The Global Reach of the Liberal Arts

By Maki Somosot '12

The future of the liberal arts may depend upon on its proponents' capacity to embrace new technologies and develop innovative curricula in order to stay relevant in a fast-evolving, increasingly interconnected society. The course Re-Envisioning Diasporas exemplifies Swarthmore's willingness to engage with progressive academic structures to maximize teaching and learning in the classroom, while staying true to its liberal arts foundation.

The course explores questions of nationality, globalization, race and ethnicity, and gender and sexuality, through the unique lens of global diasporic communities. The syllabus focuses on how displaced peoples worldwide confront these difficult questions while living in a perpetual state of "elsewhere."

Its innovation is well illustrated by the incorporation of technologies and media, such as Youtube, Skype, Moodle and Wiki blogging, into the heart of the academic experience. Of course, its intercontinental scope, having been co-developed and team taught by faculty and for students at Swarthmore and Ashesi University in Ghana, also makes for a groundbreaking academic experience.

Swarthmore professors Sunka Simon and Carina Yervasi, and Ashesi Professor Mikelle Antoine co-teach the course to students on both continents, with the support of Michael Jones, director of the Swarthmore Language Resource Center, who manages the technology resources that keep the groups in close contact. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to encourage collaborative online international learning supported the development of the course.

This is only the most recent collaboration between Swarthmore College and Ashesi University, which was founded by Patrick Awuah '89. Ashesi is the first liberal arts college in Ghana, its mission is to "educate a new generation of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders in Africa; to cultivate within our students the critical thinking skills, the concern for others and the courage it will take to transform a continent."

The Global Classroom
Mikelle Antoine
Mikelle Antoine
Ashesi University assistant professor

I would think that all universities or institutions in the U.S. would be targeting this way of learning and teaching, because it eventually will solve our global problem of misunderstanding, not knowing each other and not knowing how to work with one another. This course is holistic in its approach.

Kevin Strand '15
Kevin Strand '15
Swarthmore student from Berea, Ky.

When I learned about the Re-Envisioning Diasporas course, I thought to myself, "I cannot pass up this opportunity." Having the chance to connect with students over 5000 miles away while learning the history of diasporic populations and how they were portrayed in cinema, was a totally new idea of a classroom experience.

I had no idea how a globally-networked classroom would operate, or about the African point of view when it came to education... But it was refreshing to listen to and learn from an African student's perspective concerning topics such as the Atlantic slave trade and imperial colonization. This course has lifted a curtain that hindered my cultural perspective.

Nibrass Nour-Eljalil Hassan
Nibrass Nour-Eljalil Hassan
Ashesi University student

I personally relate to the stories of people living in diaspora. Even though my family is currently living in Ghana, my father always keeps saying in a few years we will be going back to live in Sudan. My family keeps reminding me and teaching me about my culture, even though sometimes it contradicts with the Ghanaian culture. For example, my parents always make sure I speak Arabic at home even though English is the official language in Ghana.

Classroom in the Cloud
Carina Yervasi
Carina Yervasi
Swarthmore College associate professor of French and Francophone studies

What I'm discovering is that our model of learning is very different from the traditional model of distance learning. Our model is collaborative; it's not student-professor online learning where the students are interacting with just the professor. We are actually interacting with the group. The students have to write and interact with each other. We've used writing, blogs, forums, Youtube, Skype and VoiceThread... I like that we're using these technologies to connect in new ways. We don't necessarily need face-to-face time to get across our ideas.

Katharyn Schultz '13
Katharyn Schultz '13
Swarthmore College psychology major, from Portage, Mich.

My team has really bonded—we talk at least once a day via Skype or Skype-chat. I am finding that we are similar in many more ways than we are different and building this kind of connection with people is really very motivating to learn and embrace the material that we study.

Sunka Simon
Sunka Simon
Swarthmore College associate professor of German studies

Professor Antoine was able to take her students to visit Fort James, the slave-holding fort in Gambia, and have them film footage there, which they shared with our Swarthmore students on a Youtube channel. That's where the connectedness is so crucial. We can't just talk about this on paper; it's lived experiences.

Michael Jones
Michael Jones
Swarthmore College director of the Language Resource Center

Technology is integrated into the very structure of this course. It's fairly unique, because when you talk about distance learning or hybrid learning models, you talk about people who are participating from a distance or teaching from a distance. This course is very different from that, leveraging technology to create an experience that students wouldn't otherwise have. The goal is for the technology to be as transparent as possible. The best of the class is when people lose sight of the technology and just participate in a discussion.

Cross-cultural Learning
Mikelle Antoine
Mikelle Antoine
Ashesi University assistant professor

My students want to know how Americans think. But what they're realizing is that students are students everywhere, and people of their age group are more similar to them than they thought.

Lisa Sendrow '13
Lisa Sendrow '13
Swarthmore College sociology and anthropology and history double major, from Princeton, N.J.

I have the chance to partner with 4 Ashesi students whom I talk to over email, Moodle forums/ blogs, and Skype. Not only do we talk about class, but we talk about our own roots and exchange ideas of a transforming global community, and over the Internet I am exposed to a life different from my own.

Katharyn Schultz '13
Katharyn Schultz '13
Swarthmore College psychology major, from Portage, Mich.

We are learning a lot from each other. I grew up on a Christmas tree farm in rural southwest Michigan, and many of my teammates have very strong tribal identities and are from various different regions of Ghana and of Africa as a whole. I have dedicated a lot of time to familiarizing myself with African geography and cultures so as to better understand the experiences of my classmates.

Annatu Neina Abdulai
Annatu Neina Abdulai
Ashesi University student

This class has enriched my Ashesi experience as it has made it possible to interact and learn from people I would otherwise have never come into contact with. Being in the class with Swarthmore students and professors, I believe, has broadened the dimensions and scope of learning for both sides as certain aspects or questions in relation to subject matter would not have come up in class. As such, the two classes complement each other.

Mikelle Antoine
Mikelle Antoine
Ashesi University assistant professor

According to Ashesi Professor Antoine, Re-Envisioning Diasporas provides students with the educational opportunity to truly engage in global citizenship:

"A globally networked classroom is one that gives students a chance to be active on the global stage, see themselves as members and participants of that stage, and not just reduced to the classroom, but rather have them think of their learning as part of a bigger project for cultural development."