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More than a walk on the beach: English students encounter Jamaica

| Cathy Rex, associate professor of English

Dr. Cathy Rex, of the English department, gives us an up-close look into a winter intercultural immersion opportunity for English students to the sunny island of Jamaica. But set aside the usual ideas of rum punch and all-inclusive resorts — this is a serious educational and cultural experience designed to blend disciplines and classroom work.

Currently in its third year as an offering through English, Transnationalism in Jamaican Culture is a class that seeks to provide students with an intercultural immersion experience in Jamaica as well as a critical understanding of how modern Jamaica was formed transnationally by a variety of global factors (cultural, national, historic, economic, etc.) as well as the ways in which Jamaican culture influences the rest of the world, especially Britain and the United States. The class consists of two parts: a 1 credit pre-travel course that will be taken in the second half of fall semester before travel, and a 3-week in-country experience over Winterim that is partially funded by the Faculty-Led Intercultural Immersion Program (FLIIE) at UWEC. This course is run every other year and will feature different English Department faculty and their areas of expertise as thematic foci for readings, site visits, and experiences.

The 1 credit, required, pre-travel course, ENGL 391: Travel Seminar, examines the theoretical, historical, and cultural texts, documentaries, and narratives that provide the necessary background in both Jamaican history/culture and transnationalism.  This course includes conversations and readings about distinctions between cultural tourism and paternalistic, Anglo-western notions of helping others (the “white savior” complex), on the one hand, and the preferred understanding of cultural immersion that involves conversations with and contributing to local constituencies. These discussions will involve a variety of individuals, including not only students and instructors but also individuals who have either traveled internationally with UWEC students and/or lived abroad in Jamaica.  Readings may include, for example, the work of Jamaican scholar Carolyn Cooper who writes extensively about dancehall music and culture; the short novella A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid which critiques the impact of race and tourism in Antigua (which is very similar to Jamaica); and excerpts from The Rough Guide: Jamaica about Rastafarianism, the Maroon communities, and LGBTQ and gender issues in Jamaica. 

The in-country portion of the experience is connected to ENGL 272: Perspectives in Popular Texts—Transnationalism and Jamaican Culture and carries 3 credits. During this three week experience, which typically runs from late December (after Christmas) until the week before spring classes begin, students will stay at locations in Montego Bay on the Hip Strip, outside of Montego Bay in a Rastafarian-run hostel, and in Kingston. Students will visit a variety of cultural, historic, and tourist sites at these locales and others, including day trips to Rick’s Café in Negril, a Rastafarian village, plantation Greathouses, the Maroon community in Cockpit County, and the National Gallery of Jamaica, to name just a few.

The globalized flow of information, culture, commodities, and people — the emphasis areas of this course — can be very abstract in a classroom setting, making studying transnationalism and its relationship with local cultures difficult to conceptualize and apply to specific situations. An immersive experience in Jamaica allows students to see and engage in meaningful conversations around these topics with not only each other but also Jamaican residents who would bring different perspectives and experiences to the discussion. In addition, the shift from the traditional classroom to a lived experience in sites of cultural production (tourist sites, historic and religious communities, museums, etc.) also helps students to connect the more abstract theory and discussions with concrete applications of those ideas. 

Graded assignments for Transnationalism in Jamaican Culture will be turned in both before the in-country experience (in the pre-travel class) and after the students return home. Assignments typically include a journal kept throughout the class (10 entries) that reflects on experiences; three analytic papers that approach various sites visited and activities we engaged in (one essay on a tourist site, one on a non-tourist site, and one about an interpersonal experience) which put that site/experience in conversation with the course readings. These written assignments will allow students to process their experiences and show their growth in understanding issues around transnationalism, the local, and issues of power relations, as well as their own understanding of how citizenship is both local and global. 

Students who have participated in Transnationalism in Jamaican Culture note that it has been one of the most transformative experiences in their lives. Through the increased awareness of tourist politics, Anglo privilege, western imperialism, and Jamaican culture and history this course provides, students are able to engage with Jamaica and its citizens differently than they would if they simply stayed at an all-inclusive resort or came into port for a day from a cruise ship. Getting to know the history behind and societal significance of many Jamaican cultural hallmarks (which Americans often see portrayed as mere stereotypes in the media) allows students to develop a uniquely bifocal view of transnationalism and Jamaican culture and to become more ethical and informed global citizens.  

If you are interested in the next Transnationalism in Jamaican Culture immersion (tentatively planned for Fall 2017/Winterim 2018), please contact Dr. Cathy Rex.