AiW note: In our “Teaching” focus as part of our “Words on…” series, we’re thinking around print culture – books, images, texts, mags, spaces – and broad senses of what “teaching” might be, do, mean, or how it might produce its creative-critical work (in all senses). Our last post in the series – a piece on Binyavanga Wainaina (1971-2019) and an aspect of his legacy that, as AiW Guest Ruth Wenskewrites, is his “fierce advocacy for innovative and creative education” – revives an earlier set of Guest posts from our way back archives of 2014-15.
Here, in our latest, Nicklas Hållén and Joanna Woods discuss their experience of developing teaching materials at Uppsala University in Sweden for delivery during the pandemic, enabling students’ conversations, critical thinking and interactions with the non-canonical, the experimental, and the emergent and innovative in literary and cultural production.
We welcome contributions to the series and the development of conversations around, with and through it, particularly in these times of distancing and sharing – blending, zooming, teaming, screening, et al and on… – please be in touch.
Nicklas Hållén and Joanna Woods.
Together with Dani Kouyaté, we recently contributed to teaching a module called African Cultural Expression and Artistic Creation. This is part of an introductory one-semester course in African Studies at the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology at Uppsala University. Many of the teachers are affiliated with the Forum for African Studies. We were given an opportunity to develop the module’s core consideration and decided to focus on ways in which different cultural innovators in Africa use literature and film to think about societal transformation. As a whole, the module highlighted for students visions of the past, present, and future in African cultural creativity. We want to take this opportunity to outline some of our considerations when designing the syllabus and reflect on both some of the challenges and the opportunities we encountered teaching remotely during the onset of the pandemic in the spring semester this year.
It is important to all three of us teaching this module to highlight what is not prominent in what, from a global point of view, is considered the mainstream of African literature and cinema. In my lectures, we discussed the diversity of literary forms that we see in contemporary, African literature (particularly self-published), spoken word and comics. The production around Africa is so profuse and the material so accessible that it is possible to let the students look for whatever material they feel speaks to their interests. (Interestingly, some of the students chose texts that, though published before the Covid-19 outbreak, in one way or another explored epidemics and their impact on African communities.) I therefore introduced the students to online material – comics, spoken word performances on Youtube, digital pamphlets – and some printed material from an archive of ephemeral and self-published texts at The Nordic Africa Institute Library.
Primarily, I used the Nigerian online platform and app Okadabooks as a resource that the students could use for free when exploring different forms of texts and literary material. Not all of the material on Okadabooks is available for free, but enough of it is to allow the students to download and browse through comics, pamphlets, short stories, anthologies, self-help and motivational books, chick-lit, crime fiction and so on. As we made clear to the students early on in the module, the goal was not to make them read as much as possible, but to use Okadabooks’s interface to get a sense of what is out there if you know where to look and to open a door, so to speak: since it was a relatively short beginner-level class, we agreed that what we could give the students is a way into a vast and growing archive of texts that they can spend years exploring after the course finishes. What is more, since we could not assume that the students were familiar with literary theory and methodology, it would have taken too much time to familiarize the students with literary history, terms and methods to study canonical postcolonial African novels in a way that would give them something to build on later in their studies.
There are of course downsides to using Okadabooks in this way. For one thing, it was important to make it clear for the students that even though this vast collection of texts is diverse in many ways, it should not be seen as a cross section of contemporary African literature. Most of the material is Nigerian and even though authors from other parts of Africa are able to upload their material there, it cannot be studied as a pan-African collection of texts. Most of the texts are in English, and among those that are not, most are in Hausa or one of the other large languages in Nigeria, rather than Swahili, Ga or Ndebele, for example. And even though Okadabooks has managed to overcome many technological limitations, some limitations inevitably persist which means that this platform works better for some kinds of texts and not others. Audio-based material, for example, is not featured on this platform, and texts that rely heavily on graphic illustrations do not always come out well when they are formatted through the system that Okadabooks use.
My seminars introduced the students to African literary futures and speculative fiction. These seminars were largely research-driven as I incorporated the exploration of platforms and materials that I am currently focusing on for my doctoral project on contemporary African speculative fiction. Not all teaching can be, or even should be, research-led. But research, learning, and teaching are closely related, and I found that a research-led approach not only encouraged the students to develop critical thinking and learning strategies, but it also encouraged me to think broadly about the topic I am working on and what some of the texts I am looking into for my PhD may offer curricula within the African Studies field more generally. We also agreed that this approach would help us steer away from a more problematic “overview” approach, where the students are introduced to an unavoidably limited canon of classics. A small selection of canonical texts will inevitably exclude important voices and gives the students a false sense of having acquired a basic overview of African literature and film, which of course a module like this cannot offer them.
We started by discussing definitions such as “Afrofuturism” and “African-futurism.” The students had been introduced to the former term in a previous class on their course; my goal was to get the students to think about what both terms might mean to writers on the continent today. Along with using PowerPoint to facilitate remote learning, great video archives helped to enhance the conversation on African creative futures. One video we looked at was ‘Afrofuturism in popular culture: Wanuri Kahiu at TEDxNairobi.’ There is also a growing number of online platforms that can be made use of when speaking about literary futures and the African speculative genre – Omenana, Kalahari Review, Jalada, African Writer, Story Ink Africa. One task I set the students was to select, read and discuss a short story from the collection of texts published on Omenana. This site immediately enables students to see how diverse speculative fiction is, in form and genre, and perhaps also by extension how diverse African Literature is. Bearing in mind that these students were not Literature students, they took to the task well and I was pleasantly surprised by some of their critical reactions and engagement. Deploying textual analysis, identifying generic structuring and some of the language features of sf, one student highlighted for us all that Rèlme Divingu’s flash fiction story “Typewriter” is not only futuristic in setting and in pace but is also written in the form of a televised interview, thus exploiting a technological thematic.
My interest in African speculative fiction derives from a curiosity about non-canonical stories. Working from an assumption that many of the students joining us in the spring had limited knowledge of texts, writers, and films in/from Africa, a common aim was to start to unpack misconceptions about African literary and cultural production and circulation. The approach I took in my seminars aligned with Nicklas Hållén’s in his lectures on ways of reading African literary form, introducing students to a variety of materials while focusing on what is ostensibly outside the mainstream.
Reflecting on remote teaching, I find that various concerns linger for me: How effective can we be as instructors in the virtual space? How do we keep pedagogy the priority over technology at this time? I think many of us may have underestimated the difficulties faced by those students thrust into the online classroom earlier this year. However, my experience of teaching online in the spring was positive overall. In fact, while teaching, I realised just how well-suited the topic of African literary futures was for online instruction. If conducting life and work wholly online in our immediate future seems somewhat dystopic to me, I also think that in the current climate – with captive audiences and active online participation spurred on by the circumstances of the pandemic – African speculative writing may just start to gain the attention it deserves (both in and outside the classroom setting) since so much is published in the digital space. To be sure, there is much utopian potential to be found in digital African speculative texts.
The importance of the digital space for African literature more generally has previously been noted by Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed, who contends that such a space can be conceived as revolutionary for African literatures (2017). Nesbitt-Ahmed highlights that digitality is providing writers and readers with the means to “reclaim” and “reframe” their stories (p.387). Ashleigh Harris (2020) has also more recently highlighted that the internet may be a more sustainable space for the production of African literatures. While digital media is an enabling force for both the production and the consumption of African literature, then, the worldmaking (and re-making) of the speculative genre is also effectively liberating, and arguably compounds the effects of the “digital revolution” when it is published online. In this way, I’d suggest that digital African literary futures are ideal for thinking critically with students about various subjects, including what it is we mean by ‘African Literature’ today.
Teaching science/ speculative fiction at higher education level in general is not particularly new; the genre has been utilised across disciplines and in various classrooms. But the explicit use of the genre for framing and teaching African literary texts is still relatively new. I’m thinking especially here of African universities and universities in Europe and the UK. Courses such as Sci-Fi and Afrofuturism in the African Novel at SOAS in London are few and far between. This is something that I think we will see changing in a big way in the coming years.
Joanna and Nicklas:
Practically speaking, while teaching remotely, our decision to use online resources helped us overcome issues of access to texts since libraries were closed at the time. Dani Kouyaté had planned to screen films for the students and have discussion seminars immediately afterwards. In recent years, this has worked really well and his screenings have been a very popular element in the module and the course as a whole even though they have meant long afternoons for the students. This year, because of Covid-19, Kouyaté digitised some of his own films – Kéïta! The heritage of the Griot (1995) and OuagaSaga (2004) – and made them available to the students online. He took this opportunity to talk about the shift from analogue film – which made the film industry in Francophone Africa dependent on labs and studios in France where films were developed and cut – to digital film making which has allowed independent as well as state sponsored filmmakers to become freer in their artistic vision. The students watched the films online in their own time in preparation for the seminars, where they had the opportunity to discuss the films directly with the filmmaker. One obvious disadvantage was that since they watched the films from their homes, they presumably did not get a chance to see the films on a big screen, which is how they are supposed to be viewed. But this was a price we realised we had to pay and judging from the feedback we received at the end of the course, the students seemed to have enjoyed this solution.
In future classes on African literary futures and/or speculative fiction utilising resources such as the African Speculative Fiction Story Bundle – a digital library of African speculative texts – will be important. Soila Kenya’s curated list of African Fantasy and Sci-Fi will also be worth integrating. With much focus on widely available and largely accessible digital texts, the idea of utilising such compilations in the classroom is appealing if one is to consider that teaching is to remain virtual (in many places around the world) for some time to come, too. It will be worth keeping an eye out for new resources and materials such as those mentioned above to support the teaching of speculative fiction from Africa as we all look to the future. Indeed, both Story Bundle and Kenya’s curation would make wonderful resources for more general classes in African Studies and on African literature and cultural production, perhaps helping to diversify the curriculum in interesting ways.
Another interesting possibility that presents itself is to design courses in African literature that can be used as a template for courses in other parts of the world or that can be taught at more than one university at the same time, using the same curriculum and forms of examination. There are few practical aspects that would throw a wrench in the works if our course, or a version of it, was to be taught in Nairobi or Lagos, for example, as long as the students have access to an internet connection for some hours a week. Since the students are asked to find, study and describe the texts that they think are interesting, it would also be possible to collaborate across universities and let students from different parts of the world contribute to a growing database with presentations and essays about ephemeral material.
Even though the pandemic meant that we faced some unexpected challenges, it also made us aware of the possibilities for collaboration and for getting around the problem of resources and access to material that many African universities struggle with. We have learned from the lessons we made last semester and feel that they will be useful in the future when developing courses and modules. These new insights have made us aware of opportunities to deprovincialize African studies in Europe and to reconnect with the continent and its authors and filmmakers.
Harris, Ashleigh. Afropolitanism and the Novel: De-realizing Africa. Routledge: NY, 2020
Nesbitt-Ahmed, Zahrah “Reclaiming African Literature in the Digital Age: An Exploration of Online Literary Platforms”, Critical African Studies. 9, (3). 2017. P377-390.
Dani Kouyaté is a film director from Burkina Faso based in Sweden. Check out his website: https://www.dani-kouyate.com/en/index.php
Nicklas Hållén is based at Karlstad University, Sweden where he teaches English literature. He is a senior researcher on the African Street Literature Project. He has recently edited a collection of poetry, short fiction and non-fiction by African writers during the corona lockdown, which can be downloaded at his blog. You can find Nicklas on Twitter @nickehallen.
Joanna Woods is our Communications Editor. She was a lecturer in the English Department at Chancellor College, University of Malawi before starting her PhD. Her doctoral research project at Stockholm University focuses on contemporary southern African speculative fiction. You can find Joanna on Twitter @JoannaWoods06.