A couple of weeks ago a representative from my university's publicity office contacted me about doing a feature on Haiti for the faculty and staff publication. We had a great conversation about my disappointment with US media images about Haiti since the earthquake, teaching classes about Haiti, the potential for university collaborations between the US and Haiti, and my research and advocacy on work sexual violence. You can read the article that came out of our conversation here.
This conversation took place at the end of the semester and thus the conclusion of my two classes on Haiti, "Haiti Cherie: Haitian Literature and Culture" and the interdisciplinary "Haiti and Globalization: Haitian Studies 101." I am still finishing up my grading, so here are just two observations based the experience and my conversations with students throughout the semester.
Teaching about Haiti in the USA setting demands an interdisciplinary approach. While one class was rigorously interdisciplinary, the other was mostly poetry and novels with a few articles interspersed throughout. In this class students did not have as complete [if there is even such a thing as this] a picture or a context for some of the issues brought forth in the texts. Because I tend to emphasize class discussion rather than lecturing I did not spend as much time as I could have filling out the whole picture. This was far easier in the other class because we read: Laurent DuBois' Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution, Robert Fatton's Haiti's Predatory Republic, Paul Farmer's The Uses of Haiti and excerpts from Beverly Bell's Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance and the collection The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora among others. We also read fiction: Marie Vieux-Chauvet's Love, Anger, Madness, Edwidge Danticat's The Dew Breaker, and Rene Philoctete's Massacre River in addition to several poems. In large part because of this wide range of texts, the students in the interdisciplinary class had more points of access and could discuss these texts from a broader range of perspectives. Interestingly, most of the students in this class were also of Haitian descent which also changed the conversation significantly. It was important to me to be able to provide this type of space for these students so that they can understand the difference between being part of a culture, and how a humanities curricular approach could assist them in learning more to offer a completely different point of view. Judging from the number of emails and comments that I received at the end of the semester that more or less stated "I never realized how much I didn't know about Haiti," I do think this approach worked!
The other observation is about how important it is to expose students to different ways of thinking about cultures in contexts outside of the classroom. I think next time I teach the class I will definitely incorporate a required "community" component that has students interact with some of the Haitian organizaitons in Boston or attend an event. I did suggest to them that they do so for extra credit, which is probably why no one took me up on it...But I do think that having students move outside of the classroom to learn about materials they encounter on the written page or through films significantly expands and enriches their perspectives on the topic. To me this is another way of learning through immersion, which pedagogically produces such great results.
As I mentioned in my previous post about these classes, figuring out what to teach in 13 short weeks is always a challenge especially given my desire to provide as nuanced a vision of Haiti as possible. There were many texts I had to take out as the semester went on, and some things I wanted to do but did not get a chance to. That being said, I am really looking forward to teaching both of these classes again and adjusting the content to make them even better in the future!