Back to WhereThereBeDragons.com

Pre-Course Assignments & Independent Study Projects

West Africa – Independent Study Project Ideas and Pre-course Assignment

Na nga def, students?

Our travels are right around the corner and we are working to touch base with each of you individually over the phone. We look forward to our conversations in preparation for an incredible journey! Please keep your ringers on 🙂 If you haven’t received a call from one of your instructors yet, we’ll keep trying to connect in the coming days. In the meantime, we hope that your packing is going smoothly, that you’ve been following the Yak Board, and that you are getting psyched to explore the beauty of West Africa! If you haven’t already, please post a personal introduction with a photo as soon as possible so we can start the adventure of knowing each other.

This post regards another component of our program, the Independent Study Project (ISP), and a pre-course assignment tailored to prepare for our Focus of Inquiry.

Independent Study Projects

First off, ISP’s give each student a chance to work alone or with a mentor on a topic of their choice. They may also be a wonderful opportunity to practice language skills with a local teacher. You might dedicate your ISP to something that you pursue throughout your travels in West Africa, such as a journalistic article on ideas of beauty in urban and rural Senegal, or perhaps you will want to dig into a moment that carries particular personal meaning while trekking to Kedougou. Although this may seem far off, the earlier we instructors know about your ISP ideas, the better we can help you find contacts and mentors to help you on your way. Please don’t hesitate to share your ideas with us!

As a general guide, ISP’s are…

  • Self-directed—This is your chance to have an individual experience different from everyone else in the group. It’s your chance to exercise full control over a topic of study and how you study it. It requires curiosity, creativity, and initiative. You decide how much you want to put into it and you gain in direct proportion. Not only do you decide what topic or activity you would like to study, but you also get to choose the form in which this focused study is conducted and presented.
  • Experiential—Some of the most successful projects draw learning from direct experience, whether that be exploring the architecture of local mosques or practicing the kora with a local griot. This kind of ISP should focus on activities or interactions that you couldn’t do from home. Without a doubt, interacting with and participating in local life and culture present powerful learning opportunities.
  • Place-pertinent—Your project should allow you to be fully involved in a part of culture that intrigues you during your travels in West Africa. Consider that the place we call West Africa is a HUGE entity, full of diversity and contradictions. Students are often drawn to local cuisine, dance, music, or practices in traditional medicine. These topics of study are not only OK; they’re awesome! In addition to these topics, consider what else constitutes West Africa and its diverse cultures, countries, and localities. Could you memorize three local oral folktales? Could you draw a family tree in Thies by chatting with homestay family elders? While our time in West Africa is short, the options are endless and we encourage you to think hard about what interests you.

ISP’s can also take many general forms:

  • Thematic—Is there a topic you want to know about or an idea you want to explore? Focus your study on those topics or ideas, for example an important local political issue or a certain religious practice. Thematic studies could involve interviews, focused investigations, readings, as well as written and possibly visual documentation.
  • Skill-building—Is there a skill you’re dying to learn? The places we’ll be traveling are known for their own fascinating traditions, arts, and expertise in areas often completely unknown to our cultures: local music, dance, agricultural techniques, building techniques, or cooking skills. Use your ISP to develop to try out one of these practices with a local mentor. Who knows? Maybe you’ll return to West Africa to keep studying it or study it at home.
  • Artistic—Do you like to explore ideas through art? Foster your creative side through expressions of words, visuals, music, or something else. Maybe there is a creative talent you already have or one that you want to focus on here. Use it! And combine it with one of the other aspects of the ISP to engage with the local context–people, places or activities. Think photo-journals, illustrations, a collection of short stories, rubbings taken from monuments, engravings, videos, or a series of paintings.
  • Personal—Is there some aspect of who you are that you’d really like to develop? The ISP can also be a time to develop something more personal, such as your connection to the natural world, a spiritual or meditative practice, your own process of reflection, growth or lifestyle development. You can work with a mentor or propose another way to pursue this type of ISP.

Below we’ve included a list of ideas for ISP’s that is fairly truncated for the sake of simplicity. Conversely, the truncated list also serves to encourage personal exploration should none of the suggested topics stick. Please use this list as a resource to stimulate your own creativity rather than a list from which you have to choose an option. Follow your own interests. The key thing is to think about what would engage you, keep you inspired, and remind you what it’s like to be in love with learning.

Don’t feel pressure to make a final decision prior to departing. We’ll give you time to work on this during our orientation. We also encourage you to post any of your preliminary ideas on the Yak Board along with any questions.

We look forward to being inspired by your inspirations!

Ideas for ISP topics:

  • Environment: For example, the intersection of agriculture, climate change, and human migration or oral histories about local geology and landscapes.
  • Politics: Examples include the demographics and political history of West Africa, or public sentiment ahead of the 2019 presidential election in Senegal.
  • History: The lasting effects of French colonization in Senegal, or historical empires of West Africa.
  • The Arts: the function of art in West Africa, or fabric dyeing and other textile production, or dancing and its role in society, or drumming, or popular Senegalese and West African music.
  • Religion: The role of religion and Islam in West Africa, or the influence of animism.
  • Social Issues: Family structure and cultural values in West Africa, or a current and historical look at the talibe system.

Pre-course Assignments

Perhaps your pondering of an ISP topic will find traction in the following exercises. Please refer to your first two assignments below. They are due by the time you get to Senegal.

Assignment #1:

West Africa is known for its vibrant arts and music scene. Music seems to be especially of interest to many of you and we will be exploring both art and music in detail during our time in West Africa. So, in preparation for our time together, we would like you to:

-Research one West African musician or visual artist

-Post a Yak about your findings. Please include facts about the artist that you choose and a link to a song or artwork of theirs (please make sure the link works!).

We will be sharing what we discover when we are all together as well.

Assignment #2:

Given our Focus of Inquiry, think about your family’s own migration story. The United States, for one, is the product of human migration and immigration. Take some time to talk with members of your family. Write down a narrative of what you discover and draw your family tree. Are there common aspects of migration stories? Are there significant differences? Where do you think you fit within your family’s story? How does your family’s migration story fit into the larger historic trends of human migration? What parts of your family’s story are attributable to local phenomena? What parts of your family’s story are attributable to global phenomena? How is family history shaped by the intersection of local and global phenomena?

We will also debrief this exercise when we are all together in Senegal.

Thank you and good luck!

-Samba, Elke, and Cam