AAAS Curriculum Incorporates Research Through Social Engagement Initiative

In a recent assignment for her sophomore tutorial, African and African American Studies concentrator Yasmin Rawlins ’15 trekked to Merengue, a Dominican restaurant in Roxbury, to interview the owners.

Her conversation—which will contribute to a multimedia-based final project on the relationship between nutrition, cuisine, and culture—is part of the Social Engagement Initiative, an effort to incorporate on-the-ground research into the AAAS curriculum.

“[Students] go to Dorchester, or Roxbury, or Mattapan, and they maybe meet a Cape Verdean educator or a Ethiopian priest...a Dominican restaurant owner,” said Carla D. Martin ’03, a College Fellow on AAAS who teaches the sophomore tutorial.

After reaching out to members of African and African American communities in the greater Boston area, students will compile the ethnographic information they collect into a “social portrait” that Martin characterized as a “mini-documentary of these local communities.”

The Social Engagement Initiative has been expanding since 2010, when some AAAS seniors first wrote their theses on original projects in African and African American communities. Both the sophomore tutorial and AAAS 20: “Introduction to African Languages and Cultures,” taught in the fall by AAAS professor John M. Mugane, were offered as social engagement courses for the first time this year.


“That was my goal, to combine academic work with work on the ground,” said AAAS chair Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, who considers the Initiative her personal contribution to the department.

“Social engagement says that what you learn in anthropology, what you learn in history, you can actually take that very knowledge and through projects in communities come to understand whether what you’re learning in the classroom is affirmed, is challenged, or even refuted.”

Students in the sophomore tutorial will use their findings to update Wikipedia articles on the African diaspora, construct custom Google Maps that chart out major community sites, and create an online resource guide with commentary on each of the books and articles used in their research.

“The world is changing in terms of the new technology and the way people are reading news and learning about things and connecting with each other,” said Rawlins. “So things like the internet and media are all really wonderful tools that I think will be really important in the future and that we have already started using in the present.”

According to Mugane, social engagement “brings Africans back where they should belong: the center of the study.”

Rawlins said that the Initiative was one of the factors that motivated her to concentrate in AAAS.

“It gets you out in the community, it gets you engaging with people on a hands-on basis,” she said.

Fellow concentrators agreed that the effort is a refreshing change from social science curricula that are often too theoretical.

“Hopefully it can be implemented in other departments as well,” said AAAS concentrator Ralph A. Hunt ’15.

—Staff writer Francesca Annicchiarico can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @FRAnnicchiarico.

—Staff writer John P. Finnegan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @finneganspake.