by Amy Wolfson, African American Studies
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2012
One of the most poignant challenges I faced while teaching Africa: History and Culture was grappling with the preconceived notions and biases about Africa that students bring to the classroom. Romanticized and exoticized as wild, uncivilized, and mystical, Africa is often portrayed in the media as a homogenous space full of wild animals, warring tribes, and dictators. Popular movies like “Out of Africa,” “Blood Diamond,” and “District 9” reify these ideas while they overwhelmingly characterize Africa as a place of violence, disease, and corruption. For many undergraduate students these popular media representations serve as their primary (and frequently only) point of reference upon entering an African Studies class. When teaching twentieth century African history and culture, I found that students had difficulty conceiving of Africa outside of this cultural repertoire; they had difficulty thinking of Africa as a modern space with technology, corporations, functioning bureaucracies, and representative governments. Students could easily regurgitate information from their readings about current issues, but their discussions consistently harkened back to tribal and colonial relations, folklore practices, and a focus on Africans as remote, needy, and mired in crises. For most of them, Africa had modern problems, but no modern cultures.
To tackle this problem, I incorporated multi-media presentations, in-class group internet research, and personal anecdotes from my visits to Africa into our discussions. For example, when discussing the Arusha Accords of 1993, I presented internet images and my own photos of Tanzanian cities with their skyscrapers, billboards, and busy professionals on their cell phones. When studying regional organizations such as COMESA and SADC, we explored their websites, discussing the website “data” alongside our theoretical texts. Discussing African democracies, I described my experiences working with a Tanzanian parliamentarian. I brought in official government reports to display national bureaucratic processes at work. When discussing health care I played popular Ghanaian music videos — hip-hop stars rapping about AIDS prevention and good parenting practices.
Over the course of a few weeks, with consistent and continuous integration of multi-media aids, supplemented with “real-life” stories, students’ perceptions of contemporary Africa changed. For example, an early in-class writing assignment required analysis of nationalist movements during decolonization. As a historical moment of intense political mobilization, students were still describing Africa as a space of powerlessness, repeatedly describing the “exploitation,” “oppression,” and “European domination.” However, by their next writing assignment, many students honed in on Africans’ power and successes — strategies implemented by inter-African trade blocs to combat negative terms of trade. Students included Johannesburg and Lagos in discussions of global power centers. One student writing her essay on women in twentieth-century Africa linked pre-colonial female leadership to the current proliferation of successful grassroots women’s groups. During in-class internet analysis, she directed us to websites created by the groups highlighting their programs and fundraising strategies. Over the course of the semester, students got beyond the dry time-and-place narratives of political and economic development, and began to think about African nations in terms of their cities, governments, businesses, professionals, and infrastructure. And my greatest teaching achievement to date was revealed when several students, without prompting, inquired about the media’s persistent focus on the violence in Sudan with little mention of the passing of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.