Wars. Sanctions. Political repressions. For all these reasons and more, Iraqi universities have not had regular contact with the larger world of academia for decades.
“They’re still using textbooks from the 1970’s, because they’ve been so cut off,” said Gayle Nelson, professor of Applied Linguistics and coordinator of international programs for Arts and Sciences.
The new, federally-funded University Linkages Program aims to change all of that. The program matches seven American universities with seven Iraqi universities to provide updated training, materials, and theories. This January, Georgia State University begins a $1 million, three-year collaboration with the University of Baghdad (UB) to help improve the Iraqi school’s English language and literature programs.
Eric Friginal, assistant professor of applied linguistics, is heading up GSU’s efforts, with Nelson serving as his co-principal investigator. The project will have several strands, he said.
For one, there are those antiquated textbooks. Some of the grant money will go to paying for new textbooks, library materials, and academic journals. There will be teacher-training workshops, both at GSU and in Erbil, in the Kurdish area of Iraq.
But at heart, the project is about building daily connections between scholars. So Friginal and Nelson are creating what is essentially an online mentoring program. The idea is that individual GSU faculty members will be responsible for a group of five UB faculty members. The groups will have their own website through uLearn, the same system used to create sites for GSU classes.
The GSU mentors will suggest and share readings, help review syllabi, and generally discuss teaching theories and techniques with their Iraqi counterparts. And in two undergraduate Applied Linguistics classes this spring – Language and Society and Communication Across Culture – GSU students will be assigned to converse online with students at the University of Baghdad.
“Online social networking and academic discussions between GSU and UB students will produce meaningful cross-cultural experiences,” Friginal said.
The Iraqi students will be working on computers powered by generators, at least outside of the four hours of power a day that the government will provide. Many work on their comprehension by watching English-language shows on generator-powered televisions and satellite dishes.
That combination of difficulty and determination is typical of the faculty and students at the University of Baghdad, Nelson said.
“They’re hoping for something better,” she said. “That’s why they continue to study things like English.”
February 13, 2012