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Experimental new VCU course takes a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the phenomenon of migration

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Mayda Topoushian, Ph.D., gives a lecture drawing parallels between the Armenian genocide and the conflict and Syria to an experimental new School of World Studies course on modern migration.
Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

Mayda Topoushian, Ph.D., an instructor of international studies, is giving a lecture drawing parallels between the Armenian genocide that occurred 100 years ago and the humanitarian crisis currently unfolding in Syria, which is leading to a massive wave of migration across Europe and around the globe.

“Why is it important today?” Topoushian asked the classroom filled with VCU students. “We are sitting here in the luxury and security of our campus. Why should we care about events that are occurring far away?”

Many of the students expressed frustration that the atrocities being committed are failing to provoke significant outrage or action in the U.S.

“People in general don’t care, but really they should,” said Chalen Aleong, a political science major in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Because what does that say about us? And what will it say about us 20 or 30 years from now, when we did nothing?”

The discussion was part of a new course in the School of World Studies called “WRLD 491 Modern Migrations” that is exploring the topic of international migration, and asking questions such as: What are the forces that drive migration? Is migration an inescapable consequence of globalization and what is the impact of migration on the countries from and to which people migrate? What are the privileges conferred by citizenship? How is citizenship acquired? And what does it mean to “belong” to a nation?

Unlike a typical college course, Modern Migrations was taught in the fall not by a single professor, but rather by no fewer than 20 VCU faculty members who each delivered one to three lectures that explored the phenomenon of migration from each of their various areas of expertise.

“In the School of World Studies, we have four different programs — anthropology, international studies, foreign languages and religious studies — and I thought it would be interesting to have one course in which faculty members from the different programs would come and give one or two lectures,” said course organizer Angelina Overvold, Ph.D., associate director of the School of World Studies and an associate professor of French and Francophone studies.

The idea was partly inspired by a School of the Arts course taught last spring, titled “1968: Love, War, and Revolution,” which explored the year of 1968 through multiple professors’ lectures on the year’s art, history and much more.

“We have talked for some time about offering a course that would be taught by faculty from across programs,” said Mark Wood, Ph.D., chair of the School of World Studies and associate professor of religious studies. “The idea of offering such a course derives from a recognition that phenomena such as migration, religion, culture, human rights, economics, and sustainability are multifaceted and that only by approaching them from multiple perspectives can we acquire a more complete understanding of their complexity.”

Overvold and other organizers in the School of World Studies decided to focus their course on migration, given that the topic is one of the greatest challenges facing the world today. According to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, the course description notes, the number of forcibly displaced people has reached 65.5 million, with nearly 34,000 people forcibly displaced every day as a result of conflict or persecution.

“The topics of the lectures varied greatly. Some focused on theory, some focused on the law of refugees, we had a lecture about the biology and anthropology of migration, some lectures on literature, we even had a lecture on bilingual interpretation for legal and medical justice,” Overvold said. “So many different topics and many different faculty members.”

The School of World Studies was able to offer such a course, Wood said, because its faculty has diverse training in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.

“Our faculty have expertise in the study of language, culture, religion, film, the arts, international law, social organization and human evolution,” he said. “When we asked if they would be interested in contributing a lecture or two to this course, the response was fantastic; so much so that we immediately began to think about offering a second semester of the course.”

Amy Rector Verrelli, Ph.D., an assistant professor of anthropology, gave a lecture on how the intersection of human biology and culture is both influenced by migration and also shapes how peoples move.

“When my colleagues pitched the idea for the course it was clear how timely it is,” she said. “The movements of people across the world have been in the news so much, and finding ways to support migrant peoples is such an important need right now.

“From an anthropological standpoint, it’s important to not just understand the cultural or political outcomes of migrations, but also how, biologically, migration has been an important aspect in our evolutionary history and continues to influence how populations change over time. I think getting all of those perspectives in one course — from the political aspect, to how migrations are discussed in literature, to economic factors, cultural aspects and biological considerations — is unique and so important for a holistic exploration of a very real problem faced by thousands of people today.”

Bernardo Piciché, J.D., Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of World Studies, gave a lecture on migration in Mediterranean literature.

“Literature, in this case ‘The Aeneid,’ catches migrations as eternal moments, that is, experiences speaking of and to our common human nature,” he said. “In addition, this section showed [us] the Mediterranean area has today assumed a paradigmatic role of what could happen (or it is already happening) in other regions of the world, characterized by the presence of a sea ‘in the middle of lands,’ as the term Mediterranean means.”

Taylor Campbell, an international relations major who graduated in December, chose to take the experimental new course in the fall after having previously taken a migration course for a senior seminar.

I love the topic of why people move.

“I love the topic of why people move,” she said. “My term paper for my senior seminar was [on] suicide tourism and how the legalization of assisted suicide led to the movement of people. My term paper for this current course is [on] Trump’s wall and what it means for modern America.”

Campbell said she found the course challenging at first, as it involved many different teaching styles and reading requirements by different professors, but she also enjoyed the fact that it gave her a chance to learn from many great faculty members across disciplines.

“I almost wish I could have taken it sooner in order to meet and take classes by my favorite [professors],” she said.

Among the highlights, she said, were a section taught by Spanish instructor Maribel Moheno, Ph.D., on U.S. and Mexico immigrations and borders from pre-Columbian times to the present, and a lecture by Spanish instructor and federal and state court interpreter Patricia Michelsen-King about bilingual interpretation and tools for legal and medical justice.

“Not only did [Michelsen-King] completely blow our minds during her lecture but she also kept us on our toes,” Campbell said. “I have a very hard time with learning a language and I was captured with how bright she was in being a bilingual interpreter for the courts. VCU is lucky to have a professor like her.”

The multidisciplinary approach to teaching about migration allowed the students to consider the topic from angles not possible in a single course, Wood said.

“As a result of our faculty’s many contributions, the students have enjoyed the remarkable experience of learning about everything from the evolution and migration of our species around the world, that migration is driven by environmental, economic, political, cultural and religious factors, factors whose convergence often results in the cataclysm of armed conflict, and that migration is at once a collective phenomenon and profoundly personal experience, a fact communicated with gripping power in film, literature and the arts,” he said. “Students come away from the course with a layered knowledge of the reality of migration, and we hope as a result they appreciate the value of thinking holistically and seeking multiple sources of knowledge.”

The school is planning to offer a similar multidisciplinary course, organized by Topoushian, in the spring. That course, “International Migration,” will specifically focus on global trends, newcomers and citizenship, refugees and displaced persons.

Overvold, who organized the fall course, said the experiment proved to be a great success.

“It has been not only interesting, but also satisfying because it has included faculty from four separate programs,” she said. “It’s been interesting to see how much we have in common as we look at one issue from a religious perspective, from a linguistic perspective, from an anthropological perspective. It just makes you think about issues in a very different way, and that’s really what the School of World Studies is all about. The mission of the school is to explore differences among cultures, languages, belief systems. This project is the first time we’ve all come together, in a way, to study an issue from those different perspectives.”

 

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