Borders - cultural and academic - were meant to be crossed

Not since the Soviet Union's collapse have Americans been so conscious of the borders that keep people apart and the crossroads that bring them together. As the benefits of globalization are weighed against the international reach of terrorist groups, the question of borders - cultural, religious, and physical - is taking on new importance.

The art of understanding and redefining borders is central to what Prof. Patricia Saunders does and who she is. Born in Trinidad, Dr. Saunders was raised in the United States, where she studied agriculture in college. But literature was her passion, and after attending a conference on Caribbean women's literature in Trinidad, she decided on an academic career.

Now an assistant professor of English at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, Saunders teaches courses on Caribbean literature and culture. She was recently awarded a Ford Foundation "Emerging Voices, New Directions" grant for a year-long series of lectures, workshops, and reading groups focused on Caribbean culture and globalization.

"In my classroom, I try to get students thinking about what migration means," she says. "We look at it culturally, aesthetically, and in terms of how Caribbean culture has influenced American culture - and vice versa."

Saunders also crosses disciplinary borders when she teaches, using music, poetry, and film to take students far beyond the confines of a typical English class. Excerpts follow from her recent conversation with the Monitor.

On the need not to isolate Caribbean studies:

I'm always very concerned about people not ghettoizing - for lack of a better term - African-American studies, Caribbean studies, diaspora studies, so that it kind of becomes its own entity off in the corner.

I would like my students, as well as my colleagues, to think about how Caribbean culture is really an integral part of American culture. That's one of the things that the [Ford Foundation] grant attempts to do - to create spaces where we can get faculty and students who are doing work in different areas, particularly American studies, talking to people in Caribbean studies and finding points of contact.

On globalization:

I'm teaching a course called Caribbean Culture and Globalization right now, and one of the themes has been [that] we can't talk about globalization in terms of good and bad. It's just too complex to think about in those ways. We think of it every day in terms of economics, but what I try to do is to get students to think of ... how globalization is really changing (a) the role of culture and (b) the value of culture and (c) the kind of role culture plays in the economy.

On expanding students' views of tourism:

People say countries like Jamaica depend on tourism. It's true to some extent - the tourist dollar helps keep people employed. At the same time, we have to think about the amount of money spent in Jamaica versus the amount that leaves the country from the tourism industry. It's not comparable, because most of the resorts in the country belong to American businessmen.

Many of my students have gone to the Caribbean as tourists, and they say they've never thought about that before. When you show them a film about Kingston [the capital of Jamaica], and the situation there with political violence, they're stunned. Because to them, that's not what Jamaica is. Jamaica is Montego Bay, Negril, and places like that.

I'm not saying we shouldn't go as tourists, but I think we need to be aware that even going as tourists, we're making certain choices. One of the reasons all-inclusive [resorts] are so successful is that everything is there for you, whereas it takes a lot more energy to plan a vacation that isn't an all-inclusive.

For some students who had been there, it had never dawned on them to go to a museum, or to go into a market, or to talk to teachers and just to connect with people outside the all-inclusive, with people other than those serving them piña coladas.

One of the things students don't think about is that when they travel, their American identity travels with them, and it carries a lot more meaning than they're aware of.

On American media dominance:

I show a video by Tony Hall called "The Dish Ran Away With the Spoon." In this instance, the dish is a satellite dish. It's a documentary about how cable TV has squashed a lot of local programming in small Caribbean countries, and what happens to the culture when people can't see any reflection of themselves on television.

What does it mean to watch the news and hear about the Nor'easter when it's 98 degrees outside? Most of the news that you get is not necessarily local news. You'll hear about the sales at Sears ... and there isn't a Sears within 1,000 miles. And yet this is 90 percent of all the cable TV that you get there. The video opens with the question, "What happens when you have to dream other people's dreams?"

On a new wave of Caribbean literature:

We're having a kind of boom period in Caribbean women's writing. The first wave of Caribbean writers were men, primarily because colonial education was more accessible to men. The men of that generation were able to go abroad and be educated and train themselves as writers. That kind of opportunity wasn't as available for women. Part of the boom era has been more opportunity for women to become writers.

But there's also another phenomenon that I think is important. When the first wave of Caribbean writers were writing, they were expressing this kind of generalized Caribbean identity that presumed the Caribbean subject was male. That worked for a while, but as with any history, there were voices from the margins that began to challenge for that space, challenge for that voice, challenge for that reputation. You see a lot more women writers doing that now.

It's really a result of a lot of things. A change in demographics, a change in the visibility of women in the Caribbean region - at the level of politics, social movements, as educators, as key figures in the public eye. The more these kinds of things happen, the more there's both a need for and a desire to express the changing face of the Caribbean region.

On music as a teaching tool in English class:

I'm trying to break down some of the boundaries between what is literature and what is popular culture. The way you can discuss light/dark imagery or hyperbole in a novel, you can certainly do the same thing with one of [Jamaican reggae legend] Bob Marley's songs. We've spent a fair amount of time this semester looking at how he uses allusions, how he uses metaphor, and how he uses proverbs in his songs, in the same way a poet would use that kind of language. At the same time, we're finding out about major events that took place in Jamaica.

For me, music has become a really valuable tool. What we're learning to do is read, but in the broadest possible sense.

Second in a series of occasional articles.

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