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Engaging Haiti

The work of a North­eastern pro­fessor has engaged teachers and stu­dents in Haiti, and soon, through the cre­ation of a new course, she will be doing so with the help of her stu­dents at Northeastern.

Eliz­a­beth Mad­dock Dillon, asso­ciate pro­fessor of Eng­lish in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, recently returned from a research and teaching trip to Haiti, where she assisted in devel­oping teaching cur­ricula for schools in tent com­mu­ni­ties and also taught a course for secondary-​​school teachers on nar­ra­tive and trauma at the Uni­ver­sité Caraïbe.

Dillon, whose field of study focuses on early Amer­ican lit­er­a­ture, had never vis­ited the country until she became involved with the “Haiti Empow­er­ment Project,” an ini­tia­tive that con­nects with teachers and prin­ci­pals in Haiti. She said the expe­ri­ence was amazing, but was struck by the lack of resources.

“Very little public schooling is avail­able there,” she said. “Most schools are pri­vate and cost money; only about 50 per­cent of Haitian chil­dren can afford to attend school.”

Dillon vis­ited ele­men­tary and middle schools, some of which were pre­ex­isting, while others had just recently started in the tent com­mu­ni­ties and had no books, no elec­tricity and no chalk­boards or chalk.

The pur­pose of her visit was to help chil­dren in tent com­mu­ni­ties gain a sense of hope by telling sto­ries about their lives.

“As a lit­er­a­ture pro­fessor, I was working on issues around nar­ra­tive and sto­ry­telling,” she said. “I found that a lot of the stu­dents in the tent com­mu­ni­ties had trouble telling sto­ries about them­selves — the trauma of their cir­cum­stances made it dif­fi­cult for them to put together a nar­ra­tive of past, present and future. It soon became clear to me the impor­tance of sto­ry­telling for devel­oping hope and a sense of the future.”

During a sem­inar at the Uni­ver­sité Caraïbe, Dillon spoke to high school teachers about the rela­tion­ship between trauma and nar­ra­tive. Trauma can leave you fixed in a moment of vio­lence and nar­rating a story of trauma together with others can help you to move beyond the moment of the trau­matic event, she said.This fall, Dillon will debut a new expe­ri­en­tial edu­ca­tion class called Engaging Haiti, which she describes as an inter­sec­tion of lit­erary and cul­tural studies. The course will guide stu­dents through the his­tory of Haiti and the country’s lit­er­a­ture up to the present.

The expe­ri­en­tial com­po­nents of the course include student-​​conducted inter­views with scholars and activists, meeting with mem­bers of the Haitian com­mu­nity in Boston, and building a web­site, called U.S.-Haiti Aca­d­emic Net­work, about his­tor­ical and con­tem­po­rary work in Haiti.

“The site will pro­vide resources for aca­d­e­mics and pos­si­bil­i­ties to set up col­lab­o­ra­tions between Haitian and U.S. stu­dents and pro­fes­sors,” said Dillon. “Stu­dents will help to build the site, inter­view scholars and post videos. The web­site will also pro­vide a com­pre­hen­sive listing of projects taking place in Haiti.”

– by Jason Kornwitz

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