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People and Places in the East African Rift

In the spring of 2009 the College Honors Program announced plans to sponsor the development of interdisciplinary team-taught courses with faculty from different schools. When the two of us heard this, we immediately volunteered to teach a course even before we had discussed our ideas privately. Both of our research specialties focus on East Africa, but from very different perspectives. One of us (Maggie Benoit) studies the geologic origin of the East African Rift and its associated features, such as the many volcanoes that exist in the region, while the other (Matt Bender) investigates the historical development of East African societies, in particular the influence of landscape features (such as land and water) on culture, society, and politics. With our common background in East Africa and interest in landscape issues, we figured we had the makings of an innovative interdisciplinary course.

The following semester, we developed and taught HON 370: People and Places in the East African Rift. The course was organized around one fundamental question: what is the relationship between physical landscapes and the human societies that inhabit them? Our main goals for the course were for students to understand how unique geological and environmental features came to exist, to analyze how these features affected the various human societies that came to inhabit the regions, and how these landscape features and different societies both evolved through time. We also had a related goal of wanting students to gain a nuanced view of Eastern Africa, a region that is often misunderstood and misrepresented in the West. We organized the course into six two-week modules, each set in a particular region of the rift, that were intended to give students a ‘tour’ of the region. Within each module we then asked a series of targeted questions relating to the core one.

The six modules were:

  • Olduvai: How and why do scientists believe the East African Rift formed, and what effect did the rift have on the evolution of humans?
  • The Ethiopian Highlands: How and why do plateaus form and what effect did the Ethiopian Hotspot have on plateau formation in the region? What role did the highlands, in turn, have in the formation of the ancient Kingdom of Axum?
  • Mount Kilimanjaro: Why are there volcanoes in Eastern Africa and how do they affect the formation of precipitation and glaciers in the region? How do these water supplies, in turn, affect culture and economy among the farming societies of the mountain?
  • The Great Lakes: How did lakes form in the East African Rift and why is Lake Victoria unusual? What role do the lakes play in the different societies that border them?
  • Northern Kenya: What is soil and how does it form? How and why do deserts form from natural circumstances and human actions? What role did desertification play in colonial policy in Kenya?
  • The Serengeti Steppe: What is the climate of the steppe and how did it form? What is pastoral life like on the steppe, and how are pastoralists affected by the development of national parks and wildlife reserves?

Within each module, we spend the first week exploring the scientific aspects of the particular landscape, and the second discussing how it shaped aspects of human social development. Our classes consisted of a blend of lecture, discussion, some hands-on activities, and a short field trip (to a river bed, not East Africa, unfortunately). Much of the classroom periods devoted to scientific content were spent discussing the process of the science being done in the region. Each scientific lecture included a lecture-tutorial where students interpreted and analyzed graphs or maps that have been recently published in scientific journals so that students could understand the rationale behind some of the conclusions that scientists have made. The historical portion of the course involved setting the background for the particular landscape and the societies that inhabited them, and then honing in on one salient historical issue that showed interaction between the people and their surroundings.

We developed our course assessments around the six modules. At the end of each, students were asked to write a 4-6 page essay synthesizing the scientific and historical content. Each essay was guided by a question such as “What accounts for the presence of glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro, and how did these and other water sources affect culture and politics among Chagga mountain societies in the nineteenth century?” Each student also participated in a final group project. Each group, consisting of two students, developed a 12-15 minute presentation in which they applied the core question of the course to a topic of their own choosing. Our students selected topics such as “How does gold form and how does gold mining affect modern day Tanzania?” and “Why does Lake Kivu contain large amounts of methane and carbon dioxide, and how might an ‘explosion’ affect the lives of those who live in its shores?” These presentations were held at the end of the semester, serving as a kind of ‘Capstone’ experience for the course as a whole.

Teaching the course was a tremendously rewarding experience. We both learned a great deal, not just about the other’s content area, but also about how disparate disciplines such as history and geophysics have many similarities, and can inform one another.  We think the course illustrates the importance of interdisciplinary teaching, and the potential it has in breaking down disciplinary barriers and providing our students with unique and engaging educational experiences.

By Matthew Bender (Department of History) and Maggie Benoit (Department of Physics)

For More Information:

  • Dr. Benoit’s and Dr. Bender’s collaborative research with students:  please view the following videos highlighting their projects from TCNJ’s Mentored Undergraduate Summer Experience (MUSE):
  • Dr. Benoit’s faculty profile


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