Brandeis program reaches Africa

On June 9, 2005, Jane Hale, Brandeis professor and long-time facilitator in the Brandeis Seminars in the Humanities and the Professions (H&P) program, led an all-day seminar at the Lesotho College of Education. Thirteen professors of Sesotho, French and English from LCE participated in the H&P seminar, entitled "Student-Centred Teaching of Language and Literature." Read on for a short description of the H&P program, Hale's personal account of the seminar in Lesotho and photos documenting the day's success.

Program Description

The Brandeis Seminars in Humanities and the Professsions is a long-standing program at Brandeis University that uses literature as a lens through which seminar participants may view their work in new and constructive ways. Since the H&P program was founded in 1981, more than 350 seminars have been held, serving thousands of professionals in 35 states and several foreign countries. Because of the success of the program, the Center has used its literature-based discussion model to start major Center initiatives such as the Brandeis Institute for International Judges (BIIJ) and the Newcomers Among Us Seminar Series. Visit the Brandeis Seminars homepage to learn more.

Seminar Report - Jane Hale

We gathered at Mmelisi Lodge promptly at 9:00 a.m. and reviewed the day's goals:

  • To provide a model of student-centred discussions;
  • To explore possibilities for integrating teaching of language and literature;
  • To provide a forum for faculty to exchange ideas about teaching;
  • To build team spirit among the faculty;
  • To begin discussions that may be carried on throughout the coming school year;
  • To identify topics teachers might wish to see treated in a future seminar.

At 9:30 we began a discussion of poetry. I gave the participants a copy of seven poems to look over, and asked them to choose which ones we would discuss. The first choice was "The Detribalised," by South African poet Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali. I told the group I was happy they chose that one; I found it in the library at LCE and had never taught it before. I asked them to help me with the references to the cultures and languages of Southern Africa. After reading the poem aloud, we spent almost 1 hour and 15 minutes discussing it. As we tried to understand the implications of the title, we determined that clearly separating traditional and modern values, old and new knowledge, village and city life, and African and Western lifestyles is impossible. We touched on questions of cultural and racial identity, country bumpkins turning into street-smart kids when they go to the city, norms of dress and behaviour in different groups, premarital pregnancy, wife abuse, alcohol abuse, traditional healers or "nyanga," Apartheid and revolution, progress and violence. We discussed the way the poem is constructed as well as the various connotations of certain words and images. During this first session we talked briefly about one other poem, "The Maid," by Israeli author Bracha Serri. It tells the story of a woman who is constantly mistaken for someone of a lower station in life. The fascinating part of the discussion for me was the absence of any racialized interpretations of the woman's situation. I told the group I have taught this poem a number of times in various venues in the United States, and it is always interpreted along racial lines. Reading literature with people from different cultures is one of the most effective routes of cross-cultural education.

After tea at 11:00, we began a discussion of Botswanan author Bessie Head's short story, "Snapshots of a Wedding," which lasted until 12:30. Participants made many comparisons to the cultural content of "The Detribalised" as they discussed the two types of women presented in the story: one who had finished her O-levels and another who had never gone to school. We had a lively debate about African gender roles, marriage, women's education at school and at home and the values children learn at home and at school. We all agreed that education occurs in other places than school, and we contrasted the education typically provided by the family in Lesotho's villages with the formal instruction delivered in schools that have their roots in colonial times. We concluded that these two types of education do not necessarily have to conflict, but care must be taken to see that they mutually reinforce each other, instilling traditional values of respect, humility, honesty, responsibility, faith and sociability in children while they attend school to better their chances of succeeding in the world of the future. We analyzed the way the author introduced the story as if she were filming a scene, beginning with a vast, misty landscape and zooming in to the particular story of the wedding and the family in question. We talked about character, plot, setting, point of view, irony, and possible writing assignments this story might generate for our students.

After a delicious lunch break that gave us a chance to continue our conversations informally in small groups, we reconvened at 2:00 to talk about a second story, U.S. author Gish Jen's Who’s Irish? Participants particularly appreciated the humour of this piece and had a lot of questions and comments about the main character’s tendency to draw racial stereotypes, along with the development of her cross-cultural understanding by the end of the story. We had an opportunity to talk about contemporary U.S. culture, with its vast variety of immigrants from all over the world. We discussed the ways children of these immigrants who are born in the U.S. sometimes become alienated from their parents’ cultures. The story demonstrates how conflicts between generations are a form of cultural conflict, and how in the end, the fact of being grandmothers to the same child brings together an Irish and a Chinese woman who have very little else in common. We had a good time reading aloud parts of the story, taking turns speaking the words of different characters, and discussing how this technique helps students understand and appreciate a text at the same time it affords the teacher an opportunity to evaluate their reading comprehension and level of attention.

We took tea again at 3:00, after which we had an evaluation session that lasted until a bit after 4:00. To begin our discussion of the day's activities, I asked participants to identify the methods I had used in presenting the literature, the roles I played, the way they had been active learners and the usefulness of such activities. They were quick to identify the salient aspects of the student-centred approach to teaching. They commented upon the role of teacher as facilitator, guide, and co-learner rather than as lecturer. They noted that the way the tables and chairs were set up in a semi-circle created a discussion in which participants often spoke to one another, rather than bouncing everything off the professor. We spoke of how much time goes into planning for such lessons, and especially the importance of the selection of texts. Participants remarked on how they'd been asked to react and connect individually to the readings, rather than being handed a list of facts and data the professor wanted them to memorize. Such a method of teaching is particularly appropriate for language and literature, which value individual stories and responses over portraits of the norm. Participants did, however, note that the professor did not hesitate to tell her own views of the stories or to impart information about language, literature and context as the need arose.

Participants made excellent suggestions regarding the types of future workshops they might like to participate in. I've asked participants to contact me with questions, requests for individual or small-group curricular planning sessions and other ideas for future seminars. I am looking forward to getting to know these colleagues more as individuals during the next two weeks and laying plans with them for an ongoing communication through email and a fruitful return visit next year. I have at least as much to learn from them as they do from me and I feel quite privileged to have received such a warm welcome from such a distinguished group of people during my first days in Lesotho.

I appreciate very much the opportunity to work with such dynamic and hospitable colleagues, and I thank the LCE administration sincerely for all the support it have given to this project.

Sincerely yours,
Jane A. Hale
Associate Professor of French
Chair, Comparative Literature Program
Brandeis University