During academic year 2017-2018 I participated in Trinity College’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) fellows program. This monthly seminar offered an opportunity for me to collaboratively think through, and design, various elements of my 200-level course “Understanding Conflict in Africa” (syllabus) with a group of fourteen colleagues.
I taught “Understanding Conflict in Africa” for the first time in Fall 2017, and again in the spring. The class introduces students to the academic fields of political science and international relations through the question: How should students in a classroom located in the United States begin cultivating an understanding of violent conflicts taking place on a continent that few students have any knowledge about? The course is organized around the premise that students often claim to know certain truths about Africa when, in reality, such understandings rely heavily upon one-dimensional, ahistorical representations of the continent (for example, Dunn 2003). As students—or potential students—of international relations, learning to understand the world requires also knowing what one does not know, what these absences in understanding mean, and what kinds of questions should be asked, and how. This, in my mind, is the heart of the study of international relations.
The portrayal of Africa as conflict-prone and violent place has become the predominant way of “knowing” Africa for many audiences—including many of my students. My aim was to design a course that could begin to disarm such limited understandings of Africa (and the broader world more generally) by using the writing of social scientists to engage, historicize, and contextualize political violence in Africa. The course begins by examining particular conflicts from the past quarter century, including wars in Somalia, Rwanda, Congo, Sudan, and Libya. The class situates these conflicts within the legacy of colonialism, the Cold War, and the contemporary reorganization of the world economy. Because much of my students’ understanding of Africa comes from visual culture, an important part of this course is a series of movie and media reflections, encouraging students to critically examine how conflict in Africa is represented in the media and film. Pedagogically, I also understand the critical movie analysis as an opportunity for students to learn to write papers with a clear argument. If they learn to use a written text to better understand a movie, this skill—I hypothesize—can set the foundation for eventually placing two academic texts into conversation with each other.
As a CTL fellow I was able to workshop the critical movie analysis assignment with a group of peers. The first version of this assignment (see below), taught in the fall and designed prior to the workshop, was not entirely successful. I wanted students to learn that an important part of making an original argument involved learning to efficiently summarize a text (in this case a movie). However, with the wording of the prompt, I ended up with many assignments in which students simply summarized the movie and, in many cases, did not bring the movie into conversation with readings from the class.
After work-shopping this assignment with the other fellows, I made some dramatic changes to the assignment prompt (see below, p.2). I changed the title from “Movie Critical Reflection” to “Critical Movie Analysis,” required an engagement with class readings, and emphasized the importance of making an interesting argument. We also watched Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How Not to Write About Africa” and I circulated an example of my own critical movie analysis for the students to see how I pulled together material from the movie, analyzing it, and placing it into conversation with course readings. I also dedicated considerable class time to talking about how one might go about writing these assignments, and providing feedback that focused on crafting a compelling argument. Building on the requirements of for their daily discussion questions, students were also expected to provide properly formatted citations of the works cited in the paper. I have found that this created the opportunity to discuss different kinds of sources (books, journal articles, book chapters, etc.) as well as learning how to read a bibliographic citation. During the spring semester I found that students were better able to understand what social scientific writing looks like, how to form original arguments, and how to use evidence to make these arguments.