Despite what your high school English teachers may have led you to believe, he's more than just "Things Fall Apart." He's a poet and an essayist, a national hero and a Man Booker Prize winner. More importantly, though, he's a teacher.
In 1965, Chinua Achebe wrote an essay in which he outlines the relationship between the novelist and his audience. Regarding his own relationship with the Nigerian people, he writes, "I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past — with all its imperfections — was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them." In Achebe's own mind, he was a teacher long before he was a professor — before he was a novelist, even.
There is a reason Achebe has elected to teach Africana studies, rather than, say, Literary Arts. He views his writing as "applied art, as distinct from pure art" and believes that art and education are not mutually exclusive. "After all," he writes, "the novelist's duty is not to beat this morning's headline in topicality, it is to explore in depth the human condition. In Africa he cannot perform this task unless he has a proper sense of history."
Over the years Achebe has developed a strong philosophy on teaching. "A good teacher," he writes, "never prescribes; he draws out." Which is exactly why the novel suits his style so well. The novel twists and turns; it poses questions, offering only hints of answers. It expects something of its reader — the same way Achebe expects something of us, his future students.
In a 1987 interview, Achebe underscored his belief that the relationship between teacher and student, like the relationship between novelist and audience, is reciprocal. "We are interacting," he said. "The teacher is learning from his pupils at the same time, so that he can sharpen his tools."
Which brings us back to our initial point: Chinua Achebe is not one book.
We're all (understandably) thrilled about the opportunity to study with the most prominent African writer of our time. But how can we act as his whetstone, how can we help him sharpen his tools, when we can't name more than one of his works?
Through its Target of Opportunity hiring program, the University has done its share of the hard work. Now the burden falls on us.
Throughout the spring semester, the Africana Studies department plans to host a "series of events based on dramatic readings of Achebe's work," as part of the new Chinua Achebe Colloquium on Africa. We urge all students — but especially those intending to take Achebe's classes — to attend these events. If you can't make it, pick up one of his books or essays. Read a poem or two. At very least, check out his Wikipedia page.
But more than anything, get excited. This is the start of something good.
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