Ọbádélé Kambon, Ph.D.
“An educator in a system of oppression is either a revolutionary or an oppressor.” – Professor Lerone Bennett Jr.
The above quote summarizes my teaching philosophy to a large degree. In revolutionary teaching, an educator should not be satisfied with the status quo, but should rather strive to bring new and innovative ideas, methodologies and strategies to the table. As an educator, one of my central goals is to support learning for all of my students through engaging and innovative means, which take various learning styles into account. Thus, in my classes, such as AFST 638 Foundations of African Thought, I make liberal use of audio-visual materials, traditional learning materials (books, articles, etc.), community excursions and more to engage each and every student. I do this by operating with a fundamental understanding that each student is an individual with individual needs and personal goals.
It is important to take student experiences and backgrounds into account. In post-graduate classes such as AFST 640 Academic Writing, I ask students about their background and their own goals for research and learning as an integral part of introspective self-directed learning. This enables me to better guide them towards the article that they will ultimately write and submit to a reputable journal in their field of interest in partial fulfilment of the course requirements. I also encourage reflection and critical thinking through the thought papers in which students reflect on the readings and their own experiences in order to synthesize and articulate their thoughts in ways that make it evident that learning and deep thinking are taking place. These types of assignments give me the opportunity to facilitate the process of student connecting interests, knowledge and experience to his/her own learning goals. In doing so, I am able to show students that their backgrounds, needs and interests are valuable resources to be drawn upon as part and parcel of the learning process.
It is also necessary to make requirements and expectations for courses known to the student from the outset. In doing so in classes such as AFST 220: Intro to African Studies, I am able to promote a sense of fairness as each student is clear on how they will be assessed and that the assessment will be across the board without fear or favor. Therefore, I take great pains to establish a baseline of expectations for all students orally and through the syllabus/course outline. Students are therefore able to understand short and long-term plans with relation to the course. For my part, as a revolutionary educator, while such plans serve as a guide-rail, I do not believe that rigidity is the order of the day and, thus, I am able to adapt and adjust as individual student needs and objectives become readily apparent through a variety of teaching methods and assessment instruments. As such, I make use of various strategies of instruction and resources ranging broadly from lectures, to slides, to student presentations, to quizzes, to readings and others. In UGRC 238: Language Proficiency (Twi), for example, I use resources from the vast Akan material culture as a ready means of responding to the call to make the subject matter meaningful for students. In this vein, I bring and pass around kente cloths, goldweights, adinkra stamps and other items by which indigenous knowledge is encoded. In doing so, I am able to make the subject matter come alive for students by creating an engaging and exciting learning environment. I also make use of problem-solving games and songs that are not only fun, but which also promote retention of the language through repetition and through opportunities for students to learn from each other as a class.
As a revolutionary educator, I strive to create an innovative learning environment so that the student understands that the classroom is not only the four walls in which lectures take place, but, rather, that the whole world is his/her classroom. Thus, for AFST 638, as we were discussing African spiritual systems, we made it a point to visit a traditional shrine in Koforidua as a class. This excursion helped to demystify some of the concepts and practices fundamental to African thought by making the ideas tangible and real. Additionally, I created a WhatsApp platform and YahooGroup mailing list whereby students in the class and in the Institute of African Studies, respectively, have been able to interact beyond the narrow confines of the classroom setting. In classroom discussions on topics read, students are encouraged to engage in healthy discussions and debates in a climate of mutual respect. Just such a debate occurred in Foundations of African Thought wherein notions of complementary opposites in African conceptions of the Creator, who is conceived of as having both feminine and masculine aspects (Mawu-Lisa, Awurade Nyankopɔn, Ataa Naa Nyɔŋmɔ, etc.), led to a debate between an avowed feminist and a proud masculinist. Eventually, using the text, proverbs and other examples, we came to a mutual understanding that, in this type of conception, it is not a matter of man on top and woman on the bottom or vice-versa; rather it is an encapsulation of the notion that both necessarily complement each other to create life. From this understanding as a fundamental reference point rooted in our primary texts, there came to be a cease-fire between the two where each was able to gain a better understanding of each other and of these African concepts. This was also a success story in terms of establishing and maintaining standards for mutual respect in the context of academic discourse. I make sure that such discussions are able to be integrated and incorporated in a way that makes effective use of instructional time while also stimulating transformative thought.
It is also part of my teaching philosophy to use technology to make the subject matter more accessible to students and to the wider community. At the international conference, e-Learning Africa 2016, held in Cairo, Egypt, I gave a presentation on how I used videos to supplement learning materials as well as on how I recorded classes for greater student engagement. In post-class interviews of students, they attested to the effectiveness of using video in these ways. Some of the videos used as teaching materials included experts lecturing on the subjects that we were covering in our primary texts and slides. Also, because all classes were recorded, this afforded students the opportunity to go back and listen to what they may have missed as well as share some of what they were experiencing in the class with colleagues within and beyond the University of Ghana community (with 10,000+ cumulative views online and counting!). This initiative was part of what I feel is the educator’s responsibility to take knowledge creation and dissemination beyond the hallowed confines of the “Ebony Tower” to the students’ communities and societies. Through assessment strategies, I was also able to ascertain that hearing similar and divergent ideas from multiple sources reinforced understanding and learning for students.
It is also a major part of my teaching philosophy to bring interrelated information and ideas from within and across disciplines. As such, AFST 638: Foundations of African Thought broached subjects related to climate change, evolution, astronomy, philosophy, theology, archaeology, physics and more, organized in a way to support students’ understanding of the subject matter. Such an undertaking requires a broad range of resources and knowledge that is borne out of a commitment to research and education. This interdisciplinary process was also helpful to me as it inspired one of my recent publications – “An Intertextual Analysis of Jími Ṣólańkẹ́’s Ọ̀̀nà Là in ‘The Path’ and the Multiple Star System Theory of Mutual Illumination and Interaction” – in which I utilize concepts from astrophysics to analyze mutual illumination between literary texts.
A revolutionary educator should also ensure that instructional design is developed and sequenced in ways that facilitate student learning. Thus, in AFST 638, smaller quizzes complemented the subsequent in-class presentations on specific chapters, written exams, the community experience paper and, ultimately, the final written paper of 15-20 pages, which brought everything together. Through in-class presentations, written assignments and video interviews, students were also prepared for traditional and more innovative means of knowledge dissemination. Such strategies gave me the opportunity to access multiple channels through which I was able to assess student learning. In AFST 640, we also use a graded peer-review system of weekly assignments to get the students ready for a fixture of academic life. This system also provides an opportunity for reflection and self-assessment. This technique also serves to potentially reduce the effects of affective domain that may otherwise be present in typical teacher-student interactions. Students, thus, become active participants in assessment. Further, using these strategies as well as more traditional strategies, I am able to adjust instruction based on a wide range of assessment tools as part of the feedback loop.
In addition to assessing students, as an educator, it is also incumbent upon me to constantly reflect on my own teaching practice and professional development. As such, I have recorded myself teaching UGRC 220, UGRC 238, AFST 638 and AFST 640 as a reference point to which I can return in order to critique my own performance and to have it critiqued by others. Attending conferences like e-Learning Africa, Linguistics Association of Ghana and the African Studies Association of Africa also affords me opportunities to grow through the healthy exchange of ideas by developing greater awareness of best practices in my own field and in my diverse areas of interest. This ensures that I am able to work with colleagues and broader communities of educators, researchers, publishers and other stakeholders to improve my own professional practice.
As Editor-in-Chief of the Ghana Journal of Linguistics, a Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies and a community member active in various endeavors, I have found that it is necessary that the educator also find innovative ways of balancing responsibilities while maintaining motivation. For me, one of the best ways to do so is by seeing my work not as a means to earn a paycheck, but as a vocational calling. When I went for my job interview for the position of Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies, my former Director, Professor Akosua Adomako Ampofo said to me: “I hope you will see this job as a vocation and not just as a way to pay your bills.” Because being an educator is a sacred calling, indeed, I have endeavored to put my heart and soul into what I do. This is because what I do for a living is exactly what I would be doing for the sake of the personal edification that one feels when one is fulfilling his/her life’s mission.
In the elucidation of my teaching philosophy, it is also important to note that the word σοφός sophos ‘wise man, sage’, the very root of the word philosophy, itself is an African word: sbA translating to ‘teaching, instructions, pupil and student’ in the world’s oldest written language, Mdw Ntr. The African concept of a connection between learning and teaching encapsulated in one word (or two morphologically-related words) is also very important to understanding my teaching philosophy. This is because from Mdw Ntr ( sbA) to Yorùbá (kọ́) to Wolof (jàng/jàngale) to Kikôngo (lônga/lônguka) to so-called Ebonics (learn), there is the shared understanding that there is a complementary and symbiotic relationship that exists between teaching and learning. Indeed, if the teacher is receptive and perceptive, she/he will find in short order that the student teaches the teacher how she/he needs to be taught. By the same token, the teacher learns how to teach a specific student to cater for her/his unique needs and learning style as well as learning from the student’s research and experiences. Thus, in keeping with an African-centered philosophy of teaching, the education process itself is one of reciprocity and mutual learning and teaching rather than a hierarchical one-way relationship whereby the student is treated as a tabula rasa waiting patiently to be inscribed upon. This concept is key to self-transformation of both the student and the teacher as well as the society in which we find ourselves. This concept can also be seen in the etymology of the word education itself, which comes from the Latin educare, which is to ‘bring forth, bring out.’ This is the idea, again, that the student does not come into the classroom as a blank slate, but is rather naturally and socially endowed with certain gifts. The revolutionary educator is thus a co-facilitator along with the student him/herself in this process of bringing out the full potential of both educator and student. Thus, again, far from the “banking concept” of Paulo Freire, in which the student is conceptualized as an empty account waiting to be filled by the teacher, my teaching philosophy is rather that the student is endowed with gifts from nature and nurturing. As such, the educator’s role is a complementary one in that he/she facilitates student choice by providing access to various ideas, concepts and methodologies as tools for cultivating the best of what the student possesses. Ultimately, then, education is a process that works toward the greater good of the student, the teacher, the class and the society as a whole.
These thoughts and concepts are at the heart of my teaching philosophy whereby, rather than blindly adhering to the status quo, my goal is to both transform the student and myself in the ancient African concept of Ma’at and reciprocity. By means of this process, the society and ultimately the world in which we live will be revolutionized away from status quo into the world that we wish to see. The revolutionary educator plays no mean role in this process by constantly striving to become a living example who shows others the possibilities of their own potential by living up to our own.
Ọbádélé Kambon, Ph.D.