Collaborative humanities project brings professors and students together to understand cultural identity

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 - 6:33pm

 From left to right: Juan Schlebusch, Andries Coetzee, Silvana Schlebush, Lorenzo García-Amaya, Nicholas Henriksen, Marta Myburgh, Jenifer Schlebush.

From left to right: Juan Schlebusch, Andries Coetzee, Silvana Schlebush, Lorenzo García-Amaya, Nicholas Henriksen, Marta Myburgh, Jenifer Schlebush. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Richard Finn Gregory / GOOD WORK

Near an isolated desert in Patagonia, Argentina, a unique community which, in 1980, was classified as virtually “extinct,” still resides. These descendants of South African Boers immigrated to Patagonia at the start of the 20th century and are bilingual, speaking both Afrikaans and the current dominant language, Spanish.

Yet, it seems mostly the older generation — those who are in their 60s — speak Afrikaans, while their children and grandchildren have adapted to the prevailing language of Spanish as the community begins to consolidate into modern Argentine society. The bulk of those who have mastered both of these languages have begun to dissipate.  

However, for Nicholas Henriksen, associate professor of linguistics and principal investigator of the Afrikaans-Argentine Collaboratory project, the distinct and relatively veteran community provides insight for a contemporary understanding of cultural identity.  

“This community is surprisingly very relatable,” Henriksen said. “A lot of the topics they talk about are still very relevant to 21st century politics. We live in a country where identity is really important. They have really interesting views about race; many people today can identify and relate to these stories from over a hundred years ago.”

Henriksen’s project is funded through a grant from the Humanities Collaboratory, a research initiative established at the University of Michigan in the summer of 2017 that provides resources for humanities-specific scholars to work on more research-based projects. The grant gave him the opportunity to create the “From Africa to Patagonia: Voices of Displacement project. Due to the complicated nature of the community, he realized this was not just a linguistics centralized study, but one that incorporated a wide variety of different humanities fields.

“We needed to be able to research the community not in just linguistic terms but also in terms of their racial views, their historical views, their views on ethnicity in race — as they have a really long history with Apartheid,” Henriksen said. “So we realized as linguists, we weren’t really trained in ways that would allow us to approach these questions on the human experience. So we knew we had to work with other collaborators.”

The project is composed of an interdisciplinary team of U-M faculty, post-doctoral students, graduate students and undergraduates, totaling about 40 members altogether. Each of these members stem from an array of different fields, including history, linguistics, literature, anthropology and much more. The team has visited Patagonia once in 2014 and again in 2017, conducting more than 100 interviews in both Afrikaans and Spanish.

Ryan Szpiech, associate professor of Spanish, looks more into the religious aspect of the relation between the Afrikaans’ identity, but because of the collaborative project, has begun to branch out within his own research. Szpiech noted how certain values in humanities fields tend to limit collaboration.

“In the humanities, we don’t tend to work together,” Szpiech said. “We read and write by ourselves because of the emphasis in the humanities on originality and the form of an argument when writing and researching. In the humanities, there is a lot of stress on how elegant your rhetoric is and how original your ideas are, which really does limit itself in terms of collaboration.”

Szpiech said he appreciates how this project has allowed him to explore disciplines he was previously unfamiliar with.

“Co-writing, co-authoring pieces together is so stimulating, it has pushed us all too start talking about things we’re not fully comfortable with,” Szpiech said. “That is something interesting about the collaboratory; it’s not a whole bunch of experts that are fully informed of their subject. Everyone has their area, but we have all sort of branched out into new areas to try on new things. Because we are working together, we feel support for each other.”

Similarly, Myrna Cintron-Valentin, a doctoral candidate in psychology, had to shift her view of a “traditional lab” and learn new skills like archiving, of which she had no previous knowledge.

“I’ve worked in a variety of different research labs — coming from psychology, I’ve had experience with interdisciplinary labs before where people from different areas breed together their knowledge into a project, but never quite as I’ve experienced here where I feel as if people’s different academic areas of experience really come together to generate new things,” Cintron-Valentin said. “From the beginning, everyone was deeply involved. It was not just one person. All of the faculty members and even the student interest have been integrated into this one big project.”

One of the most interesting components of the lab is the incorporation of more than 25 undergraduate students. Henriksen’s aim is to combat some of the problems faced by the liberal arts in higher education, such as the decline in enrollment numbers in light of rising student debt, the 2008 financial crisis and the job market. He hopes to re-imagine humanities research and education within its place in 21st-century academia.

Currently, many schools, including The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, have begun cutting programs and eliminating majors related to the liberal arts, and instead promoting majors that have a “clear” and more focused career path, like those in STEM fields.

“We try to incorporate undergraduates in all that we do, I think that is really where our project stands out,” Henriksen said. “They are a really important piece on our collaborative puzzle. They’re applying things they learned in the classroom to the real world. Many people find it hard to figure out what to do with a humanities degree; we’re able to show them they can do something within a research context and allow them to be able to develop their own intellectual voice.”

LSA freshman Courtney Greifenberger said although she came into the lab with little experience, she was easily accepted and encouraged to actively participate in the work.

“It’s turned into a community where undergrads, like myself, are really encouraged to step up and voice all questions and all thoughts,” Greifenberger said. “It went from intimidating to extremely accepting of all question and all ideas.”

LSA sophomore Ellie Johandes has had the opportunity to be the lead socio-cultural analyst in the project. After a failed attempt to get a position at a biology lab through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, she found a home at the humanities lab and has learned a great deal about the Afrikaans community.

“It's a fascinating study of greater issues that we still deal with in the world today, like racial relations and feelings of identity,” Johnades said. “It’s a story of an immigrant group — so being a stranger in a strange land and adapting and surviving, it’s a very compelling story. I’ve learned so much at the lab. Everyone collaborates, you can watch an idea grow and be transformed from something to something completely different. The level of collaboration that goes on is just something else.”

Johandes will soon have an article pertaining to her research published in The Times Higher Education. The team recently has also published an essay in The Conversation about the community and their role in the revival of Afrikaans language and culture in Patagonia, Argentina, and have had their work represented in The Times (UK), Babel, and through Michigan Radio.

According to Henriksen, the excitement has led to a spike in student enrollment in his department. Now, the Spanish linguistics courses are full with waiting lists. He also supervises three to four independent studies, recruits six to eight students through UROP, and has students competing to write honors theses on the Argentine-Afrikaans community.

The children and grandchildren of the Afrikaan-Argentine community members responded to the team’s 2014 visit by seeking out a teacher to offer online classes in Afrikaans.

“We have since made it our goal that a broader public come to view this community as its members do: not as a faded relic of the past, but as a group that continues to thrive in spite of a transformed socio-cultural landscape,” Henriksen said.