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First-day jitters are normal. For faculty, the first day of class magically transforms a two-dimensional syllabus into a live event that unfolds in unexpected ways. Students too are always filled with anticipation, curiosity, and a bit of trepidation as they test the waters in a course they enrolled in months before. On this critical first day, students in the 2015 Global Connections women’s history course (HIS 405) quickly learned that the brief catalog description did not fully prepare them for the journey ahead.
The Global Connections project, a collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences, the International Center, and the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, began in 2012 to encourage UK faculty to link their courses with other classes taught around the world. As a Global Connections course, HIS 405 supported international cultural exchange through frequent video conferences with a comparable class at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3 campus. Drs. Kathi Kern and Hélène Quanquin developed the course with a pedagogical commitment to innovative teaching that broadened the learning experience of students across continents.
Students at the University of Kentucky valued the opportunity to communicate with their peers in France without actually traveling. One UK student commented on the benefit of gaining international perspectives on United States women’s history, stating, “I think it is a great way to broaden horizons for someone who may not be able to study abroad.”
The UK course instructors for the spring, Juli Gatling Book and Ashley Sorrell, doctoral candidates in the Department of History, strived to create an environment where cultural exchange served as the core of student interactions. While the course provided a number of venues for shared study, the analysis of visual culture produced the liveliest discussions among French and American students.
Ms. Gatling Book took the lead in establishing a collaborative space for international exchange. In an effort to bolster student learning and interaction, she created a Wordpress blog that facilitated discussions among French and American students.
Ms. Gatling Book facilitated an activity where French and American students discussed and analyzed social constructions of gender in American culture by sharing images and videos through Wordpress. Prior to the connections class, students responded to each other’s contributions, which included historic photos and videos of women’s roles as housewives, as well as present-day images of female empowerment. Exchanging ideas and images in a virtual space encouraged student engagement before meeting in class. Furthermore, these exchanges deepened class discussion.
University of Kentucky students viewed collaboration through blogging as a vital step to making connection days lively. “It was the connections class they [French and American students] seemed most animated about,” a UK student said. Not only did the use of the blog encourage interactive discussions across continents, it also was an innovative way for Dr. Quanquin to meet her learning objective of having French students engage in conversations outside of their native language, a requirement of the Anglophone Studies program at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. “My students got to interact with American students, which means speaking English in class was not as artificial as it sometimes is in these classes.”
The Global Connections course also challenged French students to read and analyze historical documents in English. This was a daunting exercise for UK students as well and was a primary pedagogical tool for encouraging historical thinking, analysis, and argument building. Students from both countries had an opportunity to investigate a unique archival collection from the Margaret I. King Library, the Linda Neville Collection. Neville, a Progressive Era reformer from Lexington, built a career around treating and preventing disease-transmitted blindness. Eradicating blindness among children in Appalachia was her particular passion. Special Collections and Archives of the UK Libraries enabled the Global Connections initiative in invaluable ways by designing case files for students to investigate and then digitizing the collection for online use.
Believing that students learn history best by practicing historical analysis, Ms. Sorrell guided students in their exploration of the sources by encouraging them to place the work of the Kentucky reformer in the historical context of twentieth-century reform.
The Linda Neville materials offered French and American students insight into women’s reform and Appalachian history, while also challenging them to place Appalachian reform in conversation with national reform movements. Using these primary sources also gave international exposure to the unique archival collections housed at the University of Kentucky. Students in France often expressed surprise at the fact that Linda Neville is not a well-known figure in American history. Kentucky students also confronted Neville and her legacy for the first time. Neville’s relative obscurity presented a challenge to both groups, as they were confronted with historical questions related to her significance in both the history of Appalachia and the United States. How could someone whose career merited such a large archival collection have faded into obscurity? Exploring the collection created a peer-to-peer instructional opportunity for University of Kentucky students. Despite their lack of prior exposure to Neville, UK students could share with their French colleagues their considerable familiarity with the Appalachian region in which Neville worked. As one student put it: “Things that we study and take for granted are not common knowledge and should be appreciated for the value that they are.” Specifically, the student noted the importance of regional history: “The Appalachian area is something we all know about and forget to remember why it is important enough that we all know about it.”
A Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3 student said the use of the Linda Neville archives made the class “more interesting” and the seminar “more real” than other courses. Dr. Kern witnessed the learning experience the archival exercise provided to French students when she visited Paris in March. “It was amazing to listen to a room full of French students speak with such authority on a little known chapter of Kentucky’s history. The French students quickly got to the heart of the ambivalence of Progressive Era reform campaigns. On the one hand, they lauded Linda Neville’s generosity in working to prevent the spread of Trachoma; on the other hand, they questioned the purity of her motives and the social control she exerted over poor children whose care she mediated. That’s a recurring narrative in American history, but it was particularly satisfying to hear students get to that narrative through their inquiry in the archives.”
Connecting students across the globe was accompanied by a few challenges that stemmed from the technology available to teach in this manner. Thanks to the astounding support of UKAT’s Audio Visual Services, the video connection was flawless. However, the audio component presented an obstacle due to having only two microphones in the UK classroom. For students to participate in the connection, they had to either stand or move seats to speak into the microphone. Many said that this process of moving or standing hindered their participation, as they felt timid to take control of a microphone pod that was constantly being moved about the room. Technology at UK is developing in the direction of seamless interaction across geographical boundaries, but advances are still needed in most classrooms to help students feel comfortable interacting through video.
The use of the Wordpress blog, the Neville archive, and an interactive sharing of visual culture helped mitigate these infrastructural difficulties to give students an experience that broadened their educational, geographical, historical, and cultural horizons. While we are seeking to continually improve the Global Connections course, it is encouraging to know, in the words of one student, “If I knew that one of the classes I was looking at taking was a Global Connections class, I would stop looking at it and immediately register.”
Cover Image: classroom in Paris, France. All rights reserved. Used with permission.