Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Study Abroad’s Seven Deadly Sins

Peter Coclanis, University of North Carolina, New York Times

[JB comment: Since when does a U.S. student abroad "represent an American university?" See the last para of the below below piece; perhaps it's just as well that s/he doesn't, in some cases; see: "University of North Carolina academic scandal will end quietly, just like [sic] everyone wanted""UNC records show deep dependence on fake classes."

Author of the April 8, 2016 of the NYT piece is Peter A. Coclanisdirector of the Global Research Institute the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (how's that for a title from North Carolina, which most ignorant foreigners probably can't find on a map?) and professor of history at that venerable institution.

Coclanis's university bio notes that: "His teaching schedule is currently quite limited because of his responsibilities as Director of the Global Research Institute." 

I wonder if it may have occurred to Prof. Coclanis that UNC undergrads may want a year "off" from a prestigious state University -- allow me to suggest they, looking for new ways of looking at the world, might find Chapel Hill, instinctively if not intellectually, parochial -- where the good prof is mini-teaching?]

Of course, I hate to be skeptical that Coclanis's doubtless scintillating, penetrating page-turning opus, Economic Life and Death in the South Carolina Low Country, 1670-1920 (no, I assume for the sake of its readers, that it doesn't go beyond 1920, although I haven't read it) will lead undergrads to think about the Great Questions of International Affairs and International Understanding -- if not the meaning of life and death. But then maybe it will, in South Carolina itself. North Carolina included?

image (not from article) from

Here's the good North Carolina professor's NYT article about sinning abroad (part of an age-old all-USA "narrative" about the Old World corrupting pure, innocent Americans, or is it the other way around?) ...

We’ve all heard about the purported benefits of study-abroad programs,
the most fundamental of which is the opportunity for personal growth.
Proponents are often vague about precisely what they mean in this regard, but
growth is generally said to be signified by a broadening of perspective, greater
adaptability and confidence, and enhanced empathy. Along with having the
opportunity to develop international networks and improve language skills,
study-­abroad students are set on the path to becoming “global citizens.” The
full (international) monty!

In many, if not most cases, students do have positive experiences. That
said, long involvement in international education in general and study abroad
in particular has led me to the conclusion that other outcomes are also
possible, particularly for students who go into a program without much
forethought, focus or purpose. With the above considerations in mind, I have
identified some of the threats that, in part by diverting students from pursuing
more fruitful educational/travel experiences, can derail a study-­abroad

Slide Courses

Without too much effort, students can locate courses with minimal
requirements and irregular schedules, often taught by stringers and
moonlighters. Because few American students have the language skills to
“direct enroll” in regular classes in another country, partner institutions often
maximize instruction in English to accommodate American schools. And so it
is relatively easy to take all classes in English regardless of locale. But taking
slide courses, especially in English, considerably lessens the possibility that
you will get much out of your academic experience.

From a purely academic standpoint, the quality of study abroad is likely to
be less than that at home. Sure, there are excellent universities in other parts
of the world that offer rich study­-abroad opportunities. But proprietary
programs, set up and staffed by American universities, and programs arranged
by third­-party providers, which bundle students from various universities in a
foreign destination, are a mixed bag. It doesn’t help that many students have
quite a few other things on their minds than academics.


The minimum drinking age in foreign countries is typically lower (in most
of Europe 18, or 16 for beer and wine) or nonexistent (in parts of Africa and
Asia), and many drinking establishments have yet to abandon happy hours
(often lasting until 10 or 11 p.m.), ladies nights or “open pours” for a set price.
So some students spend a good deal of time squandering what should be one
of the highlights of their undergraduate careers. Try following a discussion on
Dutch art in the golden age or on the origins of the euro in a 9 a.m. seminar
with a half-­dozen hung-­over 19­-year­-olds. (Classes, especially in proprietary
programs, are largely held in the mornings to allow for afternoon tours and
museum visits, and on Monday through Thursday so that three-­day weekends
can be used for travel.)

Sexual Fervidity

From the point of view of some students, no study-­abroad program would
be complete without an “experiential education” component involving sex with
a local, despite the chill effect of the Amanda Knox tragedy in Perugia, Italy.
Students in such relationships spend much of their nonscheduled hours
otherwise engaged, with intermittent treks to the door to pick up pizzas from
Domino’s, which now has locations in more than 75 countries. Follow
Plautus’s famous injunction: modus omnibus in rebus.


When not drinking or looking for sex, some students spend inordinate
amounts of time engaged in this “sin”— and the cheaper and tackier the junk
bought, the better. One student in a program I led spent almost all her
nonscheduled hours pounding the pavement of Southeast Asia haggling over
$2 T­-shirts and trinkets. The opportunity costs were high, both in the form of
museums and performances missed and deeper, richer relationships foregone.
She told me she felt a lot of pressure to return with gifts for family, neighbors
and sorority sisters. By no means was she superficial (she is now a doctor). She
just never thought much about what she wanted out of studying abroad.


This generally occurs in stand­-alone proprietary programs open to
students from one institution and led by a professor from that school. If
designed well — inviting students in the host country to enroll in classes,
scheduling home stays — such programs minimize self­-segregation. But too
often programs consist of 15 to 20 students, subdivided into three or four
subgroups of friends, living and learning in splendid isolation behind a kind of
de facto cordon sanitaire. When such students do venture beyond the line,
they often do so with other study­-abroad students in similar programs from
similar schools, further insulating themselves from interaction with local


If I ruled the world, no student abroad would be allowed a smartphone.
When students have smartphones with robust calling plans, they might as well
stay at State U. Some observers have referred to this as the FOMO syndrome:
Fear of missing out on activities back home tethers them to texting with people
thousands of miles away rather than engaging with those on the scene. As
world ruler I would, for safety’s sake, concede the need for one smartphone, to
remain in the possession of the program director. I’d also require students on
the flight over to read Sherry Turkle’s new book, “Reclaiming Conversation:
The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.”


Fingers in noses, tongues out, pants down, you name it — inappropriate
selfies are taken at venues ranging from ancient ruins to modern­-day holy
places. While on a visit with a study-­abroad group to the International Islamic
University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I had to stop a student from taking a
selfie in front of the administration building while wearing an Israeli army
beret he had in his backpack. Fun stuff like that.

Mature students with purpose and dedication will generally achieve the
kind of personal growth so often heralded by study­-abroad boosters.
Immature students will not, for these programs do not so much build
character as reveal it. A foreign country isn’t the place for a childish 20-­year-old
to grow up, especially when representing an American university. Students
and parents, take heed.

Peter A. Coclanis is director of the Global Research Institute and
a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel

1 comment:

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