A short take on the large number of African American literature courses offered at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Written by Howard Rambsy II
Read by Kassandra Timm
In 2011, at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, professors of African American literature began making plans to increase the number of classes on black-related subject matter from one year to the next. And the increase in course offerings led them to pose a question, which became a challenge: could they offer more classes related to African American literary and cultural studies than any department in the country?
You’re listening to Remarkable Receptions – a podcast about popular and critical responses to African American novels.
Many English departments across the country offer two to four courses on African American literature each academic year. There are several universities that offer even less, maybe one…that’s right, just one African American literature course each year.
Then, there are more ambitious departments that offer as many as 5 to 10 courses on African American literature each year.
In 2011, the English department at SIUE employed just two scholars of African American literature—Candice Jackson and Howard Rambsy, and in the fall of that year, they offered 7 courses on black subject matter. That was more courses than the department had ever offered in a single semester. The professors offered 7 courses again in spring 2012, and then one more in the summer, bringing the total to 15 black-related classes in one academic year.
Now, there’s no such thing as a world record for most African American literature courses offered by an English department, but Jackson and Rambsy jokingly wondered what a record number of courses in their field would look like. So they set the goal of maintaining and possibly expanding the offerings.
Their African American literature courses were meeting and often exceeding their minimum enrollment requirements, which is to say, the classes received remarkable receptions from students. So even when Jackson accepted a position at another university, Rambsy was positioned to advocate for additional positions, which ultimately resulted in the English department hiring Tisha Brooks and Elizabeth Cali in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
Together, Brooks, Cali, and Rambsy regularly offered 15 courses each year, including classes on African American autobiography, Black Diasporic Feminisms, black print culture, and rap music, to name a few.
An expansion of services for African American students at SIUE created opportunities for the department to hire two additional scholars of African American literature – Cindy Reed and Donavan Ramon in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
For the 2021-2022 academic year, the English department at SIUE offered 21 black-related courses, and for the 2022-2023 academic year, the cohort of African American literature professors offered 22 courses in their field.
Those numerous courses introduced hundreds of students to black literature and culture, and the classes gave black writers and compositions a remarkable new audience and a remarkable reception.
This episode was written by Howard Rambsy. The episode was edited by Elizabeth Cali.
This podcast, Remarkable Receptions, is part of the Black Literature Network, a joint project from African American literary studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the History of Black Writing at the University of Kansas. The project was made possible by the generous support of the Mellon Foundation. For more information, visit blacklitnetwork.org.