Teaching Transnational Migration, Belonging and Power with Google Maps

One of the challenges I have found in teaching topics like transnational migration and globalization is how to help students see the larger historical and political implications of global connections, while also appreciating their own roles as global actors. This is especially true at a place like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), where many of my students come from small towns in Illinois and describe their school as being in the middle of a cornfield in the middle of nowhere. Despite having an awareness that their school has one of the largest populations of Chinese and Korean international students in the US, they often feel that globalization is something that happens elsewhere and migration is not a topic that impacts them or their community. I wanted to design a course that would not only help students visualize the ways in which they are globally connected on campus, but would also give them the chance to research how their actions and friendships produce what we think of as globalization. To achieve this I designed a course where students conducted ethnographies of the people, commodities and ideas that move through campus and created Google Maps displaying their findings. Through conducting interviews and archival research about their topics and analyzing the overlapping connections made visible on their maps, students then contributed theoretical ideas about transnational belonging and migration, cultural citizenship, im/mobility and global comfort zones on their campus.

This course was affiliated with the Ethnography of the University Initiative (EUI), a UIUC program that promotes student-led research about the university. As an EUI-affiliated course, my students had access to multi-media training and technology, guidance in designing projects which received IRB approval, and the chance to archive their findings in a digital repository called IDEALS. Two groups presented their findings at a student research conference at the end of the semester and were able to discuss their research with their peers.

Mapping

As a preliminary assignment to get students thinking about the university as a site of global connection, and to also help them learn Google Map technology, I asked students to take photos of the places they visited every day on campus and write a caption about the significance of each site to their college life. They also brought in links to photos, videos, and articles that represented their places of origin and paths to college. I divided the class into groups of 4 or 5 students and members of the CITES Academic Technology Service taught them how to create a Google map and embed their photos, links and captions. Each group analyzed their maps and talked about the ways their daily paths often crossed (many people brought in photos of the same dorm or favorite chair in the Union) yet they never met each other during the day. Many found that even when they came from distant places (ie, South Korea, Malaysia, or the suburbs of Chicago) their social spaces were relatively small, and their comfort zones were firmly carved out on the campus map.

Eating Ramen at UIUC

Mapping stores. Image courtesy Erica Vogel

Using their comfort-zone maps as inspiration, groups then chose a commodity available on campus and researched its global commodity chain from production, consumption and disposal and embedded links on their maps displaying their findings. For example, after comparing their daily paths, one group found that some members frequently visited the many Asian specialty grocery stores on campus while other members of the group had never heard of these stores. That inspired them to focus on the commodity chain of ramen noodles and ask how brands (the Korean Shin Ramen and the American Maruchan in particular) are marketed to different students by their ethnicity and in turn create feelings of belonging based on ethnicity and comfort food.

Research questions and hypothesis regarding Chrysanthemum Tea. Image courtesy Erica Vogel

Drinking Chrysanthemum Tea at UIUC

Commodity chain of Chrysanthemum Tea. Image courtesy Erica Vogel

A second group focused on Yeo’s Chrysanthemum Tea, a Singaporean tea drink available at some of these same Asian stores on campus. They asked whether the availability of this commodity could create and reflect a sense of community and transnational belonging for the growing population of Singaporean students on campus (who they found were all concentrated in the same dorm). In a surprising twist, after conducting interviews with various international students, they concluded that the drink was not popular amongst Singaporeans, but rather created a sense of nostalgia for international students from Malaysia, where the drink had been heavily promoted during their youth as representing something “international.”

Chief Illiniwek T-shirt Project

Chief Illiniwek T-shirt Project. Image courtesy Erica Vogel

After designing research proposals, each group conducted ethnographic interviews with students and members of the UIUC community, which they edited and embedded on their maps. They also visited the university archives and found photographs and statistics about their commodity and the larger thematic issues of their projects, which they analyzed with the help of course readings. This process revealed multiple perspectives in ways that a non-collaborative project might not. For example, a third group, who had all arrived to UIUC along different global paths, decided to focus on the commodity of a now-banned T-shirt featuring an image of the school’s controversial former mascot Chief Illiniwek (a stereotypical image of a Native American man in a war bonnet). They asked how this commodity acted as a multivalent fetish that caused vastly different reactions as it moved through places in the world, each of which had different historical and political perspectives on the symbol’s meaning. For one of their interviewees, a leader of a Filipino student association on campus, the symbol conjured images of exclusion and misrepresentation, while for the mother of an international student from China, the gift of a Chief Illiniwek T-shirt symbolized her son’s transnational belonging in an elite American institution of higher education and all of its promises.

In the reflection papers students wrote about their maps and the research process, many students offered suggestions to how the university could better address issues of its global community.  Through their research they learned firsthand about their own role in the globalization of the university, but also more importantly, the importance of their contributions as applied anthropologists.

Erica Vogel is a visiting lecturer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and next year will be a post-doctoral fellow in the Pacific Basin Research Center at Soka University of America. She is currently finishing work on her manuscript Undocumentable Migrations: transnational formations of money, miracles and belonging for Peruvian migrants in South Korea.

Please send ideas for future columns to column editors, Leo Coleman (coleman.514@osu.edu) and Allison Fish (fish.88@osu.edu).
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