Imagine the Odds

Curator’s Introduction: Bryan and I chatted at length back in October about his contribution to the Field Guide Survey. He planned for students in his African Americans in Paris class, during their Thanksgiving field trip to Paris, to post their experiences and reflections to Twitter using a course hashtag. Upon returning at the end of the break, Bryan planned to use Twitter to search the hashtag and use his post to reflect on why and how Twitter’s search algorithm selected and organized the “Top” posts the way it did. (Consider, for example, the results of searching #ParisClimateConference on Twitter: On December 2, the first item on the “Top” results page was not about Paris at all, but was a post from Slate titled Indonesia’s Fires Are an Environmental Catastrophe and a Climate Nightmare. On December 3, the first item on the “Top” results page was a tweeted collection of four photos from China Chinhua News. Why is that? How does that happen?)

The terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, canceled the field trip to Paris and sent Bryan, already on location preparing for students’ arrival, back to Arizona. The canceled trip resulted in no Twitter posts in Paris, no hashtags, no Twitter algorithm at work on class hashtag search results, and no opportunity to reflect on why and how those results were what they were. Instead, Bryan contributed the following reflection reminding us that, despite our best plans and attempts, our algorithmically mediated lives sometimes succumb to the inexplicable and unpredictable.

Each year as I begin a new semester and its courses, I always wonder about the sorts of students I will encounter. Will they be bright? Enthusiastic? Engaged? Or, will some of my best students from previous semesters choose to take one of my courses again? I’m always pleasantly surprised when I see familiar faces among those staring back at me. Imagine my surprise when, at the beginning of this fall term, there were not one or two, but seven of my best students from the previous semester enrolled in my African Americans in Paris course. I was even more delighted when an additional three volunteered to be Preceptors for the course.

It was almost like a family reunion on the first day, and I couldn’t wait to have these students take the lead intellectually and technologically. I had already witnessed remarkable growth in all of these students just one semester earlier, and I couldn’t believe the odds of so many being in the follow-on class. Imagine the odds of their not necessarily wanting to be in the same collaborative groups, choosing instead to mix with the newbies in class, using past experience and familiarity with my teaching style to explain to their peers what I was talking about when explaining assignments such as the Experiential Writing Assignment or VoiceThreads.

And if this were not enough to encourage me to skip to class every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, imagine my sheer delight when over half the class decided to participate in our optional field trip. This course focuses on the African American expatriate presence in Paris just after the turn of the 20th Century through the 1960s. We study not only the expatriate experience but also the French interactions with their colonies and the people living there along with the notion of negrophilia in France during the period. Our field trip, taken annually around Thanksgiving, is extremely exciting for students, particularly those who have never traveled outside of the country or imagined themselves participating in a study abroad experience. The activities planned while in Paris support and reinforce that which we study throughout the term and we visit locations where African American writers, artists, entertainers and educators lived, wrote, created and performed.

Along with these experiential activities, students design and complete a number of digitally oriented projects. These include using Augmented Reality to “augment” aspects of their experience while in Paris: statutes, doorways, monuments and more. Additionally, students complete a mini-documentary video of their collective experiences while walking around the city or on one or more of the variety of culturally-oriented tours that we take while there. The students also have an opportunity to interact and collaborate with students from the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne where I am a visiting professor. This collaboration includes a wonderful Thanksgiving meal with one another.

It’s during these experiences that I wonder at the odds — odds-making being a statistical, if not an algorithmic, process — of such an enthusiastic and engaged number of students all enrolling in the same class and deciding to take the optional, self-financed field trip to Paris towards the end of our semester. Imagine the planning that goes into such an adventure, coordinating accommodations, hoping that the perfect number of male and female students decide to go so that an even number can be assigned to each of the shared, reserved apartments. We began the term meeting once per week to discuss practical, programatic and digital aspects of our trip. Two of the students had been to Paris in the past and three spoke French, two had video editing experience, one was a computer science major and wanted to help program or use his skills to create, there was one spoken word artist and one musician. What a talented mix of students! Imagine the odds.

We began meeting via Google Hangouts, including some of the students from the Sorbonne, during our weekly meetings. During one meeting, the conversation shifted to where students lived. Most of my American students live on or near campus here at the University of Arizona, whereas nearly all of the students from the Sorbonne live in the suburbs. “What’s it like in the suburbs?” one of my students asked, probably envisioning a stereotypical U.S. suburb. What my students heard silenced the room for a moment. They heard of hour-plus train commutes, double-digit unemployment, cramped living conditions, crime, lack of opportunities, education that is not on par with schools in Paris, and other social problems. But, it’s less expensive and sometimes all that students in Paris can afford.

“So what do people do about that?” another of my students asked. This time, it was silent for a moment on the Sorbonne end of the wire. “It’s tough here for some” one of the Sorbonne students said. Others chimed in and related how some turn to crime because it’s the only way to survive, others to drugs. Still others, far worse, one of the French students related. You don’t see them for awhile and later when you do, they are different. “But everybody is not like that” another French student quickly said. These conversations enlightened both sides on a number of issues that, prior to these brief interactions, they had only experienced through mediated versions of each other’s cultures. These are the kinds of experiences of which faculty members dream. Imagine the odds.

I watched as these students planned projects with one another, showed one another how to use various applications, decided where video shoots would occur or live broadcasts back to the states, where 360 photospheres would be taken and where they would socialize with one another. I watched friendships emerge and some understanding of one another’s cultures take root. Imagine the odds that exactly one week before my Arizona students were to travel to Paris that the most horrific attack occurs in Paris where gunmen and suicide bombers kill dozens of people at a concert hall and dining at nearby cafes. Imagine the odds that as a result of these tragic events that a wave of effects occurred that ultimately affected our field trip. State Department warnings, the announcements by President Holland restricting school groups from traveling in the country, the raids in the suburbs and in Belgium, the second suicide bombing and shootout in Saint Dennis and more. I arrived in Paris the day after the first attack occurred and witnessed a city in shock yet trying to get on with their daily lives. Mournful, yet out and vigilant. Resistant yet contemplative about how and why these events happened. Students on both sides expressed the same ideas, some even sprinkled in a bit of anger or frustration that there are some who are so intolerant of the beliefs of others.

I was conflicted. First because I thought that no way would I want anything to happen to any of my students, either the French or American ones. One can never predict or guarantee where something tragic will or will not happen, of course, and the thought of any of my students socializing in a cafe when something like this occurred mortifies me. On the other hand, I wanted my students to witness this city’s resistance to such ideologies. I wanted them to carry out their collaborations, meet their colleagues on the other end, and experience the City of Light. I wanted to see those lights shine bright inside them.

Imagine the odds, after planning for almost a year, that the night before departure, my university would cancel the trip for the students. I was relieved, disappointed, angry, frustrated and thankful. I’m not a mathematician, nor a statistician, but I believe that the odds of predicting all these events occurring in such a way, and in such an order and magnitude, are unimaginable.

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