Despite low enrolment, UBC’s African studies program is student driven

UBC’s African studies program is battling low enrolment, but students are speaking out for the program to expand.

The African studies minor was created in 2005 with an aim to connect students more closely with the African continent and learn about its history, languages and people. Fifteen years later, it’s remained interdisciplinary in its approach.

“The program is unique because it grew out of student demand,” said Dr. Suzanne James, chair of the African studies program. “It’s especially important because the African continent, in all its diversity as well as the African diaspora, has been largely ignored by UBC.”

But low student enrolment in African Studies courses has been a major setback for the program.

In the 2019/2020 Winter Session, 127 students are registered in their second-year introductory course and 76 students are in its remaining three senior courses, along with 3 instructors.

Low numbers and ineffective course promotion are what led to the cancellation of Swahili language instruction in 2018, which James hopes to revive in winter 2021.

The Faculty of Arts has been planning to expand the scope of the program and reach more students in the university. At present, the department only offers four courses — but since the minor is interdisciplinary, students are required to take related courses from other departments such as sociology, political science, history, English literature and many others.

Starting next year, UBC students will also have access to a number of cross-listed courses, including ENGL 370/AFST 370: Literature and Cultures of Africa. This summer, they also intend to offer a section of the course, “Perspectives in African Studies: A Social Science Approach.”

Chicken or the egg?

Students have expressed frustrations about the African studies department’s lack of resources and that a major in the subject is not available.

“Regardless of ethnicity or nationality, you start to realize that African Studies could be a pillar at UBC that crosses many faculties,” said Aaron Wilford, a first-year master’s in history student specializing in West Africa. “They can’t be worried about running out of content to teach.”

He added that an 18-credit minor “simply cannot cover much of the continent.” Though UBC libraries grant access to research materials on Africa for students, Wilford feels that the program needs more dedicated staff and faculty.

“Being able to talk and learn from other people who have a solid grasp on the subject matter is central to building rapport with students in the program and to building a community of scholars that can run and pass on the program,” he said.

James said the Faculty of Arts has been supportive of African studies but will only be able to contribute to its expansion and development of new courses when students demonstrate a keen interest in them.

“We would love to develop our program into a major, but we need to increase the number of students who are declaring a minor first and demonstrate a steady enrolment across all of our courses,” said James.

But Diana Kamau and Keitu Malatsi, third-year students in the African Studies program and student representatives on the African Studies Advisory Committee, said the program could expand if it received more support from the university.

In a joint statement to The Ubyssey, they argued that the notion that university students aren’t interested in studying Africa is a pervasive misconception.

“The African studies program is an academic project that is trying to rewrite a narrative which is deeply embedded in the university’s politics — that is why it is important to us,” they wrote. “[Its] reaches are beyond those of academia but into the foundations of the university’s treatment of African and diasporic scholarship.”

‘Grown by students’

But regardless of enrolment challenges, Wilford said UBC’s African Studies community thrives on student involvement. They have found and created their own resources, while actively organizing the majority of conferences and events related to their field of study.

“Honestly, the African Studies program, from its creation, has been grown by students,” he said.

He believes African studies will always be relevant because it appeals to people of various backgrounds — whether it’s international students who have lived in Africa, engineers planning to move to Africa, linguists and translators, political scientists or food sustainability majors.

Kamau and Malatsi said that the program is not just about making sure African students have the space to learn about their own history, languages and politics.

“It is about acknowledging the highly important and transformative work coming from the continent from all fields,” they wrote.

Ultimately, they are hopeful their calls for resources will be heard.

“The program exists because of student advocacy and over a decade later it is still student advocacy that is pushing for more support.”