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Bitácora: Assessment as Conversation
In summer 2008, five undergraduate students from Duke University/DukeEngage traveled with me and project codirector Jota Samper to Medellín, Colombia, to teach workshops at the city's five Parques Bibliotecas. These "Library Parks" are not typical libraries: they are state-of-the-art spaces with Internet rooms, reading lounges, theaters, and open-air plazas with 360-degree views of the Andes mountains. Built in the last five years in the city's most impoverished communities as part of a disarmament and peace process, the Parques Bibliotecas are spaces for people to learn, socialize, and be. We also piloted a memory project with communities not traditionally represented in official histories. Did our program change the world? Of course not. Did we contribute to Medellin's peace process? This is what we sought to explore with our Bitácora project.
Bitácora roughly translates as "ship's log." It is the ship captain's record of a voyage: observations about constellations and weather, crew members' daily lives, discoveries, fears, hopes, dreams. We borrowed this concept as a reflection tool. But we modified one key element. Our Bitácora was not just from "the captain." We sought a Bitácora from all members of "the crew," as well as those left "on land": DukeEngage students, homestay families, community partners, community members in the middle-class neighborhood where we lived and the impoverished neighborhoods where we worked, the café cook, our driver, Colombian university professors and students, and students' families and friends.
Assessment of study abroad programs is often initiated and evaluated by the U.S. academy, and the results are published by and for the U.S. academy. This typically renders invisible the labor and critical perspectives of dozens of actors our programs are built with and profess to be about: community partners in the host countries. This one-directional focus reflects the larger pedagogical, research, and programmatic focus of many U.S. universities and of much U.S. international policy, mainstream media, and cultural production. For fifteen years, I have struggled to negotiate this one-directional focus as student, journalist, scholar, and teacher.
By inviting all actors to participate, our assessment moved from the format of report (one-directional and static) to conversation (multidirectional and ongoing). This conversational approach is especially necessary in Medellín, known until a few years ago as the most violent city in the world. Our very presence there was no small feat. Many of our homestay families had never met anyone from the United States, and ours was among the first cultural programming in the Parques Bibliotecas. This was an historic moment, an opportunity to record a kind of "first encounter" between people choosing to move beyond stereotypes of violence, racism, imperialism, and indifference to instead live and work together. Our collective engagement was a small but significant contribution to the city's ongoing peace process. We wanted to know: What changed? Who did it impact? Why does it matter? For whom?
We conducted qualitative assessments with all participants: one-page reflections, e-mails, weekly meetings with community partners, conversations with homestay families. DukeEngage students recorded daily reflections in the medium of their choice and responded to one weekly Bitácora question, selecting which private reflections to make public. Among other participants, we hoped for some interest. The response shocked us. People brought more than three hundred contributions: video, photograph, song, and written word, including a documentary and interviews with five local and national newspaper and television stations. From these materials, we crafted a multimedia volume ("The Directors' Cut") that we are translating into a published multimedia book-map.
This constellation of traditional and nontraditional assessments fulfilled the very real requirements of early, mid, final and postprogram reporting. The Bitácoras' unscripted anecdotal accounts answered questions we never would have known to ask, located solutions we might never had imagined, and indicated results we would never have seen using a traditional approach. The project has helped keep our community partners at the center of evaluating our Medellín program's complex dimensions. It also is part of the pedagogy and scholarship I call history engaged. To learn more, visit dukeparquebibliotecascolombia.blogspot.com.