In Daniel Magaziner’s African studies courses, preconceived ideas begin to slip away

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Daniel Magaziner was recognized for his contributions to students with the Sarai Ribicoff ’75 Award for Teaching Excellence in Yale College. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

His American students often have little background about Africa, and his African students are frequently unstudied in history. But as they join together in Daniel Magaziner’s courses, both groups come to understand how much their histories and cultures are entangled. One student said of his classroom experience: “As I sit in the class, I often am bursting with energy and excitement; it feels as if we all leave each lecture better, more thoughtful, people.” For their teacher — the winner of the Sarai Ribicoff ’75 Award for Teaching Excellence in Yale College — it is equally invigorating to watch as students begin to engage with the previously unknown, and as their preconceptions begin to fall away.

Courses: “African Encounters with Colonialisms,” “History of South Africa,” “Art, Technology, and African Modernity,” and “Global Black Power”

What excites you about teaching Yale undergraduates?

What’s most exciting is what they bring to the classroom. Often when you are teaching you’re worried that you are going to present an idea, or a project, or a book, for which students will not have a frame of reference, so there’s going to be a limit to how much you can do with it. But one of the things that excites me, and I see this especially in seminars, is that my students bring an incredible range of their own experiences, interests, and hobbies to class, and they are very capable and confident in bringing those to bear on the particular question that you are investigating. So it is much more of a conversation.

This has allowed me to play around with pedagogical strategies that include removing myself, to some extent, from the conversation — just posing an open-ended question and then trusting that people are going to do remarkable things with it. Typically my preparation is no more complicated than having a list of five questions for a two-hour period, trusting that people have interacted with the work and digested it through the scheme of their own experiences and their own interests, and then allowing for whatever happens to happen in the seminar. I don’t have a huge amount of experience elsewhere, but that is an experience that I associate very much and very strongly with teaching Yale students.

Why is it important for students to study what you teach?

One, for many students, especially American students, African studies is something most know very little about. It is not a subject that you typically get in high school, and so there’s this excitement on my part for teaching something to people where all they have, usually, are a lot of preconceived notions and stereotypes and then just seeing those fall away, seeing new information take that place, and new engagement. As a historian I think that people need to know the ways in which African history, American history, and European history are entangled. The fact that we don’t think about Africa in this country is a failing; it’s a failure to grapple with the realities of our historical entanglements with Africa.

Since my time here, Yale has dramatically increased the number of students it has coming from Africa, and one of the great joys for me is that I no longer pitch my teaching towards people who don’t know anything about Africa — I’m teaching people who know a great deal. The remarkable thing is that they don’t know history; history is not taught as widely or at the depth that it is taught here in most high schools that these African students come from. There is a specific kind of joy and thrill for me in engaging on a much more critical and knowledge-driven basis with people who haven’t really thought that much about history, or that much about how they and their countries got where they are now.

If there is one thing you want your students to learn from you, what would that be?

The easy answer to that question is that I’d like my students to learn nuance and complexity. I think that one of the reasons I love studying history — and African history being sort of exemplary in that — is because of the way that it undermines all of the things that I thought I knew. When I was in graduate school, I experienced the first couple of years as being a process of unlearning that I found incredibly exciting. So much of scholarship, I actually find, is a process of unlearning what we think we know to get at alternative truths. What that often results in is an appreciation of complexity and an appreciation of nuance.

The other answer is that the teaching of history, of African studies, is for me a political project. I want people to understand that what we are studying is not abstract academia. These are stories that are ongoing and that we interact with in our lives even when we are studying them in the very beautiful buildings at Yale. We are part of an ongoing process, trying to understand the ways in which we are all embedded within that same story that is part of us. I hope to create a space where people can begin to explore that for themselves.

What do your students teach you?

My students make me a better teacher because they teach me that there is so much I don’t know. One of the great limits of being a professor is in its very definition: you are supposed to profess. One of the things my students teach me is the need to actually listen, and to acknowledge and absorb alternative approaches and alternative arguments. That teaches me to strengthen my own ideas, to hone my own arguments, or to dispense of them if they no longer work. I think that is something that comes very decidedly out of the student-teacher interaction, so my students teach me to work harder; they teach me not to rest.

I’m so hyperaware of how critical students are — not in the sense of being pedantically critical — but in the sense that they are very keyed into the world and are trying to understand what is happening behind whatever superficial guise things take on. It makes me constantly rethink my lectures, rethink my book choices, and try to get better.

Teaching at Yale in the last year — especially teaching what I teach and being interested in the things I’m interested in — has been a unique experience, one that has been very humbling, sobering, and challenging. It has taught me to learn from students’ experiences and to understand how their own backgrounds condition the ways in which they understand information, so that I can do my job better. I think this last year has posed that challenge repeatedly in ways that I have found ultimately quite pertinent and exciting when I think about teaching in the future.

What advice would you give a Yale undergraduate about his or her time here?

The advice I would give an undergraduate (in my imagination I’m giving this advice to freshmen) is to find a senior and ask them what they thought they were going to do as a freshman and what they are doing now. I’ve had conversations with students in my office and elsewhere where they say, “You know, I came and I was on the pre-med track. But then I found something I’m interested in.”

Normally around sophomore year you see people beginning to struggle: Do I really follow that thing that I have found that’s grasped me, or do I stick to my plan? That moment, that willingness to acknowledge that you don’t have to come in and do what you initially thought you were going to do, is meaningful. In senior year you find you might be in a place that suits you and your life plans so much better than where you thought you were going to go as a freshman. So I would advise any freshman to find a senior and to ask them if they’ve had that experience, and to try to learn from that, because I think then you can get rid of a little bit of that stress of suddenly coming to the realization that you don’t want to do what you thought you were going to do. You can allow that to happen, and allow yourself to embrace and explore the subjects that really grab you.

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Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,