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November 26, 2013

African Studies in the Digital Age

November 26, 2013 | By | One Comment

This past weekend, I attended the 56th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association in Baltimore, Maryland. It was a fantastic event, bringing together scholars from a wide variety of disciplines, from history and anthropology to public health and geography. In addition to sharing their research, scholars also reflected on future trajectories of African Studies. Aside from particular research angles that need to be explored, numerous scholars commented on the need for greater utilization of digital humanities in the study of Africa.

Unfortunately, when I say that numerous scholars commented on this need, numerous refers to a few handfuls of scholars that I encountered.  Compared to other scholarly meetings, ASA is lagging behind in their number of panels dedicated to the subject.  Harvard College postdoctoral fellow Carla D. Martin noted that at last year’s MLA meeting, there were sixty-six panels on digital humanities.  When I searched for presentations incorporating digital technologies at last week’s American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Chicago, over 100 results came back.  At ASA, there were six. Yes, that’s right: just six panels.  It is critical that the Association and the academic community as a whole begins to more substantially engage with the prospect of digital humanities.

On an individual level, Africanist scholars can and should begin to more fully utilize technology for their professional development and networking.  In “The Africanist and the Digital,” (available on SlideShare) Carla D. Martin emphasized the importance of developing a strong professional web presence, moving beyond a basic profile on an institutional site to developing a perpetual website that would stand regardless of institutional changes.  Connected to this, Martin also spoke to the importance of utilizing social media for professional development.  As scholars of Africa are separated from their research sites by oceans and thousands of miles, utilizing social media is a powerful way to bridge this divide (see my previous post on this subject).  I use Twitter mainly for professional development, building a network of scholars working on both African issues as well as football scholars and scholars working from South Africa.  I have made important friendships and connections this way, and I would encourage others to do the same.  Additionally, Martin emphasized the numerous ways in which scholars can use digital tools to enhance their research, including technologies llike Evernote and Zotero to lesser known platforms like Zeega and SugarSync.

Also emerging in Martin’s presentation was the issue of African studies offerings in Massive Open Online Course (MOOCS).  As Africa is greatly underrepresented in Massive Open Online Course (MOOCS) offerings, it’s important for Africanist scholars to be conversant in debates, types of classes, and styles of instruction available for MOOCS. This last point, I feel, is particularly important for young scholars who want to make themselves marketable as they enter an increasingly competitive job market. In my own experiences working as a teaching assistant for MSU History Department’s Culture of Soccer online course, taught by Peter Alegi, one of the first things I learned was how little I knew! Digital pedagogies differ greatly from those employed in traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms and its important for scholars to be aware of the multiple options available for creating compelling, exciting online courses to expose greater numbers to Africa.

Another theme which emerged at the conference was the importance of employing digital technologies for digital preservation. Dean Rehberger’s presentation, “Open Access, Digital Humanities, and Africa,” focused on the numerous Africana projects that have been developed and are currently under development at MATRIX. From the Africa Past & Present podcast to Overcoming Apartheid to, of course, our very own CHI Initiative, Rehberger made it clear the importance that is put on digital humanities in African Studies at MSU. Walter Hawthorne pointed to the digital resources available for the study of slavery both at MSU but also in other digital databases like the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database and the Slave Biographies project for use not only in teaching but also for personal research.

If anything emerged most forcefully at the conference, it is that times are changing in the world of academia. As scholars work, willingly or not, in an increasingly digital world, there are numerous tools and platforms available to benefit not only personal professional development and publicity, but also for the development and promotion of our field as a whole. Africanists need to play an active role in this movement; as Rehberger showed clearly, there are numerous ways that Africanists can utilize digital technologies to their advantage. The onus rests with the individual scholar to make this transition.

Also, check out my Storify of the 2013 ASA Annual Meeting including my tweets from the Roundtable on African Studies in the Age of MOOCS, Digital Humanities, and Open Access.  Follow me on Twitter @tizlimbs.

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