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Broadening Horizons

Professor Gibril Cole Speaks about Teaching HNRS 2000

For Associate Professor of History Gibril Cole, teaching was a conscious choice, and a pivotal one at that.  

“I could have been any number of things. I could have gone onto any number of walks of life,” Cole said. “Teaching for me is not just a job. It's a passion.”

Cole has served as a seminar leader for the rigorous HNRS 2000 course for several years. The newest three-year cycle of the HNRS 2000 course is structured around the theme, “A House Divided?: Living Together in Community.” Through this lens, students are encouraged to delve into the political backdrop of contemporary American life and interrogate the social structures that dictate how individuals in communities relate to each other across various barriers.

“Honors students, in particular, consist of a breath of fresh air, and that's the thing I like about teaching them,” Cole explained. “I like teaching in the Honors College for the simple reason that the students are willing to talk.”

Born and raised in Sierra Leone, Cole arrived in the United States to pursue graduate studies in California.  After earning his doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles, Cole taught extensively in the UC system, both at UCLA and UC-San Diego. His career led him to LSU in 2006, where he stepped into a history department that was searching for an African history professor.

Cole specializes in Islam and the process of creolization in colonial West Africa from 1808-1910, as well as political violence in post-independence Sierra Leone. Notable works include New Perspectives on the Sierra Leone Krio (2006) and The Krio of West Africa: Islam, Culture, Creolization, and Colonialism in the Nineteenth Century (2013).

Drawn to the European and African perspectives born of imperialism, as well as imperialism in a larger, global framework, Cole has dedicated his research to exploring the repercussions of the African Diaspora. He has focused extensively on the free slave movements in West Africa at the end of the eighteenth century, and continues to study Sierra Leone within a postcolonial framework.  

“I am looking at the postcolonial economy of Sierra Leone,” Cole said. “Also, I am looking at the growing dysfunctionality of the political states and all of the other implications of state's failure, and the increased incidence of political violence and political corruption in postcolonial Sierra Leone.”

This international historical perspective, according to Cole, lends a different dimension to the seminar environment. Part of the critical thinking required in this first Honors class positions students to develop a more complex and nuanced worldview. It is at this intersection of a small, scholarly setting and overarching, ideological questions that Cole has found his entry point as an educator.

“You have to coax students, bring them to an understanding, provide them with some kind of context,” Cole said. “I think it's important to bring into play various sources that enable students to get the big picture. The big picture is what's important for them to grapple with — and that's what can simply serve as a catalyst for the kinds of engagement in the seminar I think we want to see."

Cole explained that in this iteration of the HNRS 2000 course, he is focusing on “how we see the other,” in order to locate and address the discomforts students may feel interacting with narratives that do not interface with their own experiences.

“If you look at ‘A House Divided,’ the very first unit tells us about these, shall we say, inconveniences of race relations, of social relations,” Cole said. “There are various extensive issues. We see that those discomforts, if you will, of social relations in contemporary society has not just seeped into the American landscape. It's very much an international issue, especially given the context of globalization.

Speaking to these discomforts, then, requires a strategy of rigorous engagement. Cole pointed to initiating meaningful conversation as a means to pull students into a pattern of scholarly debate.

“Part of my own pedagogical method is to teach by engaging conversations,” Cole said. “Discussion tends to be a little bit inhibiting, whereas when we have conversations, they are less inhibiting. It's an exchange of ideas that allows them to bring in their own understanding of the issues, including their own lived experiences.”

Ultimately, for Cole, he has worked to push students beyond simply reading in order to pass an upcoming exam or write a final paper. The stakes are higher when students commit to grappling with ideas and concepts outside of their own background.

“Honors classes take you out of your own convenience, your own mode of existence,” Cole said. “In terms of comprehension, it simply allows you to see things from [a new] standpoint. By taking this class, you are actually broadening your horizon, honing your skills and comprehending things that you might not have been exposed to had you not taken this class.”

Story by Jacqueline DeRobertis, Ogden Honors College. For more information, email jacquelined@lsu.edu or call 225-578-0083.