Audio Visual Africa

Sometimes academic collaboration is serendipitous. In our new Humanities Collaboratory project, “Audio-Visual Africa,” four faculty from widely different intellectual traditions discovered, by accident of casual conversation, a shared passion for audiovisual media production as well as the past, present, and future of the archive in Africa.

Kwasi Ampene, ethnomusicologist, works on the audio and visual holdings of Manhyia Palace, seat of the Ashanti king in Ghana. Frieda Ekotto, philosophy and comparative literature, is archiving African photographic and cinematic creativity and cultural heritage, especially as produced by female artists in Cameroon, Algeria, and Ghana. Kelly Askew, anthropologist, and Paul Conway, archival scientist, have worked for years to acquire, organize, and digitize portions of the extensive Leo Sarkisian African Music Collection, which encompasses decades of radio broadcasts and live audio field recordings from ~40 African countries.

Why Africa? Because Africa, the source of all humanity—and, by extension, the humanities—is a continent always defined by change and innovation. Moreover, by the year 2100, Africans will constitute 40% of the world’s population. This makes it absolutely critical to reverse the relegation of African perspectives to the margins and resituate them as central to the humanities enterprise.

Why audio-visual materials? Because while Africa produced great libraries like those of Alexandria and Timbuktu, visual and audio media are equally privileged in Africa for translating experience, contesting inequity, and seeking inspiration. That said, African audio-visual collections are rare, are lacking in material resources and technological support, and have attracted little academic research.

We envision interrogating the ways in which communities have and continue to express and document their heritage and identities through the vast array of tangible and intangible forms and formats that make up the archive. Our project will challenge text-centric and Eurocentric biases in the humanities by exploring the scholarly potential latent in a local-community based orientation toward African audio-visual archives.

Working with student research partners

Most humanities researchers don’t partner with graduate students on research, but faculty in some humanities disciplines–archaeology, museum studies, and linguistics among them–do commonly involve graduate students in collaborative research projects, and some U-M humanities faculty have a great deal of experience collaborating with students to read ancient texts, produce archives, co-author essays, and create exhibits. We invited some of these colleagues to talk with us about working with graduate student research partners in workshops on December 3 and 7, and we compiled a digest of their advice here. Our colleagues also had valuable suggestions for working with undergraduates that we’ve compiled here.

Collaboration 101

Why collaborate? How do you identify partners? What makes a collaborative project successful? What are potential roadblocks to success? We asked colleagues to answer these questions at two workshops in November. Faculty experienced in various kinds of collaborations offered models for success and identified challenges to consider in putting together a collaboration. We’ve distilled their insights and advice here.

So why collaborate? Collaboration is energizing, our colleagues told us, it allows for risk-taking, and by bringing together multiple and diverse perspectives, it promises richer questions and more complex results.

Collaboration can also be hard. Research teams should have clearly articulated goals and measures of success, we learned. Authorship for research results should be agreed on in advance; roles and responsibilities should be specified for each team member. Some teams may wish to formalize these expectations in an MOU. A sample agreement for core members of the team is here and for junior members or temporary personnel, here.

Stay tuned for advice on working with graduate students as research partners.