Learning and writing about world cultures that these women engaged with in my classes was grounded in my belief that transmitting such knowledge was the best bulwark against the insularity which fosters prejudice and fear of difference whether it regards religions, races, genders, nationalities, or language. Today, they are the ones doing this work with another generation of students. The impact one has on students is most often murky except when a testimony like this one surfaces. The public engagement component of my work has involved bringing students to West Africa ,Canada and Haiti, enabling them through homestays and internships to share common objectives with their hosts, whether it be having fun, exchanging knowledge, or solving a community problem. To this end I created a Capital District consortium together with our International Programs, the Albany College of Pharmacy and Union College to bring students from our three schools to Senegal. Numerous talks given at a variety of venues are the most public side of my engagement. Today this is the form of engagement I pursue given the dissolution of U/Albany’s French major. Additionally the dissolution has led me to a new form of public engagement which through my activities within the United University Professions, seeks to protect the rights of the university’s workers whether, professors, professionals or contingent instructors in order to promote the public good.
What are you currently working on in the area of public engagement?
Jordan Taylor, a UAlbany student whom I took on a group trip to Senegal in 2011, collected books while working at the Honest Weight Coop and living at The BARN downtown where he gave drumming lessons, then secured funds via go fund me and returned to Senegal with enough books and computers to start a library in the Niombato area of Senegal.
I myself am heading up a book project for the largest university in West Africa, Université Cheikh Anta Diop where I studied when there were about 7,000 students as opposed to the 60,000 today. The library collection has not grown with the student population (at UA there are more than 2 million books for approximately 17,000 students at Univ of Dakar, less than a million books for 60,000 students). I will be travelling to Senegal in May.
How did you get involved in this work?
I wanted to do something for the University of Dakar where I got my start as a scholar of African literature in French. The University has expanded exponentially since then but the library collection has not, so I got in touch with the library’s director who gave me a clearer idea of the needs. Knowing that several hundred American and European academics were going to attend the International Conference of Francophone Studies, I contacted them and asked that they slip a few books recommended by the library’s director into their luggage… This will be taking place May 22-28 in Senegal.
What is the greatest reward in your publicly engaged work?
I relish being able to use and share my awareness of alternative world cultures especially when this knowledge becomes a catalyst that enables people to reach greater understanding as they penetrate different cultures and connect with others. The ripple effect from understanding often results in effective community projects. Teaching about francophone world cultures is part of this, whether that teaching is in the classroom, the community or through international student travel.
What impact has this work had on you? ...on your students? ...on community members?
It has made me realize that connections, teamwork, and collective endeavors which break down barriers are what makes my life worthwhile. A teacher rarely knows specifically how students are impacted, but it is exciting to see students change when they are faced with cultural difference whether in the classroom or the field as they discover aspects of themselves they had ignored. Some take on new projects they would not have dreamed of doing before (eg. Jordan Taylor’s Niombato Project, or Bridget Almas who became a software developer in several languages. Others choose to share their expanded worldview with others (teachers, traditional and non-traditional: the current head of the Albany Academies Language program: Donna Keegan, Jennifer and Adela who, unbeknownst to me until recently, teach at EINY, Irene Siegel who teaches Arabic, is a dancer in NYC and travels to Israel/Palestine working on projects to promote common understanding, Joane MacMillan who is the French specialist secretary in LLC at UAlbany, Serigne N’Diaye who heads up the CIEE program in Dakar… Carrie Kuehl who runs Carrie’s Language Services (...just to name those whose trajectories I am aware of).
What are your future plans for your publicly engaged work?
Who knows? I no longer teach but stay in touch with some former students, At the moment I’m fascinated by the story of a French woman who, during World War I, managed to penetrate through the wall of racial and cultural prejudice to make a difference in the lives of African soldiers who were fighting France’s tribal war with Germany. I plan to start translating her memoirs to make her story available to the English-language reading public.