On AP African American Studies
By: Dr. Kerry L. Haynie and Dr. Teresa Reed
We are writing as two of the professors who have been at the epicenter of the development of the newest Advanced Placement course, African American Studies. Today is the long-planned public release of the official course materials, in recognition of the start of Black History Month, and we’ll be joining with hundreds of other faculty, educators, and leaders tomorrow night at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to celebrate this historic moment in American education.
Attaching the letters “AP” to a high school course may seem like a simple move, but the consequences have proven profound for the growth of a discipline in both secondary and higher education. AP classes in high school often alert students to subject matter they would never otherwise encounter, and it’s unsurprising that AP students tend to major or minor in such disciplines at much higher rate than students who did not have such coursework in high school. Surveys of Black parents and students have found that the opportunity to earn college credit in a high school course is a more powerful incentive than it is for students in most other racial / ethnic groups. The AP designation can help such students stand out in college admissions, join a college-going culture, and place into the college courses where they will thrive.
So, from our vantage point as members of the official AP African American Studies Development Committee, we’ve been concerned to see the work of more than 300 college professors caricatured and misrepresented as a political pawn. We reject any claim that our work either indoctrinates students or, on the other hand, has bowed to political pressure. Instead, our course provides students with a foundation in African American Studies by requiring direct analysis of key historical documents, artworks, music, data sets, maps, graphs, and other primary sources. In the AP course, students analyze rather than opine.
To be clear, despite the claims from various quarters, no state or district has yet seen these materials, let alone influenced our deliberations and decisions about what topics to include.
So, what the public will see today for the first time are additions to the framework. Here are just a few of many examples:
· We felt queer Black Americans’ contributions were underdeveloped in the pilot version of the course, so we’ve added content to the framework including the contributions and discrimination faced by Bayard Rustin and Pauli Murray, and the disillusionment Black lesbians experienced with the broader civil rights and feminist movements.
· We begin the course now with complex early African societies like Cush/Kush, Aksum, and Nok; the ongoing impact of Aksum on Christianity, and the ways modern African writers have utilized information about these societies to counteract racist ideas about African heritage and culture.
· We have drawn more illuminating connections between developments in the U.S. and the broader Diaspora, such as an in-depth comparison of enslavement and emancipation in Brazil and the United States.
As we’ve refined the topics of the class, principled debates have occurred within and among academics in our field. The differences of opinion about what to include in an AP course — and the changes we’ve made over this past year — reflect the wide variation in which topics and concepts colleges themselves choose to include in their courses.
The first of the two big choices we had to make is whether the AP course should prioritize a) giving students a historical foundation for further and more advanced coursework in college or b) giving students a thorough exposure to the complexities of the contemporary moment and the range of academic theories we use to explore Black experiences, history, and culture. There is not time to do both well in a single course, so we had to make a choice. There were principled arguments, of course, on both sides of this debate. Ultimately, however, many college departments insisted that unless the historical foundation were deep and rich, they would not give college credit, so we made the tough decision of prioritizing historical foundations, placing contemporary topics at the end of the course in the spring.
But schools reported in the first few months of the pilot that they would be unable teach all of the historical foundations we were requiring, and still make it to the contemporary topics before the school year ended. The pilot schools also reported real challenges securing permissions to utilize the contemporary sources we’d prescribed in the first draft of the course.
Accordingly, we confronted another key decision any designers of curriculum face: in the three weeks available for contemporary topics after teachers taught the historical foundation, should we prioritize breadth or depth? We could require teachers to rapidly cover each contemporary topic in a single class period and then focus on the testing of factual recall of all these topics on the final exam. Or we could replace a portion of the AP exam with an in-depth project, giving students the time to pick one topic for careful examination of a significant number of sources. The AP Program has been shifting in recent years to incorporating a project into the AP course, rather than placing the full weight of college credit on a single final AP Exam. We felt this model for AP African American Studies would better serve students and the higher education institutions they enter. Accordingly, rather than a sprint through all contemporary movements and debates, a brief discussion of reparations one day, then a shift to healthcare the next, then a nod to the carceral state), the AP course requires each student to devote three weeks to an in-depth study of secondary sources related to one such topic in our field. We chose depth over breadth, noting that the skills students learn from this research project will optimize their readiness for further exploration of a broad range of topics when they enter our departments.
To be clear, the AP African American Studies course is not perfect — no more than any of the courses on our own campuses are perfect. Each individual professor of African American Studies must choose what to include and exclude in the limited time available. We’ll all have our quibbles with the official AP framework, just as we do when we look at the syllabi of other instructors in our departments. But there’s so much to celebrate here. At long last, African American Studies is being given the same credibility and status in the 20,000 high schools worldwide that offer AP courses as subjects like Biology, European History, Japanese Language and Culture, and English Literature. This is a historic day, and we encourage reading the official framework directly as an act of resistance to the political noise that seeks to undermine this historic achievement in articulating a powerful, joyous, haunting, illuminating, essential body of content knowledge that all 50 states would do well to embrace and celebrate.
The framework is available here.
Dr. Kerry L. Haynie
Dean of the Social Sciences
Professor, Department of Political Science and
Department of African & African American Studies
Dr. Teresa Reed
Dean of the School of Music
University of Louisville