Swatties re-envision the meaning of diaspora

Professors Sunka Simon, left, and Carina Yervasi, right, lead a lecture in the new course “Re-envisioning Diasporas,” in which Swarthmore students have the opportunity to communicate and collaborate with Ghanian students at Ashesi University. (Julia Carleton/The Phoenix)

Overcoming the limitations of the traditional classroom environment and enabling students to actively participate with their peers in the emerging global learning community has long been a goal for modern higher education. “Re-envisioning Diasporas,” a collaborative and interdisciplinary seminar-style course established this year between Swarthmore College and Asheshi University in Ghana, aims to accomplish just this.

Swarthmore faculty members Sunka Simon, associate professor of German and film and media studies, and Carina Yervasi, associate professor of French, developed the course together and co-teach the curriculum in conjunction with Professor Mikelle Antoine of Ashesi University, located near Accra, Ghana.

The project was funded by grants from the SUNY Center for Online International Collaborative Learning and the Tri-College Digital Humanities Initiative, a teaching and research collaboration that seeks to understand the expertise students and faculty need as citizens and professionals in a networked world.

The course is being offered by the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, with enrollment at seven students from Swarthmore and 30 from Ghana.

The centerpiece of the class’s meeting this past Tuesday was a group Skype session with their Ashesi counterparts via a large projection screen.

Individuals in both classes addressed their peers before the camera and seemed very eager to share their observations and opinions, with participants on both sides queuing and competing for speaking time.

While students offered many interesting perspectives, the discussion format remained rooted in individual monologue, making conversational exchange and response to individual points difficult.

Issues touched on in the discussion included the authority that one’s voice possesses, with many students in both classes drawing on their personal experiences as members of linguistic minorities and polyglot communities.

The primary themes explored by the course include globalization, nationality and the nature of one’s identity as a member of a diaspora. Students examine the experiences of communities that have been separated from their homelands as well as the ways in which these groups are represented through historical, visual, aural and literary sources from Turkey, Latin America and West Africa.

Simon hopes the course will provide students with firsthand experience in international and cross-cultural communications through the means of Skype, blogging and other interactive forms of cooperative learning with their fellow participating students in Ghana. “We hope the students learn professional life-skills, appreciating the difficulties and rewards inherent in committed cross-cultural communication, prodding them to take up careers in international cooperations (NGOS and others) bringing with them a sensitivity and experience-base outshining some of their less tested competitors,” Simon said. “At the same time, students will have worked with several technological tools, including the production and editing of sound files, still images and film, thus providing them with additional hands-on experience to list on their resumes.”

Katie Schultz ’13 describes a typical class as including a “10 to 30 minute Skype session with students from both schools discussing the assigned readings and media with each other.” From time to time, class structure develops a collaborative or group-focused orientation, in which a Swarthmore student might discuss class material with several Ghanaian peers via blogging or voice-recording. “This approach has helped me gain a lot of insight into how their points of view differ from mine,” Schultz said.

Professor Simon notes that technological difficulties and disparities between the classes are not uncommon, regarding this as another vital aspect of the class’s overall experience. “Students are already discovering the perpetual non-simultaneity of new media, even as that new media promises to overcome the obstacles of time differences and space,” Simon said, adding that the frequent malfunctioning of electricity or technology has led to the adoption of “minding and living with the gap” and a “No-Frustration policy” as course mottoes.

The unique opportunities for cross-cultural interaction and learning through multimedia provided by this class were major selling points for current students enrolled in the course.

Kara Stoever ’12, a biology and English double major, stated that she couldn’t turn down the opportunity to join the course. “Though Swarthmore is diverse in many ways, to discuss diasporic movements with students in Ghana who identify as part of diasporas has been incredibly meaningful,” she said.

Swarthmore graduate Patrick Awuah ’89 established Ashesi in 2002. The school was the first liberal arts institution established in the West African state of Ghana. Ashesi has previously collaborated with Swarthmore, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Washington in designing its academic programs.

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