Prof. Sarzynski adapts to pandemic’s twists and turns as she teaches 'The Amazon'

Sarah Sarzynski, associate professor of history, is teaching “The Amazon” this spring

Across the CMC curriculum, members of our faculty are meeting the challenge of these unprecedented and historic times, delivering exceptional coursework in a fully online modality for the spring semester. In our Academic Innovations series of faculty Q&As, professors share their curricular highlights, best practices, and how students are helping to shape virtual learning for a memorable, collaborative academic experience.

Sarah Sarzynski, associate professor of history, is teaching “The Amazon” this spring.

What are you hoping to address in “The Amazon” course this spring? What sorts of outcomes are you seeking?

In the first half of the class, I urge students to question their assumptions about the Amazonian region and what has led them to hold such beliefs about the Amazon and Amazonian peoples.  In the second half of the class, we attempt to understand Amazonia from the perspectives of indigenous Amazonians and practice allyship, educating ourselves about the historical structures, policies and ideologies that have threatened and continue to threaten indigenous lives and the environment.  As allies, students draw connections between the past and the present, composing historical reports to advocate for prioritizing COVID-19 vaccines for indigenous Amazonians. 

Have you had to reimagine how you teach your classes in a virtual format? Can you discuss what sorts of adaptations you have implemented?

While the course themes and materials are similar, I have completely redesigned class sessions to encourage an active learning atmosphere online and redesigned assignments to prioritize project-based learning.  I use class time entirely for discussion, peer-review exercises, and collaborations in small groups.  I replaced (passive) lectures with short instructor videos that students watch before class. 

Assignments ask students to develop communication skills beyond formal writing skills.  For example, students analyze historical films and photographs in a videographic essay, or short analytical film created on WeVideo, an online video editing platform.  Besides developing crucial writing skills such as coherent organization and creating and supporting an argument with source materials, students learn how to engage with a public audience by training in voice performance, sound, titling, transitions and storytelling.  Our online reality has shown us how important it is to develop communication skills beyond the formal written essay.  Through the videographic essay and multiple collaborative review sessions, students develop technical skills transferrable to other professional and academic settings.

What did you learn from teaching your fall courses that you are incorporating this spring? 

Flexibility and accountability.  This semester is going to be different from the fall as we continue life in a pandemic that has many twists and turns.  Flexibility means that I regularly solicit feedback from students and adapt the course as needed to make sure all of our learning objectives are being met.  Accountability is a key aspect of my pedagogical approach. I provide students with engaging materials, provocative questions, professional feedback and encourage a respectful space for discussions.  I encourage students to take responsibility and “claim their education,” as Adrienne Rich declared in 1977.  Claremont College students are incredibly smart, excited to learn, and open to challenging discussions.  They also need community in the virtual classroom.  We all do.  I strive to empower students to do their best academically while also practicing compassion and developing deeper connections with each other.

What are you most eager for students to experience and understand this spring?

I am thrilled to bring filmmaker-scholar Marcos Colón to CMC’s Athenaeum on Earth Day, April 22, to present his documentary “Beyond Fordlândia.” Colón’s discussion with students will address past and present environmental destruction in Amazonia, such as large-scale agricultural production or agribusiness, and how such strategies for development are connected to structural racism.  I hope that students think deeply about what many Amazonian indigenous peoples are saying about the pandemic and what the future holds.  For example, in his book, “Ideas to Postpone the End of the World” (2020), indigenous leader Ailton Krenak rejects the idea of returning to normal.  We must remember the lives lost, abandon the “rapid pace of life” and our anthropocentrism, and find a shared harmony with the earth. 

How are you feeling about the year ahead of you? How has living through the pandemic affected your research and teaching approach?

The online isolation has brought me closer to my students and opened up new possibilities for meeting and getting to know a much broader community of scholars, filmmakers and activists working in Amazonia.  I’ve participated in numerous conferences during the semester with indigenous leaders, Latin American politicians, environmental activists and scholars.  By teaching this course, I’ve learned from my students and from Amazonian experts about contemporary issues that influence my current book project, which examines how gender and race played a primary role in structuring the colonization of the Colombian, Peruvian and Brazilian borderlands in the 1930s, leading to policies that sought to erase indigenous peoples from the region.

—Anne Bergman

Anne Bergman


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