Idly poking a crouton cube westward across a salad plate, the Candidate tells us the importance of attending college in an international setting. I stare at the flaccid Earl Grey teabag, drying on my saucer. What about all of my domestic commitments: the relationships, the contracts? What about my finances (weekend Expedia trawls yield several-thousand dollar answers to such lingering European travel questions)? The impossibility of it all is overwhelming; it is too late for me.
“There is so much worth in experiencing higher education abroad,” the Candidate says, chasing the words with iced tea.
I nod, I smile, I utter a monotonic acknowledgement. It is not that I am dissatisfied—or disinterested—with what I hear. It all just sounds so, well, foreign. And despite my troubling penchant for articulating blind responses, I can neither agree nor refute the Candidate’s statement. I mean, I want to agree, I really want to, but I know absolutely nothing of the matter. Silence.
I twirl my water glass and watch the vortex clink ice shards against each other.
Does a student have to learn abroad in order to garner an “international education?” Granted, one cannot replace the tangible sights of standing, crane-necked, in the nave of a Florentine cathedral, or the oceanic aromas of fresh seafood paella in Valencia. There is no simulacrum of experience here. So, what of viable alternatives? Answers exist but I do not have them.
Monday, February 13th. A piece by Ian Wilhelm in the online version of The Chronicle of Higher Education stands out with the bold-faced headline: “Budget Presents Mixed Picture for International Education.” While the article’s scope aims more to governmental-fiscal matters, I found myself immediately drawn to this line: “The Obama administration is seeking a small increase of $1.7-million for the program, primarily to help disadvantaged students develop ‘global competencies.’” ‘The Program’ in question here is the well-known Fulbright Program (“the U.S. State Department’s flagship academic-exchange opportunity,” according to Wilhelm) and this conspicuous line, albeit submerged in the succinct text, never further matures. ‘Help,’ ‘disadvantaged,’ ‘students:’ these words all mean something to me as an instructor, however. I am certainly a proponent for government programs, and especially those beneath the vast umbrella of Education, but can these aforementioned ‘global competencies’ develop locally? My thought is seemingly contradictory, no?
Those close to me already know of my daily involvement in a photo-sharing blog called Blipfoto.com. Here is a simple description: the site involves members, from all around the world, posting just a single photo every day. The company began, and is still based, in Edinburgh, Scotland. In a series of electronic communiques, I interviewed company founder Joe Tree. Here is the most relevant excerpt:
BC: How many different countries are represented on Blipfoto? I thought I remember reading somewhere that it is over a 100; is that right?
JT: Blipfoto currently receives visitors from 176 countries. (I must admit I had no idea there were even that many countries on the planet but incredibly it seems there are more than 190.
BC: Is the reason primarily logistical for the site maintaining an “English Only” policy? As in, the company is based in an English-speaking nation and employs mostly English-speaking engineers and thus has to be able to monitor the language of/in the posts? Or can a member based in Paris write all their accompanying words in French, a Brazilian in Portuguese, and so on?
JT: It’s all English speaking no matter where you’re from, and that’s entirely for logistical/practical reasons. A really important aspect of Blipfoto is the community and content moderation, where material—or behavior—which falls outside our guidelines is removed…the main reason we disallow other languages is because we need to be able to understand something to judge whether or not it’s appropriate, and at the moment we don’t have the resource to view other languages. We wouldn’t be able to provide any email or forum support to non-English speaking users either, which would also be a problem.
BC: Many websites (I’m thinking of Facebook which is not a fair comparison, I know) have links that allow for content to be viewed in another language—is this something Blipfoto has or is working towards?
JT: It wouldn’t be a gigantic job to translate the functional/instructional bits of Blipfoto into other languages, but I doubt we’d ever do that with users’ content. We do plan to move into other languages in the future. When we do, we’ll have to think as carefully about the cultural aspects of those new areas as we do about the practicalities mentioned above. It will almost certainly depend on people native to our new geographical areas to support and nurture those new parts of the community. We are actually running an experiment at the moment with a Japanese magazine aimed at Japanese people learning English. Their readers are being encouraged to post on Blipfoto in English as a way to improve their written English. It’ll be interesting to see how that goes.
BC: As the whole site revolves around the notion of posting just one photo per day within this advertisement-free, clean aesthetic, how does the role of the image relate to the role of the word? Does Blipfoto represent an arena where written language is becoming less relevant?
JT: No, in fact I think it’s quite the opposite. Take the words away from Blipfoto and you’d lose more than half of what makes it wonderful. I’d say that only a minority of Blippers are driven by a keen interest in photography—most simply use the photograph as a cue to tell a story, record a moment or start a conversation. The technical or aesthetic quality of the photo has surprisingly little effect on one’s ability to do all those things—the written narrative is often just as (and sometimes more) important. Many users have commented that they’ve tried to keep a blog elsewhere, before discovering Blipfoto, but have never been able to stick at it the way they do here. I think the reason for that is the balance between the photo and the words—a balance which each user can shift on a day to day basis depending on their mood.
What is happening here, exactly? I think Tree’s third response is fascinating and telling: the site’s expansion will rely on local individuals in a specific cultural framework to maintain any forthcoming changes. In short, global networks boil down to the involvement of local entities. Again, what else is occurring in this dialogue? Quite simply, Blipfoto affords the opportunity (to employ the same word as Wilhelm) for one to place themself into an acceptable paradox: sailing in the vast international ocean while still casting out a local anchor. Inane nautical metaphors aside, though, can one see any danger in operating within English-language-only environs if it allows monolinguals to take their first step into a much large realm? In other words, I am not advocating some English superiority, but for those that currently know only English, a place like Blipfoto exposes them to international experiences from real people. I know this example is singular and very limited but my goal is to illustrate a perceptible ‘replacement.’
Thursday, February 16th, 9:47AM: my first English 1301 course of the day. I sit on the long table in the front of the classroom because it is more casual this way.
“How many of you speak another language?” Something like a third of the hands sprout up. I tug my tie-knot and learn. I learn about photographing muscle cars in the UK. I learn about the woes of transportation issues on the diverse UTA student body. I learn about international power-lifting competitions. I learn about playing a cricket match in India. I learn.
Sunday, February 19th. The second most-read article today on the Chronicle site is “In Study Abroad, Men Are Hard to Find,” by Karin Fischer. In the piece, readers become acquainted with gender-based enrollment issues in international education programs. At the risk of sounding overly selective, though, it is one of the last lines that intrigue me the most: “’If you study abroad, you’re connected with everyone else,” Mr. Becher, a junior. ‘It’s like you’re in a little club.’”
I am perplexed: the forging of far-reaching links but that only happen within very exclusive borders. This feels like an accessibility problem.
One of my Blipfoto subscribers from Sweden, B-, speaks the most curious brand of English (reminiscent of Alexander Perchov in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel/film Everything is Illuminated). In response to my positive comment on his landscape shot, he thanks me “for my courtship.” In an exchange on capitalism, he claims some nations are “ill with disease-profit.” Finally, when trying to implement the American colloquialism “through trial and error,” he produces “through trail and terror.” These are some of the most beautiful phrases I have ever read and this is not a hyperbole. Even though B-‘s posts are often prefaced with disclaimers about feeling deficient in English, with B-, I become the student, I become the learner of international poetics.
Is “domestic isolation” a detriment to my formation as an Academic? Conversely, maybe the question could/should be phrased this way: is international study mandatory for my doctoral success? How do I balance the facts that I want to experience and engage in/with other cultures, other countries, but am facing a persistent self-bemoaning stemming from lack of time and/or funds? My aim is not a sour-graped report of my desires, though the logic of that perception is not entirely faulty. Rather, this is just recognition that my international education, in some adapted fashion, is already underway. There is international access all around me. Right here.