An Interview with Professor Benjamin Twagira
By Giebien Na ‘20
My name is Giebien Na, and I have served as the inaugural Twitter account facilitator for the Williams History department (check out @HistoryEph on Twitter and @HistoryEphs on Instagram). I spoke with Professor Benjamin Twagira, who will begin as our new professor of African history in fall 2020. We are so happy to welcome him to the history community at Williams!
Hi Professor! It’s great to have you with me today. Can you give us a quick introduction to yourself?
BT: My name is Benjamin Twagira, and I am the new historian of Africa in the department. I am originally from Rwanda, and my current work focuses on African urban history. In coming to Williams, I am looking forward to returning to the New England region. I did my graduate work at Boston University and have continued to be a fan of the Boston Celtics.
Ah, a good team to be a fan of in these parts! Jayson Tatum really leveled up this year. Other than the professional sports excellence of Massachusetts, what made you want to come to Williams College? Was it our always sunny and warm weather, perhaps, or maybe the big-city buzz of Williamstown that proved irresistible?
BT: Well, I am especially delighted to join an institution with excellent traditions in teaching and research. To add to the Celtics thread, I am also excited about Jaylen Brown’s development as a player. The Cs should be fun to watch when the NBA comes back.
Can you give me an example of a class that you’re thinking about teaching next semester?
BT: One course that I am very excited about is the History of Health and Healing in Africa. Countries on the continent are dealing with this Coronavirus Pandemic, along with the rest of the world. This class will be looking to Africa’s past experiences with epidemics to shed light on how Africans have responded to the current global health crisis.
Most of the media sources that I ever see only focus on how the epidemic has been hitting the West. What does the virus mean for the African continent? What are the different social implications, and are there any lasting impacts it might have on areas of your research?
BT: This is a big question. For a continent of 50+ countries, it’s hard to make any generalization. However, by and large most African countries seem to have been able to control its spread, and as a result more than two months after Covid-19’s arrival, the continent has fared better than other regions. So for example while we entered lockdown at the same time as several African countries and while every country on the continent has cases, a continent of nearly one billion people has less than 80,000 cases and about 2,600 deaths. In fact, some countries have less than 500 cases, signaling that governments have been able to deploy effective policies, including testing, isolation, and contact tracing. With this pandemic, we should not proclaim that Africa has been spared, but we can only hope that governments will continue to contain its spread and in so doing minimize the human toll. As a historian (and in my teaching), I look to examine how African societies have historically responded to epidemics, from HIV and Cholera to Ebola. I hope that very soon Covid-19 will be behind us, and we will be able to think about your question about its impact on the continent when it is in the past.
You’re currently an assistant professor at Agnes Scott College: how has coronavirus affected your teaching style? Are there any changes you’ve had to make that you think might have a permanent role in future, in-person classes going forward?
BT: Like others who have delivered course content online, I faced the challenge of keeping students involved and engaged. This was especially the case in lecture/survey courses. One strategy which I used was to carve out a small portion of the day’s content and ask 2 to 3 students to help explain it to a small group in breakout sessions. The exercise helped students stay engaged knowing that they are responsible for something beyond reading and being ready to participate in the discussion.
Okay, let’s go rapid fire. What is one thing that people don’t know about you (and will probably never come up in the classroom)?
BT: I love to read detective fiction, especially the novels of Walter Mosley.
If I’m hoping to run into you (or, more likely, if I’m late on an assignment for your class and I’m desperately trying to avoid being seen by you) where are the spots that you are most likely to frequent or be found outside the office, classroom, or library?
BT: Since I love good coffee, I am planning to check out Tunnel City.
Let’s say I’m thinking about majoring in a few different areas. I’ve heard that math and English are pretty cool. Why should I major in history?
BT: History is a discipline that allows you to study anything, just from a historical lens. From that starting point, we can better understand our own world and how we got here. For example, we can study how people survived militarized rule in the 20th century, or how rainmaking has served as a public health measure over several centuries.
A lot of students say the history courses they’ve taken at Williams are so different from their high school history classes and how pleasantly surprised they’ve been at how interesting history classes are. Do you think there’s a philosophical difference in how history is taught between college and high school that might explain this gap in expectation?
BT: Yes, I think many students come to my classes and see that history is not about memorization or writing essays with one correct answer. History in my classroom means learning critical thinking and analytical writing skills. It is much more interesting to learn how to tell your own stories about the past. I do this especially through primary source analysis exercises. I ask students to interpret primary sources and to read their own interpretations alongside existing historical analyses.
Our final question: you said you love coffee. I’ve never had the stuff: how do you tell the good from the bad?
BT: I like a strong cup of coffee, and I know it when I smell it!
Thanks for your time, Professor! Best of luck when you come to campus. I’m very jealous of the students who will get to take your classes.
BT: Thank you!