inundated with) work on South Asia and the Caribbean—the admittedly great but hardly eyebrow-raising trinity of Salman Rushdie, Derek …

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Affirmative Action for the Advantaged at UT-Austin

The University of Texas at Austin’s president, William C. Powers Jr., has been seen by many academics during his term in office as a liberal icon. He consistently stood up against interference in university affairs by the conservative Texas governor, Rick Perry, who wanted to de-emphasize research. And Powers has been a staunch champion of affirmative-action programs, defending Texas’s use of race in admissions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at…

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Why ‘Sniper’ Trumps ‘Selma’ as History and Drama

Ava DuVernay’s Selma and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper have both been lavished with praise and award nominations. They are also the focus of intense historical and political controversy. Normally, I don’t believe movies should be judged by their historical accuracy. They are dramas, and occasionally, works of art. But any consideration of these two films can’t be divorced from the events they describe. And as historical interpretation and as drama, I think, Selma is terrible while American Sn…

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How to Make Area Studies Relevant Again

Area studies in the United States has its roots in national interests. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 jump-started the teaching of less commonly taught languages, and the Department of Education’s Title VI framework references maintaining the “security, stability and economic vitality of the United States” as the central motivation for supporting area studies. The guiding belief behind these programs is that area studies yields practical knowledge that can be used to make better poli…

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The Professor as Comedian

“But, no jokes.”

Thus said my first, otherwise excellent, class performance-evaluation sheet. Just starting my undergraduate teaching career at twentysomething, I had been more concerned about the mastery of the subject (accounting), the fulfillment of class objectives, the clear delivery, the professional deportment. Check. Students’ opinions had been positive too: Their professor was “knowledgeable,” “helpful,” and “concerned with their learning.” Check. Overall remark from my el…