A Hub for Teaching the African Diaspora

When shayla-nunnallyShayla C. Nunnally Violette arrived at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in fall 2020, her charge was clear – transition the Africana Studies Interdisciplinary Program (IDP) to a new Department of Africana Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. On October 22, 2021, the UT Board of Trustees approved the plan and in January 2022, the Africana Studies IDP became the 22nd department in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

“Our department offers the university and our communities interdisciplinary knowledge about people in Africa and the African diaspora,” Violette said. “Studying Africa and the African diaspora around the world offers more in-depth analysis of the histories, cultures, language, arts, and philosophies of said people.”

Core faculty in the department, which is housed in the social sciences discipline of the college, have educational backgrounds in English, history, religious studies, political science, and sociology and teach courses that reflect topics in those disciplines. 

“Through our curriculum and in our service, we support and aim to advance our students’ intellectual growth, professional development, and contributions to society,” Violette said. 

Expanding the curriculum, promoting undergraduate research, and enhancing learning experiences for students are the top priorities for Professor Violette and her colleagues as they build out the new department. They plan to offer more courses that reflect the breadth of Africana studies and the African diaspora across health, psychology, ecology, arts and culture, as well as religion, philosophy, sociology, and politics. 

Undergraduate students will be able to work with faculty mentors who will provide independent learning opportunities and introduce them to rigorous research and methodologies. Students will conduct research and co-author papers, with faculty mentorship, to present at professional conferences and submit for publication.

In addition, students will have more opportunities to study and engage in extracurricular programs and community engagement in the region and abroad. With support from the new Hodges-Sall Study Abroad Travel Endowment, students will have the chance to explore Africana studies internationally and within the context of other nations. 

A significant impact of the new department will be its role in developing and sustaining a nurturing, diverse, university culture with a strong community by offering programs ranging from guests lectures and workshops on a range of issues on Africa, African American experiences, and the African diaspora across the globe. 

“We are considering ways that we can offer educational excursions to promote knowledge and awareness,” Violette said. 

In her own work, Professor Violette focuses on the significance of Black Americans’ experiences in social and political spaces. She is a trained political scientist, but engages in research across several disciplines, which is “part and parcel of what is Africana Studies – multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary.” She has served as the past president on the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, which fosters the development of professional pipelines for political scientists.

Professor Violette has contributed to a variety of community organizations as a member, leader, or participant and works to share translational research and knowledge-building beyond the university. 

“With the support of our students, faculty, the university, and, very importantly, our communities, we hope that we can become a conduit and hub for Tennessee for teaching, researching, and disseminating knowledge about the African diaspora.”