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Intercontinental course provides collaborative learning experience

On Tuesday mornings in New York, it is late afternoon in Johannesburg, and on both sides of the world, Barnard professor Yvette Christiansë and University of Witwatersrand professor Isabel Hofmeyr sign into Skype and turn on their microphones so that class can begin. This semester, Prof. Christiansë and her overseas colleague are co-teaching an Africana studies course entitled “Narrating Africa and the Indian Ocean” to a multinational class of students at both schools.

The course explores literary and cultural perspectives of the Indian Ocean’s place in the history of colonial Africa and African Diasporas. The two professors and their students “meet” every Tuesday, via Skype, and discuss ideas garnered from memoirs, newspapers, novels, performance and visual arts, and other examples representing this complex and less-heralded aspect of transoceanic trade and imperialism. Throughout the semester, the class is joined by live-streaming guests from locations around the Indian Ocean.

One of these virtual guests was Archal Prabhala, an Indian researcher, activist and writer whose work explores intellectual property. Joining from Bangalore, Prabhala gamely participated in the virtual discussion. In preparation, Barnard and Witwatersrand students had read excerpts from a recent issue of Chimurenga, a pan-African publication of writing, art, and politics, including a piece by Prabhala, an editor for the journal. He talked about his piece, which recounted his own experience as a teenager listening to Indian radio and attending the concert of a Soviet rock star, whose music would forever strike a chord of Cold War nostalgia despite the fact that he could not understand the Russian lyrics.

Barnard students joined in with questions using a wireless microphone in the center of the table. They discussed Chimurenga’s name—a Shona term for revolutionary struggles, as well as a type of music. Each issue is experimental in form; this one is a manuscript-style document with handwritten notations throughout. In response to commentary about Air India Radio, a student from Witwatersrand brought up The Voice of America and the way that radio has evolved as a relevant medium. Throughout the class session, technological hiccups were a slight distraction during an otherwise lively conversation.

“Our technology both brings us together and underscores distance. It makes conversation possible and introduces a certain caution,” said Professor Christiansë, noting how virtual interactions introduce a new formality into the classroom. “Students are much more circumspect about speaking. They are trying to read and listen for signs that someone else might be about to speak and they do not want to cut over, and the time lag sometimes makes for a jumble of sounds.”

These challenges, though, are not a bad thing. “The students actually talk about it, and about what it means to try to be heard,” Prof. Christiansë added.

Read more about Prof. Christiansë's course in Diverse Issues in Higher Education.