In this section, Professor Edoh offers her advice to other educators thinking about teaching a similar topic or using similar methods.
Knowing the Core Issue
I find it’s crucial to be clear on what the core issue is, what the question is that animates this class. For me, it’s useful to know that, because that helps me adjust as needed, to figure out what I want these students to come away with no matter what, so that if what I have planned is not taking us there, I can try something else that might work better.
For this class, the idea was to examine Africa’s place in the world as being made visible through different kinds of creative practice. I structured it around topics I was familiar with from my work or interested in and that I wanted to explore more. I’m interested in dress, for instance, and especially performance as dress. Someone else might be more into music. I didn’t do a unit on music. The building blocks of the class can be completely different, they can focus on different creative practices. As long as the core question is clear, you can tailor the building blocks to your interests, but also to what’s available. What’s wonderful about the notion of creative practice is that it’s very broad. It can be as broad as you want it to be.
Teaching as Improv
A colleague told me once that teaching is essentially like standup or improv. You get up there and you’re on. And you improvise, because you’re responding to what your students are giving you. You have no idea what it’s going to be—no matter how well planned it is, you have no idea where it might end up. And you have to figure out where to take it in order to come back to the conclusions that you think you need to end at—and also be open to that not happening!
When you’re new to teaching, you don’t understand this. When you were a student, the professors up front seemed to know exactly what they were doing and what they were talking about; you don’t fully appreciate the fact that it’s a lot of intuitive and improvisational work. You can be surprised at how taxing it is. Being aware of that can inform your preparations or help you know what you need to do to stock up, to fill up your tank, so that you can make it through this three-hour improv performance. Linked to that is something else that I’ve been told repeatedly by senior colleagues: it takes teaching a class at least three times to feel really confident with it. The first time you just don’t know. The second time you make those adjustments. And that third time, it starts to stabilize, even if you’re still changing the content along the way.
Adopting this experimental frame of mind is helpful, though we all have different styles. Some people feel safer knowing exactly what’s going to happen and planning each class out minute by minute. But even if that’s the case, if that’s what one needs in order to feel in control, it’s a good idea to just open up a little bit of room, because generally, the less tightly designed it is, the better things work out.
This is what I found and what I’ve heard other colleagues say—that the days when they were running from meeting to meeting and didn’t quite have enough time to finish their course prep were actually the days when the class went really well because they had no choice but to be there and listen to the students and follow the organic progression of the conversation instead of sticking to their script. Flexibility is key, with this course in particular, because its subject matter, this question of African cultural production on the global stage, is very much of the moment—there’s just so much in the news at any given time.
Incorporating Historical Context
I tried to do a mix of contemporary and historical cases. You can’t ask these kinds of theoretical questions or philosophical questions about Africa’s space in the world without understanding the history of Africa in the world. In my other classes, I have to spend the first third of the class discussing the historical background, explaining what colonization was, and why it matters, and why we can’t not talk about this moment in African history, before we get to the content of the actual class. I didn’t do that in this course because there’s just not enough time. But in the first session I tried to give a summary of the important questions. It’s a bit absurd to attempt to “summarize” such complicated and far-reaching historical processes, but that’s as much as I could do given the constraints of time.
Another way to provide that context is to include more historical work. When we were studying film, for instance, we watched a film by Sembène Ousmane, one of the forebears of francophone African cinema, and this film was made in the 1960s. That gave us a way to talk about that independence moment, and through that what happened before, and so on. It wasn’t a neatly contained historical discussion, but it’s something that we were able to bring out around the readings we were studying.
Nurturing Students as Learners
My teaching philosophy stresses the importance of using classroom time to build students’ confidence, to instill in our students a sense that they’re capable of doing this work, to undo some of the damage that academic work has done for so many people—to try to make it less alienating. To say, “We can do this. And we know how to do this. It’s OK not to know this particular material, because we’re in school to learn. We’re not supposed to know everything when we come here. But we know how to learn and that’s what we’re here for.” I highly recommend that other educators provide the same kind of support to their students.