Teaching Study Abroad at the End of the World
You can hear the ubiquitous coughing. The sort of cough that has a raspy, almost wet sound to it. You can see it on people’s foreheads as beads of sweat gather into drips and on the damp backs of shirts. You can smell it in the air. It smells like a wood burning stove, but the smoke is mixed with plastics and metal. The tar that covers some of the sidewalks melts as you step on it, leaving an impression of your shoe. All these details sound like the setting of an end of the world story. But now imagine you are actually there guiding twenty students on an immersive, study abroad experience throughout all these events. What can you do to encourage active learning while facing these increasingly existential threats?
I spent June 2022 teaching a university study abroad course in Rome, Italy as well as other parts of the country. The day my students and I arrived in Rome was the day Italy removed the mask mandate for public transportation and coincided with the beginning of a record heatwave that spread from Italy to most of Europe. The pandemic and heat concerns were compounded by wildfires that burned uncontrollably during the month which caused ash to occasionally fall from the sky like warm snow.
We spent the month doing experimental video production and journalism using site-specific, locative storytelling. (Link from 2019’s course.) For the theory portion of the course, I frame our discussions around Timothy Morton’s concept of the hyperobject. A hyperobject refers “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” While the course delves into the vastness of human history and geological deep time, we are also confronted by the everyday reality of climate change, geopolitical chaos, a raging pandemic, and infrastructure collapse — all things bigger than we can comprehend at once. You can feel the hyperobject everywhere. “Hyperobjects are here, right here in my social and experiential space. Like faces pressed against a window, they leer at me menacingly: their very nearness is what menaces,” Morton writes.