Global Course Connections:
Transnational Enrichments of Liberal Arts Education
by Greg Wegner
An intensive three-day meeting of faculty members to create collaborative connections between liberal arts courses in different nations took place at the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) August 16-18, 2013. The meeting included twenty faculty members from GLCA's member colleges and from the extended network of American-style liberal arts institutions beyond the U.S. called the Global Liberal Arts Alliance.
A central purpose of the Global Liberal Arts Alliance (GLAA), which is administered by the Great Lakes Colleges Association, is to create opportunities for increased interaction and intercultural understanding – and to enhance the professional development of faculty members at liberal arts institutions in the U.S. and other nations. Programs sponsored by the GLAA are designed to provide opportunities for collaboration between liberal arts institutions in the 14 nations represented by members of the Alliance. Through its faculty development programming and other means, the Global Alliance seeks also to enrich the intercultural understanding of students enrolled in its member colleges (see http://www.liberalartsalliance.org/).
Faculty participants of the GLAA Global Course Connections project encompassed a range of academic disciplines representing five U.S. institutions and seven institutions outside the U.S. (Bulgaria, Greece, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Slovakia). Some of these professors were meeting their Course Connections partners for the first time to work through details of the courses they would link together. Others were Course Connections "veterans" who had designed and offered connected course offerings in the 2012-13 academic year.
The veterans offered valuable insights and lessons from their experience of courses that had connected faculty and students by digital means across oceans and continents. In every case the linking of courses created avenues for students to think about the content of their courses through the lens of a different national and cultural context. A majority of students from these courses found the opportunity to interact and work with peers in other countries to be a tremendously exciting enrichment of their learning experience.
A Range of Possibilities
Following an initial series of conversations to consider the purposes, content, and methods of liberal arts education in the current age, faculty partners began working one-on-one to design their connected courses. A sampling of Global Course Connections being developed for 2013-14 includes:
- Two biologists, from the U.S. and Lebanon, will link a select group of students from their writing-intensive lab courses, giving a common assignment in which students collect and analyze data from their own lab as well as the data their counterparts collect to determine the impact of water temperature on the growth rates of fish in experimental growing tanks. The students of both settings will then collaborate in analyzing the data and writing an article reporting their results with the guidance of their respective professors.
- An anthropologist from the U.S. and a political scientist from Eastern Europe will conjoin parts of their respective courses to explore issues of identity and social conflict, including the ways in which social or ethnic identity comes to be defined as political identity. Students in the two classes will explore written case studies as well as films focusing on political developments such as ethnic cleansing and its impact on displaced and minority populations.
- An environmental studies professor in the U.S. and a geography professor in Morocco will enhance an earlier Course Connection, which focuses on production and consumption of food, engaging students in such considerations as cultural attitudes about the use of pesticides and how religion affects consumption of food. There will also be a common assignment in which students of both nations maintain logs of their own food consumption to help understand cultural attitudes behind their own eating practices. This will be the second course connection of these two courses by these faculty members, which has led to more ambitious plans for the connection in the year ahead.
- In a related project, several faculty members who share research and teaching interests in the quality and sustainability of water will produce short lectures as recorded videos outlining perspectives on water from the standpoint of their respective academic disciplines. These videos will be made broadly available as academic resources that faculty members of the GLAA with an interest in the topic can use in their own courses.
The energy and enthusiasm generated from the individual, small-group, and plenary discussions made clear that this group had become a tightly linked community of practice. The bonds of collegiality and trust established through the exchanges have created an atmosphere of palpable excitement about the range of possibilities for connecting courses. Lessons recounted by last year's veteran faculty made clear that not every component of two connected courses must be aligned to produce an educational benefit. The most promising connections between courses are those that provide enrichment through the infusion of significant intercultural perspective and engagement.
Every faculty participant in this convening acknowledged that teaching a connected course entails some risk; not every attempt to enrich the academic goals of a Global Course Connection succeeds quite as expected, and it requires an initial investment of time to incorporate this dimension of teaching with an international partner. It was a telling result, then, that a number of faculty members who offered a Global Course Connection last year made arrangements at this meeting to offer another course pairing next year – with the same faculty partner, with a different partner, or both. Some faculty members who had come without a partner for a Course Connection this year discovered common strands of interest with an international colleague met for the first time at this meeting, and these pairs have returned to their home institutions with a design for establishing connections between their courses.
In a way that perhaps no one expected, the international meeting of faculty in Bulgaria underscored both the traditional strength and the sense of opportunity that results from adopting expanded approaches to enhance liberal arts education. On the one hand, the sessions demonstrated the power that results from face-to-face engagement, which has been a staple of liberal arts education through the decades and centuries. At the same time, in exploring new approaches for enhancing liberal arts teaching and learning through digital technology, these discussions have helped to illustrate the possibilities for strengthening global perspectives and enhancing intercultural understanding as liberal arts education continues to evolve.
Amal Bou Zeineddine, American University of Beirut
Beth Choate, Allegheny College
William Clark, American University in Bulgaria
Ernest Cole, Hope College
Tony Donk, Hope College
Dimitris Doulos, American College of Greece
Simon Gray, GLCA and College of Wooster
Deirdre Johnston, Hope College
Antonis Klidas, American College of Greece
Dagmar Kusa, Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts
Veerendra Lele, Denison University
Kauser Malik, Forman Christian College
Abdelkrim Marzouk, Al Akhawayn University
Lucia Mireé, American University in Bulgaria
Umarah Mubeen, Forman Christian College
Ola Olapade, Albion College
Rima Rantisi, American University of Beirut
Charles Reith, American University of Nigeria
Imad Saoud, American University of Beirut
Mark Stafanovitch, American University in Bulgaria
Sohail A. Umar, Forman Christian College
Joyce Budai, GLCA
Greg Wegner, GLCA
Faculty members of GLCA and GLAA member institutions who are interested in participating in the Global Course Connections Project should contact Joyce Budai, Senior Program Officer, GLCA: Budai@glca.org.