York students learn side-by-side with Colombian classmates

GNL Zamora

By Elaine Smith

Students are easily tempted by courses that include a trip abroad as part of the curriculum, but Hispanic Geopoetics: Geography, Literature, Identity, taught by Alejandro Zamora, offered an extra treat: classmates from the Universidad del Magdalena (UniMag) in the Colombian Caribbean region of the course’s field study.

Zamora, an associate professor of Hispanic studies at Glendon College, York University, has taught the course previously, but the 2023 edition became a joint venture, thanks to the use of a Hyflex classroom that allowed students to participate regardless of location. Throughout the winter semester, the 12 York students and eight UniMag students participated together in class discussions, class projects and assignments. By the time the field visit to Colombia came around, the classmates were fast friends.

Students in the Hispanic Geopoetics: Geography, Literature, Identity course taught by Alejandro Zamora, offered an extra treat visited the Colombian Caribbean region
Students in the Hispanic Geopoetics: Geography, Literature, Identity course taught by Alejandro Zamora, offered an extra treat visited the Colombian Caribbean region

“This was the first time we had a globally networked learning (GNL) component as part of the course and it was fantastic,” Zamora said. “The Colombian students could enrol, attend via Zoom and get course credits.” GNL is an approach to teaching, learning and research that enables students, faculty and non-academic researchers from different locations around the world to participate in, and collaborate on, knowledge-making processes and concrete research projects.

“From day one, I constantly ensured that both sets of students interacted through group work and assignments and it made a real difference when we visited Colombia; relationships and joint projects were already established.”

Geopoetics is a critical approach that investigates the relationships between literature, geography and natural and built environments; how literature can enrich understanding of a place or a territory, and vice versa. Zamora’s course explores One Hundred Years of Solitude, the influential novel written by Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez.

“This novel is deeply rooted in the Colombian Caribbean, and is also a synthesis of various regions,” said Zamora. “This course is a unique opportunity to study this novel in relation to the place that infuses its pages and language.”

As part of the Spanish program at Glendon, the course is taught in Spanish and has intermediate Spanish as a prerequisite. Students outside the program have the option of reading the novel in English or French, but still need the ability to converse in Spanish. In addition to Glendon students, it draws students from various Faculties on the Keele Campus.

During Reading Week, the York students travelled with Zamora to Colombia to meet their classmates and visit many of the locations depicted in the book, starting and ending in Santa Marta.

“There was full immersion on both sides,” Zamora said. “We travelled, visited sites and museums together, had meals together and learned about each other’s cultures. The students had meaningful conversations well beyond the scope of the course. What we experienced there surpassed expectations.

“In addition, the trip brought the book to life. We explored the villages and the local narratives that inspired the novel. In order to get a real sense of the history and political struggles of the region, you need to be there, talk to the people, and feel it. As one of my Colombian students put it: ‘We were reading the novel with our five senses.’” Students also got the opportunity to interact with local faculty and artists, “who were decisive to the success of the field trip.”

Two of the York students in the course agreed that the trip and the involvement of Colombian classmates offered invaluable insights into the book.

“It’s a tough read,” said Diego Pereira, a second-year Glendon psychology major who is originally from Brazil, “but I understand things better and everything is clearer after the trip and being where Marquez got his inspiration.”

Nicole Davis, a fifth-year Glendon student is majoring in political science with a minor in Spanish.

“Being in Colombia helped provide a clearer picture of the book and why the geography is so important,” she said. “It’s a great mix of fact and fiction and it probably couldn’t have happened elsewhere.”

They couldn’t say enough about the joys of learning side-by-side with classmates from another culture and the opportunity to travel with them.

“All the students from Colombia enriched the experience and made a difference,” said Pereira. “Examples from their lives helped illustrate the book.”

Davis added, “I really only knew two people going into the course and I cried the last day. It was a really good group and we built the type of relationships where if we haven’t spoken for years and message each other, the bond will be there.

“I’m also really grateful for the Global Skills Opportunity (through CALAREO) bursary that let me go on the trip. I’d never been to South America and I was able to confront all the stereotypes and biases you see in the media and meet all these wonderful people. I didn’t expect a school trip to be the most amazing trip I’ve ever gone on.”

For information on faculty-led programs and GNL project collaborations connect with York International helencb@yorku.ca and swhlam@yorku.ca.