UA in Paris: Africana Studies Course Mixes History with Technology

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The brainchild of Associate Professor Bryan Carter, this course gives students the opportunity to travel abroad to study African Americans’ influence in Paris through a digital lens.

Technology plays a big role in the classroom for Bryan Carter, PhD, associate professor of Africana Studies at The University of Arizona. “The concept is digital Africana studies,” he says. “We’re exploring the intersections between Africana studies, technology and digital humanities.” In the course he teaches, AFAS 421: When African Americans Came to Paris, students explore this concept throughout the fall semester, including during a 10-day trip to Paris over Thanksgiving break. Here, Dr. Carter tells us more about the class and what the experience is like.

Q. What role did Paris play in African American history?

A. My area of focus, in addition to digital Africana studies and African American literature of the early 20th century, is the Harlem Renaissance and the jazz age. But to fully understand that time, you have to know what was happening with expatriates in other countries. At the same time the Harlem Renaissance was happening, the French people were becoming enamored with blackness. During World War I, African American troops were able to fight in combat under the French flag because of U.S. racial policies. Troops touring the countryside introduced French people to jazz, and many stayed in France after the war to work and go to school. This is also when cabarets started sprouting up, and they were hiring black jazz musicians, who became stars overseas.

Q. How did you incorporate technology into this experience?

A. In my classes, I use augmented and virtual reality. I also use a number of mobile applications so students realize how powerful the computers they carry with them really are. Together, we look at how technology can allow them to explore course concepts in a different way. Incorporating that into the study abroad experience allows students to create digital memories but in forms other than Instagrams or Snapchats. They can use digital storytelling apps and can then transfer those skills to the workplace.

Q. What types of projects do students work on during the course?

A. Because I’m a visiting professor at the Paris-Sorbonne University, my students have the opportunity to create collaboratively with students from the Sorbonne and are in touch with them from the beginning of term. In addition, students design digital projects that demonstrate their understanding of course concepts. They might use augmented reality to create a guided tour of the city — sort of like a video journal. Or some students might work on a documentary film focused on the study abroad experience using only their mobile devices.

Q. What’s the Paris experience like for students?

A. The trip lasts about 10 days. We visit a number of cultural sights, as well as the Louve and Eiffel Tower. We also go to jazz clubs that were popular in the ’20s and ’30s. Some students have never heard live jazz before. We also visit Little Africa, which has a high population of immigrants from Africa. It’s quite an interesting contrast from the mostly white tourists who are literally blocks away.

Q. What feedback do you get from students who’ve taken the course?

A. I’ve had students tell me that this trip opened their eyes to different parts of the world, how others see Americans, and how others around the world view the racial issues going on here. The minority students often observe that they aren’t seen as a minority, but are recognized more as an American — not a Hispanic American or black American. They are categorized nationally, not racially, and that’s quite a different concept for those students who have been marginalized on campus.

Q. Who can register for the class?

A. It’s open to all undergraduates and gradates, and is available in the fall. But I’m thinking about expanding it to other semesters as it has been very popular so far.

Read more about this course and Dr. Carter’s work in digital Africana studies.