Sippo Island, Toubakouta, Senegal
In this essay, Stephanie Lovett, a 2019 participant in CAORC’s faculty development seminar to Senegal, discusses the essential need for teachers to travel and experience places in order to convey the world’s complexities to students. All photos are courtesy of the author.
Teachers and researchers live in worlds of words. We plan, we study, we learn, we teach—and however creative we are in our methods, inevitably the heart of our craft is turning the human experience of the past, present, and future into words. All of the experiences, theories, feelings, and ideas of the past, whether of yesterday or millennia ago, largely come to us as words. Material culture and the physicality of nature also speak to us, but as we contemplate the meaning of the paintings at Lascaux, the Lewis chessmen, Euler’s identity, or the sedimentary layers of the Grand Canyon, we inevitably formulate verbal concepts in order to create meaning for ourselves and to communicate meaning to our colleagues and students.
This constant bath of words is not unique to teachers and researchers, of course—humans are language-using beings and we all depend on conceptualizing ideas via some kind of symbols so we can work with them and share them with others. For teachers and researchers, though, I feel that there is a particular problem with our continuous labor in the world of books, papers, classrooms, lecturing, conversations, reading, and writing. For many of us, we chose our field because we felt passionately about it and because its concerns are robust, vibrant, and human. We are perhaps interested in learning and teaching about the history of colonialism in Africa, or neuropsychology, or medieval Italian literature, or urban planning, or art of the Edo period. All of these pursuits involve living people, the physical world, and complex dynamics—even inherently verbal phenomena like literature and linguistics occur among people moving through space and time.
From the Îles de la Madeleine Urchins in Senegal, one of the world’s smallest natural parks
But what happens to us? We find ourselves doing almost nothing but flattening these lively creatures into verbal constructs so that we can write about and teach them. In order to package them for consumption, we by necessity make them less than they are, caricatures of themselves, a description of a photo of a place. It’s hard to know we’re doing it, since this is what we all do all of the time, and it’s hard to imagine any way we could learn and teach without verbal representations—it’s how humans manage in the universe.
For me, though, as a teacher of World Religions, this flattening and alienating effect is of particular concern. I really care about helping my students place themselves in a larger world of human religious experiences, but in the text and classroom, we are in a world of words. Communicating about religions tends not only to be verbal in the way all things are, but also to focus on the doctrinal and textual aspects of religions. Not only does this often foreground differences, it also allows students to think that people of “other” religions spend most of their time reading sacred texts and contemplating theology, unlike they themselves.
My primary goal has been to combat this wordifying of this very experiential dimension of human life in every way I can, and that is what led me to apply for the CAORC fellowship to study Diversity, Religion, and Migration in West Africa at WARC in Dakar, Senegal. I wanted to study Islam in a Muslim-majority country and to be able to bring something new and genuine to my classroom.
Mosaic ceiling from the Great Mosque of Touba in Senegal
I did not come to Senegal completely ignorant. I knew a fair amount about Islam, something about West Africa, and had traveled a great deal. However, to describe the experience of being part of this seminar, I have to evoke a cinematic, CGI image. There I am, standing in the landscape of Muslim Senegal, looking around—and then everything around me turns to a paper and ink representation of itself, and then that crumbles to the ground, revealing the real Senegal behind it. The feeling of having words turn to reality was real and visceral. No matter how much we know about something, we know only a copy of it until we experience it for ourselves. Never before have I so powerfully been taught that I live in a huge world of natural and human phenomena and that I spend far too much of my time being highly involved with an extremely tiny piece of it.
Being in West Africa generated a heightened awareness in me of how much I live in that world of words, and how much I need to put myself out in the real world and converse with people and share their worlds, and how much I have a responsibility as a teacher, researcher, and human to be vigilant about partnering my knowledge with lived human experiences.
Yes, on the seminar I did learn a lot about Islam that would have been very difficult for me to have found out at home, I did experience a Muslim society that my books don’t describe, and I am planning on doing much more research and designing an entirely new curriculum component, so this study trip was a huge professional success for me. But what I learned about being a human on our planet was an invaluable transformation that I hope to carry forward into everything I do in life.
CAORC’s 2019 faculty development seminar to Senegal was organized with the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal, and supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the following U.S. National Resource Centers in African Studies: Boston University, Howard University, Indiana University, Michigan State University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Kansas, and University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Learn more about CAORC Faculty Development Seminars.
About the Author
Stephanie Lovett teaches religion and philosophy at Forsyth Tech Community College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
She was among the 17 faculty participants in the seminar “Diversity, Religion, and Migration in West Africa,” an intensive capacity-building and curriculum development seminar held in Senegal from January 6–23, 2019.