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Looking Beyond Our Borders
Professors prepare to incorporate Latin America into their coursework by immersing themselves in Latin American culture during a trip to the Dominican Republic and Mexico.
by Jennifer Post Stoudt
Seven professors from disciplines ranging from art and economics to political science and psychology traveled to the Dominican Republic and Mexico during Interim session as part of a two-year program to enhance the Interdisciplinary Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies and integrate Latin America into other areas of Albright’s curriculum. A $120,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education is funding the program, which also requires faculty to attend a Spanish class and several day-long seminars on Latin American culture.
Kathy Ozment, chair of modern foreign languages and co-organizer of the trip, says, "The idea is that the professors will create courses that combine their expertise with some element of Latin America. Some faculty will create new courses and others will integrate a Latin American aspect into one of their current courses."
But first, they had to go back to school.
Going Back to School
There weren’t any homework assignments. No tests, quizzes or even grades, just a class full of professors ready to speak Spanish.
Ten professors (three were unable to go on the trip) have been attending a Spanish class taught by Ozment once a week for 50 minutes since the fall. The class will continue throughout the duration of the two-year grant.
A bit more challenging than her normal classes, Ozment says, "It’s always difficult to teach academics because they have this perception that they should have this renaissance knowledge. They judge themselves very critically and are very hard on themselves."
"It’s very humbling," says Kristen Woodward, an associate professor of art who had no prior Spanish language background. "I have a new appreciation for students who struggle to learn languages," she says. "It’s not easy. And, putting a gender to each noun is so confusing. I just can’t understand why a chair is female," she says laughing.
Tom Brogan, professor of political science and a self-proclaimed "slower Spanish learner," says he felt self-conscious about his poor Spanish speaking abilities while on the trip. "I could order at a restaurant, but if the waiter asked a question I’d have to defer to the fluent speakers." Now that he’s returned, however, Brogan says he’s anxious to continue learning the language. "Being there really enthused me about learning Spanish," he says.
Although a basic knowledge of the language was helpful on the trip, Betsy Kiddy, director of the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies and co-organizer of the trip, says that the Spanish classes weren’t meant just to prepare for the trip. "The classes will run for the whole period of the grant," Kiddy says. "The idea is really to prepare faculty to be able to access resources for classes. They’re going to be teaching about Latin America so they’re going to need to read about what’s going on in their field."
Brogan, who will introduce a Latin American component to his political parties class, says, "It’s important for me to be able to read some scholarly journals in Spanish. I’ll need a flavor for what they’re writing in their countries about political parties."
Traveling for 17 days to the Dominican Republic, Cancun, Yucatan Peninsula and Mexico City, Ozment says the trip was intended to give the professors a real experience of what it’s like being in that part of the world. "They experienced the culture, spoke the language, tasted the food, interacted with the people, listened to the music and even saw the poverty…that kind of first-hand experience just can’t be replicated," she says.
Kiddy adds, "We think of Latin America as being one unit, but actually, it’s so diverse. We wanted them to feel that."
In the Dominican Republic, interaction with the people was a priority, says Kiddy. "This was really critical for people’s understanding," she says. "What we hoped was that it would give them a new view of Latin America, make them learn something they’d never learn unless they traveled there."
Always on the go with very little downtime, Woodward says, "It was a very intense experience." She says she was most moved by a visit to a sugar plantation inhabited by migrant Haitians. Living in tin shacks with no running water and no sewage, Woodward says she was completely blown away by what she saw. "I’ve never encountered anything like that before," she says. Although poverty was everywhere, she says she took particular notice of the bright colors that adorned their dilapidated shacks. "Art was everywhere," she says. "Even people with so much poverty took pride in their homes."
Bartering at the Dajabon Market, a border town in the western part of the Dominican Republic, was also eye opening in many aspects, says Ozment. The market was teeming with hundreds and hundreds of people selling goods like food, clothes, shoes and toiletries, she says. "The Haitians come across the border into the Dominican Republic two days a week to sell a lot of the goods they receive as aid from churches in the United States. They bring whatever surplus they have to get cash for the necessities."
Although Lisa Wilder, assistant professor of economics, has traveled extensively through Europe, this was her first trip to a Latin American or Caribbean country. "I’ve bargained with people around the world, Wilder says, "but I’ve never bargained in a way that was so friendly, helpful and satisfying as in the Dominican Republic. I felt like being nice and offering good prices just because they were so nice to me."
Planning to incorporate Latin American economics into her comparative economics course, Wilder says she was surprised at how different business systems are in Latin America. "There’s a whole different way of getting a job done," she says. "Things are less formalized and very personal. It’s such a ‘no worries’ kind of place in both a business and personal sense. We could really learn something from that."
The people are also very willing to share their lives, she says. "One of our tour guides took us to a special shop to buy jewelry. We talked to the people there about how they did things and they actually took us back and showed us how they made the jewelry. Not many shops in the United States would do that."
While they did a lot of interacting with the people in the Dominican Republic, their trip to Mexico provided an immersion into the history and culture of the country, and a glimpse at Mexico’s major resource – tourism.
“It’s so important to look beyond our own borders. The knowledge and appreciation of other cultures is critical for this planet to continue to exist. We have to learn to take a different focus.”
– Kathy Ozment, chair of modern foreign languages
Among their many adventures, they relaxed on the beaches of Cancun, explored Teotihuacan, an ancient pyramid site that pre-dates the Aztecs, visited the home of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and watched the precision of the Ballet Folkorico de Mexico. They even experienced an earthquake. "One of our last nights in Mexico City," says Woodward, "I saw a chandelier start to sway. Then people started running out of the hotel. There were sirens everywhere." Later, Woodward says she learned that there was an earthquake on the coast rated a 7.8. "It was scary, and we were only feeling the shockwaves of that," she says.
Being in Mexico actually changed Woodward’s ideas about what type of course she will teach. "I originally planned to do a module on Latin American painting, but once I got to Mexico I realized that Latin American printmaking would be better. Mexican printmaking has had a lot of staying power," she says. It’s also very politically powerful, an aspect that Woodward says could be a strong interdisciplinary component. "We’ll take a look at different works and then have the students make prints about things that are in the headlines today."
Back to Work
Having returned with renewed vigor and excitement, the professors are back in the classroom learning how to conjugate verbs in Spanish and working on incorporating Latin America into their coursework.
"It’s really been a great experience academically," says Brogan. "It’s reinvigorated the curriculum by bringing a new perspective to courses that have been taught for decades."
In addition to the new courses, which will begin to be implemented in fall 2003, a service learning trip for students to the Dominican Republic and a semester-long business internship in Mexico are also being planned.
"It’s so important to look beyond our own borders," says Ozment. "The knowledge and appreciation of other cultures is critical for this planet to continue to exist. We have to learn to take a different focus."
As two girls sat talking on a bench awaiting their ride home from class, Bridget Fitzgerald ’06 watched them from afar. As part of her research project about university life she needed to talk to college students, but she was nervous. Striking up a conversation with strangers in a foreign country seemed like a daunting task. But as nerves swept through her she gracefully walked up to them. The girls looked up as she approached and she uttered confidently, "Bonjour."
Fitzgerald’s project, to research the university system in Martinique, was part of her course requirements during an Interim session trip with 11 other students. Known as the "Island of Flowers," Martinique, a French speaking country, lies in the heart of the Caribbean Archipelego with the Atlantic Ocean to its east and the Caribbean Sea to its west.
Adam John, visiting assistant professor of modern foreign languages and trip coordinator, says the trip was just one of the ways in which faculty are trying to improve the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies and its offerings to students in modern foreign languages. "Having a cultural experience that is completely different from their own allowed the students to see how other cultures really work," says John, "It helped them to understand what their perceptions of culture really were."
Fitzgerald, a psychology/elementary education major who has studied French since sixth grade, says, "Being in a foreign country and walking up to someone who you know doesn’t speak your language is very difficult."
"They knew some English," she says, "but there was a definite language barrier. Some of the words I needed to use were more advanced than I knew. But we got through it," she says with a smile.
Students on the trip could obtain course credit in one of four areas: anthropology, French, Latin American studies or interdisciplinary studies. In addition to attending seminars at the Universite des Antilles-Guyane, students immersed themselves in the culture by visiting museums, learning how to play the steel drum, taking a Creole cooking class and completing an 11-mile hike through the rainforest.
But the research projects really pushed students to go the extra mile, says John. "It forced them to think about how they were going to do the research and communicate with others." Barton Thompson, assistant professor of anthropology, adds that in conducting their research, students were able to gain a better understanding of the Martinique culture and the differences between it and American culture. For instance, he says, "In terms of work, at first we all thought that the people there were lazy. But they’re not lazy," he says. "There’s just more of a focus on family. They have things that are important to them other than making money."
Research topics ranged from women’s issues and religion to recycling and business practices.
And although the language difference was daunting for many, especially those who did not know much French, Thompson says it proved to be not so much of a barrier, but rather an interesting facet of the trip. "I actually saw students gain confidence in themselves by trying to communicate with people," he says. "I think a lot of them came out of it very proud of themselves."
-- Jennifer Post Stoudt
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