Visiting the Caribbean ... of the Mind

Story posted December 20, 2004

Bowdoin senior Andria Ramkissoon '05 didn't know there was such a thing as Caribbean sociology when she came to Bowdoin - and she certainly never expected to be giving a 15-minute oral presentation about it before an audience of scholars.

Nonetheless, Ramkissoon was one of 19 students who presented their research at Bowdoin's recent symposium on the British, French and Hispanic Caribbean, entitled, Insularity and Integration: Recent Trends in Caribbean Scholarship, which took place Dec. 2-3.

"The symposium was like heaven" said Ramkissoon, who delivered a talk about how Afro-Caribbeans negotiate their racial and ethnic identities in the U.S. "I was really nervous at first, but when I was up there it all flowed. I could see myself doing this in the future, actually. It made me think that I could really do grad school."

"It was one of those special learning experiences for students ... and one of the best pedagogical experiences I've been associated with in twenty-five years of teaching." -- Allen Wells

The conference was organized by the Latin American Studies Program and funded, in part, by the Rusack Coastal Studies Symposium Fund and the office of the Dean for Academic Affairs. It drew scholars and students of the Caribbean from around the state and the region.

In addition to student presenters, formal papers were delivered by Caribbeanist scholars from Colby College, Bates College, the University of Southern Maine and New York University. The symposium also included a Caribbean musical concert, a multilingual Caribbean poetry slam, and a keynote address by Orlando Patterson, the John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard, who spoke about the challenges facing the post-colonial Caribbean.

"This was meant to be a capstone experience for many of our Latin American Studies majors," noted History Department Chair Allen Wells, Roger Howell, Jr. Professor of History. "The chemistry between faculty and students was palpable. A number of students hailed from the Caribbean or were of Caribbean or Latino ancestry and that added an extra dimension to the seminar. It was one of those special learning experiences for students ... and one of the best pedagogical experiences I've been associated with in twenty-five years of teaching."

The symposium was the culmination of a popular, new interdisciplinary Latin American Studies seminar, Caribbeans, team-taught by Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Chair of Latin American Studies, Enrique Yepes, Wells, and six other Bowdoin Latin American Studies faculty from disciplines as diverse as music, anthropology, economics, French, history and Spanish.

Bowdoin student Max Tyler '07Maxwell Tyler '07 delivers a paper on slave rebellions.

"We thought it would be great to teach a course that covered the different cultures of the Caribbean from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives," said Wells. The professors met over the course of a year to plan the seminar -- which they undertook in addition to their regular teaching loads -- and to educate themselves more deeply in the discipline. "It was like going back to grad school," said Wells. "We read challenging theoretical literature and learned from each other because very few of us were experts in the Caribbean."

Ramkissoon said the collaborative teaching model made it one of the best courses of her Bowdoin career. "I have never experienced anything like this at Bowdoin. The students were so engaged in discussion and the professors had such a passion for their particular subject matters. At first we were wary that having all these different professors would leave us feeling disconnected, but it didn't happen at all. It was refreshing to have a different discipline each week."

Trinidad-born herself, Ramkissoon said she drew on personal experience to guide her research for the final paper she presented. A Mellon Fellow, she began her research on racial and ethnic identities among English-speaking Caribbean immigrants last summer, and refined her topic through coursework in the Caribbeans course.

"I was looking at identity choices," said Ramkissoon, "and how they change over time. I argued that there are three identity choices. Some immigrants assimilate with a black- American identity; others have a more ethnic identity, where they play up, for instance, their Jamaicanness. Lastly, there are those with immigrant identity - not black or ethnic, just immigrant. I used myself as an example of all three."

Ramkissoon noted that when she first came to Bowdoin "there wasn't a huge Caribbean population so I hung out at the African-American house. As more Caribbean students came to Bowdoin - as has been the case over the past three years - I was able to set up a Caribbean Students Alliance, Bowdoin's first. We've had a lot of cultural activities to increase awareness of the Caribbeans."

Among the most significant activities was a fund-raising effort on behalf of Haitian medical relief, undertaken in concert with students in the Caribbeans class. Students raised nearly $700 for the Haitian relief organization Partners in Health.

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