The Vassar Student Association (VSA) and Vassar College have become increasingly comprehensive in their engagement with ways of life and thought from communities all over the world. For its sesquicentennial celebration on March 28, the VSA organized a panel of students, faculty and administrators in the humanities and the social and natural sciences to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by globalization. The panel posed a series of questions in a round-table discussion for audience members to consider and to share at the end of the event.
In her opening remarks, President Elizabeth Bradley reflected, “When we have contemporary discussions inside the United States of the term ‘globalization,’ usually, someone will quickly invoke data that has to do with increasing international trade, increasing migration and technological exchanges that maybe were not there before.”
In the context of American colleges and universities, this often translates to admitting international students, funding exchange programs and adjusting classroom curricula to include perspectives from the rest of the world. Looking to spark conversation on the relationship between globalization and education, Bradley asked, “What does it mean to be a global campus?”
On the panel, Professor and Chair of Political Science Himadeep Muppidi and Professor and Chair of History Maria Höhn approached the question from a social science perspective. Muppidi noted, “One of the first forms of globalization was colonization … It was not a form of globalization that asked the others what their aspirations were or took that understanding seriously. It was undemocratic. It was non-dialogical. It was coercive.” The divide between colonizing and colonized countries has developed in the past few centuries, as Western Europe transplanted its institutions and ideology into Africa, Asia and the Americas.
History and French double major and panel member Maya Sudarkasa ’18 agreed, saying, “When you look at the history, it’s not a contemporary phenomenon … It has a colonial legacy.” Considering boundaries and divides among people in the world, Sudarkasa asked, “How do we do the work to overcome the challenges of disconnected cultures, national clashes and the limits of translation?”
A manifestation of these challenges in our time has been the forced displacement of people from their homes, which affected an estimated 65 million in 2017, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Höhn argued, “The crisis is not something that suddenly happened and is over there … It’s something that’s the result of a set of interconnected processes of which our country is also implicated in.”
Engaging with this issue through Vassar Refugee Solidarity, Höhn, VSA President Anish Kanoria ’18 and other Vassar students have worked with Bard College in Annandale and Berlin, Sarah Lawrence College and Bennington College since October 2015 to raise awareness about the crisis and support refugee students and scholars.
Höhn elaborated, “The big commitment for us is that we reconsider our role as knowledge producers. It is not that we have the knowledge and we share, but … that we work together in equal parts.” The most recent effort in this direction started on March 30 and paired Vassar students with refugee students in Berlin on a digital education platform.
Kanoria described, “I see Vassar Refugee Solidarity as a great opportunity to bridge different intellectual and lived understandings of the global and to constantly examine and re-examine them.” He queried, “How have we been constituted by certain understandings of the global? What is our engagement in a world we like to think of as global?”
Muppidi encouraged a similar pedagogical commitment in classes on Vassar’s campus, saying,“There is a different form of globalization that one wishes for … where we take the time and the effort to bring voices into the classroom and to engage what others might need, what certain visions of the world they might have about the world, and how to then bring that understanding of the world in relation to our understanding of the world.” Muppidi referred to this process as dialogical engagement and its outcome as post-colonial globality.
Highlighting the main issues of globalization for social scientists, Muppidi asked, “How do we get from a starting legacy of the colonial global … to the post-colonial globality that we all desire?”
Höhn also considered, “How do we preserve our commitment at Vassar to learning languages and emphasizing world languages while allowing students a different entry point … to go abroad and to be together with other people?”
Professor of Hispanic Studies Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert has seen this dilemma in her experience directing study abroad programs in Spain, Peru and the United Kingdom. Paravisini-Gebert has also served as an instructor on international study trips in the past 25 years to Ecuador, Galapagos, Chile, Cuba and the eastern Caribbean. Based on this experience, Paravisini-Gebert argued, “You cannot do all your work in the lab or the library. You have to be in situ, in place. And if you are working with communities you have to work to speak the language.”
As an international student from China, Political Science major Ruoyu Li ’19 is familiar with the complexities of linguistic communities at a personal level. Li recounted on the panel how she reimagined China’s dominance over the Mandarin language when a Malaysian friend worried about developing a Chinese accent in speaking Mandarin. From this story, Li urged participants in a discussion of globalization to examine the preexisting beliefs and assumptions about the world that they bring to the table. “Vassar is international in this sense,” Li said. “Around 10 percent of the students are considered international students … Many of our staff and faculty made a similar journey to get here.”
In the Caribbean, Paravisini-Gebert’s primary area of scholarship, language speakers negotiate a linguistic environment that includes French, Dutch, Creole and Spanish dialects. This complexity highlights for Paravisini-Gebert the need to maintain language resources at Vassar that equip students with essential skills for their work abroad. Arguing for the importance of these programs, Paravisini-Gebert reported, “It is painful for me to remember, for example, how after the financial crisis, in 2009 the first programs to go were the numerous summer programs abroad. To Peru, Mexico, China, Japan, Germany and Italy, all disappeared with one stroke of the budget pen.”
Director of the Office of International Programs Kerry Stamp reflected on the event and agreed, “In Fall 2017, a new subcommittee of the Committee for Curricular Policies was formed to assess and make recommendations pertaining to the work of the Office of International Programs. We are currently undergoing an important process to assess our strengths and identify important areas for growth and improvement.”
A few areas of focus have been learning outcomes and ethical learning models for Vassar students as they foster new connections. Stamp added, “The curriculum must include both continuous reflection around the colonial landscape upon which globalization came to fruition and discourse on effective strategies for engaging in reciprocal and mutually beneficial global relationships.”
Paravisini-Gebert concluded, “Global citizens at Vassar need a curriculum that opens the mind to other cultures.” Pointing to the importance of multicultural awareness, Li also suggested, “Differences should not distance us from each other and enclose us in separate communities … It means we do not assume we are capable of knowing others, but still we can connect with them through so many other ways.”
Associate Professor of Biology Jodi Schwarz spoke from the panel on a global context for research and collaboration in the natural sciences. Debunking the myth of the lone scientist in the popular conception of Albert Einstein, James Watson and Marie Curie, Schwarz clarified, “In science, collaborations are not only ubiquitous, but they are vertical within a lab … and horizontal between labs that are located across the world.”
Medical responses to the Zika virus provided a recent example of a collaborative research paradigm, which involved joint grant applications, data sharing, online conversations, co-authored articles, student exchanges and visits among research teams across the United States, Brazil, Egypt and China. Schwarz emphasized, “At an international scale, each of these activities poses many challenges, from visa and immigration issues to language differences. Science needs scientists who not only have technical skills and infrastructure but also human relationships.”
Biology major Jeremy Middleman ’18 attended the talk for his interest in molecular research. “Dr. Schwarz’s speech made me aware of the extent to which modern scientific research is interdependent,” Middleman reflected. “Today’s biological research labs are solving society’s problems by collaborating across labs and countries … The idea that I may be part of global work in my lab at Vassar or beyond by contributing to a global project inspires me to seek collaborative roles in scientific research.”
Considering the natural sciences as a whole, Schwarz posed the question, “There is no global infrastructure … There is no UN science. How can there be and what would be a global infrastructure in science?”
Professor and Chair of Astronomy Debra Elmegreen responded, “While it is true that there is no global infrastructure, there is certainly international collaboration on all large astronomy projects. The Hubble Space Telescope and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, the Gemini (8-meter) Observatories and the under-construction Large Synoptic Survey Telescope are all international endeavors.”
International collaboration has been essential to realizing any astronomy project requiring over $1 billion in funding. Elmegreen noted that the United States evaluates its contribution to these projects in Decadal Surveys by the National Academy of Sciences. During Elmegreen’s participation in the 2010 Decadal Survey, a major difficulty arose in aligning the survey with its counterparts in Europe and Asia. Drawing on her experience as Vice President of the International Astronomical Union, Elmegreen argued, “We need to work together in order to share resources, since no one country can cover all wavelengths on ground and in space. So even when we’re not partners in a particular mission or observatory, it would be desirable to have mechanisms in place where we collaborate on the research. The U.S. has the policy that all data are to be made publicly available worldwide … Not all countries openly share their data. So these discussions need to continue to take place.”
Professor and Chair of Chemistry Miriam Rossi, who has worked with researchers from Italy, Chile, Argentina, India, Australia and Switzerland, reported, “I am constantly amazed at how creative my collaborators are—in making or adapting to their own equipment, working with instrument models that are primitive by U.S. standards, frequently less expensive and having minimal laboratory costs.” Rossi has found that travel costs and language differences are the main challenges to her research with international partners.
Considering scientific research in the past 40 years, Elmegreen reflected, “I think it is much easier today than ever before to have collaborators around the world. I’m part of several international teams, some as large as three dozen members and some as small as a handful. With Skype, Zoom and the internet, it is quite easy to keep in touch … In the beginning even telephone calls were tough, because they were very expensive. And we had no internet then and barely had computers!”
With regards to platforms for digital communication, Rossi noted, “Outside of the U.S., communication is done routinely using WhatsApp.” Rossi reported that, in the Chemistry department, Assistant Professor Leah Bendavid is currently on sabbatical at the Weizmann Institute in Israel and that Professor Sarjit Kaur collaborated closely with researchers in Poland through the International Amber Association Lab. Examining this international network, Rossi concluded, “I would say that having international collaborators has made me a better scientist since I am intimately aware of challenges that my collaborators face in doing excellent science.”
Senior Director of Alumnae/i Engagement and Co-Chair of the EPI Climate Assessment Working Group Willa Vincitore ’92 responded, “I have been heartened over my 25 years here to see many VCers working actively for positive and sustainable change … We have these conversations with every generation of students.” Citing the Engaged Pluralism Initiative’s Implicit Bias Program in the past few weeks and the Campus Community Survey opening April 4, Vincitore encouraged, “We just need to keep scheduling these conversations and drumming up attendance. I’m encouraged that the Vassar community continues to discuss all of these topics and that people continue to show up, no matter how large or small the group.”
At the event, Bradley called for creative ideas on globalization from the panelists in the humanities, social and natural scientists and stated, “Today we want to be a lot more thoughtful, we want to make a lot more noise, we want to be a lot deeper … And we expect that conversation will be far-reaching and innovative, thinking far beyond U.S. boundaries.”