Interdisciplinary learning theme goes big next fall by focusing on Africa

For the first time, the interdisciplinary learning theme for Western Carolina University will be in place for two academic years beginning next fall.

“Africa! Not Just a Continent” was the unanimous choice of the steering committee selecting the theme, and the members felt that the size and scope of the subject deserved emphasis throughout 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Carol Burton, associate provost for undergraduate studies, said the tagline provided an opportunity to emphasize that size and scope. “There are so many misconceptions about Africa,” she said. “So many people think of it as a single country. The Mercator maps we see distort the size of the continent; it looks smaller in comparison to, say, North America. But Africa has 54 countries.”

The second largest land mass with the second largest population in the world also has a rich diversity of climates, ecologies, economies and cultures. “That gives us the opportunity to have a great campuswide conversation about a beautiful, diverse, culture-rich continent,” Burton said. “One of the things a learning theme does is help us have a conversation that pushes the edge, enlightens and inspires us – whether it is about a place, period or person, and we’ve had all of those.”

Shoes were fitted to children in South Africa on this “Distribution Day,” March 24, 2015. (Photo: Samaritan’s Feet)

Shoes were fitted to children in South Africa on this “Distribution Day,” March 24, 2015. (Photo: Samaritan’s Feet)

Burton said that Africa is “a provocative topic to me, personally. But what really excites me is the opportunity to propose it, not only to our students, but to the public.”

The two-year span gives plenty of time to present the conversation more widely. “Once we launch a learning theme, we want to get it out early so that disciplines can plan to embed it in courses and activities,” Burton said. “We’ll take a two-pronged approach: a first year for general awareness about geography, food, culture, basic issues; then in the second year, an embedded, deeper approach – including, hopefully, travel-learning opportunities.”

Among the many opportunities afforded by the theme, a unique one for service learning has presented itself. “We’re forming a partnership with Samaritan’s Feet, an international charity that supplies shoes for children,” Burton said. “It was founded by Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Ohonme, who has four children – one of whom attends WCU. This partnership will open many opportunities for grassroots involvement of people who are interested.”

In weeks to come, as more planning and preparation for fall semester takes place, work will progress on a website offering instructional materials and other information created with the help of Hunter Library and Coulter Faculty Commons, Burton said.

Previous interdisciplinary learning themes have been:

2009-2010      “Josefina Niggli – A Celebration of Culture, Life and Art”

2010-2011      “Sweet ‘n Low – An Interdisciplinary Journey to Living Well”

2011-2012      “The WCU Poverty Project”

2012-2013      “Citizenship and Civility”

2013-2014      “The Decade of the 1960’s – Take it All In”

2014-2015      “North Carolina: Our State, Our Time”