Teaching on Two Continents

What Rollins history professor Claire Strom learned from a pair of international teaching assignments in Colombia and Slovenia.

During the 2017–18 academic year, history professor Claire Strom spent the better part of four months in Bogotá, Colombia, and Ljubljana, Slovenia, teaching, researching, and writing. During a two-month stint at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá in the fall, Strom team-taught a Content/Language Integrated Course (CLIL) on U.S. cultural history with a pair of Colombian counterparts. She also laid the groundwork for a field study she plans to lead with Director of International Admission Ed Bustos and wrote a retrospective piece on an agricultural history journal.

In the spring, Strom embarked on a six-week teaching assignment at the University of Ljubljana through the Fulbright Specialist Program, which sends U.S. faculty and professionals to serve as expert consultants on curriculum, faculty development, and institutional planning at academic institutions abroad. She team-taught a master’s-level course that considered global decolonization after World War II alongside Kornelija Ajlec, a Slovenian professor who spent six weeks as a Fulbright Research Scholar at Rollins in 2016.

Rollins360 recently caught up with Strom to learn more about her teaching experiences in Colombia and Slovenia and how what she brought back to Rollins will help her educate students for global citizenship and responsible leadership.

What are the biggest differences between teaching in the U.S. and teaching in Colombia and Slovenia?
In both cases, the structure of the university education differed greatly. In Colombia, the students regularly take seven or eight classes a semester. Consequently, while the in-class time is the same, the amount of time they are expected to put in outside of class is significantly less. This meant that most of the learning took place in the classroom.

In Ljubljana, the opposite was true. To pass the class, students have to take an examination. They can take it before the course starts, basing their knowledge solely on readings, or they can take it up to six months after the class is completed. There is no requirement that they ever attend the actual class.

Another difference was classroom expectations. In both countries, students were used to a passive learning environment, where they just listened to lectures. My co-teachers were interested in experimenting with active learning, so we introduced discussion, group work, debates, and other student-centered learning activities. These were hugely successful, perhaps because of their novelty, in both Slovenia and Colombia.

What were your biggest takeaways from the experience?
Probably the single biggest takeaway is that American students need to learn more languages. In both courses, I worked exclusively in English—in Colombia because that was the aim of the course and in Slovenia because I don’t speak Slovenian. All the students were fluent enough in English to read complex texts, write in English, and present in English. And, in the case of the Slovenian students at least, English was not their second language but their third or fourth. While our students are privileged by English being the universal language, their lives and careers will be considerably enriched by mastering other languages.

It was also interesting teaching U.S. history to non-Americans. Both the Colombian and Slovenian students could not understand the United States’ terror of communism because both countries have a strong socialist background. Additionally, they were quick to see the conflict in Vietnam as a civil war. Both countries also have recent experience with internal violence—with Colombia’s battle with the FARC and Slovenia’s proximity to the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s. This gave the students a different understanding of wartime atrocities from American students. While condemning violence, my students in Slovenia and Colombia were much more likely to argue that there can be no effective rules governing wartime behavior because a warring nation and its people will do whatever is necessary to win.

Strom in Villa de Leyva, a Spanish colonial city high in the Andes
Strom in Villa de Leyva, a Spanish colonial city high in the Andes

What were your favorite parts of the experience outside the classroom?
While I was in residence in the two countries, I tried to travel as much as possible. In Colombia, I spent four days on the Amazon in a small town called Puerto Nariño that is only accessible by boat. I did a number of jungle hikes and saw pink dolphins in the river. It was quite an amazing experience.

Quite a different experience stands out from my time in Slovenia. I traveled to Sarajevo in Bosnia to see the place where World War I started. The city is quite lovely but still bears the scars from being besieged by Serbian forces in the 1990s. The siege lasted nearly four years, and more than 10,000 residents were killed as they went about their daily lives—shopping, going to school, getting water. After the conclusion of hostilities, the city reburied its dead in huge graveyards with white headstones that can be seen from the air as you fly in. They were a moving and disturbing sight.

A couple of years ago, the Rollins history department sponsored a Fulbright Research Scholar from Slovenia. Was that connected to your Fulbright in Slovenia?
I sponsored Dr. Kornelija Ajlec in 2016 to come to Rollins as a Fulbright Scholar. She was developing a project on U.S. aid to Yugoslavia after World War II. She spent six weeks on campus, during which time we met regularly to discuss her research. She also gave a public lecture and engaged with our students in and out of the classroom. She was fascinated by the type of pedagogy she saw at Rollins and wanted to learn more. This resulted in my invitation to team-teach with her in Slovenia.

Strom spent part of her time in Europe planning a future field study that will explore World Wars I and II in the Balkans. The Risiera di San Sabba was a rice-husking plant in Trieste that became a Nazi concentration camp for political prisoners and a transit camp for Jews during World War II. The Nazis killed more than 3,000 people here in the camp’s 16 months of operations.
Strom spent part of her time in Europe planning a future field study that will explore World Wars I and II in the Balkans. The Risiera di San Sabba was a rice-husking plant in Trieste that became a Nazi concentration camp for political prisoners and a transit camp for Jews during World War II. The Nazis killed more than 3,000 people here in the camp’s 16 months of operations.

You also used your time in Colombia and Slovenia to develop a pair of future field studies. Can you tell us more about that process and what those field studies might look like?
Ed Bustos, Rollins’ director of international admission, is from Bogotá, and he and I are planning to develop a faculty trip to Colombia. Right now, we are imagining focusing on several areas of interest: We want to explore the environmental diversity of Colombia with side trips in the Andes and to the Amazon; we want to investigate the strategies that are being used to integrate the FARC guerillas successfully into mainstream Colombian society; and we want to set up at least one meeting with faculty members at Colombian institutions to compare research and teaching ideas. Additionally, the trip would offer cultural immersion with graffiti tours in Bogotá, cooking lessons, and trips to colonial towns like Cartagena and Villa de Leyva.

The second trip that I am planning, with Rollins history professor Hannah Ewing, is a field study for history students and others. This would explore World Wars I and II in the Balkans. The trip will visit several important battle sites, such as the Isonzo Front in the Italian Alps and the Neretva River in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It will also explore how the conflict in the Balkans magnified extant ethnic conflicts, fostering violence that lasted into the 1990s and included the Siege of Sarajevo.

In addition to teaching and field study planning, you also conducted research throughout your sabbatical. Can you tell us more about that work?
While I was in Bogotá, I wrote a retrospective piece on the journal Agricultural History. The article will be published in January to mark the Agricultural History Society’s 100th anniversary. This was an intensive research project that required reading the entire journal, and my time in Colombia gave me the space to do this.

I also worked with my two co-teachers to write an article on our CLIL (Content Language Integrated Learning) experience. Originating in Europe, CLIL classes are taking off in Asia and South America. Our course was different from the norm because it is part of the university’s general education curriculum and because we had a language instructor embedded into the class. We surveyed the students about their perceptions of the course and also talked about what we had learned from the co-teaching experiment.

Finally, Shawn Van Ausdal, an assistant professor of history and geography at Universidad de los Andes, and I started working on a new project—a global history of cattle. 

How will this global teaching experience help you better educate Rollins students for global citizenship?
The simplest answer is that I gained considerable knowledge that will allow me to plan field trips for our students so that they can experience new places and learn history through immersion in place and culture. Maybe less easy to articulate is what I learned as a teacher. Teaching U.S. history to non-U.S. students gave me a greater understanding of how other cultures understand our story and our legacy. Hopefully, I will be able to bring this perspective to my students at Rollins so they can place the history of our nation in a global context.