“Teaching and Learning Across Borders” by J. Harrison & A. Meneley

Harrison, Julia & Meneley, Anne. (2005). “Chapter 5: Teaching and Learning Across Borders.” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto- Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (80-93). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.

In Harrison and Meneley’s chapter “Teaching and Learning Across Borders”, the authors discuss professors’ and students’ experiences of participating in a collaborative teaching project funded by the Ford Foundation entitled, Crossing Borders: Revitalizing Area Studies. In which, they taught seminars alongside professors from universities from Canada (Trent University), The United States (St. Lawrence University (SLU)) and Trinidad (University of West Indies (UWI)), in each of those various locations. “The goal of the project was to generate a collaborative dialogue about these various ‘global flows’ among faculty and students from different disciplines in each university” (Meneley & Young 2005, 81). Shortly after, it was decided that the project should be ethnographically investigated, “aiming to provide a kind of meta-commentary on the notion of collaboration itself” (Meneley & Young 2005, 81). What is revealed in their investigation and discussed in the chapter is a compelling story of how collaboration can have unpredictable outcomes, how the actors involved can influence and interpret events in a wide and various range, and that not all collaboration will have positive results. A superficial analysis of the poor collaborative efforts may put the onus of blame on a lack of cultural relativism and insurmountable heterogeneity. However, I argue that poor planning and preparation are more forthcoming explanations of the unsatisfactory outcome.

Harrison and Meneley’s informants’ accounts were described as so sharply divergent that the authors expressed bewilderment that those involved had attended the same event(s). It is difficult to identify this divergence, short of a generous reading. Rather, the resounding sentiment here is disappointment, in that the whole affair was poorly executed and did not deliver on its promise of crossing borders. If anything, the participants reconstructed and reinforced borders which were already present (dormant or otherwise). This was due to poor organization, lack of forethought, and some reprehensible, if not blatantly unethical, actions taken by those involved. This is a very instructive example of some of the less desirable outcomes that may occur, even in the face of anthropological reflexivity, discipline, and training. The instructors were unprepared for what was involved in crossing educational and institutional transnational borders. They neither approached the situation as collaborators nor as equals. This project is exemplary of what not to do, and though it may be painted in a less than damaging light in this chapter, it is anything but redeeming.

Perhaps because the instructors were fooled by their seemingly familiar academic surroundings, they were unaware that they had entered into foreign territory and that they were required to tread lightly. It is difficult to understand why an instructor collaborating with a foreign colleague/peer (from a different institution and culture) would believe it was acceptable to unilaterally create a syllabus and teaching plan without consulting their partner. Similarly, the instructors’ assumption that class decorum would fit their generic standard is confounding to the very notion of anthropology. These issues should have been discussed beforehand and perhaps would have allowed for participants to address more pressing issues. Professors are expected to organize class materials, curriculum and agenda in a professional manner to facilitate a smooth learning process for the students involved. If this cannot be achieved, what chance do students possibly have in overcoming the same borders? Obstacles are sure to arise, but the greater the preparation the greater the ability to move towards a quick and effective consensus. One student even went so far as to aptly draw an analogy between the professors’ interactions and that of a bad marriage, in which “more time was spent on miscommunications and at cross-purposes” (Meneley & Young 2005, 87), and another claimed that an equal number of borders were erected as those crossed. And, all the while the reader can only think how fortunate they are to be reading this account and not participating in it, for it is a foreboding tale. Not a foreboding of collaboration, of being unprepared and cavalier in our academic undertakings. One issue with this chapter is that it does not read this way, but instead is presented as a story of how transnational collaborations can be irksome, instead of a moral tale of preparedness.

Furthermore, perhaps the unfortunate incident which resulted from a troubling discussion, in which the Trinidadian students were made to feel inadequate due to their way of speaking English, could have been avoided had the instructors involved met to discuss such issues as hierarchy and hegemony within the classroom before conducting the seminars. This would have allowed for cultural differences to be discussed outside of the classroom, and approached in a more sensitive and acceptable manner within. It would also have the affect of presenting a more cohesive teaching front, narrative and course of instruction to the students, even if it highlighted the wide variety of views held by the instructors. By crossing borders, it is understood that what will be revealed is difference and the main goal is to strive for understanding, cooperation and acceptance. Once again, I cannot stress how intrinsic these notions are to anthropology and it is surprising how the instructors involved were not more prepared for what they encountered.

Finally, as if to shift the blame away from the instructors involved and onto the shoulders of the students, it is mentioned that perhaps their commitment to learning was questionable because when at “Pooja 2002”, a street festival, some students chose not to partake in crossing a cuisine border and opted to spend their allotted money on Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) instead. The issues I take with this transference of the less-than-successful result of the seminars are; that this event is given no context and is perhaps isolated; that longing for a reminder of home on a voyage in a foreign place is admonished, instead of explained/understood; and that the latter is based on the premise that KFC is universally identical throughout the globe. Such as with McDonald’s, KFC has tailored their fare to individual markets across the globe and in this case what the students in Trinidad were experiencing was one of the most prevalent forms of globalization. The incident, instead of being touted as one of the most central experiences of the effects transnationalism by the instructors, was seen as a lack of commitment on the part of the students. I find this highly problematic considering the evidence and a slight of the students’ commitment when faced with field trips which offered little in the way of direction or meaningfulness to the program. The students were doing what was asked of them and were engaging in the process of exploring globalization even if they were unaware of it. I find the entire situation an uneasy admonishing.
The chapter, though illustrative of what can go wrong, did little in the way of providing explicit answers and remedies to those problems. Did it really offer “innovative thinking” and a more effective “pedagogical practices” for future instructors in similar situations (Harrison & Meneley 2005, 81)? This is a story and not a hard lesson, the lessons to be learned are expected to be implicit, but are not analyzed in-depth. Instead, the reader is left to decipher the moral of the story, which is all but illusive in its message: Do not do what these instructors did. The more interesting questions were never addressed. Such as: Why couldn’t the cultural differences between participants be overcome? How does an instructor organize a syllabus for an ethnically varied audience? How are terms/concepts agreed upon in an efficient manner, which does not detract from the overall seminars? How can an instructor avoid the possibility of a hierarchy and some form of hegemony from taking place within the seminar(s)? For this to be a truly instructional piece, the events needed further analysis and attention.


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