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December 7, 2018

Teaching Early African History/Studies with a Digital Lens

December 7, 2018 | By | No Comments

I recently attended a panel on teaching pre-1800 African history using digital humanities. The panel focused on early African history, but some of the presentations ignored the digital humanities portion of the title and only really focused on the pre-1800 part. Perhaps the theme of the panel changed after the program was printed, or maybe the presenters just decided to go in a different direction. Either way, the panel was interesting and gave me some new ideas about (re)structuring an early African history syllabus. The question I’d like to pose here is how does one do early digital African history?

Seven years ago, Richard Reid noted a decline in the number of African historians looking at pre-colonial topics. He blamed this decrease, and the corresponding increase in focus on colonial and post-colonial history, on a scholarly belief in the grand importance of the twentieth century. I would argue this is also related to the often voluminous archival record for the colonial period, as well as the relative ease of doing more recent oral history. These same questions I believe explain the lack of emphasis in digital tools to understand the more distant African past, but also emphasize the importance of using what tools we have to bring out more information about periods where the lack of written sources and documents may leave gaping silences.

Maps of pre-colonial polities often misrepresent these territories as exact, bounded physical spaces, when in actuality power was diffuse and the geographic peripheries of particular spaces were often in flux, and can be difficult if not impossible to replicate. This asks us to potentially be more creative in our “mapping.” In his work on pre-colonial Bornu, Vincent Hiribarren uses cartograms to demonstrate the structure of the state of Bornu, without claiming that these are exact. He has “maps” of Bornu, but makes clear that there are “only schematised representations” and “should not be understood as rigorous and definitive maps.”

The field of African history with the largest digital presence is unsurprisingly the one with the largest archival presence: the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Websites like Slave Voyages and Liberated Africans offer large amounts of data to help students and educators better understand the past.

How to extend this data to projects that may not have such readily available data? I do look at the late pre-colonial period, but am primarily a colonial and post-colonial historian. My own digital interests lie in the colonial and post-colonial periods, so I am not necessarily the right person to answer this. But other (non-written) evidence may be a way to bring digital tools into the classroom and onto the syllabus. Archaeology and historical linguistics are tools used to get understand the African past, and can be used and taught with digital formats in mind. Regardless of how they are used, if we believe digital tools are crucial to teaching about more contemporary periods, it is important that we extend and adapt these tools to teaching about more distant pasts.



November 20, 2018

Who will read my academic book? Telling public stories about Africa and Africans

November 20, 2018 | By | No Comments

As a graduate student 90+% of the way through writing my dissertation, I often have ask myself this question: how many people will ever read anything I write? My dissertation will be read by my committee members, maybe a couple of historian friends, grad students or professors in the countries I study, maybe future grad students researching these areas, and perhaps less likely, family members or people in the communities I study. This problem is even more of an issue when you get to the production of actual physical books, which often cost absurd amounts of money that makes them impractical for the vast majority of people.

This unfortunate fact makes me think about how to get across some of the individual and collective stories of my dissertation. I spent about eight months speaking with over 350 people in rural West African borderlands, and have about 150 hours of interviews from more than 100 different communities. How can I share these stories in a way that allows “the public” to engage with them? People in the communities I study in Senegal may not be able to read an academic book I write due to accessibility, but they could access publicly available stories posted on the Internet. My friends and family here in the U.S. will likely not read my dissertation, because the locations where it takes place seem foreign and confusing, but they could browse an online exhibit highlighting some of the most important themes of the migration stories people told me.

The CHI Fellowship has of course taught me digital skills, but it has also forced me to reckon more with ideas of public engagement. I may not read academic books most days, but I find myself often reading websites like Africa is a Country to find accessible looks at some of the most pressing issues facing Africa today, as well as reflections on African history, culture, etc. Probably a few times a month, I listen to podcasts like MSU’s Africa Past and PresentNew Books in African Studies, or Ufahamu Africa, which provide perspectives on different topics that I may not seek out on my own. There are also less academic podcasts like the BBC’s Africa Today or VOA’s Africa News Tonight.

This is a roundabout way of saying that there are a wide variety of ways to engage publicly (my guess is some podcasts gets more listens than the academic book gets reads, especially among people outside of the subject area). This is particularly true of podcasts associated with news producers like the BBC. The same is often true in classroom settings. In a class I co-taught online last summer, my students listened to multiple podcasts on American sports history, which allowed them to engage with a different form of media, one they are more likely to consume on a daily basis.

Digital projects like the University of Kansas’ Migration Stories, which looks at African immigrants to the “Midwest,” publicly share stories that might otherwise go unrecognized by the general public. This sort of engagement can be a teaching tool, not just in the classroom, but oriented to the public at large. My own research focuses on rural cross-border migration in four different West African countries, but also tells stories of individual, family, and communal migration. Through the CHI Fellowship, I am developing a project that brings the stories of these rural West Africans to a larger audience, and that recognizes the importance of their stories without making people sit down to read a 350-page book or dissertation.



October 21, 2018

Mapping Internal African Migration

October 21, 2018 | By | No Comments

My research focuses on a particular borderland split between four West African countries: Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea. Since the late 19th century, people in this borderland have moved between countries for a variety of reasons and in multiple directions. I plan to use my CHI Fellowship to map some of these movements.

For some of these locations, this is not a major issue. I was able to collect geographic coordinates for the 110 villages, towns, and cities in which I interviewed people during my fieldwork in 2016 and 2017 (see the below map for the sites of my interviews). However, the problem becomes in tracking where these people came from. Some people discussed their own migration from villages that may no longer exist, or are in different locations from where they had previously been. Additionally, there are often several villages or towns with the same name, particularly when the name has religious meaning. In other cases, villages have multiple names, and so the officially recorded name in government documents may not line up with the information I was given. Other people I spoke with discussed the migration of their parents or grandparents, and only knew the names of particular districts from which those people migrated but not the villages themselves.

Despite popular perception, most African migrants don’t actually leave the continent. Without even considering migration within individual countries, most international migration in Africa occurs from neighboring countries. Côte d’Ivoire alone hosts 1.3 million migrants from Burkina Faso, while nearly 600,000 Ivorians live in Burkina Faso. For some perspective, Burkina Faso’s population is estimated at nearly 20 million, with Côte d’Ivoire’s nearing 25 million.

Countless articles in newspapers around the globe understandably discuss the migrant crisis in Europe, with Africans (and others) trying desperately to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life. However, the more demographically significant migration of those within the continent remains understudied. But how to represent these migration in a way that transcends numbers? This is what I hope to do through CHI.

Many of the people I spoke with migrated short distances, in some cases less than 10 miles. Are these individuals foreigners in their new countries? Are they considered international migrants? These are some of the questions I explore through my own research. While other aspects of African migration are worth of study, these more localized studies remain opaque for much of the public. Digital Humanities practitioners have the ability to bring these migrants into the public eye, and are also able to more easily share their research with the public in Africa. During my 4 years in West Africa, I was constantly reminded how much of academic knowledge is sealed off from the outside world through expensive journals and scholarly monographs. Graduate students and faculty at the University of Dakar would ask me if I had particular articles that they could not access. While more journals are open-access than in the past, much scholarly research still remains behind closed doors, inaccessible to those being written about.

However, rural Africans are increasingly gaining access to the internet through smart phones and improved wireless infrastructure. Thus, if research can be made accessible online, it can be accessed by growing numbers of Africans, including those whose communities are the subject of academic scholarship.



September 20, 2018

Dave Glovsky: Better late than never

September 20, 2018 | By | No Comments

I am in my sixth and final year in the History Department at MSU. I spent almost two of those years overseas conducting research on rural communities in four West African countries: Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea. I spent most of a year talking with farmers, herders, and traders about cross-border movement and migration, exploring what these cross-border relationships tell us about life in these twentieth and twenty-first century borderlands. My interest in these rural communities stems out of two years I spent as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small town in southern Senegal, located near Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea.

So how did I end up as a CHI Fellow? I thought about applying to CHI before, but was unable to do so because I haven’t spent both semesters on campus at MSU for three years. I also wanted to wait until I had actual data collected that I could apply to this fellowship. I plan to use the next year to add a digital component to my dissertation, visually tracing how individuals and communities crossed borders to create a larger space outside of the control of colonial and post-colonial West African governments. As an educator, I find students are increasingly interested in digital tools to gain and produce knowledge.

Additionally, maps have fascinated me since I was a child. They provide a template that people can understand in a way that explaining work through text cannot always do. This is particularly true when tracing how, when, and where people moved. Explaining that someone moved from Guinea to Gambia means almost nothing to 99.99% of Americans. But when a map represents that movement, it becomes comprehendible. After having conducted 200+ interviews in over 100 communities, I am ready to gain the technical know-how to put my research online, not just for people in the U.S., but for the communities I worked with in West Africa while conducting research. Check back at the end of the year to see how well I did!

You can follow me on twitter at @glovsky, where I post mostly about West Africa.