Li-soo-too. That’s how to say the name of the country where Yvonne Braun has based her research for the past fifteen years. Even though the southern African nation (spelled Lesotho) is more than 10,000 miles from the University of Oregon, Braun has no problem making a place smaller than Maryland interesting to her students.
“At the start of the term, they very often don’t know where Lesotho is or how to pronounce it,” she says. “They’re usually pretty intrigued by my work there because it’s got so many dimensions. It lends itself well to teaching.”
Specifically, Braun focuses on the local influence of the multibillion-dollar Lesotho Highlands Water Project, the biggest World Bank–funded dam in Africa. “People are being resettled and losing land and livelihoods,” she says of the project. “It’s radically reorganizing resources in the region.” These examples of literally life-and-death importance inspire energized and engaged conversation in the classroom when Braun presents her work from the frontlines of modern sociology.
“I find my students have a real desire to think in applied ways,” she says. “That can be really fun in terms of seeing them think about how to take abstract ideas and to design projects that allow them to see those issues in the world.”
A proponent of group work, Braun cites an example from 2009 as her most successful use of taking learning outside class. She and her Sociology of Africa students created an exhibit for African Cultural Night, an annual celebration hosted by the UO’s African Student Association that typically attracts 500 to 600 people.
“The students actually exhibited the group projects that they did for class,” Braun says. “They were at their stations and got to talk to all of these different people. They became part of the night.”
The response, she recalls, was amazing. Instead of simply focusing on the images of disease, poverty, and famine commonly associated with Africa, Braun had her students explore the continent’s positive changes such as education growth and economic development. The result: audience members walked away excited by how students “complicated the way in which Africa is represented.”
A memento from the evening, a promotional poster, still hangs in Braun’s office. After pointing it out on the wall, she explains why projects like African Cultural Night are important to her.
“Part of what I love about teaching is getting students excited thinking about the world,” Braun says. “Wherever they decide to focus their passions, I just want them to realize that they can be active in creating the kind of world that they want to have, whatever that looks like for them.”
Name: Yvonne Braun
Education: BA ’94, State University of New York at Geneseo; MA ’00, University of California at Irvine; PhD ’05, University of California at Irvine.
Teaching Experience: Joined the UO faculty in 2005.
Awards: Recipient of the 2010–11 Ersted Award for Distinguished Teaching.
Off-campus: The mother of a three-year-old, Braun volunteers at her daughter’s school and local nonprofits like Food for Lane County.
Last Word: “My goal is to get students thinking about being active in the world rather than simply seeing the world as something that they’re just in.”
—By Elisabeth Kramer '12