A Primer for Teaching African History: Ten Design Principles

A Primer for Teaching African History: Ten Design Principles

by Trevor R. Getz


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A Primer for Teaching African History is a guide for college and high school teachers who are teaching African history for the first time, for experienced teachers who want to reinvigorate their courses, for those who are training future teachers to prepare their own syllabi, and for teachers who want to incorporate African history into their world history courses. Trevor R. Getz offers design principles aimed at facilitating a classroom experience that will help students navigate new knowledge, historical skills, ethical development, and worldviews. He foregrounds the importance of acknowledging and addressing student preconceptions about Africa, challenging chronological approaches to history, exploring identity and geography as ways to access historical African perspectives, and investigating the potential to engage in questions of ethics that studying African history provides. In his discussions of setting goals, pedagogy, assessment, and syllabus design, Getz draws readers into the process of thinking consciously and strategically about designing courses on African history that will challenge students to think critically about Africa and the discipline of history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822371038
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/22/2018
Series: Design Principles for Teaching History Series
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Trevor R. Getz is Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at San Francisco State University and the author and editor of several books, including Abina and the Important Men.

Read an Excerpt


A Place to Begin


WHEN I TALK TO my colleagues — whether they are high school teachers or college professors — about teaching African history, I find that we generally tend to share a loose set of goals for our courses. I think I can reasonably summarize these goals in four brief statements: We want to spark the curiosity of our students, train them to think critically about Africa and the world, give them access to the complex patterns of human interactions and the rich experiences of African individuals and societies, and help them make meaning of these brief glimpses into past lives. Each of us expresses these aspirations in our own way, filtered through our unique conceptions of African history and its place in the history major, the university, and the minds of our students. Many of us also have our own additional goals. Yet these four outcomes form a sort of consensus set of goals that typifies our field and acts as a starting point.

How do you, as an instructor, begin to design a course to deliver on these aspirations? An early step — discussed in chapter 2 — is the development of a set of specific course outcomes that makes sense to you and addresses your students' needs. Once you define these, you can then align your assignments, activities, and assessments to them, creating a seamless and well-thought-out whole. But the design of learning outcomes is not really your initial task. Instead, the first step I recommend, before you write even one student learning outcome, assign one reading, or design one assignment, is to study your students. Who are they? What do they bring with them to the class, and what do they not know or understand? What are their expectations for the course, and what are their goals? What are their learning styles and background knowledge? The answers to these questions will shape the design of your course, your delivery strategies, and the learning goals themselves. So they are a good place to start your course design.

In this chapter, I look at the needs and opportunities afforded by our students by referencing three bodies of evidence: assignments and reflections collected from my students over the past sixteen years, responses from my fellow African history professors and instructors to queries about their students and teaching techniques, and secondary literature from the field of education as well as the disciplines of history and African studies. Aside from the first section of this chapter, I will not focus primarily on my own students, because your experience will differ somewhat from mine. Students' needs and attributes vary based on the country and region in which you teach, the socioeconomic profile of your student body, and especially the mission of your institution. I expect that many of you are attached to urban comprehensive universities like San Francisco State, but some of you teach in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), small liberal arts schools, community colleges, big public research universities, and high schools. Despite this diversity, I hope to be able to frame a conversation in this chapter that will be useful to anyone thinking about their students and how they — and the world in which they live — affect the design of your courses.

What Students Say They Bring with Them

San Francisco State University, where I teach, is an urban comprehensive university with an educational and social justice mission and a diverse body of students, many of them first-time students; even more of them are transfers from community colleges. We attract a cross-section from the state of California, with higher numbers of Asian Pacific Americans and Latino/Latina students but fewer African-American students than many of our fellow California state universities and certainly very few with direct exposure to Africa and its history. I also recently taught a few classes at Stanford University. The students in my African history courses there were generally quite diverse, and although many came from a higher socioeconomic stratum than my SF State students they too generally entered the class with little background knowledge or direct experience of Africa or Africans. But, of course, these composites say little about my students' sense of themselves, what they bring with them, and what they want or need out of an African survey course.

In search of a deeper understanding of who my students are, during the first week of every class I offer a range of activities that call for students to reflect and think about themselves and what they know about African history. In my methodology-heavy "Approaches to the African Past" course, for example, I usually ask my students to do a free writing exercise on the first day entitled "What I Know about Africa." This class tends to attract many anthropology and history majors, most of whom are juniors or seniors. In the past, I have had about one-third African-American students and a small number of Ethiopian-born students in this class, but recently the course has begun to draw larger numbers of African-born students, mostly from Nigeria. I give students no directions for this first assignment, except to ask them to take it seriously. This is a low-stakes exercise: They get credit for completing the assignment, but it is not graded.

Many students begin their response by stating their ignorance of the continent or admitting to their bias about the information they have. Answers often begin with variations of "What do I know about Africa? Not much!" Some students cite this lack of knowledge as an inspiration for joining the class. Yet despite their protestations, these essayists soon demonstrate that they do have some preconceptions about the continent and its people. Many students rather unabashedly state that Africa is "very tribal and primitive" or just that "[Africans] do things the same way as they have for millennia." A few follow such observations with the recognition that they are socially mediated rather than strictly accurate. One student recently wrote, "What I know about Africa is greatly skewed through a white Western lens. I do my best to resist and question these misconceptions, yet when I think of Africa, preconceived notions still stand out most strongly in my mind's eye." Such reflection is not uncommon.

Some students do profess to know particular aspects of African history. Many of the episodes that are familiar to them are clearly drawn from high school and freshman world history courses they have taken. They include the Atlantic slave trade, the existence (but not much more) of the states of Ghana and Mali, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. Some students come with a slightly more in-depth knowledge of Pharaonic Egypt, either from having taken classes in the Africana studies department or just an interest in mythology. Students from science majors know something about human evolution, which they connect to African history. A few students have been inspired by novels, often Things Fall Apart. Others have read works of nonfiction such as King Leopold's Ghost or have encountered broad surveys like Martin Meredith's The Fortunes of Africa. Some are also driven to the class by music, usually by contemporary artists like Damien Marley, Nas, or Die Antwoord. Few of them actually name an African individual in their response, and if they do, more often than not that individual is Nelson Mandela.

A large proportion of my students respond to the prompt by talking about their sense of social justice. They write about poverty, child labor and youth soldiers, AIDS/HIV, female genital mutilation, and a host of other problems about which they have heard. Kony 2012 has endured in students' exercises for the last four years or so, and Cecil the Lion made a brief appearance alongside Ebola in many responses in 2015. Students give these concerns a historical dimension by noting that Africans have been victimized for centuries. Some express a deep-seated desire to help Africans, although others are well aware that outside "help" has often been more of a hindrance for Africans. A few insistently write that, in fact, "Africa is not the basket case ... that many people believe it to be."

A couple of responses each year express a heritage motivation through statements such as "I am an African-American and I think it is time for me to get educated on my history." Sometimes this motivation is expressed in very personal terms. Usually I get a response from a student who writes something like "I am looking forward to learning ... this semester; and bringing it home as a conversation piece with my dad, who does research of his own surrounding African history."

Some students write about their sense that Africans live very different lives from their own: for example, "I know that Africans have vastly different living styles. ... Things that can easily be bought or obtained as an object are more valued in America; whereas in the African ideal/lifestyle, value is given to things you can't necessarily own or buy." Others, however, are insistent that Africans are "just like us."

What Instructors Say about What Their Students Bring

Students' self-appraisal of their knowledge of Africa closely mirrors instructors' assessments of what their students bring to the African history classroom, or at least that is what my interactions with my peers tell me.

Like their students, our colleagues often tend to start discussions and comments about the African history course by noting what their students lack. "The students bring to the classroom very little knowledge besides the common stereotypes and misconceptions," one instructor wrote in response to questions I asked her by email. Another explained that her "students in general arrive with what I call a 'History Channel' view on History, and that is what they expect to study. What this means is that their interests lie primarily on American and European history and they see themselves as consumers of history, rather than as students and makers of historical narratives." A third stated that she has "very few students who have been exposed — through home schooling or other types of parental involvement — to African or African-American history. Most of the knowledge that my students have of the African continent comes to them through popular media, personal evidence or anecdotal experience related to mission trips or volunteer opportunities on the African continent."

Many instructors were as concerned with students' preconceptions about Africa as they were their lack of knowledge about the continent and its people. "The obvious misconceptions about Africa's lack of development, social problems, etc., are always present," stated one professor. They recognized that many of their students see Africa as alien and exotic, fundamentally outside the realm of the everyday. One instructor wrote, "Over the years what I have seen most is that students do not connect Africa to people. Maybe presidents or famous people (Nelson Mandela, Wangari Maathai) but somehow they do not think about the experiences of people in African countries as having parallels to their own experiences." Our colleagues also often bemoan students' lack of skills, for example, writing that students "struggle with the study of historiography and methodology. ... They also have terrible understanding of geography and world history in general."

Despite starting from this position of "deficiency," however, some instructors wrote or spoke to me about the great possibilities afforded by what their students do and do not bring with them. One professor wrote, "I believe that there are some real opportunities left by these gaps. The nature of African history exposes students to a diversity of ways in which history is studied and constructed, and African history is very reflective, always allowing readers and students to participate in the way in which evidence is evaluated and methods are chosen. There are also a lot of debates about historiography which I think are very useful for students. Finally, African history really helps students become more aware of the importance of geography and the environment in the development of human societies." Most instructors with whom I have recently had conversations also recognize that their students have diverse backgrounds and motives that drive them to take an African history course. One celebrated the fact that her "students come with a desire to understand exploitation globally."

Our colleagues are especially motivated to take advantage of the diversity of students in their classrooms. One experienced professor noted that her classes often mix white students from upper-middle-class backgrounds and liberal inclinations with older continuing studies students from within the largely African-American community in which her university is set. "The first group has more knowledge of Africa in terms of having read Things Fall Apart in high school and maybe experience in the continent," she writes, and such students have "been raised on Bono, Invisible Children and the development industry more broadly and they want to SAVE Africa." However, they "have a very hard time confronting the racism inherent in that notion." By contrast, her continuing studies students "get that racism. And they appreciate ... when I demonstrate that many of the same patterns in approaches to Africa can be found in the U.S." Nevertheless, she stated, they often default to viewing Africa through a paradigm of African-American studies.

Alongside heritage learners, immigrants and children of immigrants from Africa also enrich the classroom. One instructor told me, "I always get a lot of students of immigrant backgrounds, also quite a few African-American students. ... Conversations [about myths regarding Africa] tend to generate in them a lot of enthusiasm and engagement. In many cases, I try and make the story more personal for students, which is not all that difficult because their backgrounds often make it easier for them to relate to the issues we discuss." In general, most instructors write that having students with different backgrounds and motives is an asset to the class.

Disciplinary diversity can also help. One professor noted with satisfaction, "I often have majors in sciences, premed, or other fields who are searching for a set of material facts to help them interpret Africa's past and present." She recognized these students for the unusual sets of knowledge they bring to the classroom and for their ability to relate historical trends to contemporary issues. However, nonmajors also often find it more difficult to look at the continent and its people through historical paradigms. By contrast, history majors frequently "have a basic understanding" of the methodology and epistemology in a course, but often are not bringing these skills to bear on questions of contemporary relevance, a rare requirement in most history classes but one that is often important in our field.

Background Knowledge

When I first began to teach African history, I took students' protestations of ignorance about the continent at face value. Yet I quickly learned that nobody comes to the classroom with a tabula rasa. Students — even those who believe they know nothing about Africa — bring with them a wealth of knowledge, prior experiences, beliefs, conceptual frameworks, and ways of learning that shape how they approach the class. The political scientist Joel Samoff, at Stanford University, pretty well sums up the situation that we face when he writes that "the challenge is, of course, enormous since most students at U.S. universities know little about Africa; or rather most — while having strongly held opinions — have neither very conscious nor very visible understandings about Africa. Although on the first day of an introductory course on Africa most students will assert they 'know nothing' about Africa, in fact, terms like tribe and chief and stories about Zulu warriors will make perfect sense." Designing a course to challenge these preconceptions is among the biggest difficulties of teaching African history.

I recognize that the notion of teaching a course as a reaction to prejudices and presumptions seems like a negative undertaking. However, the fact that almost all of our students are familiar with some version of commonly held perceptions of Africa gives us an incredible opportunity to use our courses to train them to challenge conventional understandings of how the world works. We have the opportunity to teach them how to use evidence and historicization to critically assess their own and shared representations of Africa and Africans. By bringing students' shared preconceptions of Africa into empirical and ethical consideration in our course design, we create an opportunity for students to learn to question their closely held beliefs. Moreover, the messages that students typically receive about Africa are really binaries of messages about our own society, our values, and our shared societal worldview. Bringing Africa into focus can thus help them to become better participants in a liberal education, more critical thinkers, and better-educated citizens. Thus rather than pretending our students come with a blank slate or ignoring the shared, societal preconceptions of Africa in which they participate, many accomplished instructors recognize this background as an opportunity to give our students an important lifelong skill.


Excerpted from "A Primer for Teaching African History"
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Copyright © 2018 Duke University Press.
Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Part I. Conceiving a Student-Centered Course
1. A Place to Begin: What Students Bring with Them
2. Setting Goals: Why Should Students Study African History?
Part II. Content and Design
3. Locating Africa: Designing with Space
4. When Was Africa? Designing with Time
5. Who Are Africans? Designing with Identity
6. Making Hard Choices: Coverage and Uncoverage
Part III. Opportunities
7. Ethical Thinking as an Outcome of the African History Course
8. Teaching Methodology and Source Interpretation through the African History Course
9. The African History Course and the Other Digital Divide
10. Bringing It All Together
Selected Bibliography

What People are Saying About This

Naaborko Sackeyfio-Lenoch

"Trevor Getz has written a thoughtful and inspiring book centered on generative approaches to teaching African history courses for the twenty-first-century classroom. Getz is astutely aware of the core issues and challenges of teaching about continental Africa's diverse past, paying careful attention to a wide range of interdisciplinary, pedagogical, and methodological tools to address them. Historians will find this richly textured book to be indispensable as they design new courses or reconfigure old ones."

Litigants and Households: African Disputes and Colonial Courts in the French Soudan, 1895–1912 - Richard Roberts

"Trevor R. Getz—a master teacher and innovative scholar—has constructed a remarkably flexible framework that challenges teachers of African history to think more creatively about the goals and structure of their courses. Taking a nondogmatic approach to stimulating conversations about pedagogy, Getz encourages teachers to go beyond using standard textbooks and to employ a more creative toolkit that takes advantage of different interpretations and sources. This book takes a crucial step toward more effective and engaging teaching."

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