Understanding Diaspora

Benjamin Weber created an activity that spans across the entire class to help students understand the concept of “diaspora” through constant reiteration of concepts from some excerpts given to the class by the instructor. Students learned how to close-read excerpts, write reflections, and create their own ideas about the theme of the class.

The collaborative annotation exercise was given on the very first day of class and intentionally assumed no prior knowledge and/or familiarity with course material. After asking students to pick 3-5 excerpts from passages using the concept of "diaspora" from a Google Document with 150 options selected from the Black Thought and Culture database and write their own ideas about what the author might of meant in using the term, the students then read and responded to everyone else's annotations as they wrote their own provisional definition for the term. They returned to this exercise in section at the mid-point and again at the end of the semester when they had the opportunity to look back at their definitions from the start of the course as they refined and rewrote new definitions to use in their final project.

Because the collaborative annotation exercise took place over three discussion sections (first, middle, and last) the students did multiple and progressively intertwined things with the activity. First, they responded to each other’s annotations. Second, they wrote their own working definitions of “diaspora” –the course’s core concept. Third, they incorporated the annotations and definitions into their midterm projects. Fourth, they revised the provisional definition they had written at the start of the course during the last discussion section. And finally, they incorporated their own definitions of diaspora into their cumulative final e-book projects.

The benefits of using this activity are that it provides an immediate way into the main themes of the course, gives students choice in selecting which excerpts to annotate, and provides the material for discussion during the first section. Additionally, it does not take students too much time to read through and annotate 3-5 excerpts from a word-searchable digitized database, but the payoff in terms of learning is tremendous. It is an activity that can be integrated into other projects and returned to throughout the course. It also allows for cross-fertilization of ideas across years of teaching the course, as one could continue to annotate the uses of “diaspora” from the Black Thought and Culture database, for example, over multiple years until all references were complete. The collaborative annotation activity also focuses students’ attention on the multiple and competing uses of key concepts needed to understand course material as well as asking them to articulate their own understanding of the concepts. Other courses will find this activity helpful because almost all classes have core concepts that they would benefit from students engaging critically, discussing multiple uses, defining for themselves, and incorporating into other class assignments.

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