2012 Winner: Ami V Shah

Africa is not a country! Understanding the Continent

As someone whose work consists of traveling abroad, conducting interviews, and observing different types of social practices and interactions, I wanted to design a course which allowed students to engage in international issues and conduct their own research, but without having to leave campus. I hoped that students could come to understand that research, too, can be an everyday affair, as long as we ask questions of the world around us. Also, I wanted students to filter through stereotypical representations of the developing world, and of Sub-Saharan Africa in particular.

Thus, Africa is not a Country! Understanding the Continent was born. We began the semester by questioning what we know about Africa, how we know it, and why we believe it to be true. These questions drove students to immediately investigate the world around them, and within a few classes they were talking about representations of wilderness inThe Lion King, the portrayal of African warfare and the arms trade in James Bond movies, the depictions of poverty and famine in The New York Times, and why information about African art, culture, and peoples is often displayed in natural history museums, alongside displays of fossils and animals.

Students continued this inquiry through three specific blog posts that asked them to work with news articles, op-eds, and images or videos. The two major Writing Projects tied our questions to scholarly literature. The first Writing Project considered the history of representations of Africa through the analysis of colonial postcards, held in Duke’s Special Collections. During our trip to Special Collections, students also had the chance to see many of the original texts we read (a first edition of Heart of Darkness) or texts that are referenced in our readings. This helped to emphasize that the potential for research is all around them. For their final Writing Project, they chose a contemporary primary source for a research paper. In Fall 2011, these sources were varied: charity singles, films, memoirs, policies, humanitarian advertisements, and museum websites. The students had realized that the focus of research could be proximal and ‘everyday’.

Moreover, the final projects were a joy to read. Students effectively demonstrated that they had not only learned how to work with primary materials, but that they could conduct effective research and construct creative projects. Topics included an analysis of the Enough Project’s campaign against so-called conflict minerals, an investigation of the representation of Africa through the World Cup songs, an evaluation of the Smithsonian’s Africa exhibit, and a comment on the stereotypes of Africa present in the film Madagascar.

And all of them know that Africa is not a country!