Western Carolina University – Two countries, one literature class, brought together by WCU

Searching for study abroad opportunities amid the pandemic, Brian Railsback, professor of English at Western Carolina University, decided to try a virtual study abroad course – but unlike at other digital endeavors, he wanted to “team up” with a literature class from another country.

“I happened to be invited to lecture in the Republic of Georgia four times, so I contacted my good colleague, Irakli Tskhvediani in Kutaisi, the second largest city in Georgia,” Railsback said. “We agreed to take a course together, ‘Cross-Cultural Readings: Georgia and the United States,’ working on the logistics of technology, jet lag, and course content. ”

In addition, Railsback was added to the thesis jury of the Faculty of Humanities of Akaki Tsereteli State University.

The Republic of Georgia, a former Soviet state on the Black Sea, has a rich cultural and literary heritage, as well as rigorous academics dating back to antiquity. The students compared Georgian and American authors from several artistic periods, such as the romantic poets Walt Whitman and Nikoloz Baratashvili, or the contemporary and post-modern fiction writers Carmen Maria Machado and Aka Morchiladze. WCU students prepared for the course by reading the 12th century Georgian masterpiece, “The Knight in the Panther Skin” by Shota Rustaveli.

“It was Professor Railsback’s idea to launch a joint online course that would approach Georgian and American literature from the perspective of comparative cultural studies,” said Tskhvediani, professor of English and American literature at ATSU. “We have tried to select for reading classical and contemporary writers. ”

An additional objective of the course is to get to know students from a very different culture and, in terms of literature, to see how the two countries have navigated similar movements in literary history.

“The course focused on contextual analysis as well as careful reading of individual works, finding a balance between the two,” Tskhvediani said. “Providing basic historical and cultural information, the course explores textual intricacies across different eras and literary movements. It was surprisingly interesting to compare Georgian and American authors from different cultural perspectives. And finally, it was an interactive class with the students actively engaged in all the activities, discussions and debates.

While internet connections and technological differences between different continents bring occasional challenges, the dynamics of the course have so far proven to be rewarding.

“This class has been a great experience in my penultimate semester,” said Jacob Padillo, WCU student, senior at Lexington. “Of course, the cultural exchange offered in this course was an element that pushed me to take it, and I was not disappointed. Learning more about Georgian culture through lectures and literature would be quite interesting in itself, but to combine these aspects of the course with the interactive element of talking with Georgian students and Professor Irakli brought the engagement and the understanding at a higher level.

“Personally, I have worked more in my education classes than in my traditional English classes over the past few semesters, and I could not have chosen a better course to both return to my literary roots and expand my learning this semester. There was not a single uninteresting reading throughout the semester, and the discussions that accompanied these books were equally captivating.

From a classroom some 6,000 miles away, Georgian student Ninutsa Nadirashvili made separate observations, saying: “I have noticed that Georgian students are more likely to bring up the historical context of the readings that we have read. are assigned or talk about stories that revolve around the author. American students are more concerned with the text itself. I don’t know how this is a cultural difference, but there may be something to it. Additionally, I have noticed that American students are genuinely surprised or impressed with certain Georgian works, while Georgian students more frequently express frustration with understanding the material. This is, of course, because American students read in their native language and the course, by necessity, is entirely in English. ”

Konstantin Grabowski, a German exchange student enrolled in the course, also has a similar perspective. “I learned that there are many ways to read literature,” he said. “American students tend to focus more on the text, while Georgian students examine the context and the era in which the literature was written. I also learned to see literature in a different way. It doesn’t bother me anymore; it’s fun to read when you study what the author is trying to express. This course also helped me broaden my own thinking processes and express my ideas about literature more clearly.

The experience of students studying together across geographic and cultural boundaries is proving fruitful, and both professors believe there will be other opportunities.

“It was the first international online course in the history of my home university,” Tskhvediani said. “I think it has been mutually beneficial. It was a great experience for Georgian students who enjoyed it immensely and hopefully American students too. I hope that this fruitful collaboration with Professor Railsback will continue in the future.

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