This is why global and regional studies are important—now more than ever

Global citizenship is central to the Penn LPS Online mission: not only do our students log on from all across the planet, but it is part of the College of Liberal and Professional Studies vision to prepare learners of all ages and backgrounds to help create a better, more inclusive world. But in the Information Age, when it is easier than ever to access news and media from across the globe, how do we begin to understand and act on an overwhelming influx of information? What tools do we have to understand and approach the complexity of international politics and large-scale challenges such as global pandemics and climate change? These are some of the questions that drive the courses in Penn LPS Online’s Certificate in Global and Regional Studies.

“I want students to look at things they’ve never looked at before, and feel confident that they can read, think, and make arguments about them,” says Dr. Deborah Harrold, senior lecturer of political science and director of the Certificate in Global and Regional Studies. “Our students are eager to learn and sometimes they don’t realize that they have learned as much as they have. But in these classes, they tackle complex issues in concrete ways, so they know they have the tools to raise issues and open up questions in discussion, in a meeting, in their company, in their workplace. They won't silence themselves.”

Dr. Michael Joiner, a medical anthropologist in Penn’s Department of Anthropology and Director of Academic Engagement at Wharton Interactive, agrees. “These courses sensitize students to the global concerns and teach them a vocabulary for big issues. That's the goal: to give students practical concrete tools to critically engage with global issues that they would otherwise have just glossed over—or, even if they're interested, and they may not know how to critically examine.” For example, Joiner teaches GLBS 2800: Contemporary Issues in Global Health—a topic that has only become more relevant in recent years. Similarly, courses such as CLCH 3100: Global Environmental Issues—which is cross-listed with the Certificate in Climate Change—can help students process the barrage of alarming headlines regarding global warming and develop a nuanced, multidisciplinary understanding of the science, policy, and economics of climate.

While earning a Certificate in Global and Regional Studies, Penn LPS Online certificate students and Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS) students take at least two of the following courses to develop a global perspective on issues that impact them at work or at home.

The certificate also requires at least two courses in regional studies to dive into the politics and culture of a specific geographic area; “When you learn about broader and broader things, you have to tie it to something concrete,” says Harrold. “Global studies is always global studies from somewhere,” adds Kevin M.F. Platt, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Humanities and Graduate Chair of Russian and East European Studies. “There are a lot of different global visions, some of which are extraordinarily different from the one you may be living in.” Regional studies courses include:

New regional courses are developed every year.

In the Certificate in Global and Regional Studies, the world is your classroom—and there are as many reasons to take courses in this rich and diverse field as there are students. Some of the learning objectives of the certificate are foundational to the Penn LPS Online vision and fulfill BAAS degree requirements such as Cross-Cultural Interactions and Diversity. Many of the courses can be applied to the Literature, Culture, and Tradition degree concentration, which emphasizes a comparative study of the worldviews of different cultures as well as cultural change and continuity over time and place. Several of the courses are applicable to career-focused programs within Penn LPS Online: for example, GLBS 1000: Introduction to Global Studies can be applied to the Upskill Certificate for students who wish to become more competitive in the workforce or advance in their careers.

Read on to learn how you could benefit from these increasingly relevant courses.

Understand the most pressing global problems today

To see what makes a global studies course relevant, you need only to look at the syllabus: odds are that the instructor has recently updated the course material to address world events.

“COVID-19 has really sensitized students to the practicality and the importance of a kind of class like this,” says Joiner, who has been teaching versions of his global health course for years but has noticed a shift in the classroom. Accordingly, he has adjusted his curriculum to tackle some of the key questions that drive pandemic discourse. “I could have a whole course just on COVID-19, because there are so many issues involved: the global pharmaceutical industry, vaccine equity, access to health care, compliance, discord at the policy level, discord at the World Health Organization… the list goes on.”

Likewise, Platt and PhD candidate Michael Brinley have been updating their lesson plans for GLBS 3800: Portraits of Contemporary Russia: Politics, Culture, and Conflict—which, like Contemporary Issues in Global Health, will be taught for the second time this summer. “The world has gone through really momentous transformations over the course of the last 30 years, and now we're seeing one more—and each time, Russia is somehow in the middle of the story,” says Platt. “We're going to be retooling some of the lectures because we are living through another momentous change, and we're going to have to take account of that in some way.”

For Professor of Music Carol Muller, part of the pleasure of studying the music of continental Africa is its connection to history. “Contemporary music is music in this moment in time. And what’s extraordinary about the African continent is that every form of human society is still available in this moment in time—in Africa and nowhere else in the world. There are still hunter-gatherers, there are still nomadic pastoralists,” she explains. The next time she teaches MUSI 2000: Contemporary African Music, she is excited to incorporate brand new research from genetic anthropology that uses mitochondrial DNA to locate the birthplace of humanity in Africa. “We were all in Africa in the beginning, which means we have to ask questions about the origins of language and the origins of music itself,” she says. “What an amazing opportunity to find out about the origins of human society and the music that we still make.”

Considering the impact of the global pandemic, armed conflict, climate change—and even the impacts of global communication and culture constantly evolving alongside digital technology—the importance of a global perspective speaks for itself. “We’re talking about life and death. We’re talking about people,” says Joiner. “These aren’t just abstract ideas—they have concrete, real, everyday dimensions.”

Bring a global perspective to your workplace

“What students learn from global and regional studies has direct connections to worlds of work,” explains Harrold. For example, regional conflicts may become global economic crises, and understanding regional conflicts prepares analysts to better evaluate the duration and nature of those effects. Better understanding of historic networks of globalization and sites of economic power prepares students to better understand global change today: Just as earlier economic linkages were damaged by the expansion of the plague, so today's global supply chains were vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. Global health issues have become local—and essential knowledge for today's health professionals. A better understanding of cultural influence and cultural differentiation supports a marketer looking at a regional campaign, or a human resource manager whose company now has multiple sites around the world. Climate change as a global process affects different social and economic worlds differently; this knowledge is crucial for the development of effective policy. Finally, so much of global market consumption is not driven only by price, but by desire for something created from imagination, creativity, and expertise, by other cultural worlds. “How did Godzilla capture the world's imagination and became an enduring global icon?” asks Harrold, pointing out that this legendary monster of Japan earned $400 million in its last film adaptation. “Why do Swedes buy German cars and Germans buy Swedish cars? Global and regional studies recognize that cultural, historical, and economic worlds are interconnected and should be a part of professional education.”

Decenter the dominant narrative of global culture

Harrold, who teaches GLBS 1000: Introduction to Global Studies and GLBS 2000: Globalization: Social, Economic, and Political Aspects, wants students to know where they stand—not just where they are in the world, but where they are in history. “The introductory class looks at big historical circulations,” she explains. “For example, the creation of an East Asian cultural sphere through the circulation of Chinese script, Chinese language, and Chinese ideas. This includes Buddhism, which came from further east but came through China into Asia. Another section looks at the Indian Ocean trade and how that created a cultural world—and also new worlds, like the Swahili world. Then we use an economic frame to look at the Atlantic slave trade and unfree labor more broadly.” Understanding how these major movements reshaped the historical world is crucial to understanding the world we live in today, she says.

Muller also places the history of the Atlantic slave trade at the core of her class—but not from a New World perspective. “The problem is that we haven’t been taught African history in an empowering way. The story of Africa is not just one of defeat and illness and warfare,” says Muller, who is from South Africa. “But we have to understand what happened when Europe came in and divided up Africa in the 19th century and colonized through language.” Contemporary African music offers a portal not only to the history and culture of the widely different African regions explored each week in the course, and it also offers insight into the way resources from Africa—cultural and otherwise—have historically been consumed around the world. Given the global access afforded by online learning, many of Muller’s students have lived in or traveled to Africa; some students are descended from people who were displaced from Africa by the slave trade. Wherever they are from and however they were educated, there is still something to be learned about African history and culture through its music. “Music is actually at the center of human existence. It's our emotional lives, but it's more than that—it’s who we are as human beings,” says Muller.

For Platt and Brinley, recent international affairs have revealed a disconnect between the way Americans see the world—and the way the rest of the world sees itself. “It's probably a complete mystery to the American reading public when they pick up The New York Times today and see that 83% percent of Russians are in support of Vladimir Putin and 81% are on record in support of what they call the special military operation in Ukraine. And I think it's very easy for someone who sees those numbers to come to very simplistic conclusions about why that might be,” observes Platt. “I want students to actually be able to understand what is going on from the perspective of someone in Russia right now. Not so that they can identify with it, but at least so that they can understand the historical reasons why those people have found themselves in that position. The universe looks very different from there. I don't think identifying with it would be a good thing, but understanding it is really important.”

“There’s a need for a less simplistic story of Russia that is rooted in its own history,” adds Brinley, who grew up in Moscow. “Our course does acknowledge the importance and the effects of global framing, but it’s also well-rooted in dynamic processes within Russian culture and politics that can be quite obscure to someone who doesn’t have access to the language and the culture.”

Develop complex, multidisciplinary perspectives for an ever-changing world

How do you begin to break down a broad, worldwide, and many-faceted topic for an 8-week accelerated course? “How does anthropology get done?” asks Joiner. “Unless you’re an archaeologist or a genetic anthropologist, the work gets done through ethnography. So we talk to people. We observe them. We live with them, we do what they do. We watch what they do and we let them tell us what they do. In this course, which is specifically about the nature of human experience within the global health context, we ask: what is it like being sick? How do people narrate their illnesses?” Anthropology provides the basic methodology for Joiner’s approach to global health, but it is an inherently interdisciplinary project that refers to politics, economics, and cultures around the world–and, like Harrold’s introductory courses and Muller’s survey of contemporary African music, global health also draws on history. “Everything must be historicized. Every global health issue emerges out of longstanding historical and cultural conditions—especially when it comes to things like access to health care,” adds Joiner.

“An academic discipline is a good place to start,” says Platt, who began as a literary scholar but has also used methods from history and cultural anthropology to approach regional studies. “Disciplines allow us to make sense of things in coherent ways. Disciplines keep you honest with regard to the kinds of methods and modes of argumentation that you bring towards topics, the kinds of evidence that are admissible and also the kinds of expertise that is necessary for dealing with different kinds of evidence.

In GLBS 3800: Portraits of Contemporary Russia: Politics, Culture, and Conflict, Platt and Brinley incorporate a wide variety of media—novels, films, print and televised journalism, and architecture—and a range of academic tools to analyze the material. “We’re quite intentional about juxtaposing, for example, cultural works with media studies or with intellectual history, putting different perspectives up against each other, and then seeing what happens when students have an opportunity to talk about them,” says Brinley. “When you teach a multidisciplinary course, there's an additional responsibility to keep the sightlines clear for students, insofar as that's possible,” adds Platt. “We make a lot of effort to explain in this course that there are different disciplines that say things in different ways and make arguments in different ways. So it's both a multidisciplinary approach to the study of the recent past and the contemporary situation in Russia, and also an attempt to introduce students to multidisciplinary studies itself.”

Make the most of an interactive, multimedia online learning experience

If you think that the history of the world sounds like a lot of reading, think again. While there are plenty of written sources to read and discuss in any of these classes, the virtual classroom invites students and teachers to grapple with complex topics in different dimensions and media. For example, Platt and Brinley use online applications such as Voicethread and Perusall to integrate social interactions with media viewing and reading, so much of the classroom discussion takes place using multimedia tools as well as traditional forms such as discussion boards.

Muller, who has been designing and teaching online music courses for the College of Liberal and Professional Studies since 2003, finds that online learning is uniquely suited to music studies. Interspersed with her lectures, students will discover online videos of live performances, such as the rock gongs that are struck to produce music in Tanzania, playlists, clips of documentaries, and condensed animated histories that help students cover more historical and geographic ground in a short time. “We live in such an audiovisual culture. Reading takes time, and there’s something good about taking time to read and ponder a full article,” she reflects. “But I love the medium of video because you can watch it at twice the speed, and you can also go back to it. If you teach music, it’s good to have sound.”

“I wouldn't have thought it was possible to translate these very complex issues into practical learning goals,” adds Joiner. “But I now know it's possible. We do give students the tools to actually look at these issues.”

The Penn LPS Online Certificate in Global and Regional Studies is open for enrollment. To read more about the importance of intercultural communication, visit our feature: “Why cross-cultural communication is important—and how to practice it effectively.” For an overview of our focused, career-enhancing certificates, read: “Which Penn LPS Online certificate is right for you?

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