Most of the students at Southwestern University have probably never had the opportunity to interact with students who live in New England. And most of the students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut have probably never had the opportunity to interact with students from Texas.
This semester about 40 students from the two schools had a chance to interact with one another through a unique course offered by Alisa Gaunder, an associate professor of political science at Southwestern, and Sarah Wiliarty, an associate professor of government at Wesleyan.
Gaunder and Wiliarty met while attending graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley and have stayed in touch ever since. While Gaunder specialized in Japanese politics, Wiliarty specialized in West European politics.
A few years ago, the two co-authored the syllabus for a comparative politics class. Then they began co-authoring research papers since the two share a common interest in the role women play in the politics of the countries they study.
After collaborating on research, the two professors thought it would also be nice if their students would have the opportunity to collaborate with one another.
“I thought it would be nice for our students to see what other students are studying and to help bring relevance to what they are studying here,” Gaunder said.
Gaunder and Wiliarty decided to pool their expertise and co-develop a new course that could be offered at both their institutions. The course is called Germany and Japan: Losers of World War II? It focuses on how both countries faced the dual challenge of making political transitions to democratic government and recovering from the economic ruin of World War II.
The course was offered for the first time this semester and both professors couldn’t be happier with the results. Gaunder and Wiliarty taught the class independently, but thanks to a little help from technology, the students from both schools were able to have two joint class meetings.
In advance of the second meeting, teams of students from both colleges were asked to research how different political parties in each country approached issues such as the environment, immigration, nuclear power and women.
Using Google Hangout, the teams then “met” during class time to discuss their findings.
“This is the first time I have done anything like this,” said Zach Coats, a senior international studies major with a concentration in political science/East Asia. “It was interesting to see how collaborative efforts work.”
Coats and classmates Jesse Chiu and Danny Jozwiak compared notes with students at Wesleyan on how the political parties in Germany and Japan approached the issue of nuclear power, especially in light of the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. Ironically, the students found that nuclear power has become much more of an issue in Germany since the incident than in Japan.
“It was interesting to see how other students are working on the same things and coming to the same conclusions,” said Jozwiak, who is a junior political science major.
The conversations weren’t all about politics, though. After discussing their assigned topics, the students quickly turned to topics such as the weather in their respective states and what it is like to attend the different schools.
After the joint conversations, Gaunder gathered her students back together to discuss what they learned from them. The students from Southwestern frequently mentioned points that their counterparts at Wesleyan had brought up.
“It’s been really exciting,” Gaunder said. “The students have been very energized by it.”
Wiliarty will be on sabbatical next year, but Gaunder said she hopes the two can teach the course again sometime during the 2014-2015 academic year.