Columns

Adrienne Langlois ’10: International studies at Brown: Things come together

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Opinions Columnist
Monday, September 28, 2009

Books and their authors have defined my life from before I could even speak, though the cast of characters has rotated as I’ve grown. When I was five, my favorite authors were Robert McCloskey and Kevin Henkes; at 10, I preferred Madeleine L’Engle and Lois Lowry. At 15, however, it was Chinua Achebe who captured my imagination.

I read Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s seminal novel, my sophomore year of high school. Though many of the story’s nuances slipped by me, I was captivated and disturbed by the story of how a prominent African leader’s life literally falls apart upon the introduction of Christianity to his village. The novel’s final scene haunted me long after I closed its pages, though I could not comprehend just how important it would be to my development until much later.

Looking back on the past six years, I can see just how much Achebe’s book affected my life.  I’ve spent the past three years at Brown studying colonial and post-colonial societies and countries, from Japan to Egypt to Brazil and everywhere in between, and hope to further my studies after graduation. Needless to say, the fact that the author whose book catalyzed most of my academic decisions will soon be a professor at Brown is more than a little unbelievable.

Achebe’s appointment as the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor  and Professor of Africana Studies comes on the heels of other exciting international news at Brown. Last week, the University announced that Matthew Gutmann, a longtime Brown anthropology professor, was appointed Vice President of international affairs. In a press release, Gutmann noted he was “eager to help expand and enrich programs through which the University community engages with the people and nations of the world.”

As Gutmann’s quote indicates, the University’s new internationally-focused appointments are not anomalies; indeed, Brown’s efforts have certainly come a long way. The past three years have seen the development of programs in Hindi, Haitian Creole, Catalan and Persian and not-for-credit classes in Kiswali, Turkish and Swahili, to name a few of the University’s expanded language offerings.

Last fall, the Brown in Cuba program, a unique collaboration with La Casa de las Americas in Havana, allowed a handful of Brown students to study abroad in the fascinating if embargoed country. And this semester, nine African scholars will collaborate on a seminar on African environmental history among other projects as part of the Watson Institute Scholars of the Environment program.

These are just a few results of the University’s expansion of international-oriented studies and activities, and they deserve significant commendation. Yet in spite of the major improvements in Brown’s international studies, significant and surprising gaps remain which desperately need to be filled.

Brown has made great strides in expanding area studies in many regions, but some noticeable exceptions exist. The ever-popular Middle East studies concentration remains a “program” and not a department and lacks the faculty to keep up with the demand for the classes. Even more surprising is the lack of a South or Southeast Asian Studies program; every semester Brown offers a few classes on India in various disciplines, but few, if any, on the slew of countries in the surrounding region. Few students choose to study abroad in Southeast Asia, and one can’t help but wonder if the lack of interest is due to the inability to sufficiently explore the area in an academic setting at Brown.

Even some of Brown’s relatively well-rounded regional studies need work. The Center for Latin American Studies supports a number of great courses and projects on Brazil, Cuba and Mexico, as well as a number of surveys, but classes are rarely offered on the history and culture of perennial study abroad favorites Argentina, Chile, Peru and Ecuador.

Furthermore, few courses are offered on Central America, a region that has been making headlines due to civil unrest in Honduras. Even adding one class on issues in the area would be beneficial to encouraging dialogue about this conflict.

These observations represent just a few of the gaps in Brown’s international studies offerings across the board; every department has its weaknesses as well as its strengths, even if those strengths are constantly growing. Obviously, it’s not possible for Brown to hire several professors in varying disciplines to cover every country around the globe, and the University’s endowment troubles may put significant expansion of these programs on hold.

However, these projects need to be at the top of the list once funds become available.

Expanding Brown’s international studies isn’t a matter of upping the university’s prestige or its ranking in the U.S. News and World Report or Princeton Review. Rather, it’s a matter of expanding opportunity for open-minded students eager to broaden their horizons during their academic careers.

If Brown can expand its international studies selection to offer courses in every region around the globe, the University will truly fulfill its goal of an open curriculum and provide students with the option to have their lives changed by the discovery of a strange new land, just as mine once was changed by a very important novel.

Adrienne Langlois ’10, a history and Latin American studies concentrator from Asheville, North Carolina, owes her love of Latin America to Stephanie Merrim and Jim Green.

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