October 1, 2020

English Department Announces 2020-21 Ph.D. Class Will Only Feature “Applicants Interested In Working In and With Black Studies”

The admissions office housed in Rosenwald Hall.

Giovanna DeCastro / The Chicago Maroon

In mid-September, the University of Chicago’s English department announced that for the 2020–21 Ph.D. graduate admissions cycle it will be accepting “only applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies.” 

The announcement was made as part of a statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement. 

“The English department at the University of Chicago believes that Black Lives Matter, and that the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks matter, as do thousands of others named and unnamed who have been subject to police violence."

“English as a discipline has a long history of providing aesthetic rationalizations for colonization, exploitation, extraction, and anti-Blackness.… As such, we believe all scholars have a responsibility to know the literatures of African American, African diasporic, and colonized peoples, regardless of area of specialization, as a core competence of the profession,” the statement reads.

The department website previously read, “As part of our commitment to funding and fostering scholarship in Black studies, in the coming academic year (2020-2021) we are prioritizing consideration of applicants who work in and with Black studies for admission to our PhD program.” That statement has since been deleted and replaced with the 2020-2021 admissions qualifications. 

Professor Maud Ellman, interim chair of the department, explained that “our department made the decision to target admissions only in specific areas because we could admit only five PhD students in the current cycle, although we expected about 750 applications.”

The five new admissions will join the approximately 70 Ph.D. students and candidates currently studying a wide array of subject matter.   

According to Ellman’s statement, a combination of increased applicants due to COVID-19 and a decreased number of available spots led the department to its decision.

“The reduced number of spaces persuaded us to focus on specific areas so as to give careful consideration to all the applications we receive.  If we had had to select five candidates from last year’s pool of about 650 this would have resulted in an admissions rate of 0.77%. In the 2020–21 cycle we decided to focus on Black Studies, which has become one of the department’s new strengths owing to some brilliant recent hires.” 

The department's admissions page states that it “plans to target different subject-areas each year to foster cohesive cohorts of students working towards compatible goals,” clarifying that this new policy will not exclude other fields of study from the department.

The practice of creating cohorts in graduate education is an established practice in the sciences, as well as other English departments around the country. Ellman explained that with minimal intake of students, it makes more sense to focus on a specific field.

Ellman also stated that Ph.D. students will study a variety of course materials, and that their research may incorporate all of those topics.

“Students take many courses in different subject-areas as part of our Ph.D. program, and some change their initial dissertation plans as a result. We encourage students to experiment and find their own direction under careful supervision from our faculty, all of whom take part in the admissions process.”