The challenge of study abroad

News in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Linguistics at Luther College

Co-author: Scott Hurley

For the month of January we traveled with students in Cambodia.  The course focused on the aftermath of war and recovery of the Cambodian peoples.  It honored history while trying to explore current conditions of humans and non-humans. We asked questions about gender, religion and social class. Really we only caught a glimpse of a people in a particular place at a certain moment. We saw only what we were allowed, and cared, to see. 

The students were great! They were respectful, enthusiastic and curious. They participated, asked great questions and struggled with their own social locations. This blog is not about them as individuals or a group, but about the larger questions of study abroad.

Some days, what we think are particularly bad days, we conclude we should not be doing travel/study abroad at all—at least not in the once colonized world. Other days we think we must bring every student; travel study should be mandatory and required, and included in our tuition. On days when we are more sane, we ponder the optimum conditions under which we should undertake study away; under what conditions can we do least harm?    

Every time we travel we struggle with our own privileges of access, of class and education, of national identity, of whiteness. When we travel with students we are plagued with fears of re-inscribing versus challenging the status quo, with cannibalizing cultures rather than creating learning, and with "othering" rather than developing relationships. We need to prepare ourselves better for dealing with these issues and better equip the students with the skills suited to engage them. Therefore, we urge Luther to consider:

1. A mandatory pre-departure course. Perhaps four credits. An introductory course to intersectionality wherein students are exposed to terms such as nationalism, power and domination, colonialism, orientalism, ethnocentrism and patriarchy seems the basic minimum required to travel with a critical perspective. In addition, knowledge of these basic concepts could ensure that students have basic skills to interact in respectful ways. We don't mean please and thank-you's but the deeper explorations of culturally based assumptions—e.g., that capitalism is best or individualism is universal. 

2. A set of criteria that every course must cover. Acutely aware of academic freedoms, we are not suggesting micromanaging the curriculum. However, we do have criteria for other classes that meet all college goals such as social science methods or historical perspective. A global studies requirement that defines the goals we desire would improve student expectations and faculty planning as well as ensure consistency. 

3. A shared vision of goals. What are the goals of study away courses and programs? What are our goals at Luther? Is it to visit a warm climate? (a definite benefit of travel in January!) To expose students to… what? To pose ethical questions (without solutions)? To offer solutions to global crises? The most successful courses will have goals of personal self-reflection and learning rather than being attempts at finding solutions for "problems" that other peoples may have. Why haven't we articulated this fully?

Perhaps the best we can do is to acknowledge the world is complicated. However, as an institution of higher education we can do better than that. We must do better than that. Although students may (hopefully?) come away from their study away experiences with greater angst and continued existential crises, we believe it is our job not to merely observe or expose students to the conditions of the world's peoples. We must facilitate students understanding of the history and present conditions which create problematic, hierarchical relationships, help them realize the need to be accountable for our role in them, and theorize ways to improve global conditions—not just "their condition." Our positioning and inter-relatedness must be at the center of this endeavor. After all it is important for all of us—students and faculty—to begin right here at home and ask ourselves how our culture, history, politics and practice produce the state of global relations.

The following is a suggestion for what a pre-departure course might cover:

Title: How to be a World Traveler

In this course, students will examine how discourses of gender, race, sexuality, nation, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic class and identity take place in and shape the world. They will explore the ways that such discourses are socially constructed and how intersecting and hierarchical relations of power, privilege and marginalization are reproduced. In doing so, they will question how these discourses influence their own engagement with lifeways different from their own. Students will be introduced to such concepts and terminology as intersectionality, orientalism, othering, "white privilege" and "white savior complex" (among others). Readings will be taken from feminist and post-colonial scholarship, eco-feminism, critical race theory, queer theory, trans studies and indigenous feminisms. 

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  • February 27 2017 at 9:50 am
    Jennifer Folstad

    I really like this idea and would like to suggest a book recommended and loaned to me by the Diversity Center: "A Beginner's Guide to the Deep Culture Experience: Beneath the Surface" by Joseph Shaules.

    Would there be enough room in the course to add something along the lines of "How to be a global citizen" and encourage that everyone take it, not just those who study away?  

  • February 27 2017 at 12:22 pm
    Char Kunkel
    Great Idea Jennifer! I will check out the reference as well as assure you the ideal course would be open to all students. I think a "world traveler" is something we should be in our minds, not just our bodies. Definitely a perspective we can all adopt even if we can't leave the country!
  • April 1 2017 at 7:43 am
    Great blog.! very interesting and informative post, thank you for sharing the post.