Beyond Borders

Great migrations are continuously changing our world. To get a handle on a topic this vast, CLA scholars must cross borders of a different kind.
by Joe Kimball

Beyond BordersOne by one, the poets took the stage to tell their stories—personal stories of immigration, of leaving home to find a better life. Some were uplifting, others were bleak tales of racism, hatred, and frustration.

It was a Friday evening in early spring, yet dozens of students and community members packed a room at Elmer L. Andersen Library.

And they were really listening.

Some were students in a course on immigration; one said the gritty and realistic accounts were almost more than she could bear. But that is the kind of reaction that professors anticipated. They wanted to extend students' learning experience beyond the policies and politics of immigration, so students could hear the voices of people who have come here from Africa or Mexico and have thrived—or who were frustrated, even angry.

What better way to supplement the classroom setting?

Weeks later, students were still raving about the event, which was sponsored by several University departments and The Loft Literary Center.

Expanded learning opportunities like this one, as well as a photography exhibit on the Somali diaspora (on display at the Weisman Art Museum through September 27), are among the many fruits of an interdisciplinary initiative at the College of Liberal Arts called Global REM—Global Race, Ethnicity, Migration.

Global REM brings together interested faculty members from all aspects of the humanities, social sciences, and the arts. Research contributions come from all across the University: public health, public policy, law, education and human development, family social science, and medicine. The program is administered through the Institute for Global Studies and the Immigration History Research Center.

Notice the term in the title is migration—rather than the more common, United States-centric immigration. It frames these broad issues in a way that helps faculty, students—and the broader community—to see that we are living in an age of global migration, and that to really understand it we have to navigate far beyond traditional concepts and academic borders.

Donna Gabaccia

Donna Gabaccia, director of the Immigration History Research Center and co-director of Global REM. Photo by Everett Ayoubzadeh.

In fact, the co-director of Global REM, Donna Gabaccia, a history professor who also directs the Immigration History Research Center, says the initiative's wide-ranging mission involves research, community engagement, and teaching components. It encourages broad, thematic thinking, and transcends the typical curriculum.

The program's research mission is aimed at a highly specialized audience. It can take the form of a lunchtime seminar in a brown-bag setting where graduate students and faculty talk about their research, or a sponsored research collaboration, perhaps with other universities.

And the poetry reading is one example of how the program engages people in the community in the work of the University. Another example is Gabaccia's next project: looking at how young immigrants and refugees use Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks to communicate and discuss their lives in Minnesota. Members of the immigrant community "are interested in research related to their homelands and often want to know more about visiting scholars from their countries," she says.

A Growing Trend

At a place as large and diverse as the University it can be a challenge to connect like-minded people. But initiatives like Global REM that cross disciplinary lines increasingly attract faculty and student interest.

A classic example is American studies—created by University historians and literary scholars more than 60 years ago when they banded together to create one of the nation's first such programs. Today the department, still a national leader, includes faculty from more than a dozen disciplines, from sociology to gender studies, geography to political science to art history.

Besides Global REM and American studies, CLA's robust interdisciplinary roster includes, among others, Chicano, American Indian, Asian American, and African American and African studies, cultural studies and comparative literature, collaborative arts, and gender, women and sexuality studies. In addition, many traditional disciplinary departments have faculty with interdisciplinary interests. Thomas Wolfe, an associate professor of history, says interdisciplinary&mdas;hor transdisciplinary—programs have gained importance in recent years to respond to an increasingly complex world.

"The academic disciplines look to each other, more and more, for perspectives, and theories and methodologies, as we work to understand society, politics, and cultures," he says.

"There was a time when the disciplines tended to be 'silo-ized,' or compartmentalized, but now we read more broadly. And the trend has been accelerated with globalization. It's hard to say that culture is understandable without politics, or that politics are understandable without society."

Wolfe also believes that students, like faculty, increasingly are seeking opportunities to interact with scholars from other departments but with interests in the same themes and ideas.

"There was a time when the disciplines tended to be 'silo-ized,' or compartmentalized, but now we read more broadly. And the trend has been accelerated with globalization. It's hard to say that culture is understandable without politics, or that politics are understandable without society."

—Thomas Wolfe, associate professor of history

Building community

Klaas van der Sanden, a program coordinator at the Institute for Global Studies, says Global REM is a product of the ongoing effort to create intellectual communities around broad themes.

In the past, faculty and graduate students with shared interests but different departments might not have found many opportunities for collaboration or discussion. But Global REM, like other CLA interdisciplinary programs, has created a community of interest for those who want to explore outside the commonly accepted boundaries.

Evelyn Davidheiser

Evelyn Davidheiser, director of the Institute for Global Studies and co-director of Global REM. Photo by Kelly MacWilliams.

Shaden M. Tageldin's work is a case in point. An assistant professor in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, she is interested in the migrations, not of people, but of ideas.

Last spring she gave a lecture about how liberal Egyptian intellectuals in the early 20th century tried to prove that Egypt was really part of Europe and should "take its place in the family of nations, not in the ranks of the colonized."

"Broaching a topic like this one—with its unconventional contexts of race and ethnicity and off-beat interpretation of 'migration'—would be nearly impossible in a program that operates on the typical U.S.- or Euro-centric paradigm of migration and diaspora studies," she says. Global REM allowed her to extend an invitation to scholars everywhere to rethink race, ethnicity, and migration.

Another recent lecture concerned government openness to immigration, with Crystal Myslajek, a graduate fellow in the Institute for Global Studies, collaborating with a faculty member outside of CLA, Professor Kathy Fennelly of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

Says van der Sanden: "If our goal was to create an intellectual community that brings faculty members together who don't always know each other, in the perspective of a common interest, then I think it's going very well.

"Where else would you find a professor interested in salsa dancing collaborating with a professor in American studies with an expertise in blacks in France, putting together a poetry program?"

A Coordinating Octopus

Developed with grant money from the United States Department of Education, Global REM is not a separate center, but a resource to bring faculty together around common research and develop coordinated curriculum, using existing administrative resources.

Its website lists more than 100 faculty, students, and staff members who have participated in seminars or expressed an interest in staying informed on upcoming topics. Their departments run the gamut of University interests.

As a result of the program, there has been more team teaching and co-teaching, and class scheduling that is more sensitive to student needs.

Evelyn Davidheiser, the program's other co-director, views it as an initiative that makes connections throughout the college, building intellectual strengths, and pulling faculty together around themes that run through major issues of our day. In the coming school year, according to Gabaccia, the Global REM research seminar will focus on gender, refugees, plural societies, and memory.

And van der Sanden compares it to an octopus—"maybe an octopus without a head, creating connections and synergies within a broad interest."

Resources for High School Teachers

Outreach is another large component of Global REM, emphasizing K-12 teachers. "Race and migration are big topics in the schools, especially teaching them from a global perspective," says Molly McCoy, outreach coordinator at the Institute for Global Studies.

Last spring she presented teaching modules designed for advanced- placement high school classes in history and social sciences to teachers attending the Minnesota Council for Social Studies conference.

The aim of the modules, prepared by graduate students, is to internationalize the study of race, ethnicity, and migration.

Teachers can learn more about resources and classes at the website: http://globalrem.umn.edu/teachingmodules. Videos of Global REM seminars—with closed captions—are available at:
http://www.globalrem.umn.edu/seminarLunchesArchive.php.

Poetry for the classes

Back at the immigration poetry performance, students really heard the messages of hope and struggle, says Thien-bao Thuc Phi of The Loft Literary Center, who helped organize the program.

They learned something about art, too. "Students came up to the artists afterward, wanting to learn more," he says. "They appreciated what the artists were saying. Some said they didn't really get poetry before, and wanted to explore it more."

You could describe the event as an effective, interdisciplinary learning experience: a poetry reading, with dimensions of sociology, psychology, political science, and history mixed in.

But the sum of the parts made it even more powerful. In that room, in those moments, the wholeness of human experience came together, and was shared by artists and audience. And that you might describe as transcendent.


Somali diaspora

Photo by Abdi Roble.

A close-up look at the Somali diaspora—where fleeing residents from that wartorn African country have sought refuge in other lands, including Minneapolis—is another major Global REM initiative.

A year-long series of events, including coursework and lectures, has been built around the work of Abdi Roble and Doug Rutledge, whose book "The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away" http://reach.cla.umn.edu/somalidiaspora follows Abdisalem, his wife Ijabo, and their three daughters as they traveled from a Kenyan refugee camp to a new home in the United States. Through photographs and essays, the book looks at the family's wrenching upheaval—from learning English and finding work, to living an American lifestyle while maintaining their Islamic faith and cultural identity.

The project continues with an exhibit of Roble's photographs at the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum on campus.

June 20 - September 13
More information online at:
reach.cla.umn.edu/roble

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This page contains a single entry by CLA Reach Magazine published on September 4, 2009 8:00 AM.

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