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Undergraduate Education and the “Pragmatics” of Global Citizenship—or, What I Look Forward to Learning at the Annual Meeting

By: Shyam Sharma, University of Louisville

When I look at the description of events in the schedule of the AAC&U Annual Meeting this year, images of my undergraduate students cross my mind. I begin to think about what use my students from the English 101 class in fall 2007 (my first semester of teaching college writing) made of the “critical thinking skills” that I taught after they left my classroom. I wonder if my students from the advanced writing course that focused on global citizenship last year continued to “pause to look at two more perspectives” before beginning to argue and defend their own positions. The events in the schedule represent big and often abstract ideas emerging from the experience and wisdom of scholars who are intellectual leaders in higher education. But when browsing the themes and descriptions in the schedule, my mind turns toward the students from the past and students I will teach in years to come. Has my teaching helped them become productive citizens in their communities and work? How much am I helping them become the digital and global citizens that they need to be today? What else do I need to do in order to shoulder the responsibilities of an effective educator of the twenty-first century—and what does it mean to be an effective teacher today in light of the changes, challenges, and opportunities that are created or complicated by the forces of economic crises around the world, advancements in information technologies, and the growing interdependence of knowledge (and other) markets around the world? I will be seeking answers to these questions in the many exciting discussions that I look forward to attending at the AAC&U Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.

The sessions that I am most interested are concerned with what I call digital-global citizenship. (And, by the way, the schedule that I carry is not in a diary, nor a printout: it is, thanks to AAC&U, a mobile “app.”) For me, integrating technological skills into teaching does not mean just including “cool” new technologies: I help students use new technologies to achieve and enhance the age-old mission of liberal arts education, of critical thinking, finding and synthesizing information, enhancing their civic awareness and developing in democratic engagement. I help students develop and maintain broad and deep “personal learning networks”—webs of places, resources, and people where they receive and also share knowledge. My students use technology to learn, write, solve problems, and develop new ideas, often collaboratively. Their collaboration is facilitated and enriched by technologies like wikis and blogs; they seek to understand the perspectives and practices of apparently universal phenomena in different cultures and societies around the world by using multimedia in their research, critical analysis, composition, and presentation of ideas and practices.

The sense of global citizenship that I inspire my students to cultivate is not just an ideal or abstract concept. It is one of the values of a liberal education, but it is simultaneously a pragmatic asset in their educational toolkit. Thus, I am enthused to see presentations such as “How to Prepare Global Leaders” because I know that this is a realistic question, considering that new modes of competition and collaboration in the global knowledge market will demand from my students intellectual capacity and professional skills that are applicable on global scales. I know that “global” does not always have to be “international” or “planetary”: my students’ learning networks cross sociocultural, professional, and national borders even when they are not physically crossing those borders. Mediated by new means and modes of communication, their learning and work encompass the formal and informal, personal and social, and even the professional and the apparently frivolous—often crisscrossing one another. The crossing of borders and making of connections have become so prevalent that even my students who come from rural backgrounds in Kentucky are deeply connected with the world at large: they already have access to resources for learning about issues and events in the world at large, and they are excited to engage in discussions about issues that are not limited within national and social borders. I know that many of these students are not the so-called digital “natives” that they are often assumed to be, but when I let them explore and use new and powerful means to share texts and ideas on their own, they quickly make meaningful use of the resources. Especially when I acknowledge the value of their personal learning networks alongside their learning in the university as a node in the larger network, my students draw on the best of both the “worlds” of learning. Thus, I look forward to attending sessions that will further enhance my understanding of “global civic awareness,” as the title of one session aptly describes.

As someone who is both keenly aware of increasing challenges in higher education—attrition and graduation rates, slashed funding, increasing use of contingent labor, the spread of “vulgar” forms of internationalization of higher education that seek to put bucks above brains—and also excited by the new possibilities of transnational sharing and collaboration, I am eager to participate in the conversations about subjects like these during the Annual Meeting. I look forward to learning more about how to make better connections between an understanding of the big picture of challenges and opportunities in higher education and the needs of my students; I want to learn how to develop better pedagogical strategies to help my students with the increasing and shifting demands from their academic and professional careers. When I enter the classroom, I do not want to pretend that if my students learn what I tell them to learn, they will be fine. My students will not apply the skills for critical thinking and communication, research and writing that I teach them into sociopolitical vacuums: they must apply those skills in order to get things done in complex contexts, and they too need to learn to see the big picture of the academy and the professions. Again, those contexts are more often global than local, and changing more quickly than ever before.

I am enthused by the themes of many of the discussions at the Annual Meeting, and in particular I look forward to learning more about how to help my students achieve one of the most important goals of college education for today’s and tomorrow’s worlds— as part of the title another session puts it, helping them gain the knowledge and skills they will need for “global civic engagement.”

Shyam Sharma is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky. He will be recognized with a K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award during AAC&U’s Annual Meeting.