Well, based on a scan of my go-to Canadian news sources, it looks like our country’s political leaders have once again started to use cocaine. Either that or Canada is in the midst of yet another pre-writ election campaigning frenzy. Either way, things are getting messy and I am getting frustrated with the lowest common denominator style of rhetoric that has been polluting Canadian political discourse for the past 9 years. Therefore, like hyper-partisanship, I think that pre-writ campaigning should be legislated out of existence; banished to the deepest depths of the Rideau Canal.
Harper is interrupting hard-working forest fires in BC and ignoring one of Canada’s most important political institutions (and yes, I am talking about the senate… when you have a child that misbehaves you don’t cut off his leg as punishment. You take responsibility for your parental screw ups that made him misbehave in the first place, work with him to reform his behavior, and help him see his full potential WITHOUT OPENING UP THE GODDAMN CONSTITUTION!). Mulcair hasn’t shaved his beard in weeks and also wants to cut off one of Canada’s institutional legs. And Trudeau has gained about 30 pounds as a result of getting “the munchies” after his pre-writ, post-hot box “Real Change” campaigns.
I briefly considered becoming a permanent expatriate to get away from the pre-writ crap that is being smeared all over Canada’s forests and lakes (oh wait, that’s just tailings from the tar sands), but then remembered that by doing so, I would be giving up my democratic rights in October… Solidarity, Donald Sutherland, solidarity.
If you haven’t already noticed, when I am mad I rant. Instead of blasting you with my opinions of our child-like partisans for the next few minutes, I thought that I would give you a break from the rapidly devolving political discourse in Canada. So here is a rant about the pressures students face while abroad. Enjoy:
For better or for worse, a lot of pressure is placed on students who participate in international experiential learning programs. And this pressure is felt on a number of fronts. Firstly, friends expect that your time away will mark a profound, transformative experience. Many of my friends, for instance, frequently preface an email with, “so has Africa changed your life yet?” The prevailing assumption among people in my age demographic is that Africa will change me forever. Tall order.
Next, parents and family members let utilitarian aspirations for their respective spawn take precedence over the less tangible outcomes of international experiential learning. A close family member’s first reaction to me going abroad was something along the lines of: “anybody will hire you after doing this”. To be honest, that was my first reaction too. As Rebecca Tiessen says, it is no surprise that so many students go abroad for “superficial” and pragmatic reasons; after all, their parents and family members would not have it any other way.
Finally, academia expects that students will undergo an empirically verifiable intellectual transformation. Academia – and especially international development scholars – tends to operate around the assumption that travel can quantitatively broaden the mind. In broad strokes, the notion that students will attain marked intellectual growth while abroad holds true. If it didn’t then two of Dalhousie’s most prominent IDS professors of would not have respectively written and contributed to an entire book about international experiential learning. Granted, many people do grow intellectually abroad; however in my experience, such growth is much less easy to define within a linear, serviceable, and empirically quantifiable model of education.
I find that the act of assuming tangible intellectual growth places too much emphasis on utility: students go abroad with empty minds (‘table raza’); they then learn and reflect; their minds fill up; they come back home and fill other empty minds. Intellectual growth is quantifiably measured in number of words written, authors cited, and profound thoughts spewed in pretentious blogs like this one. The more words, pictures, or cool stories one is able to pull from her butt, the abler she is to prove that she gained tangible utility from her experience. Some call this education; I call it a bygone remnant of British imperialism.
In my (often distorted) view, assumptions of tangible intellectual growth while abroad are harmful for two reasons:
Firstly, if utility is married with intellectual growth, then it fosters what John Cameron refers to as an “extractive model of development” when applied to international experiential learning. Such a model perpetuates a neocolonial, monolithic idea of development: stuff (i.e., natural resources, ideas, and people) is extracted from poor regions of the world, value is added in the wealthy regions, and the stuff is then sent back to the poor regions. Implicit in this model is the notion that stuff is measured, assessed, and ascribed value according to a certain set of beliefs – in this case, a Western view of modernization. By extension, this model is harmful because it readily enables people to oversimplify inherently complex situations.
In a sense, I feel like I was sent to Uganda to complete the latter two parts of the aforementioned sequence of events. The QES Program has sent me, a student of development, to a far off land. I am expected to extract as much knowledge from Uganda as possible, reflect, and build relationships. Finally, I must bring my knowledge of Uganda back to Canada and disseminate it to those who are not informed. In a sense, am a little bit like a miner: extract minerals (or information) from poor parts of the world, polish them, and send them to the rich to be assessed against a (self-ascribed) superior set of cultural standards. When the minerals are extra shiny, people in the West give me praise for my hard work; if they are rough and oddly-shaped, then I have not done a good job at extracting them.
To reiterate, I am well aware of the potential that international experiential learning holds for fostering positive relationships between rich and poor regions of the world. Heck, under the guidance of my professors, it is likely that I will continue to my positive and negative obligations as a cosmopolitan global citizen for the remainder of my time here. I do not take issue with critical reflection, intellectual growth, shared learning, and cross-cultural understanding. The problem that I have lies within the antiquated idea that these things must be empirically quantified in order for them to carry validity in an academic setting. More, my problem is that Western thought has imposed objective standards on things that are inherently subjective; things like intellectual growth.
Second, an assumption of utilitarian intellectual growth (that is, growth that can be tangibly measured and ascribed value) places too much emphasis on linear, British Empire-based notions of education; the same model of education that is championed by universities today. In my view, a utilitarian model of education alienates students from their experiences abroad because it sees subjective self-actualization measured by external and often arbitrary standards. These standards are reflected in the questions I have received from professors, family and friends over the past couple of months: “how is Africa? Do you like it? How much? How little? What are you learning? Why?”
What people do not realize is that the answers to these questions cannot (and should not) be used as yard sticks for one’s intellectual growth while abroad. After all, what if I do not know if like Africa? Does that mean that I have not grown intellectually or that I have not sufficiently reflected on my experiences? If I say that I did not learn anything tangible does that mean that I should fail my international experiential learning course? What if I do not come back to North America profoundly changed by my experiences abroad? Does that make my experience any less valid than a Me to We volunteer who was forever transformed when she “saved orphans” for a week in rural Kenya?!
The fact of the matter is that I have no idea how much I like “Africa”; sometimes I love it, and other times I absolutely hate it. To be honest, most of the time I cannot find the words to describe how I feel – and that is not because I have not grown from my experiences here. More, it is not because I lack the tools to critically reflect on my experiences.
For instance, when I saw a brutal mugging and assault the other week, I immediately thought of Thomas Pogge’s piece on human rights and the sources of poverty. I remembered that about $18 billion is annually set aside to eradicate global poverty, yet theft – the most desperate and overt illustration of dire living situations – still persists in Kampala. I then thought of Elizabeth Ashford’s argument that things like poverty are the result of “complex causal chains in which the actions of millions of agents are implicated”; where no individual actor can bear sole responsibility “for a specific serious harm to a specific victim”.
See, tons of critical reflection going on up in there.
Critical reflection aside, after witnessing the mugging and assault, I did not know what to feel. To be honest, I still do not. But not knowing cannot be equated with not growing. The growth that one experiences from not knowing is something much less tangible – something much less linear and utilitarian. That is, although intellectual growth can be operationalized on a piece of paper (or a 61 000 word blog for that matter), it ought not to be objectively measured, weighed against its perceived utility, and be given a value judgement. When this does happen, it is my belief that students in international experiential learning programs paradoxically experience less intellectual growth because they are alienated from subjectively realizing themselves.
What I do know is that my time here cannot be chalked up to a simple, unadorned measure of education – the world is far too complex for that.
Sorry, had to get that one out of my system.