Seeking Voices that Bring New Perspectives and Insights
Published: July 6, 2012
Beloit College professor Sonja Darlington hears voices, though not in the way you might be thinking.
Rather, she hears – seeks out, acknowledges, and values – voices of people who can bring different perspectives and new insights to any subject she is investigating or teaching.
The voices might include a writer who is struggling to be published, a village elder passing down wisdom gleaned from the experiences of previous generations, or the leader of a community organization.
Students in her classes hear a multitude of voices, too, as she infuses her teaching with dialogue, lived experience, and alternative knowledge systems. Darlington's approach – to examine complex issues from many angles and draw connections among many disciplines – is well-suited to off-campus study, and she will use it in spring 2013 when she leads the ACM Botswana: University Immersion in Southern Africa program.
This will be Darlington's second semester as faculty director of an ACM program in Africa. The first was in 2004 when she led the Nation Building and Development in Africa program in Tanzania, the precursor to the current Botswana program.
Sonja Darlington with members of the African Language Department at the University of Botswana.
As before, she will teach a course and guide students in their independent study projects. Study of Setswana, the country's national language, and an elective course at the host University of Botswana will round out the curriculum. The program includes a variety of field trips – to the Okavango Delta, villages, and other places in Botswana, as well as a trip to Johannesburg, South Africa – and students can choose to volunteer with community organizations in Gaborone, the country’s capital city where the program is located.
Although Darlington teaches in the Department of Education and Youth Studies at Beloit, her roots in the humanities are deep. As an infant, she immigrated to the U.S. with her Swiss parents, and grew up with a love of languages and music.
"I studied French and German in junior and senior high school," she recalled. "My father and mother were trilingual and they thought it was important to have languages. That was something that I really enjoyed." Later, she studied Arabic and Kiswahili.
As a teenager, she was a violinist in the prestigious all-city youth orchestra in Cleveland, and continued playing while she majored in German language and literature at Baldwin Wallace College. After college, Darlington began teaching German, first as an assistant instructor at Grinnell College – "I really, really liked that and knew I wanted to be teaching at a liberal arts college," she noted – and then at Ames (IA) High School. She went on to Iowa State University for an M.A. in English literature and a Ph.D. in education, and joined the Beloit faculty in the early 1990s.
Sonja Darlington with Nigerian dramatist Tess Onwueme (right) and other presenters at the Onwueme Conference in Abuja, Nigeria.
Her expertise in Africa got its start when she wanted to teach a course on African literature and looked around for ways to build her knowledge in that area.
Darlington's role as a budding Africanist got a boost from the ACM, which received a grant in 1999 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to establish the Global Partners Project. A joint effort with the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) and the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS), Global Partners was aimed at strengthening international education on the liberal arts campuses of the three consortia.
East Africa was a region emphasized in the project, and Darlington attended a Global Partners faculty seminar in Kenya. Over the next several years, through the project, she received a pair travel grants to go to Uganda and Tanzania, participated in two more conferences on East Africa, and helped line up a Fulbright to bring a professor from the University of Dar es Salaam to Beloit to teach courses in women's and gender studies.
Along with her ACM program directorship in Tanzania, Darlington’s teaching, presenting, and research in Africa have also taken her to Ethiopia, South Africa, Botswana, Nigeria, Egypt, and Senegal. In addition to her courses in education and youth culture at Beloit, she teaches classes on African literature and politics and First Year Seminars focused on various regions of Africa.
Students in the spring 2012 Botswana Program on a field trip.
Photo courtesy of Bill Moseley
Darlington's course in spring 2013, Youth Culture and Education in Botswana, will be an interdisciplinary examination of themes such as township and rural spaces, student political movements, indigenous knowledge, the role of media in society, immigration issues, language and literacy education, and religion and gender in schools.
"One of the reasons my course has so many multi-dimensions is that students are coming from all different kinds of majors, and I want them to be able to fit into some part of the course where they can get excited," said Darlington. She is structuring the class to encourage students to participate and gather information from multiple sources, and is working to line up guest speakers and make arrangements for students to spend time in a local school.
Getting a firsthand perspective is important, in the course and especially in the students' independent projects, said Darlington. "They're in Botswana, and I would like them to really get immersed in the cultural and social opportunities," she said. "I try to figure out what interests students have and connect them with people who can be helpful to them."
Sonja Darlington with literature professors at the University of Botswana.
Mostly, though, Darlington sees the Botswana Program – and off-campus experience in general – as an opportunity for students to follow their curiosity and try something new, to bump up against different viewpoints and ways of knowing, and to re-examine their assumptions.
"I think students benefit by opening up and being able to take in new experiences and know how to work with them," said Darlington, "so they don't think of the experiences as problems and obstacles around which they have to navigate, but they actually think of them as spaces in which they can develop."
"That's one of the things I think I can bring to students," she continued, "to help them see that those obstacles are the very moments in which you change, and you allow your mind to structure things differently. To me, that's just a great thing. It opens up new possibilities, and something really interesting can ensue that resonates for the rest of your life."
Photos are courtesy of Sonja Darlington, except as noted.
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