By Megan Cole
As Black Lives Matter protests spread internationally last summer, faculty in UCI’s Culture and Theory Ph.D. Program convened to determine how best to support Black scholarship within the university. Together with colleagues from the Departments of English and Comparative Literature and from the Visual Studies Ph.D. Program, they launched the Black Studies Cluster, a multidisciplinary cohort of 11 incoming graduate students committed to research within the vast and vibrant field of Black studies. Recently, the Departments of History and Spanish & Portuguese have also joined the Cluster’s efforts.
Given that just 4.3% of UCI’s humanities graduate students are Black, a major goal of the Black Studies Cluster is to “increase the recruitment and, most importantly, the support and retention of graduate students of color across the School of Humanities,” says Annie McClanahan, associate professor of English and one of the Cluster’s earliest faculty advocates. In addition to recruiting talented graduate students, the Cluster endeavors to build an interdisciplinary community of Black studies scholars.
Research interests of those in the inaugural cohort include postcolonial and diasporic Black Studies, the Harlem Renaissance, Black theology, Black feminist pedagogy, and more. This fall, the Black Cluster Studies students are bringing their diverse specializations together in an interdisciplinary Black Studies Workshop led by McClanahan. The workshop will convene ten times over the course of the academic year and will allow students to connect with UCI faculty, guest lecturers, and advanced UCI graduate students working on related topics.
Integral to the recruitment of the Cohort was Sora Han, then the Director of the Culture & Theory Ph.D. Program and currently the Chair of the Department of African American Studies. She says that the Black Studies Workshop is one of many guided leadership and community-building opportunities the cohort will benefit from throughout their graduate careers. They have each also received a substantial funding package that includes four summers’ worth of research funding, with the goal of allowing them to focus on their graduate work while minimizing outside employment during the summer. The advocacy of Rodrigo Lazo, English professor and associate dean of Graduate Division, was instrumental in securing $150,000 from Graduate Division to support the initiative. The initiative also received strong support from the dean of the School of Humanities and the school’s Office of Graduate Studies.
According to Han, the recruitment effort was an unprecedented success, with the number of historically excluded minority students in the School of Humanities increasing by over 50%. The Cohort’s recruitment efforts doubled the number of minority students accepting their offer of admission from the school.
“Emphasizing an integrated sense of thriving for our Black Studies Cluster students, which includes summer funding and dedicated community-building and mentorship efforts, has been so important,” Han says. “We want to attend to the whole person, which in turn supports their research and intellectual development.”
Ph.D. student Mariel Rowland only learned about the Black Studies Cluster after deciding to apply to UCI’s Culture and Theory Ph.D. Program. She accepted her admission offer because she was “drawn to the program’s commitment to using theoretical frameworks in the study of race, gender, sexuality and specifically how anti-Blackness shapes each one of these categories and informs the ways they intersect.” Now, she says, the Black Studies Cluster is among the aspects of her graduate career that she is most excited about.
“I am looking forward to making connections with people from each discipline involved, learning from our different approaches, and creating a flow of exchange where these differences lead us all to deeper understandings of our work and our relationships to it,” Rowland says.
That interdisciplinarity and “flow of exchange,” for McClanahan, is the most important aspect of the Black Studies Cluster. “The field itself is deeply and necessarily interdisciplinary: contemporary Black studies draws on political and cultural theory, critical race theory, philosophy, history, and literary/cultural/visual studies,” she explains. “Recognizing UCI’s reputation in critical theory, we were particularly interested in work that deployed the resources of theory, whether to expose its historical entanglement in racism, to radically transform its paradigms, or to put it into conversation with activist and cultural praxis.”
Rodrigo Lazo similarly hopes that the interdisciplinary Cluster will give students the opportunity to find colleagues, mentors and collaborators from across the School of Humanities, rather than only from their home department.
“The beauty of the Black Studies Cluster is that it allows the students to come together as part of an intellectual community,” Lazo says. “We hope the Cluster provides support for these students as they pursue research and integrate themselves into graduate work, and that they, in turn, support one another. With additional support from faculty mentors, I hope this will become a model for how we can be a supportive campus and help graduate students thrive and excel.”
For Konny Wade, a Ph.D. student and recipient of the prestigious Eugene Cota-Robles Fellowship, the prospect of finding community with fellow Cluster members played a major role in her decision to commit to UCI’s Culture and Theory Ph.D. Program.
Already, “in conversing with the cohort, I feel a sense of sisterhood, of belonging,” Wade says. “I am looking forward to our collaborations, whether they be academic or societal projects, or simply getting together over tea to discuss ideas, concepts, and research.” Wade adds that she is grateful for the Cluster as “a space where there are a variety of interests, but at the center, the focus is understanding, contributing to and explaining Black life and the Black experience.”
Faculty members involved in the launch of the inaugural Black Studies Cluster hope that its success will inspire other UCI doctoral programs to get involved over the coming years, and eventually, inspire similar initiatives across the higher education landscape.
“We want to demonstrate the transformative power of collaborative, cross-departmental projects,” says McClanahan. “We hope that what we do over the next few years with this group and future cohorts of students inspires other programs, schools and institutions to do similar work across departments and to reject the competitive model of graduate admissions and support.”
The Black Studies Cluster is already making an impact: due to its popularity, Graduate Division issued a call in July for similar interdisciplinary cluster recruitment projects across campus. And Han hopes that this is just the first of the initiative’s many ripple effects.
“It’s so crucial to center Black thriving as we promote human diversity within the university – racial, gender, class, all kinds of diversity – because when people who conduct research reflect the diversity of society, then the knowledge we produce has a chance to make the kinds of leaps and bounds we need in this current moment,” Han says. “I hope the Black Studies Cluster supports the creation of intellectual relationships that will sustain our students over long, meaningful careers, and that will impact whomever they teach – students, community members, elected officials, industry leaders – for generations to come. That’s how change is made.”
The Black Studies Cluster will welcome a second cohort in Fall 2022. Those interested in learning more about the Cluster can visit here or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publicly launched on Oct. 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UCI. By engaging 75,000 alumni and garnering $2 billion in philanthropic investment, UCI seeks to reach new heights of excellence in student success, health and wellness, research and more. The School of Humanities plays a vital role in the success of the campaign. Learn more by visiting: https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu/uci-school-of-humanities.
Pictured left to right: Cienna Benn, Tariq Edwards and Konny Wade. Photo credit: Steve Zylius/UCI