Global Partnerships, Local Acts
During the past year, my students have worked with students and activists in the Middle East/North African region. For many of them, the act of corresponding and writing with students from this region has enabled them to hear from communities at the center of today’s public debate, such as Syrian refugees. As a result, the student writing for my classes has demonstrated a larger global framework through which they now understand public rhetoric about this region and, often, has produced personal connections with individuals from that region that humanize the harshness of our current public rhetoric.
Yet global partnerships are more than just student interactions. Such partnerships are also structures designed to provide a platform for teachers, students, institutions, and communities to build a transnational space for dialogue. In the final post for the year, I want to offer three tactics to insure any such partnership can reach its potential, as well as survive challenges emerging from the current political context.
In a global partnership, the political context of public speech will necessarily be fraught. This is particularly true when there is actual violence occurring amongst the nations in which the project is situated. In such an environment, there needs to be increased awareness of how participation in a project is not an “innocent act.” Indeed, participating in a project located within Trump’s United States will necessarily impact how any dialogue is understood, no matter how seemingly innocuous.
Given this situation, there has to be a clear understanding among the partners on how student privacy/anonymity can be ensured. This might mean that students are provided with pseudonyms when they interact online; it might mean that certain types of private/personal information are placed “off-limit” in “student-to-student” conversations. There will also need to be regular dialogue with the global partner to understand how the public framing of student participation in the project might differ within each national context. While we might frame a discussion around “human rights” in the United States, that same discussion might be framed differently within the partner’s national context. Which is to say, the partnership must be consistently aware of how differing national rhetorical contexts must be navigated to ensure the safety of participants and the continued possibility of dialogue.
Given the current political context, global partnerships need to be fully discussed across a set of university sites, including departmental, collegial, and, possibly, university-wide offices. There are several reasons for this discussion. First, in my experience, global partnerships necessarily are perceived as “university projects.” It could well be that the administrative figures above your specific global partners reach out to your university about a certain issue, believing it to be the appropriate response. For this reason, it is best that your university understands both your partnerships and the structures you have put in place for its success. This will enable productive dialogues with your university. Second, given the current political context where publicly engaged programs are facing political attack, you want your university to have overtly or tacitly approved your partnership so you have a backstop to any seemingly random criticism. Essentially, then, the more a partnership is understood and supported by your university/college, the better.
All partnerships produce materials that speak to the work done. Often these partnerships also have the goal of circulating these materials publicly. In a global partnership, it is important to have in place protocols which have layers of approval – from the author, to the partners, to perhaps partnering organizations. (It might also be important to have policies on how authors will “mask” elements of their story for anonymity.) In addition, any discussion with the authors will need to be overt about where their writing will intentionally circulate (based on the partnership plan) as well as how it might circulate unintentionally (through social media). Such discussion also have to occur with partnering organizations, who will need to decide how/if to publicize their participation across printed/digital products which emerge from the project. And unlike other projects where students might be given a strong editorial role in any publications (for experience, etc.), here such decisions should be made by those partners responsible for the project. This is a case where faculty expertise needs to outweigh student learning.
I recognize that, to some extent, the tone of this post seems ominous. Given such a tone, who would ever want to initiate such global partnerships? One response would be that such a short post is unable to capture the excitement and interest students feel about such opportunities. (See earlier blog posts.) Yet perhaps a more important response speaks to the current political moment. At a time when public rhetoric is so divisive, so bigoted toward different Middle Eastern and North African cultures, I believe it is morally and ethically necessary to create partnerships which can provide opportunities for transnational dialogues, premised on trust and pointed towards greater understanding. If we truly believe in the public power of writing and rhetoric, then we have no other choice.