INTRODUCTION: What does it mean to visit an African country with a class from a US college in order to learn?
Alice Lesnick, Term Professor of Education, Bryn Mawr College
360: Learning and Narrating Childhoods (Spring, 2012) was a cluster of three courses, one in Education, one in Literature, and one in Psychology. 15 Students from a broad range of majors, years, and backgrounds undertook a cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural study of child development, with a particular focus on the role of language and literacy in forming and channeling personal and group identities.
Professors Pim Higginson (French and Francophone Studies), Alice Lesnick (Education), and Rob Wozniak (Psychology) created this 360 because we wanted to break open deep questions about how children in varying contexts learn who they are and can be by taking up and being taken up by the tools of meaning-making in their societies. At base, these questions concern the degree to which individuals, even the youngest, are and/or become free to recreate themselves and their worlds. It is common to see individuals deterministically -- as victims of broad historical and political forces -- or naively -- as solo actors charting their paths by their own lights and strengths. It is harder to to see them as both constituted by and constituting broader systems of meaning, power, purpose, and possibility. With this 360, we aimed to help students cultivate this more complex outlook of children's experience.
The 360 Program enables faculty from disparate fields to address issues needing multidisciplinary perspectives with students whose own areas of specialization vary widely. Our group included students in each of their four years of college, with majors ranging from Sociology to French to Computer Science. In addition to fostering cross-disciplinary connections, the 360 Program asks faculty and students to integrate experiential with academic learning. We sought this integration by including in our 360 a spring break class trip to Dalun, Ghana, a village in the Northern Region where the Bryn Mawr/Haverford Education Program has a partnership with Titagya Schools, an early education project aiming to provide preschool and kindergarten education in all 16 districts of the North, where currently educational opportunity for children is inhibited by limited exposure to English language experiences and by responsibilities older children bear for the care of younger siblings in this largely agrarian community. Our trip included 6 days in Dalun. There we were visitors and learners, some of the time working with children and teachers in the school. Alice Lesnick also collaborated with the teachers to lead a teacher professional development workshop for 45 area teachers; our students took notes and joined in school group breakout sessions and informal dialogues. In Accra, the other locale of our trip, we participated in activities at the University of Ghana’s Institute for African Studies and experienced the local sites.
What does it mean to visit an African country as part of an American undergraduate course? The very possession of an airplane ticket, to say nothing of a visa, is a marker of intense privilege. A trip such as this raises questions about fairness, about luck and its lack, and exploitation, particularly when the ticket occasions travel to a place whose history is severely scarred by exploitation. Early course readings, Illich’s “To Hell With Good Intentions,” Ngugi’s “Decolonizing the Mind,” Adichie’s “The Dangers of a Single Story” and Lugone’s “World’-Traveling and Loving Perception,” challenged students to recognize and begin working with the privilege, bias, ignorance, and violence built into every course inquiry. Eve Tuck’s “Call for a Moratoruim on Damage-Centered Research” challenged students to regard the people we met in Ghana not as needy but as complete and actuated by dreams. How to recognize the persistence of colonial injustice and the arrogance, irresponsibility, and the malignity of good intentions, while at the same time considering the possibility that dreams, desire, love, and adventure are as real as these? As one student wrote in her final project, “White educators in primarily minority classrooms bring to mind the image of the ‘white savior industrial complex.’” And in the words of another student, “There are spaces in which good intention is welcome, even if the actual outcomes are not what were expected.”
After the trip, our students struggled to keep space for this inquiry open and at the same time speak plainly about what they had seen and thought during the trip. It was difficult to negotiate the conflicts among the harmfulness of good intentions and the possibility of love; among the recognition of differences and new ways of seeing, feeling, and naming them. During the sessions Alice held to process the trip experience, students shared that they struggled to talk about the trip with people outside it given the many assumptions they brought. For example, family members sometimes focused on the dangers and difficulties of travel. Peers sometimes assumed that the trip had, and had to have, a given academic or service goal, a clear, shared story giving it coherence -- when actually, we had deliberately oriented students to consider the trip as an occasion for open-ended learning. Within-group talk about the trip was also hard, as students disagreed about what had happened, what terms to use to discuss it, and what it meant. They feared creating unmanageable conflict through the disclosure of these differences when a certain degree of unity had been so important to working together during the journey.
A chief cause for these difficulties lay in finding language for experiences of being in a new, unfamiliar (to most of the students, though not all), and economically poor place, where differences in language, culture, and expectations often came through to students, at least initially, as barriers. Having been immersed in studies of how power, access, knowledge, language, and culture are cross-connected, the students had gained awareness of the importance of unlearning privilege, of “decolonising the mind” (in Ngugi's terms). But how to do this? How to wade in, wherever one stood, when the risk of reproducing or reinforming biases of understanding and judgment was never more clear, and potent?
One night in Dalun we were gathered in the rotunda in our compound outside the village, together with new friends, adults and some children, and Debbie Ahenkorah, BMC ‘09, who grew up in and now works in Accra and who had blessed our trip by joining us on the journey to Dalun. I had asked Debbie to give a talk about how she started the Golden Baobab literary prize, an organization now recognized by Echoing Green as an important new venture in social entrepeneurship. Debbie invented it to foster the creation of a children’s literature for African children by African writers and illustrators. She spoke of how she built this dream, leading her listeners on a journey of hope, faith, and risk to the present. As she finished, there was quiet -- the quiet of awe. Slowly people began to offer comments and ask questions. One Ghanaian friend said that while he had arrived for the talk tired, he now felt rejuvenated. A student asked how Debbie decided to stick with it. I asked the question that had been troubling me, and that I see as in the groundwork of the silences to be found in our discussions and students’ representations of their learning. What advice can you give us about how to continue ethically in this partnership between Bryn Mawr and Titagya, given the viciousness of the colonial legacy that Golden Baobab seeks to transform? Debbie responded that sometimes love is more important than power. If I had been a student in the course, my final project would have been an investigation of the roles of love and fear in child development, which is also the development of literacies of participation in social and imagined worlds.
“What did you learn about ‘Learning and Narrating Childhoods’ in this 360? What conceptual framework have you constructed with which to answer this question?” The professors asked the students to answer this question in final course projects. We scaffolded the process by holding class and individual sessions to brainstorm and refine topics, which students could do singly or jointly. We also asked them to write informally about their conceptual frameworks and to submit annotated bibliographies of linked research and theoretical material. Some students wrote about the dynamics of photography -- its production and reception -- in this context. Some explored challenges of curriculum design informed by course studies. Some investigated the life trajectories of subgroups, women or men. The projects were varied, engaged, and thoughtful. As a group, though, they seemed halting, reticent. It was almost as if our students feared digging in and seeing things as deeply through as they could, for then they would have to show and tell; to find the words to make and defend an argument; to tell a story rich enough to form a platform for refutation.
This Prezi presentation  seeks to figure out what the projects do say about what students learned from this experience. At the same time, it is a venue for students to take a look at a composite of their learning and say, now, what they can about it. To say: I learned this or I realized that. Two of us, Alice (a professor) and Ashley (a student), selected quotations from the final projects to represent the key issues they addressed. We then shared the Prezi with the class, and asked students to write brief statements now, from the distance of a couple of months, saying something concrete about what they have learned about these issues. The pictures show objects of art and craft that we bought when in Ghana. We decided that given the power dynamics involved in photography (which several in the class focused on in their final projects), it was better to use photographs of works that Ghanaians had entered into public markets, and that we had come by through trade, rather than solely through the “taking” of a picture.
We hope you will learn and help us keep learning from this retrospective of our 360 final projects.