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Conversation on Teaching, Continued: Going Global

3.28.11

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) continues its series of "Conversations@FAS"—focused this semester on teaching and learning. Following a February 11 panel and discussion on activity-based learning, the March 25 session, "Instilling a Global Perspective," highlighted professors whose research and teaching are deeply engaged with India, China, and Africa. In their presentations, the three faculty members implicitly identified three factors contributing to the internationalization of coursework and research: fresh perspectives wrought by the changing composition of the student body—and indeed, of American society; the teaching reach of new technology; and evolving scholarly and intellectual worldviews. The speakers were:

• Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies and Wertham professor of law and psychiatry in society, chair of Sanskrit and Indian studies (to be renamed the department of South Asian studies as of July 1), member of the Faculty of Divinity, and Master of Lowell House. She discussed her work on religious pluralism in America, informed by her research on India, in “Neighboring Faiths,” an article from our archives. (Learn more about Eck's Pluralism Project.)

Peter Bol, Carswell professor of East Asian languages and civilizations. Bol has described his local-history field work in rural China's Jinhua prefecture in this magazine; it forms the basis for his undergraduate local-history course (Foreign Cultures 81, "The Culture of Everyday Life in China"), which is richly accompanied by databases, online scanning videos of sites studied in the course, and other materials. He has also directed historical database projects—both biographical and geographical—and Harvard's efforts to develop geographical information systems

Caroline Elkins, professor of history and professor of African and African American studies, chair of the Committee on African Studies, and author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the British regime in Kenya

The discussion, part of FAS dean Michael D. Smith's larger focus on teaching and learning, was moderated by Allan Brandt, professor of the history of science, Kass professor of the history of medicine, and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS)—the author of an acclaimed history of the tobacco industry.

 

Brandt began by noting that "The global world is here in our classrooms in Cambridge every day." With students from several dozen countries attending the University, he said, classrooms are "radically different and radically better" than in the past, as teaching and learning take place with diverse and global perspectives immediately at hand. He noted, at the same time, that Harvard has long been committed to studying people, cultures, and geographies around the world and across time. Given the rise of global communications and economic interrelationships, he said, the challenge today was to find new strategies for global research and teaching, extending Harvard scholarship and preparing Harvard students to be global citizens of the twenty-first century.


New Students, New Views

Eck, speaking first, summarized several of her courses—on Hinduism, on world religions, on the emerging religious pluralism of America, and a field course on these issues as they play out in Boston. She noted that changes in immigration law in the 1960s had, since about 1990, transformed both the composition of American society (a change confirmed by the publication that very day of the early findings from the 2010 U.S. census, portraying rapid and sweeping changes in ethnic identity among the populace) and of her classrooms. Now, she said, it is common for her to face many South Asian students, and Americans of South Asian descent, who practice the rituals she is describing, but who may be studying their own culture in depth for the first time. That reflects both rising foreign-student enrollment at Harvard, as Brandt had noted, but also the rising diversity of domestic applicants.


She reviewed her adoption of both field-work and case-method courses (reactions to the proposed construction of a mosque, for instance, or the choices facing a school superintendent when asked to recognize a different religion's holiday, or policies governing practices such as wearing a turban), which promote much more student interaction and hands-on engagement with different cultures and beliefs.

 

Technology to Span Geography

Bol talked about the importance of learning about foreign cultures and different eras (he studies and teaches about Chinese local and intellectual history) in their own languages. "The meaning of historical stuff is embedded in culture, and culture is embedded in language," he said, and so having students master a foreign language is an "essential way to encounter the other on its own terms." That said, he also noted that teaching about Chinese history in English, and vice versa, itself teaches something about the ways humans can learn something about themselves across the boundaries of culture, geography, and time. The essential objective, he said, is to be comparative: to cross boundaries and assumptions. Chinese professors had told him recently, he said, that their students had become superficial—drawing broad historical lessons from a few key words, rather than interrogating their evidence. That sounded like a familiar problem, Bol said: he had students whose principal reaction to evidence was "I like it" or "I don't like it"—in other words, falling back on their own values and assumptions reflexively, rather than undertaking deeper exploration of the facts and the realities.

He then turned to "maps"—with a very broad use of the term. Demonstrating an online mapping tool, he showed the audience how a student of Africa could, for example, draw on databases to overlay the incidence of malaria with language groups, administrative units, and the contours of local geography. Such tools are now being developed for use in courses covering any area in the world, with a focused effort this summer to deploy the technology for use in undergraduate General Education courses. Geography, he said, is much more than place names; it is meaningful to the extent that it describes places and distances. The new geospatial tools he has helped develop, and deploys in his own research, open entirely new kinds of scholarly inquiry, and obviously make exploration of the world in a teaching context accessible and compelling.

 

After Area Studies and the "Global North" Perspective

Elkins, drawing on her undergraduate experience at Princeton in the 1980s, said that she began studying history at a time when anything outside the usual American, European, or Western perspectives was part of "area studies"—for example, for Africa, Asia, or South America. Such studies, she suggested, were bounded not only geographically but intellectually: they formed part of the "global North" view of the world. That view, in turn, derived from the Western Enlightenment tradition of science, which stood in opposition to the "traditional" or "antiquated" behaviors implicitly associated with the exotic worlds confined to area studies: Africa, China, the rest of Asia, and so on.

A course on Africa, and three summers spent abroad, transformed her academic perspective, Elkins said: she now saw Africans not only as slaves or subject peoples, for example.


Today, she said, area studies had been transcended to a large degree: her own research, for example, took in not only Kenya, but the global study of British violence throughout its colonies (from Africa to Northern Ireland to Hong Kong)—and in comparison to practices in other empires, such as the French colonies. What drove the change? Within the academy, she said, the criticisms of the postcolonial scholars changed the discussion. And of course, the world itself had changed—prominently, as Eck had noted, in laboratories and classrooms, where new kinds of people were present. In this light, she said, "The Western normative becomes insufficient," and in fact, new understandings arise from a "global South"  perspective. She saw Harvard as well prepared to pursue these new perspectives, both because the  General Education curriculum, for example, is defined in terms of "the United States and the world," rather than conceiving of the United States in isolation, and because Harvard offers an unequaled array of courses in foreign languages.

 

During the discussion, Eck suggested, among other notions, that FAS needed more case-style and interactive classrooms, equipped with modern communications technology, to promote discussion among students and to enhance connections to other venues (a particular interest of Elkins's); she also said that Harvard's research outposts tend to be focused on social sciences, policy studies, and the professions, and that the humanities required more support to participate fully in global exchanges and learning.

Bol cited the upsurge in undergraduates going abroad during the past decade—for formal study, internships, research, and more—as an especially encouraging sign.

 

Why Globalism Is Good for Liberal Arts

In summarizing the conversation, Brandt noted that all of education is about slipping boundaries: of time, place, and especially self—one's own narrow assumptions. As teachers, he said, members of the faculty always aspired to help students get beyond projecting themselves and their ideas on the larger narrative—i.e., the material being encountered in a course of study. Happily, he said, Harvard students were eager to enlarge their vision in just the same way. As we encounter others, he said, we progressively "realize just how narrow our own perspective is."

The afternoon's discussion, he said, underscored a remarkable, global opportunity—through increasingly international studies—to effect just such enhancements of understanding. The world, he noted, is complicated and diverse. Bringing that reality into teaching and learning, he said, made him "incredibly optimistic" about "the future of the liberal arts" at Harvard, in the United States, and indeed globally.

He concluded by inviting the audience to join the final conversation of the term, on teaching from collections—moderated by Harvard College dean Evelynn Hammonds, and featuring biologist Farish Jenkins, historian of science Peter Galison, art historian Jeffrey Hamburger, and American Colonial historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich—on April 1, at Harvard Hall.

 


 

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