Portraits in multimedia: A social engagement project in African and African American Studies

Awardees: Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (FAS), John Mugane (FAS)

Summary: Awardees plan to create a digital archive of “social portraits” (short video interviews with African leaders and residents) for widespread use in humanities courses.

“Social portrait” assignments

Awardees set out to create a digital archive of “social portraits” (short video interviews with African leaders and residents) for widespread use in humanities courses.

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and John Mugane implemented “Social Portraits” into the curricula of three different courses over the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 academic years, in three different approaches. All three courses emphasized both written work and social engagement with local communities, with the social portrait being the final multimedia project. In all, they found that each course successfully utilized the project for its own subject content and pedagogical purpose. In each course, the students presented their work in a public forum at the conclusion.

AAAS20: Intro to African Language and Cultures: In this course, led by Mugane, students were grouped into “documentation teams” to create social portraits of local Africans and their African heritage communities. The assignment brought students into conversation with local African community members to discuss issues including multilingualism in Africa, education policy and curriculum, and translation concerns in the acculturation process. According to Higginbotham, the assignment allowed students to get a glimpse of the local immigrant communities (e.g., though the eyes of an Ethiopian restaurant owner or, in another case, through the eyes of a Senegalese artist who speaks in French, Wolof, and what he considers to be the universal language of his artwork). One student even pursued a social portrait on the African continent. The social portraits allowed students to investigate the academic questions asked in the classroom in regard to the role of language in social acculturation and other elements of the subjects’ everyday lives.

AAAS109: Using Film for Social Change: Taught by Joanna Lipper, this course illuminated how new technology and democratized access to digital media has impacted the ability to use media to capture the attention of humanitarians and educate the world. Students were taught filmmaking as they worked with local non-profits to create their own multimedia projects that explored the portrayal of the human condition across cultures. Projects included portraits of the Barbershop Health Initiative, which aims to connect the community’s men of color with better access to healthcare by utilizing the comfort of the barbershop, as well as a documentary on the Science Club for Girls, empowering girls of color to pursue interests in STEM, to name a few.

AAAS97: Sophomore Tutorial: The Other African Americans: Students examined contemporary racial and ethnic experiences of self-identified “mixed-race” groups in the United States through historical, ethnographic, and digital research. Taught by Carla Martin, course assignments included writing Wikipedia articles, digital mapping, as well as the social portrait. One portrait featured the owner of a Dominican restaurant in Dorchester, while another featured a Nigerian dress designer who discusses the continuity of African traditional styles in the Metro-Boston area.

According to Higginbotham, the multimedia assignments impacted students individually. At a minimum, they all came away with a better understanding of collaboration as a result of taking their course. For some students, however, they emerged from the experience “understanding that film is going to be very important to them,” Higginbotham stated. One student in AAAS109 has since received a grant to complete a project though the VES department. The portraits themselves are now artifacts that will be learning devices for years to come. The portraits will be available via digital archive soon.