Wednesday, March 4, 2009


On the first day of the semester in my African literature class, I gave the students a blank map of Africa, put them in groups, and asked them to try to identify as many countries as they could. With the exception of west Africa, which has a lot of smaller countries, the class collectively did quite well. It is actually an excellent assignment for collaboration.

Try it! (You can find the "answers" here.)

The stakes are higher now. This week, I gave the students the same map, but as an examination that counts as 10% of their semester grade. This is actually the first of two chances that I will give them to take it, so those who did not do well (or chose not to study) will have another opportunity later in the term. (Only the highest grade counts.) Overall I was pleased.

There are 54 countries on the exam because I count Western Sahara (which Morocco occupies) and Morocco (which is the only country on the continent who is not a member of the African Union because it opposes the admission of Western Sahara to the AU). Here is the breakdown of grades: 8 of 16 students got above 50, which is excellent. Two got scores in the 40s, 4 in the 30s, an 18, and a 7.

Even though the majority of students did quite well, I can’t resist the temptation to try to analyze unscientifically the errors. First, I had one Egyptian student who did not know Libya, which borders Egypt on the west, and a few who did not know other north African countries like Morocco and Tunisia. Finally I had a student place Syria in east Africa, though Syria is neither considered part of Africa nor found on the map I gave them.

For many people in the US, Egypt is considered part of an undifferentiated generic Arab world. Maybe it was my own biases that led me to expect my students to know north Africa better than other regions, but that was not necessarily the case. (It seemed like most of them know southern Africa the best.) Egyptians do not necessarily see themselves as part of the Arab world (or the African for that matter). They generally see themselves as Egyptian, an identity which might have traces on these answer sheets.

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