We had some insightful comments to some previous blog posts that raise important questions about the justification of our journey. The answers to these questions, or at least our critical analysis in pursuit of the answers, are important to the success of Academic Bridges in Africa. I’ve gotten philosophically inspired on the issue, so it’s time to pour some thoughts out. It’s not a very formal response to these comments, but they served to motivate me.
In a previous comment, lab101 posted saying:
“ …you can do tons of research online here…figuring out what or how you can make a huge impact…then go there with a clear purpose. Research at home, build a solution, then funding goes to the solution…not a documentary. The video stuff can be done for free by yourself and crew…dont need a top of the line production company to do it all.”
When Sherol first approached me about the idea of going to Africa to evaluate education, I had very similar criticism. I’m a huge fan of efficiency, and it seemed to me like there was definitely a more effective way to use our time, money, and energy if we are simply looking for information to solve problems in an unknown area. Why throw ourselves into a third world environment when we could just google it?
I’ll admit that I haven’t read any of these articles, theses, and government reports yet which will undoubtedly offer a great deal of background knowledge for our understanding of Mozambique’s education system. We are academics who are well accustomed to this sort of work – read, evaluate, and write a solution. I also fully support the endeavor of research prior to our trip – gotta do our homework before we just show up. But while we certainly have the first-hand experience of quality higher education, this is not a team of education system specialists. Our goals, and more importantly our talents, do not support large-scale systematic changes or policy reform. This team intends to evaluate university education from a new perspective, but we want to make unique, intimate, and individual impacts on the teachers and students we meet. Sherol and I got wise words from Bala, our unofficial mentoring Stanford professor who claims South African nationality, on the subject of scales of impact. He told us that we cannot expect to make any great changes in the community, country, or world if we cannot realize these great changes in an individual person first. This is deep, but it seems so elementary. And while this team is fully in support of material solutions (textbooks, laptops, etc.) for underprivileged universities around the world, we are even more excited about exchanging inspiration – the most valuable resource for any student. If we want to make inspirational impacts on the educational culture in a foreign place, we absolutely must be there to interact personally. It’s more efficient and more respectful to our colleagues.
The textbooks and laptops will come! But first, we learn everything we possibly can about these students, teachers, and their institutions so that our resources can be utilized most effectively. Learning is the core motivation for the Academic Bridges project. It is entirely fair to assume that this group of phds will learn more from this endeavor than any of our colleagues in Africa, and we certainly have no shame in this realization. Call it selfish, but we journey to Africa looking for adventure, enlightenment, and something novel for ourselves.
We are also going with the full intention of forming lasting relationships, both professional and personal. I’ll speak for myself, but I also believe that all the members of this project have a genuine interest in the world of academia beyond our California-based schools. Graduate school can often leave you feeling a bit isolated in your work, especially when you’ve reached a level of esoteric specialization in your studies. However, we get a kick out of interactions with anybody else in the world who has a clue what we’re talking about when we finally get to the “so, what exactly do you do?” part of conversation. This usually necessitates visits to collaborating universities, specialized conferences, and research symposiums that will include students from all over the planet. It’s really cool to meet your international peers! We still aren’t entirely certain of what’s going on in research labs over there, but regardless of these students’ specific focus of studies, we want to exchange ideas. We want to understand each other and our respective motivations for higher education, and we can even hope to form collaborative relationships on certain projects. This, of course, will be made most effective by a personal visit to these institutions.
The last point I want to convey, which is definitely a direct response to lab101’s important criticism, is that of documentation. We want to change the world – yea I said it. Forming relationships, inspiring each other as academics, and assessing the material needs of these African institutions are the more specific channels of action for a great change. However, as learning is the core theme of this project, we have the greatest potential for global impact by capturing this journey in its entirety and presenting it to the world. This group of students wants to do the groundwork, to get our hands dirty, but we can’t just keep all our discoveries to ourselves. We want the world to be involved in this project and learn something remarkable about different cultures, philanthropy, and education as well. The best way to do this is by video documentation of our experiences and interactions with these institutions. And why not save the money by doing the filming ourselves rather than recruit an incredibly talented and equally inspired production crew? Because we aren’t writing a thesis – we are trying to get everybody’s attention here! If we don’t already have the world’s attention prior to our journey overseas, you can bet that we will have a spectacular product that reaches out to people on our return and after evaluation of the entire experience. These guys are good – trust me. But we aren’t just relying on fancy cameras and cool cut scenes to make a change in the world. We are fully aware that all the participants, both American and African, are the key to making this documentary a first-class product. We just know that it looks a whole lot cooler through a fancy camera. This is why we are going to Africa.