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CMLT174: Islands in the Stream Interview
with Professors

Interview with Maria Acosta Cruz, associate professor of Spanish, and Odile Ferly, assistant professor French

How did you come up with the idea for this course?

Acosta Cruz: Professor Ferly and I are both Caribbeanists. I'm from Puerto Rico and Professor Ferly is from Guadeloupe in the French Caribbean. Having both grown up in the region, both of us know that it's an area without much interconnectedness. Growing up in the French islands, you never read the great texts from Puerto Rico. And growing up in Puerto Rico, you are not introduced to great French Caribbean literature. By coincidence, it also happens that we both study cultural forms in the Caribbean and thought that the course could help transform the compartmentalization we grew up with. The real genesis of the course is that we started talking about our backgrounds and research interests and said to each other, 'Why don't we try teaching this course together?'

What issues do you explore in the course?

Acosta Cruz: The course examines the exploration of nationhood, of national expressions of identity. We ask the questions, how can you consider nationhood when you're not a nation? How can you have a culture if you are actually under the domination of another colonial or neo-colonial country?

We thought comparing Puerto Rico and the French Antilles, Guadeloupe and Martinique, would be an obvious comparison because we know them well and they are non-independent territories. Puerto Rico is still dependent on the United States and Guadeloupe and Martinique are still dependent on France. We've studied these cultures all our lives, and for us, it's a given that these places have never been sovereign nations. They've never had a representative to the United Nations. What does that do to a people? How do they express it in their movies, literature, painting, music?

Ferly: We start the course with historical background. On top of looking at the obvious cultural similarities between Puerto, Guadeloupe and Martinique culture, being Caribbean cultures, we talk about the fact that there's the same history of colonialism and pattern of African slavery that left so much culture scattered all over the islands.

Acosta Cruz: And we examine migration patterns. There are striking similarities and patterns in the way people migrate to and from these islands and what that means for these cultures. Puerto Ricans tend to migrate to and from the United States; it's an airbus—they come and go, come and go. The people who live in the French Antilles come and go from France. The patterns of migration are the same. We also look at migrations that aren't highlighted historically. People from India who came to the French islands are one example. We set out the background, but also try to look at new areas to discuss.

Do you only get literature students in this class?

Acosta Cruz: We had a mix of student interests and backgrounds in the course last semester. While this class was conceived as a comparative literature course, we had students who are majoring in international relations, IDCE, and race and ethnic relations in the class. Also, about a third of the class was either international students or ALANA [Asian, Latin-American, African American] students.

Would you describe the active learning component of the course?
Ferly: We're language teachers so we're used to having active learning components in the classroom. We try to bring that to this course.

Acosta Cruz: The showcase student activity for active learning was that each student was paired up with another student and had to create and present a PowerPoint presentation based on one of the primary texts we read. But the assignment was much more than presenting a nice PowerPoint.

Ferly: Students were given specific guidelines. They were evaluated on their analysis of the text, delivery, speaking skill—including appropriate speed and volume—presentation length and, most importantly, how they engaged their audience.

Acosta Cruz:Each student had to write two questions for their audience to stimulate participation. We expected them to really think about these questions, not just ask "Do you understand x concept?" They did a great job getting the whole group talking. The students put a lot of thought into their two questions. For them and us, the discussions that ensued were the most rewarding aspect of the course. These discussions certainly showed us how sharp our students were in their reading and how they approached a text—in fact, often they saw things we didn't see—but also these discussions showed me and Odile new ways of looking at the texts. Our students were really very original, heartfelt and articulate about their analyses.

How does the co-teaching work?

Ferly:: We both taught all the classes. But certain classes were led by one of us if the text was in our area of expertise. For example, we assigned four novels in English translation in the course, two French and two Spanish. Maria led the discussions on the Spanish texts and I led them on the Franco texts. But the way we both teach is by asking questions all the time. For instance, if Maria was teaching a lesson, I would be usually standing behind her acting as a respondent to stimulate discussion. Sometimes, I would intervene or say, 'Oh you see, in the French Caribbean we see the same thing…" Or sometimes I would comment on something in Puerto Rico. So our students actually saw how the two of us dialogued and how we gave feedback to each other. They also saw that sometimes we did not read or see things in the same way, and perhaps that helped them value their own point of view.

Acosta Cruz: Yes. Students saw two professors who were each on their own intellectual quest, and we didn't have to agree on everything. Every class they saw both of us actively participating together in everything. For us, as teachers, it was all about our students' participation in the material. About stimulating conversation. This is where Blackboard [Clark's online virtual classroom] really worked well for us. We posted a set of questions for each text to guide students in their reading. Not leading questions, but open-ended questions like 'How does the author approach gender?' or 'What does this essay say about concept x in the essay we read last week?' I wish every class I'd taken had done that. Otherwise, you could get to class and realize that you totally misinterpreted the reading. Posting these questions meant that our students could come to class really prepared for productive discussions.

Did you use Blackboard for other aspects of the course?

Ferly:: Yes. We used it show movies, to post pictures and to post questions to trigger discussions. I remember at one point Professor Acosta Cruz posted a picture of a Baroque style building. We asked our students what they understood about this architectural style, and then we looked at how this style transposed to the texts we were studying, which were written in Spanish-Baroque style.

Acosta Cruz: Remember the picture I used of my cousin's wedding when we were talking about racial composition in Puerto Rico? If you can forgive the '80s style clothing, this picture of my family was a great example. It showed every color skin imaginable. I thought that posting this photo rather than just using written materials would be a more immediate way to show how different Puerto Rico is racially from the other islands.

Ferly:: Similarly, I posted pictures of a mangrove on BlackBoard to trigger discussion of one of our texts, entitled "Crossing the Mangrove." I wasn't sure if the students knew what a mangrove was. This way they could see what it looked like and begin to understand how difficult it would be to cross. They could instantly relate to the actual intention of the author. And that kind of learning leads to meaningful and productive class discussions.


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Additional Resources
Islands Home
Interview with the Professors
Interview with Students
Student Projects
Course Syllabus
About Professor Acosta-Cruz
About Professor Ferly

Maria Acosta Cruz Odile Ferly
Maria Acosta Cruz
Associate Professor of Spanish
Odile Ferly
Assistant Professor of French
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