New year, two new units…

In this post, Dr. Joanna Warson shares the new developments in teaching Francophone Africa at the University of Portsmouth that have coincided with the start of the new academic year. 

The start of the new academic year was a particularly exciting one for members of the Francophone Africa research cluster at the University of Portsmouth. Alongside the usual anticipation of welcoming students, new and old, seeing colleagues again after the long summer break, and having an opportunity to see, for the first time, the newly refurbished university library, the start of 2014/15 saw the launch of two new units in the School of Languages and Area Studies relating to the study of France and Africa.

For students in their second year, we now run a year long unit entitled “Guns, glory hunters and greed: European colonisation in Africa”. As the name suggests, this unit doesn’t focus solely on France, but explores the European presence in Africa more widely, from the age of high imperialism in the 19th century until the imperial golden age (or prelude to decolonisation) of the interwar period. In this unit we look mostly at the role of Britain and France in Africa, but also compare, contrast and connect this to the participation of other European powers, including the Dutch (later the Afrikaners), the Belgians, the Portuguese and the Germans.

Final year students now have available to them a one semester unit on “France and Africa: decolonisation and post-colonial relations”. Beginning where the second year unit ends, on the eve of the Second World War, this unit charts the shift from the colonial to the independence eras in Francophone North and sub-Saharan Africa. Although the focus of this unit is more specifically on French colonial and post-colonial engagement with Africa, we try to situate this within the broader international and transnational context of the age of decolonisation and its aftermath.

In both of these two new units, the first week of term, inevitably, concentrated on unit administration, getting to know our new students, and introducing them to key concepts and contextual information. However, as we moved into week 2, we were able to start delving a bit deeper into the themes of these units. In the final year unit, students had the opportunity to debate how strong the French were in Africa in 1939. Those registered on the second year unit looked at the role played by European explorers and adventurers in Africa in the mid-19th century, focusing particularly on David Livingstone, Savorgnan de Brazza and Henry Morton Stanley. In the latter, we drew upon some excellent primary sources to get students thinking about the different ways in which the first Europeans who travelled into the African interior viewed the continent and its people. A particularly interesting comparison was made between the first hand impressions recorded by David Livingstone (we made use of some of the excellent resources available from Livingstone Online) and the representations present in the Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which, although based on some personal experience, is fiction. It was fantastic to be able to kick off this unit off by making use of these brilliant primary sources, which sparked interest and debate amongst our students.

With week 2 of 2014/15 now nearly complete, it is with great anticipation that we look ahead to the wide range of topics relating to France, Africa, and European engagement with the African continent more broadly, which we will be covering in both of these units this academic year – and we look forward to sharing our experiences and some of the things we learn about teaching France and Africa, along with contributions from our students, in the weeks and months ahead.

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