Local burial mounds facilitate global learning

When teaching “Introduction to African Languages and Literature,” Professor Samuel England was faced with a dilemma. Students in his course were studying the Rwandan Genocide, yet most had no direct connection to the concept of genocide. “I got concerned that I was losing students’ attention and that… [our study] became two-dimensional,” said Dr. England.

Professor Sam England explains the connections between local burial mounds and the distant Rwandan Genocide. (Photo by Olusegun Soetan)

So the professor of African Languages and Literature took matters into his own hands. He knew of local burial sites erected centuries ago by a population of Wisconsin natives ultimately wiped out by settlers. By touring these burial sites, Dr. England hoped to give his students a local lens through which to understand the distant Rwandan Genocide.

Just a few weeks later, archaeologist Amy Rosebrough of the Wisconsin Historical Society led the class through the burial sites, located at Chamberlin Rock near Washburn Observatory. She and Dr. England explained the burial mounds’ significance to the land on which the University of Wisconsin-Madison was built.

“The building where our class meets, the building where students come meet me for office hours—they’re all built on land with a long memory of peace, violence, prosperity, life-or-death struggle,” said Dr. England.

Students surround a burial mound located outside of the School of Human Ecology. (Photo by Olusegun Soetan)

Through this experience, Dr. England aimed to draw connections between Wisconsin and Rwandan history. Bigger picture, he hopes that his students learned to utilize local resources to better understand international events.

“Wisconsin, nestled in the heart of this continent, is intricately connected to world history,” he said. “Next time you go for beers in our beloved Rathskeller… consider how German brewers started making beer in the first place, the knowledge they’d eventually bring to Wisconsin. If you go back far enough, you appreciate that what you’re drinking is the great-great-grandchild of some recipe from Egypt or the Fertile Crescent.”

With that kind of historical mindset, who knows what hidden treasures we could find on our very own campus.