Committee Strives to Globalize Curriculum, Campus Mind-set

October 8, 2007

Columbia Spectator

In December of 2005, University President Lee Bollinger established a committee unlike any other in its structure, stature, and scope at Columbia: the Committee on Global Thought. The Committee is perhaps the most experimental initiative in the growing stable of projects designed to make good on Bollinger’s vision of Columbia as a Global

A project in the making, the Committee is comprised of a select group of eight Columbia professors—the criteria for membership are known only to Bollinger.

Charged with creating a more global curriculum and scholarship on campus, so far, the Committee has designed and implemented five new courses, formulated a comprehensive plan for suffusing global thought into the undergraduate curriculum more broadly, and laid the groundwork for new research and scholarship.

Sociology professor Saskia Sassen, the Committee’s newest member, said that membership figured prominently in her decision to rejoin Columbia’s faculty this fall. “It’s not more of the same. It’s something very different,” Sassen said. “You cosmopolitanize the culture on campus.”

Sassen is implementing a new research initiative to find the global in cities in light of war, the environment, and new digital technologies. She has recruited collaborators from MIT, the Catholic University of China, and the London School of Economics, among others. At least geographicaly, the scattered constellation of global scholars will remain just that—they won’t physically come together to share their work in the traditional mold of visiting scholars and guest lecturers.

“It’s not just about trotting in people. That’s been done for centuries,” Sassen said. “It’s a way of really going international.”

Parallel research tracks confront the concepts of inequality, global governance, and cultural diversity. Five post-doctoral fellows have just been hired to aid in the Committee’s intensified focus on research.

“It means taking the global seriously and not trying to flatten it,” Sassen said, going off of a phrase coined by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “You don’t always get that opportunity in the academy.”

Many members, including Sassen, say the group has a dynamic feel and that the Committee’s core strength lays in its interdisciplinary scope.

Carol Gluck, George Sansom professor of History and professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures, also sits on the Committee. Gluck said that its work couldn’t be done “within the normal departments, schools, the regular institutional boxes we’re all in.”

Fellow Committee member and anthropology professor Partha Chatterjee, for instance, co-teaches “Secularism and Diversity in Global Thought,” one of the new interdisciplinary courses piloted by the Committee.

Chatterjee said that the Committee validates knowledge produced worldwide. “What’s new about this is to give it the form … of a proto-department” capable of producing its own research and teaching agenda, he said.

Nicholas Dirks, vice president for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said that the Committee’s unique positioning within the University—as a center with independent hiring prerogative and its own funds, but not a full department—allows it to hire international greats like Turkish writer and 2006 Literature Nobel Pamuk, currently a Committee Fellow. “There was no mechanism to appoint him anywhere else in the University until Lee [Bollinger] came along and created the Committee,” Dirks said. “It’s a mechanism for hiring unusual people in unusual ways.”

While in its infancy, Bollinger said that the Committee is here to stay, though the form it will take is unclear. The Committee could remain a think tank, become an interdisciplinary department of sorts—like its namesake, the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought—or gain status as a formalized Institute.

Chatterjee said that since its first year, one of the Committee’s central achievements has been attaining “a certain visibility on campus.”

But while the Committee’s programming is open to all in the University community, its members acknowledge a need to more directly involve undergraduates. “Reaching the undergraduate population is critical here. … It’s a platform under construction,” Sassen said, mentioning the possibility of hiring undergraduate research assistants.

Over the past year, Gluck, responding to this need, has put together an Undergraduate Initiative to analyze how to better infuse global thought into the broader undergraduate curriculum in coming years. Based on discussions with 120 students and alumni from all four schools, 80 faculty, and administrators from both within and outside Columbia, the Initiative drafted a report in April 2007 that is pending administrative review.

“We’re trying to infiltrate the curriculum,” Gluck said. “This is bigger than the Committee.”

She estimated that if the University started now, a third of the curriculum could be globalized by the end of the year.

The report, which calls for a joint faculty-student committee to be created to oversee the implementation of its recommendations, outlines a “Global Columbia” program to serve as a model for universities elsewhere. Among the steps laid out in the report acre creating a Web site collecting all relevant coursework and resources, regardless of department or school, establishing a network of Global Teaching fellows to reach a wider proportion of students, providing better-structured study abroad programs that are not one-semester-off in nature, and, eventually, an expansion and economic diversification of the international student body at Columbia.

Gluck said that the key to truly globalizing the curriculum lies not in creating isolated courses with global content—which tend to reach self-selecting audiences—but in transforming what Columbia already offers by incorporating more global units or gearing assignments to be more globally-focused, across departments. “It [the proposal] doesn’t sequester knowledge about the world in a particular curriculum,” she said. “We want to take major cultures out of their ghettos.”

She gave the example of Nick Kavoussi, SEAS ’08, who obtained permission to write an Art Hum paper about the Taj Mahal instead of the Parthenon.
“The greatest strength of the process was that people felt they could be very honest,” Kavoussi said.

In her meetings with students, Gluck said she realized that they already had ideas in place: “The students are way ahead of their institutions in what they want to learn.”
“Try and change the reading list for CC, and you’ll have a battle on your hands. We can’t do it that way,” Gluck said, emphasizing the workable nature of many of the report’s recommendations. “We have to make it infusible, easy for students to do, easy for faculty to do.”

In a few semesters’ time, the report’s more ambitious goals may be realized, such as a Global Scholars program, with approximately 30 students chosen annually from across the four schools, at least half of them international, to pursue global scholarship. This would enable the eventual creation of a separate major or honors track in global thought.

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