New Initiative Connects Amherst to Classrooms from Across the Globe
Issue   |   Wed, 02/12/2014 - 01:00

Many students are unable to study abroad, but now they can interact with students in other countries through a recently-established program, the Global Classroom Initiative.

In Spring 2012, Professor Austin Sarat pioneered a faculty discussion and planning group to discuss the feasibility of a project called the Global Classroom Initiative. The result was a proposal to the Administration for a three-year pilot program.

“[The Global Classroom Initiative] is an experiment with the goal of diversifying and enriching the perspectives shared in Amherst College courses,” said Scott Payne, Director of Academic Technology Services.

This experiment takes Amherst College classes and incorporates video discussions on particular topics between Amherst students and students from other countries. A typical Global Classroom class will have a few video discussions spaced throughout the semester.

To facilitate such discussion, the Academic Technology Services purchased a video conferencing system, which some professors have nicknamed “WALL-E.” Payne explained that the system has two cameras: one that shows a “wide-angle view” of the entire class, and a second that “uses sophisticated speaker-detection technology to figure out who is speaking and then zoom in on that person.”

One of the professors involved in this program is Assistant Professor of Russian Boris Wolfson. Wolfson was actively involved in advocating for the three-year pilot program at Amherst College back in 2012.

“What intrigued me was the question of whether it was possible to have two groups of students, across borders … have a sustained discussion over several sessions about materials they had read or viewed together,” Wolfson said. “Could students across borders become a unified learning community?”

Professor Wolfson has taught two courses that took part in this initiative, incorporating students from Smolny College in St. Petersburg. Most colleges in Russia require students to stay within one major or department for the entirely of their time at the school. Smolny College, however, allows students to take courses outside their discipline.

“So this felt like a logical place to work with,” Wolfson said. “And they responded with enthusiasm.”

Amherst College has not partnered with any international organization, but rather relies upon professors’ connections — both personal and professional — with non-US scholars.

The global classroom meetings themselves were always meant to be discussions,” Wolfson said. “And usually the Russian instructor and I would plan the meeting together.”

The two professors worked together both by incorporating texts and films from each other’s syllabi and sharing the role of discussion leader.

In Professor Wolfson’s course, “The Soviet Experience,” one of the assigned readings was Joseph Brodsky’s essay “A Room and a Half.” In the essay, Brodsky’s childhood takes place in a communal housing, an idea that many Amherst College students are unable to relate to.

“I can still recall how one of them, Vladimir, raised his hand and shared with the group his childhood years with his parents in a school-assigned dormitory, and the impression stayed with me,” said Louis Li ’14, one of the Amherst College students in the course. “It’s one thing to read about something, and quite another to hear someone of our age speak about its meaning in his or her community.”

Meanwhile, Professor Alicia Christoff is teaching a new course, “The Victorian Novel and Empire,” that will participate in the Global Classroom Initiative with Professor Tanya Shirley’s class at The University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica.

“I thought carefully about the kind of course that would be suited to this kind of exchange and decided that it was important to me to build questions of the global, global exchange, and globalization directly into the framework of the course,” Professor Christoff said.

Professor Shirley’s class will be broadcasted on the “WALL-E” video conferencing system for a few discussions about Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and Jean Rhys’ response, the novel “Wide Sargasso Sea.”

“I am very much looking forward to opening up conversation between students here and the students at UWI Mona and asking them to share their experiences of these novels with each other and to reflect on the situations in which they’ve encountered these texts,” Professor Christoff said.

However, working with students who have never met before, all of whom come from different cultures and have different personalities is bound to create some difficulties.

“I would say we had two really lively sessions, a couple of moderately-awkward ones, and a couple that were just really just awkward for everyone, including the teachers,” Wolfson said.

The Global Classroom Initiative’s beginning classes have shed light on future changes that hope to better prepare the students and help to eliminate some of the “awkward” first encounters.

“We are learning to prepare students better for these encounters — on both sides— by talking to them about the pragmatics ahead of time and trying to get them to know each other via email contacts before our first session,” Wolfson said.

“I hope that the College continues to support these kinds of experiments with opening up our classroom to other perspectives,” he added. “I think we all learn from them — faculty at least as much as the students.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of one of the writers read by Professor Boris Wolfson's class. His name is Joseph Brodsky, not Richard.

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