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April 17, 2019

Making my Dissertation Digital

April 17, 2019 | By | No Comments

Have you ever tried to explain your dissertation to your family? Your students? Strangers or acquaintances you barely know? This is a trying task. My dissertation focuses on mobility and migration between four different West African countries (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea), looking at the multitude of reasons people moved and the larger meaning of all of this movement. One of the biggest challenges I face in explaining all of this is the diversity of perspectives from the people with whom I spoke. Oftentimes reasons vary, perspectives vary, and the individual voices can get lost in 350 pages of historical arguments and narrative.

My research is based on unnecessarily large amounts of archival research, plus 220 interviews I conducted in rural parts of Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. The documents often tell similar stories, of governments seeking (and generally failing) to control borders and movement, although their attitude towards these movements depends on the period and perceived need for economic migrants and/or security concerns. But what about the voices of the individual migrants themselves? These are rarely seen in documents, and thus must be brought out through interviews.

Each person’s story differs. Many from Guinea-Bissau and Guinea served as seasonal migrant farmers. Many of these farmers had good experiences, using their time in Senegal and Gambia to earn money they could use to buy goods unavailable at home, pay colonial taxes, and save up money to build their own homes and start a family. Some of these farmers went year after year, spending over a decade traveling to another colony/country for months at a time planting and harvesting peanuts. In many cases, these farmers became integrated into their host communities and set down roots. Others went once and decided to never go again. I also interviewed many people who fled violence and economic depression in search of a better life. Others simply crossed borders looking for better farm and pastureland.

When I decided to apply for the CHI Fellowship, I wanted a place where these voices could speak for themselves. My dissertation does not feature long excerpts from interviews because it’s already 350 pages long without them. While the voices of my interlocutors are throughout my dissertation, I am not able to capture the full extent of what they said. I want their voices to be available to the public, as a tool for public memory, for scholarship, and for teaching.

This has not always been the easiest process, but as I come to the last few weeks, I am grateful for the opportunity. It has reminded me whose stories center my research. Too often it is easy to forget that history is not just a series of newsworthy events and processes, but the combination of many people whose collective actions form a rich and cacophonous story.



March 29, 2019

The Challenge of Language

March 29, 2019 | By | No Comments

When I decided to use my CHI Fellowship to chronicle and disseminate the stories of individual migrants, my greatest question was the problem of language. My wider research focuses on the experience of migrants and the wider significance of migrants in southern Senegambia, but through a combination of oral history interviews, archival sources, and published sources. The oral history interviews in large part structure my project, but ultimately the analysis and larger conclusions are my own.

Focusing on the stories of individual migrants is an incredible opportunity but features questions of translation. How to best represent interviews done in a mish-mash of languages. Most of my interviews (and all of the ones highlighted in my CHI project) center around the West African language Pulaar (also known as Fulfulde in the eastern part of West Africa). However, many of my interviews feature words and phrases in French, Portuguese, and English as well.

What is the best way to represent the words of my interviewers? A direct transcription of their words would allow those in southern Senegambia to read and analyze these interviews, but Pulaar is (for most of its speakers) not a written language. Traditionally, Pulaar was written in ajami (Arabic script), but very few today learn to write Pulaar using Arabic characters. Today, Pulaar is primarily written using the Latin/Roman alphabet. However, there is no standardized spelling in Pulaar, and words appear radically different in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea, due to the legacy of European colonialism. The word for thank you is spelled jarama (Gambia), diorama (Senegal/Guinea), and djaarama (Guinea-Bissau). Even names are spelled different. One common Pulaar last name is spelled Diallo (Senegal/Guinea), Jallow (Gambia), or Djaló (Guinea-Bissau). Additionally, there are many dialects of Pulaar in West Africa, and I did interviews with speakers of at least three different dialects.

If one is to translate these interviews, there is of course the issue of access. The official language of Senegal and Guinea is French, in Gambia it is English, and in Guinea-Bissau, Portuguese. I am very comfortable translating Pulaar to English (which I do often in my dissertation, somewhat comfortable with French (which I did often as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal), and not particularly comfortable translating Pulaar to Portuguese (which I have little experience with). In the rural areas of West Africa where I conducted my research, the penetration of official languages is often limited, with obviously greater access by those who have studied in government-run schools. Most of those I interviewed did not attend such schools, although some of them still speak English, French, or Portuguese well. For the first phase of this project, I am translating the segments of these interviews into English, since I am an academic based in the U.S. and plan on using these stories in my own teaching. However, I would like to eventually make them available in other languages, particularly Pulaar, French, and Portuguese. This will take more time, and will not take place during the period of the CHI Fellowship, but I believe it is an important step in democratizing digital knowledge, which typically neglects the importance of African languages in favor of European languages.



February 19, 2019

The Challenges of the Digital in Digital History

February 19, 2019 | By | No Comments

By any normal standard, I am a relatively tech-savvy person. When it comes to programming, my experience is…minimal. My HTML skills are relatively new and underdeveloped, although growing which each attempt to do something new. My project for CHI focuses on oral histories mapping the history of migration across borders in West Africa, a topic I have spent too many years thinking about. My comfort level was this topic is matched with my lack of comfort of making this project digital.

I bring this up because I am also currently teaching 19 MSU seniors to do digital work. With a great deal of help with LEADR, my students are using StoryMaps to tell digital stories about border regions across the world. Ranging from the Colombia-Venezuela border to Kashmir and back home to the border between Detroit and Windsor, they are using the border analysis skills of our class to do public storytelling digitally.

My class is not a digital humanities class, but we regularly use digital projects/scholarship in discussions of borders around the world. There are few topics as central to public discussions as borders and migration, the topic of my class. I am easing my students into digital tools to demonstrate their importance as storytelling tools, but also to demonstrate to my students the importance of public scholarship.

There is a tension in digital scholarship between free, open-source software and proprietary programs like StoryMaps. Rather than dig into these debates, I want to talk about the reasons I am using StoryMaps. Oftentimes open-source software requires a level of technical expertise difficult to develop in a semester, especially when the course does not focus specifically on the digital.

I hope that this project will serve as a first step into the digital scholarly world for my students, and maybe some of them will even continue to use them going forward. My own extension into the digital has changed my academic focus, and I hope for at least a few of my students, this will be the case as well.



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.