Reimagining African Worlds One Basket at a Time

As much as the fictional Wakanda has been important in re-awakening many people’s connection to Africa in contemporary American culture, it is wonderful to think about how students are making this connection everyday through their own research. The following is an example of the work of a Morehouse student, Tareik Horne. His research on his own family history of sweetgrass basketmaking shows how important it is to think of the creative, imaginative possibilities of Africa.

Developing Grit in Our Students

I have been thinking more about what will help students succeed in education and life. I often get introspective around finals time when students come to me desperate for grades, or, rather, desperate for an A. Inevitably around this time as well, students start hustling trying to do any and everything to improve grades if they are failing. I always think that if they showed half of this initiative earlier on then they would not feel as if they have to come and hustle on the back end.

The problem, as I see it, is that these” hustling” students haven’t developed “grit”: the ability to persevere for a long term goal. As much as I am invested and am passionate about the digital humanities, this crisis of instant gratification caused by our rapid technology hasn’t helped these students become better students. I think in many ways it is up to us as educators to develop character first before other sorts of pedagogy. We need to help students know what to do in times of adversity. I have realized for young black men that the best thing that they can do in college is to develop a yoga practice. Yoga, as quiet as it’s kept, is hard. Men often underestimate its challenge and are always surprised when they start shaking in a pose. However, sticking in a pose will help them know that even when they are taken by surprise by a challenge, they can overcome it. I always feel mean when I tell college kids that life is hard. But it is hard. They only need to understand that just because something is hard it doesn’t mean that it is not worth doing. Moreover, it is only by doing what is hard that people will have any sense of accomplishment.

So, for all of my students wondering what to do if their semester didn’t end the way that they wanted it to, remember to keep on pushing and stay strong in the pose.


A Call to Action (Written with Jamila Lyn)

Reading Jimmy Carter’s 2014 book A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power makes it clear that the least of what domestic violence is is a domestic issue. In fact what happens in our homes, in our dorm rooms, and in other personal—sometimes hidden— spaces has implications for everyone as human beings. Domestic violence is a global issue. As Carter’s book maintains, “the world’s discrimination against women and girls is the most serious pervasive, and ignored violation of basic human rights.”

Carter begins his analysis of this global human rights issue by talking about what he learned growing up in the racist, and, paradoxically very religious, South. It was here that he saw that racism was created out of a certain “culture of violence,” a culture that was dogmatic, patriarchal, insular, and exploitative. Moreover, this “culture of violence” doesn’t only operate around race but also around gender. On our college campus, this “culture of violence” can be seen in the language, in the music, in the sports, and in the movies and television shows that people love to talk about in personal and class room conversations The question for our students and even for faculty and staff on campus is how can we intervene in the problems of sexual harassment including street harassment or catcalling, date rape, sexual intimidation, and physical abuse when it is a global problem that may be bigger than us?

In our English 102 Class: Re-imagining Black Masculinity: Ending Sexual Violence our goal is to make an actual difference in the larger struggle by engaging service learning. What we have discovered is there is no way to pick up Carter’s call to action without first changing the way that we speak and write about women, even if it is only here on the local level. Producing students who are global leaders begins with helping them understand how they access language and culture in their daily lives. We want the students to be better writers certainly, but our hope is that they also become better human beings. So it is a success in that class for us if students can look at the culture that surrounds them critically. It is a success if they think twice about calling a woman anything other than her name. It is a success if they don’t assume that they have a right to someone’s time and attention and can catalog her body parts (Zora Neale Hurston calls this “talking up under someone’s clothes”) if she happens to be walking down the street. And, of course, it is a success if not one person hits or punches or rapes someone to assert what they mistakingly think of as manhood. Finally, we hope to instill in our students that they have a personal responsibility to fight for the human rights of “everyone” despite ways that the culture tells them differently.

Our role as a college in this fight for human rights must be a very personal one. Domestic violence doesn’t just hurt domestically, it hurts us globally. Our president, John Wilson, was very clear in September when he said that Morehouse Men do not engage in violence against women and children and that they need to model this behavior to others in the outside world. The real impact of this work will come when men from all parts of the world understand the importance of protecting and standing up for all women.


Why All African Americans Should Celebrate Native American Heritage This Month

Africans in this country have had a very complicated relationship to Native Americans. Historically allies and kindred spirits who fought against the same system of European Colonization, African Americans have at times also been as guilty of being agents of that same colonization and oppression. A little known historical fact is that Hampton University set out to also educate both Native Americans and African Americans during Reconstruction–by educate, I mean that they primarily sought to assimilate African and Native Americans into White America.


African Americans have also sought to damage First Nation People in other ways by misusing their representations. Witness Pharrell Williams recently donning a Native headdress on a cover of Elle UK.


It seems that black people are willing to commodify sacred symbols when it sells and are ok with calling people Redskins if we are fans (imagine if the teams was called the Washington Darkies!), but want to talk about the importance of maintaining our own culture and heritage.

Here is a video response from Native Americans about the use of the term Redskins.

You need to only do a little more research to realize that Native American Heritage Month is also a celebration of us. Quite literally this month celebrates the Seminole, Cherokee, Muskogee, Creek, and others who are literally comprised of African people, but it also celebrates the spirit of rebellion that speaks to what the experience has been in North America for non-Europeans. Also I cannot conceive of a world where it should be okay to deny and misunderstand any group of people. November is all of our month to say thank you to our foremothers and fathers who have shown us the way.

Thanks for all the information for this blog post from here,here, and here.


2014 UNCF Mellon Teaching and Learning Institute: Mapping the Future in Digital Humanities at HBCUs


In 2010 when the current Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Morehouse College, Clarissa Myrick-Harris, was the Director of The UNCF Institute for Capacity Building Curriculum and Faculty Enhancement Programs, she created a one day symposium called “To Be Young, Digital, and Black,” which sought to begin a conversation about the way HBCUs were addressing our students who were “digital natives.” Indeed, this was the first of a series of public forums dedicated to “UNCF Digital Media and Learning in Multicultural Contexts.” In the intervening years, not only are we still grappling with the pedagogical questions of how to teach students in a digital age, but also how to fashion ourselves as scholars in a time where the academic disciplines, themselves, have changed fundamentally. For example, no longer is English simply the study of literature, but it is also textual studies where academics can reconstruct and examine lost texts and/or visualize texts through the use of technology. Moreover, with things like data mining and mapping, no longer are words one dimensional, but they are in 3-D and kinetic. Changing the scope of words has in effect changed the scope of academy. As many of our small private liberal arts colleges do not have access to digital scholars labs and other teaching and learning centers devoted to helping humanities faculty with technical aspects of digital scholarship, the question becomes exactly when and where do faculty at the small HBCUs enter into the larger national and international conversations about the digital humanities.

Moreover, the ostensible truth is that we should be center of these conversations because of the myriad opportunities for archiving, constructing, and engaging with material in African American religion, philosophy, literature, music, history and the visual arts that our schools provide. Indeed, many of our historically black colleges are rich repositories of history in African American life and culture. While the questions about digital scholarship and learning seem to always come back to resources, the focus at UNCF institutions should be on the way in which these colleges can start where they are to build community and pool information and best practices in order to allow our faculty and their work to emerge in this new academy. This UNCF/Mellon Teaching and Learning Institute: “Mapping a New Future by Mining the Past: HBCUS and the Digital Humanities” was a workshop where 16 faculty members from Paine, Claflin, Spelman, Clark, Morehouse, and Dillard convened on Morehouse’s campus and at The Robert W. Woodruff Library July 24-27, 2014 to look at the intersections of African American Studies and digital scholarship. Each invited scholar will brought an individual research or class project and constructed a strategy for completing that digital humanities project given the resources that they have on their campuses and an iPad mini, which was provided provided by the seminar. By offering faculty the space and time to engage with technology, this workshop sought to fulfill the mission set forth by UNCF in 2010, which was to “investigate current and future opportunities for research, careers and civic engagement that are informed by innovative uses of digital media.”

One of the excellent facilitators Howard Rambsy wrote more about the importance of this institute on his blog Cultural Front here

Open Access

There seems to be a lot of talk lately about open access when it comes to academic work. Of course, for libraries the question of open access is one of dollars and cents. Can the modern university library continue to operate given the cost of doing so, as it applies to supplying research materials? In the digital humanities, this question of access is central to what we do. According to Georgia State’s library website the benefits of open access are many. Namely, open access grants:

Greater visibility and impact of research
Increased opportunity for collaboration
Easier access to information for anyone
Takes advantage of technology – text mining and the digital environment
Better return on investment for research sponsors
Encourages and enables greater innovation
Faster than traditional publishing
Contributes to education’s mission of advancing knowledge

If all of that is true, what are we doing to ensure that we have open access to our intellectual capital? The full link to the Georgia State University’s Library Open Access Guide is here.

“How I Do”: Hacking Black Literary and Cultural Studies

One of the things that is exciting about being involved in the digital humanities is that there are always new products and services that help you do what you do. Indeed, “hacking” doesn’t necessarily involve getting more technical skill, you just need to know what questions you are trying to answer and what work you want to do. In the digital humanities, the focus for me is always on the work. As a professor of English, I am enamored with the way that technology allows one to tell stories and connect people more closely with those stories. I’ve already spoken about how useful Storify has been to my scholarship and teaching. But more recently, the Storehouse storytelling app on iOS has risen to my attention. While, I still prefer to keep a blog on wordpress and prefer the written word, I cannot deny the power of the visual.

However one discovery that has really revolutionized the way I “do” digital humanities is the service IF This Then That . IFTTT is something that will allow all your different hacks to work together. Want to save and archive all your tweets about a certain subject, save your blog posts as PDFs in your Dropbox, or automatically upload your Storify projects to Facebook or WordPress and you don’t code? Get IFTTT. Really the possibilities are endless. What I like is that it can be ever expanding as more services and “recipes” are added. Here is an article on Mashable about some of its’ uses. What are some of the hacks that allow you best to be a digital humanist? Do you use IFTTT?


The Humanities: The Renaissance, Again

Stories like this one decrying the death of the Humanities have been appearing more and more frequently in popular and academic press. This, along with the rallying cry to make college education more applicable to what people will do in their jobs (whatever that means–like we supposed to teach them novels about using the telephone) has meant that college educators, like myself, are suffering somewhat of an identity crisis. Do we teach the way we were taught or do we try to adapt our syllabi to be more market friendly? I think MacDonald in the article linked above is somewhat over stating the case for traditionalism as the central part of humanistic inquiry. The change in English Department curricula is not due to some sort of political correctness brought at the expense of the classics but because of something that I found to be true about literature: no department can insist that only a few set books represent the humanistic tradition. It is not true for example that the Iliad is more valuable than Invisible Man. I think that you can have the same level of inquiry and level of humanistic thought without requiring students to trip through the same old canon of western literature.

I think that with every age, we will constantly be redefining what is classic. Working in the digital humanities shows me that.  What would the study of humanities be if we stopped with Aristotle, Milton, Chaucer, and Shakespeare? The Liberal Arts then really wouldn’t be relevant and if you think there are no humanities majors now (which by the way is a frustrating false statistic that I see bandied about–English and all of the liberal arts remain top disciplines of study alongside and oftentimes outpacing business and psychology) there really won’t be any in the future. Can you imagine if any study of astronomy decided that it would stop with Copernicus or genetics stopped with the study of physiognomy? As long as there are researchers who are actively researching, professors will have to tackle new discoveries and texts in their classes and scholarship. Natalia Cecire’s insightful blog talks a little bit more about this here. So lets stop talking about the death of the Humanities and instead start talking about how it is being reborn.


On the Digital Road

Recently, I have begun to ponder the question of whether or not all institutions of higher learning need to offer online classes. Small liberal arts colleges, like Morehouse and Spelman, seem to have missions of developing the whole person that would preclude them from allowing anyone to get a full degree online. However, even if one cannot get a full degree, I think that small liberal arts colleges need to think about what certificate programs and individual classes might be offered in some sort of hybrid fashion using existing technology. These articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education seem to suggest that all universities need to have an online plan. I fully agree.

Why Apple Products Are Still Best For Educators

People often ask me why I still recommend an iPad, iPod, or iPhone for educational use when the Android platform is growing everyday and Microsoft and Google both offer solutions for educators. Quite simply, Apple still offers the best and most comprehensive experience for both students and educators. And while there will be things that are cheaper and things that are sexy–for example, I love the HTC One phone–I realize that the things that I need to do are best done on my iPad. Two apps that are crucial to me Gradebook Pro and Explain Everything are only available on iOS. Really, do yourself a favor and check them out. It is not an exaggeration to say that they and the iPad have revolutionized my teaching.

So for now I am still an Apple advocate, but I am praying for a new form factor for the iPhone this year and I am eagerly awaiting iOS7.

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