Two Professors, One Class, Two Continents

Using live stream video, Dr. Yvette Christiansë at New York’s Barnard College and Dr. Isabel Hofmeyr of University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, co-teach students about the diasporas of the Indian Ocean. Dr. Christiansë, a professor of English and Africana studies, is passionate when speaking about what she considers to be an often neglected part of post-colonial studies: the long tradition of globalization in the Indian Ocean.

Since joining the faculty at Barnard in 2010, Christiansë has been inspired by the college’s commitment to developing international programs. To that end, this semester she is co-teaching the course “Africana Issues: Diasporas of the Indian Ocean” with Hofmeyr. Students in both parts of the world will be interacting with each other and blogging about their experiences.

“We’re looking at the labor movements, the history of slavery in the Indian Ocean,” says Christiansë, who grew up in South Africa during apartheid. Her family moved to Australia when she was 18, although she returns to South Africa frequently.

“After 1807, when the slave trade was abolished [by an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom], it actually expanded in the Indian Ocean,” she says. “The older trade networks in the Indian Ocean accommodated the ongoing demand for slaves.”

“There is a necessity to remember the Indian Ocean in all discussions of colonialism and post-colonialism,” she adds. “If we’re going to talk about constructions of race, we must not forget the complexities of discussions of race in the Indian Ocean.”

The interdisciplinary course, which focuses on four sites—Durban (South Africa), Mumbai (India), Zanzibar (Tanzania) and Port Louis (Mauritius)—will include literature, film, visual arts, music and dance. There also will be live-streamed guest speakers from chosen sites around the Indian Ocean.

“We’ve been saying to each other in two to three years’ time this is going to be so old hat,” Christiansë says. “We were both a bit nervous about how we would speak to each other. In the end, it’s the same as doing a co-taught course with someone in the room.”

“The whole experience has been exhilarating,” Hofmeyr says. “The students who have selected the module are intellectually adventurous and have a strong international orientation.”

In addition to time zones—there is a seven-hour time difference—an intriguing and significant element to navigate is international copyright issues.

“So many of the books Dr. Hofmeyr’s students take for granted and are able to purchase, we cannot because of copyright agreements,” Christiansë says. “What the students have been learning is we only get a small percentage of the books that are published elsewhere in the world here in America.”

She has reached out to authors, requesting permission to photocopy parts of books. The professors also have worked discussion about these impediments to the flow of information into their instruction.

“Teaching such a course makes one very aware of the divisions, boundaries and borders of the world,” Hofmeyr says. “The world of books is likewise carved up, something one seldom thinks about until one embarks on an experiment like this.”

“When you’re teaching a course like this you realize that, in your research interests and your classroom practice, you have to overcome these difficulties of trying to have access to the material. That’s a wonderful challenge,” says Christiansë, who has encountered similar problems with films and video clips.

For Hofmeyr, teaching this course provided an opportunity to see the different perspective American students bring to the subject matter.

“Our students tend to think of history and geography through the legacies of British imperialism, while the Barnard students bring a different sense of the globe shaped by the trajectories of the U.S., although they bring equally rich international perspectives to bear,” Hofmeyr says.

“I hope that it will give our students a more international sense of debate as well as helping them to see that there are other ways of making sense of the geography and history of the world,” she continues.

“We live in the legacy of imperialism and apartheid, which produces a particular view of the world in which the Indian Ocean has seldom featured. I am hoping that the students will all exchange and enrich each others’ views of the world and how it works.

“The method of the course is also one of its intellectual objectives. Given that we live in such a transnational, globalized world, we all need to be at ease with multi-sited ways of teaching, learning and doing research.”

In addition to blogging about their interactions and experiences, the goal also is for the students to establish a website based on their research, which will be available to other students.