Digging India (and Durham)

Program is among university's experiments with new approaches to global learning

May 2, 2012
DIG India
Derek Scott and Sonam Aidasani work with children of migrant workers at the Aksharavani school. Photo by Rachel White.

Durham, NC - Leela Prasad knew that asking a class of Duke students to devote all of their courses over an entire year to studying topics related to India -- on two continents, no less -- would be a challenge. An international video phone call eased her concerns about whether the students would embrace it.

"While we were in India this past fall, I assigned a densely theoretical article on Gandhi's politics by a University of Minnesota scholar," said Prasad, a professor of religion and director of Duke Intense Global-Hyderabad. The article, which offered new perspective on the group’s recent visit to one of Gandhi's ashrams, "was a stretch for the students, but I thought it could lead to an interesting class discussion.

"What happened surprised me. After they read the piece, they asked me, 'Can we talk to this scholar on Skype?' And they showed up outside of our class time and had an engaged conversation with the author.  I saw in my students a great sense of freedom, a sense that came from immersion in an educational experiment."

Classroom experimentation is not new at Duke, but Duke INtense Global (DIG), along with two other recent curricular innovations called DukeImmerse and Global Semester Abroad, is providing undergraduates with alternatives to traditional study abroad programs.  [See sidebar.]

All three programs are less than two years old and involve team-teaching of a cluster of classes focused around a single concept. They include living or traveling abroad; two of the three programs also connect classroom learning to real-world "civic engagement" with problems discussed in the curriculum.

The programs present challenges as well. The DIG courses in particular required faculty at Duke and one or more foreign institutions to collaborate on courses. Six Duke students enrolled in the India courses, which was fine for a pilot program but does present questions about whether the approach can work on a larger scale.

Duke educators are now reviewing the programs to assess their effectiveness. Dean of Undergraduate Education Steve Nowicki said the effort is part of a larger experiment to identify the best ways to incorporate some of Duke's most important goals -- interdisciplinary learning, a global perspective and the melding of academics and civic engagement -- into the undergraduate curriculum.

"These programs allow faculty and students to more fully integrate course work with real world problems," said Nowicki, who seeks to encourage more faculty members to propose innovative approaches. "Leela initiated her course cluster, which connects her teaching interests with her research interests. This makes it a win-win for faculty, students and the university." 

Prasad directs one of two Duke INtense Global programs.  A second program on Russia, led by Slavic Languages and Literature Professor Edna Andrews, involves course work in the natural and social sciences, along with Russian language and culture both in St. Petersburg and at Duke. (Read a Durham Herald-Sun story about the Russia program here.)

"I imagined DIG-India to be built on a model of academic and community partnerships, designed to stretch conventions such as 'institution,' 'semester,' 'geography' and 'culture' that usually bound the learning experience," Prasad said.

In both the fall and spring semesters, Prasad's six students took four courses for credit. They spent the first half of the fall semester in Durham before traveling with Prasad to India to complete the semester with faculty at the University of Hyderabad and the International Institute for Information Technology-Hyderabad, where they took Hindi language classes, studied Gandhi's legacy and explored ethics with a South Asian focus.

The students spent winter break traveling through India. During the spring semester, they returned to Hyderabad, India’s fourth largest city, for additional Hindi instruction and classes on social change  and community media. Midway through the semester, they returned to Durham to complete the year while continuing to collaborate electronically with faculty and students in Hyderabad.

In addition to their course work, the Duke students volunteered in India at Aksharavani, a school for the children of migrant workers that is adjacent to the University of Hyderabad campus.

"They used technology imaginatively, they did ethnographic interviewing and they engaged in hands on social entrepreneurship and community media projects as well as applying classroom work to their service at Aksharavani," Prasad said. "After all of these years of wondering how to make that kind of student initiative happen, it was so plentiful here."

DIG India
DIG students in the mustard fields of central India learn about alternative agriculture technologies.  Photo by Baba Prasad.

Duke student Sonam Aidasani said the unusual arrangement challenged the students "to grow together."

"Because the program incorporated a mandatory civic engagement project, we were able to discuss harsh realities together and explore how we would tackle them," Aidasani said.

The service work with the migrant children tied directly into the students' courses on Gandhi's politics and to their documentary classes, said Duke student Katia Griffin-Jakymac.  "Being involved in the school made our program more immersing," she  said.  "I first felt like I had a place on campus and in the city."

Working at the migrant school "changed my beliefs about education," Aidasani said. Visiting one of Gandhi's ashrams and the site of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, "brought to life my readings and understanding of the father of India."

Duke officials have no current plans to offer a DIG course next year but are exploring possible new DIG programs and will again offer two DukeImmerse immersion experiences  next year. Regardless of how the university's experiment continues to unfold, the students now wrapping up their year-long focus on India say it has already proven invaluable, at least for them.

"I doubt I will ever have the chance to interact with my culture on such a level again," Aidasani said. "There isn't a day that goes by where I don't think about the children I worked with in the migrant school or the locals I had the chance to meet."