A New Approach To My Honors Seminar

Swarthmore’s Honors program is one of its claims to distinction. I’ve always enjoyed teaching the seminars, with their close-knit and ambitious discussions, but I have also found the whole program somewhat frustratingly in its eccentricities and emphasis. Essentially the program at its origins was an anglophiliac adaptation of the Oxford tutorial: students were to strive for an ambitious level of mastery over a field of scholarly specialization and then undergo an examination by an outside expert to determine whether they had succeeded.

Contemporary departments at the college deal with the labor-intensive challenge of teaching numerous small seminars for juniors and seniors going for Honors in different ways, and set their ambitions of the program somewhat differently. A fairly substantial number of Honors seminars operate more or less as proto-graduate courses, and often the students who go through the seminars report that they feel very strongly prepared for graduate work as a result.

This is one of my subtle dissatisfactions with teaching an Honors seminar, though. I want to offer a course which is intensive, challenging, and unusual but potentially useful or inspiring to students who may have no further interest in Africa, in the discipline of history, or in academia. (Which still being equally useful and inspiring to those who are interested in such things.)

The other problem I’ve always had is trying to teach a loosely or idiosyncratically composed overview of some of the major scholarship on modern African history while trying to handle students with widely variant knowledge of African societies. All the students taking Honors have to have demonstrated general academic skill and specific facility with the discipline of history to get into our seminars, but I can’t (and wouldn’t) require any prerequisite knowledge of Africa or modern imperialism.

I’ve mulled over ways to refocus my seminar for years and I think I’ve settled on something. It’s still going to be about the historiography of modern Africa but I am going to build the class much more extensively around learning to dissect, interpret and operate large bodies of citation, information and reference when the aim is primarily to understand the state of scholarly and intellectual conversation about a subject rather than to produce a work of research on a specialized topic. I want to show my students how to become active agents in parsing and reassembling historiography.

I’m going to build each week around selections from 2-3 major readings that I think represent an interesting “cluster” of scholarly or intellectual work, mostly recent. I have a bit of a chronological and thematic structure in the syllabus so we’re reading about earlier events first and we’re covering some of the “major” or “classic” issues in the historiography, but much less so than I have done in past versions of the course.

The major emphasis this fall will be on dissecting each reading’s bibliographies and citations to construct a map of its relationship to its sources and to its peers, and in locating each work within strains of analytic and methodological practice. We’ll spend time in each class session working together to use existing databases and indices so that I can model some of the techniques and tricks available to students and so that they can work together to strengthen their mutual understanding of the historiography.

To give some sense of how I hope this will work, in week 1, the students will be looking at three very recent books (David Gordon’s Invisible Agents, Emily Osborn’s Our New Husbands Are Here, and Trevor Getz and Liz Clarke’s Abina and the Important Men. All very new books, so I doubt that by fall there will be any scholarly book reviews or much in the way of citational usage of the texts to track. So I want to show the students first how they can mine each book’s references and bibliography to track their relationships to older bodies of scholarship (the Getz and Clarke is very explicit about guiding readers along those lines), how they can use tools like Amazon’s “People Who Bought” or Google Scholar to (sometimes misleadingly) map a bit of the associational domain around each book, and how they can read public information about the authors for additional clues and hints.

In contrast, when we roll around to Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject , a canonical work published almost twenty years ago, they’ll find almost 900 citations in Web of Science and many others in Google Scholar, a very large number of rather interestingly contentious book reviews, and so on. So the job in this case is not to build a profile of expected usage and guess at a placement in various strains of conversation, but to develop good heuristics for sifting through a very large informational space to find the relevant or high-value references.

The way I’ve set the class up is complicated but I’m feeling pretty good about the structure and the driving idea behind the class. I also think this gets me out of the position of being the all-knowing sage who is trying to transfer an intact body of historiographical mastery to the students and instead puts me much more squarely in the position of being a faciltator or curator. I’m also looking forward to seeing what we can build in terms of some kind of publically shared visualization of the associations and keywords that the students underline or note as the semester proceeds.


History 140
The Colonial Encounter in Africa
Fall 2013

This Honors seminar focuses on the establishment of formal colonial rule by European states in sub-Saharan Africa from the mid-19th Century to decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s and on the subsequent history of postcolonial African societies.
This seminar is built around clusters of major works, mostly recent, that I feel have some significant or exciting historiographical relationship to one another. Some are on similar topics, use related methodologies, or convene an important debate or argument within the field; others are related in ways that are more idiosyncratic.

The seminar does not provide a single clear narrative or thematic summary of modern African history, though students are encouraged to construct such a summary for themselves over the course of the semester. Participants in the seminar are expected to carry high levels of responsibility for their own learning as well as supporting the learning of other participants, which should certainly include asking the seminar facilitator for additional guidance or information.

The main emphasis of student work in the seminar is what I am calling ‘hacking the historiography’: we will be reverse-engineering the construction of this field of specialized knowledge and building an impressionistic, in-practice understanding of its character based on the use of a variety of contemporary digital databases and search techniques.

Students in the seminar are not just responsible for identifying major arguments or lines of analysis in the assigned works and coming prepared to discuss those arguments. They are also responsible for dissecting the footnotes and bibliographies of assigned works to understand the evidentiary and historiographical character of these works. Working together, we will build a partial map of the historiography as it is practiced in the field of modern African history, the ancestral lines of reference and methodology that different works derive their arguments from.

Each week’s course meeting will be broken into three major parts.

a) In our first 90 or so minutes of discussion, we will review the major assigned readings for that week, evaluating their major arguments, claims and methodologies. To prepare for this portion of the class meeting, students should read the assigned works carefully and thoughtfully. In many instances, we will only be reading portions of the assigned work, sometimes as selected by members of the seminar in advance.

b) In our second 45 minutes, students will discuss papers about the previous week’s meeting. Each student is responsible for writing 4 papers during the semester. These papers should be a critical review of the historiographical character of an assigned reading from the previous week, based on the following in addition to the reading itself: 1) at least two scholarly reviews or review essays about the assigned reading; 2) a general impression of the citational or associational patterns visible around the assigned reading; 3) relation of the assigned work a single other reading found through an analysis of content, bibliography, citations and the intellectual genealogy of the author. (In the case of very new works, there may not be reviews or citations, so this will be an especially important part of those papers.) Paper writers need to relate the work to one of the following additional types of reading (which the student must actually locate and read): a primary source; a similar work on another region, country or era; a preceding work cited by the reading as a major influence; a work which markedly disagrees with or opposes the original reading.

We will discuss both the assessments of the paper authors and how their assessments change or modify our discussion from the previous week.

c) In our final 45 minutes, we will discuss the citations, bibliography and assessments of readings from this week as an aid to the students writing papers in the coming week, using Tripod or other databases. We will also briefly discuss next week’s major readings and try to make strategic decisions about which portion of the reading to tackle based on our evolving interests.

Over the course of the semester, we will be building several data visualizations (titles, authors, possibly themes or subjects) of our impressionistic understanding of the historiography, which we will make available for online public scrutiny. We will also be building similarly a shared glossary of important recurrent terms, places and people. Students will be required to contribute to both projects.

Week 1: Hack the Historiography, A Primer

In this week, we will take apart three interesting new books in the field, trying to understand not just their arguments but the historiographies and methodologies that they draw upon.

David Gordon, Invisible Agents: Spirits in a Central African History
Emily Osborn, Our New Husbands Are Here
Tevor Getz and Liz Clarke, Abina and the Important Men

Week 2: Survey Histories
A. Adu Boahen, ed., UNESCO History of Africa, Volume VII (abridged)
Frederick Cooper, Africa Since 1940

Week 3: General Interpretations of Colonialism in Africa
Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject
Olufemi Taiwo, How Colonialism Pre-Empted Modernity in Africa
Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
Jan Vansina, Being Colonized

Week 4: Narrative Histories and the Scramble for Africa
Roger Levine, A Living Man From Africa: Jan Tzatzoe, Xhosa Chief and Missionary
Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa
Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost

Week 5: Names and Voices
Osumaka Likaka, Naming Colonialism
Stephanie Newell, The Power to Name
Luise White, Speaking With Vampires
Nancy Rose Hunt, A Colonial Lexicon

Week 6: Boundaries and Belonging
Paul Nugent, Smugglers, Secessionists and Loyal Citizens
Jonathan Glassman, War of Words, War of Stones
David Robinson, Paths of Accommodation

Week 7: Narratives of Colonial Authority
Ahebi Ugbabe, The Female King of Colonial Nigeria
Michael Crowder, The Flogging of Phineas Macintosh
Stephanie Newell, The Forger’s Tale

Week 8: Constructing Gender
Stephan Miescher, Making Men
Marc Epprecht, Heterosexual Africa?
Lynn Thomas, Politics of the Womb

Week 9: Expressive Culture and Colonialism
Karin Barber, ed., Africa’s Hidden Histories
Johannes Fabian, Remembering the Present
Marissa Moorman, Intonations
Derek Peterson, Creative Writing

Week 10: Nationalism and Anti-Colonialism
James Brennan, Taifa
Elizabeth Schmidt, Mobilizing the Masses
David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged

Week 11: Narratives of Nation and Society
M.G. Vassanji, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall
Binyavanga Wainaina, Someday I Will Write About This Place

Week 12: Postcolonial Conflict
Gerald Prunier, Africa’s World War
Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers
Martin Meredith, The Fate of Africa
Ismael Beah, A Long Way Gone

Week 13: Postcolonial Africa
Michaela Wrong, It’s Our Turn to Eat
Nicolas Argenti, The Intestines of the State
Adam Ashforth, Witchcraft, Violence and Democracy in South Africa
David William Cohen and E.S. Atieno Odhiambo, The Risks of Knowledge

Week 14: Neoliberal Africa and the Future
Jennifer Cole, Sex and Salvation: Imagining the Future in Madagascar
Charles Piot, Nostalgia for the Future
Brenda Chalfin, Neoliberal Frontiers
Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman, Dams, Displacement and the Delusion of Development

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5 Responses to A New Approach To My Honors Seminar

  1. chris london says:

    Reading this on my phone at first I thought it said ‘horrors seminar’. Sounded like a great class!

  2. In the provinces says:

    This sounds like a wonderful idea for students at high-end institutions. Where I work, at a midwestern public R-1, none of our undergraduates, even the honors students, could deal with such a reading load. Even the graduate students would have problems with it.

  3. Nick says:

    This is cool, Tim! Particularly excited to see the data visualization component. I’d encourage you to make the data set available at the end as well, in addition to any visualizations. That data would be fascinating.

    RE papers, as a former student who has written about a bajillion papers for you… one of the things that set apart HIST 140 from my other history seminars was the focus on argumentation instead of recitation (be it historiographical or otherwise). We didn’t spend time memorizing Congolese rulers and their reigns, but instead crafted sharp, pointed (and short) arguments about Lumumba. It sounds like that kind of argumentation will still be there, forced, perhaps, by the supplementary texts, but it seems like there is some danger of students returning tepid exercises in the service of piecing together the interconnected web of historians rather than deeply understanding and having something to say about a corner of it. I’ll be interested to hear how the students power through to find the meaty bits!

  4. We’ll still be doing argumentation & analysis of texts, but I want to focus on ownership over a corpus of knowledge as well–to get the students into a slightly less passive situation where I’m just feeding them the texts. I also think this gives us a sharper way to understand what makes scholarly analysis different than general-purpose nonfiction–the density of its intertextuality is a big part of that.

    Provinces–we won’t be reading all of these texts, but it’s a double-credit course where there’s a lot of emphasis on the intensity of work, so I’ve tried to think of an approach that makes this more than just reading a lot. We’ll see if it flies.

  5. Michael says:

    This sounds like an amazing class. I’m currently a graduate student working on my Masters in History and I would love to take a class like this. This class would seem to truly instruct historians in a key tool of their trade – dissecting the current arguments around an area of history. Best of luck with this class!

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