Dorn Van Dommelen, and his son Lang on the first day of the trip
UAA Professor of Geography, Dorn Van Dommelen, writes:
It would be easy to think of this blog entry as a beginning! In less than a week Mara, nine excellent students and I will be setting off on a great adventure. But for me, the trip (and the blog describing it) is a way point on what has already been a three year adventure. Let me explain:
A little over three years ago I was thinking of new ways to teach GEOG/INTL 101 at UAA. I hadn’t taught it for a few years and it was my turn. Teaching this course, which is really a broad introduction to global issues, can be a bit of a downer. We take students on a whirlwind tour through the world describing grave issues as we go (e.g. “this week we’re in Sub-Saharan Africa, let’s talk about HIV/AIDS, Darfur, and kleptocracy!”). It’s always disturbed me to teach the course like this. In addition, one feels a bit like a disingenuous expert pontificating on every region and every issue as if anyone can really understand everything about the world. So, what to do?
The solution that gradually took shape in the months before I re-immersed myself in teaching GEOG/INTL 101 went something like this: “I will teach about the world through case studies and family profiles so that the people who live in the far flung parts of the world can do the teaching, not me. I will show students that there are solutions to the world’s grave problems so that they won’t lose hope and I won’t feel too depressed.”
Naively I took on these tasks by contacting an NGO I knew and liked and that addressed the sorts of issues I think are important and that the “course content guide” demands I teach about: Heifer International (www.heifer.org). Today I know that it’s rare to even have an e-mail returned by NGOs, presumably because they are understaffed and too busy. But Heifer wrote back right away, and even invited me to participate in a forum with likeminded professors. The gentleman (the term is used on purpose!) who contacted me and has since supported everything I’ve done was Dr. Rex Enoch.
When I first offered a Heifer-inspired course in the Fall of 2007, the Heifer content was modest: Students completed a service project about Heifer and we discussed it in class. Rex provided my students with information about case studies from around the world. By the next semester I had started to write my own case studies and began the process of building a Heifer-based curriculum. At the same time, I asked a group of really wonderful students who had taken the course in the fall to help me to mentor students in my current semester.
By the next fall, the development of Heifer curriculum had progressed to the point that I was regularly using case studies in class so that Heifer project participants could ‘help me to teach’. I also had a larger group of student mentors and they started to teach me. They helped me to improve the service project, they made curricular suggestions, and by the spring they had organized themselves into a club that began to take on a life of its own.
Over the second summer I plunged into curriculum development and created a companion website for my students that became their de facto text, along with the popular Hungry Planet: What the World Eats that I had been using throughout the course development. I also asked Katherine Lu at Heifer Study Tours if I could lead a group of students somewhere. She foolishly accepted and helped me to set up a trip to China, along with Doni Williams and Leslie Tuovinen at UAA.
I asked for a trip that would focus on the role that the Chinese economic ‘miracle’ has played in rural China. I think that most people who know just a bit about China know that rural areas have largely been bypassed, if not actually exploited by China’s recent growth. I, admittedly, don’t know a great deal about China, but I wanted to understand this issue more fully and I thought that students would benefit from understanding it a bit, too.
From the start of the field trip course development process, I involved Mara Kimmel in Political Sciences at UAA. Mara had been doing some similar service-learning development in PS 102 and had been using my materials and a few of my student mentors. Mara brings a depth of knowledge about international development that I could never hope to bring. But, more importantly, she is fun and competent, an often elusive combination! Already, Mara has proven herself and more than paid her way and I haven’t even abandoned her in rural China with the problem students!
So, soon we are off to China. We will be first travelling to Shanghai and then Hefei. From there we will go on to a project that directly deals with the very issues I identified as being important! But, I’m not going to show our hand early on. I’d rather that you read about what we are learning as we are learning it and not prejudice you with my expectations. And, I expect that my students will do a far better job than I will and be much less pedantic!
Thanks for reading.