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Traveling and Teaching

by Alison Fletcher


Historians dream of many things, such as the excitement of finding a document like the long-lost and extremely valuable letter written by the French philosopher Rene Descartes, which was recently found in the archives at Haverford College. For many historians, even more exciting would be the opportunity to travel back in time, rather like Dr Who, a staple on British television for three generations—assuming they knew they would return safely from pestilence, war, or worse.

Since neither is likely to happen to me, I follow the advice we give our own students: travel broadens the mind and refreshes the spirit. The faculty in the history department encourage students to study aboard because they believe it offers the opportunity to further their knowledge of different cultures and their understanding of how people in different times and places viewed themselves. I find that as a faculty member it is as equally valuable to me as to my students, both personally and professionally. Since I arrived at Juniata, I have been fortunate with the support of colleagues and the college to travel to a number of places that have strengthened my ability to teach students on my return.

For instance, after teaching southern African history for the first time, I spent the summer in Khayelitsha outside Cape Town, South Africa, working with children with HIV/AIDS and learning a great deal firsthand about the difficulties of living in South Africa after the end of apartheid.  This enabled me to substantially reshape my class on southern Africa when I taught it again the following year.

After teaching a class on Irish history, I was inspired to visit Belfast to see how, nearly twelve years after the historic Belfast Agreement, the city was recovering from the years of sectarian violence. The wall murals that mapped the sectarian conflict onto the streets of working-class districts in the city now represent a new willingness at a grass roots level to wrestle with the complex questions of history, identity, and commemoration.

For spring break in 2010, I traveled to The Gambia to meet with Professor Emil Nagengast who began the study abroad program there, to learn about the country and to see in what ways I might add to the program in the future. While I was there, I also met with Juniata students who have been in country this semester, to learn from them as well.