Student Research and Study Abroad in Ghana

In October, I took 7 students and one graduate assistant from Wayne State University on a two-week trip to Ghana.  Our trip, like my travel in October 2015 to Tanzania, was part of the African Democracy Project at Wayne State.  While the course is organized around the elections in the African country of focus, I encourage students to think about politics more broadly, interrogating their assumptions about what terms like democracy and development mean.  We too often take these terms for granted, assuming that our American/Western/Eurocentric experience stands in for a more global or universal definition.  These assumptions are translated into policies, justify foreign intervention, and inform aid practices.  Through shared readings, we attempt to look past our assumptions to gain a better understanding of what these terms mean and how they are practiced by a wide range of citizens.  We are joined by the authors of the books we read together as a class, who talk to us about the arguments in their texts, the experience of fieldwork, and the students’ own research interests.

Early in the semester, students are encouraged to craft research questions and to continually reevaluate those research questions as we read together and conduct research in the country.  I tell students repeatedly that their goal is not to come to conclusions.  Conclusions require much more research than they could manage in the course of two weeks of fieldwork or a semester of course reading.  Instead, the goal is to contextualize their questions.  I seek to teach students how to ask better questions, to understand the depth of knowledge necessary to understand the answers, to be driven by the curiosity necessary to seek knowledge and understanding, and to look for opportunities to pursue their curiosity.  This is why education is transformative.  Opening these doors to students is an incredible responsibility, but it also drives my work as a teacher.

This is the kind of work we do in the classroom all the time.  But something changes when students get to travel and witness for themselves the kinds of difference their texts describe – an experience that is simultaneously challenging and invigorating.  There are all sorts of ethical, economic, political, and intellectual concerns that should make us hesitant to run study abroad programs.  Those reasons are valid and require serious consideration and reflection – the kind of reflection that I witnessed among colleagues at the Ghana Studies Association Conference last summer.  But, as many of us noted at the conference, our own paths to knowledge were indelibly shaped by our experiences in study abroad in Ghana and elsewhere.  That’s certainly true for me.  So it was a great joy to be able to witness the kinds of transformation my students experienced during travel in Tanzania and Ghana.

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There are limits to what we can do in two weeks, and when we travel to a country that I do not know well, there are limits to the depth and rigor of the program I can design.  Travel in Ghana enabled me to pack student schedules with events and activities, guiding them through parts of the city and country that they would have missed on a vacation or tourist package.  My familiarity with Accra and deep connections in the community, combined with my colleague’s connections to high-level government officials, also enabled us to provided unprecedented and privileged exposure for students to a wide range of exciting entrepreneurs, politicians, artists, and journalists who helped them better understand their research questions.  It also meant that I could combine my own research with student learning and research in new and exciting ways, giving talks about Accra Wala to students and faculty at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) while also creating opportunities for our students to interact with that same audience in exploring their research interests, for example.  Or connecting students with friends and colleagues at great organizations like Accra We Dey or Trotro Diaries or Accra Goods Market or Accra Soup (which has its own Detroit connection).  I also got to take my own book to many of the people who inspired and aided in the research behind it, including members of the La Drivers’ Union.

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We returned to finish the rest of our semester, and the students continued to work on their research questions.  Their coursework was displayed on individual blogs, and they also wrote guest posts for our class blog (www.ghanaofthepeople.wordpress.com).  As I was grading their blogs at the end of the term, I was struck by some of the truly exceptional work they displayed, but more importantly I was struck by the self-aware processes of transformation they articulated.  I encourage you to read those and some of the other posts that describe the kinds of conversations we had throughout the semester.

This summer I will return to Ghana with students from Wayne State University.  We will be joined by students from Denison University and Ashesi University (my past and present selves colliding!) in a summer course at Ashesi that explores the history and culture of African cities.  The ability to go into Accra to demonstrate and experience many of the things we read about in assigned texts will undoubtedly add a level of richness and depth to their understanding.  But through class assignments, students will develop skills in fieldwork and research, working in teams to introduce projects and collect data at pre-determined sites around the city and reflecting on their research experiences and strategies through ongoing class discussions.  That work will be submitted as part of Accra Wala, but students will also craft their own blogs and explore the meaning and understanding gleaned through research and experience.  I look forward to experiencing this with them and reading those final reflections.  If you know people who are interested in traveling to Ghana, who are interested in digital humanities work, who are interested in urban history, who want to learn what fieldwork and research are all about, send them our way!

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