Gindlesparger, Kathryn Johnson. “‘Share Your Awesome Time with Others’: Interrogating Privilege and Identification in the Study-Abroad Blog.” College English 81.1 (2018): 7-26. Print.
Kathryn Johnson Gindlesparger analyses the ethical dimensions of “study-abroad blogs” that students produce to document their trips. In Gindlesparger’s view, such blogs as currently constructed by study-abroad planning agencies like International Student Exchange Programs (ISEP) enable problematic representations and identifications. She argues for a more thoughtful, ethically aware approach to such responses to study-abroad experiences.
Gindlesparger’s analysis focuses on three of thirteen first- and second-year students enrolled in her 2012 “Contemporary Europe” class; the class addressed “tensions that may go unnoticed” if courses are “less inclusive of internationally traumatic subject matter” (8). Students recorded their experiences during a three-week trip that included two Holocaust sites and one “youth center for Bosnian refugees in Berlin” (8). The three students gave permission for their materials to be included in the study and participated in reflective interviews five years later (9).
The study-abroad industry, Gindlesparger writes, is experiencing an “explosion,” with shorter trips now the more common format (9). She reports that institutions find the trips to be revenue-generating vehicles; she sees the student blogs not only as ways to share experiences with home audiences but also as marketing tools (9).
Gindlesparger’s first object of analysis is an ISEP “advice column,” “How to Write a Study Abroad Blog: 5 Tips for Success” (11). She contends that the genre as constructed by this document and others like it, including her own assignment sheet, positions students to respond to exposure to others’ trauma in troubling ways.
The five tips reported by Gindlesparger are “Write,” “Reflect on your experience,” “Share photos,” “Keep it short,” and “Be honest” (12). Essential to the tip advice, she states, is the emphasis on “positive experience” that can be depicted as “action”: the advice sheet instructs students to “keep your content to what is most exciting and noteworthy” (qtd. in Gindlesparger 12). Examples in the sheet, in Gindlesparger’s view, suggest that for U. S. students, a study-abroad experience allows them to act as “conquerors of a passive world” that is their “playground” and to consider their trip as “a vacation-oriented experience” (12).
This configuration of the rhetorical situation inherent in a study-abroad trip, Gindlesparger writes, turns the experience into a means by which the students focus on their own “personal growth and development” (Talya Zemach-Bersin, qtd. in Gindlesparger 10). In this view, growth that results from encountering less affluent cultures or sites of trauma can translate into the accumulation of “cultural capital” (9), such that students may “use the misfortune of others to explore their own privilege” (8).
Gindlesparger finds that directing students to make connections between what they encounter and their own experiences contributes to problematic representation and appropriation of cultures and historical trauma. In particular, she argues, the exhortation to relate personally to what study-abroad students observe creates problems because questions about “what surprised you or what you have learned” are “arhetorical tools that can be applied to any situation” (13). The blog tips, as well as the perceived need to allow students freedom to choose their own subjects, make no rhetorical or ethical distinction between visits to a concentration camp and a beach day (14).
The blog entries and later interviews of Gindlesparger’s three study subjects explore the genre demands of the blogs. In Gindlesparger’s analysis, “Eric” responded to a meeting with a Holocaust survivor by “positioning her life experience as entertainment for Eric’s gain” (15) as he casts her history as a “tragic masterpiece” and a vivid “painting” for his consumption (qtd. in Gindlesparger 15). Eric has difficulty moving beyond his earlier school readings on the Holocaust as he tries to relate to an individual whose experiences may not have been captured in those readings (16). In his interview, Eric notes his earlier urge to handle the experience by “tying a bow on it” (qtd. in Gindlesparger 16).
According to Gindlesparger, “Emily” “overidentifi[es]” with Nazis assembled in a Nuremberg stadium used for rallies when she imagines that she can put herself in the Nazis’ shoes and assigns her own values to their response to Hitler (17), contending that they might have felt “helpless” before Hitler’s tactics. Gindlesparger argues that the blog genre insists that the “complex intellectual task of trying to understand” Nazis must be “‘exciting,’ ‘awesome,’ or at least show how [Emily] is bettered” (17).
Gindlesparger writes that Alyssa’s response to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp is the “inciting incident” for her study (18). Alyssa’s blog entry attempts to relate the experiences of the camp victims to her own ROTC basic training (18). Getting up early and the arrangement of the camp trigger identification with the prisoners (18), to the point that “[t]he gas chamber experience was something I could somewhat relate to” (qtd. in Gindlesparger 18). In her interview, Gindlesparger recounts, Alyssa focused on the blog’s mandate to keep her report “awesome” by writing something “readable and enjoyable” (19), with the result that she was discouraged from dealing with the emotional experience of the concentration camp.
From the interviews, Gindlesparger concludes that students resist addressing discomforting experiences, choosing instead the tactic encouraged by the blog genre, “identifying from similarity” (20). This kind of identification glosses over differences that might challenge students’ complacency or comfort. Gindlesparger turns to Krista Ratcliffe’s concept of “rhetorical listening,” in which participating in what Ratcliffe calls a “genuine conversation” can allow “working through their own discomfort” to become “the students’ end goal” (20). Gindlesparger proposes Dominick LaCapra’s “empathetic unsettlement” as a way to undercut inappropriate closure and resist the temptation to see others’ horrific experiences as somehow accruing to an observer’s spiritual gain (20).
Noting that the three students were “genuine, caring sympathetic people” who did their best to respond to expectations as they understood them (19), and that two of the three found it hard to explain their blog entries (21), Gindlesparger suggests more attention to the rhetorical demands of the genre itself as part of the “predeparture preparation” (21). She also recommends calling attention to the time-intensive nature of working through unsettlement, in contrast to the genre’s demands for fast, brief responses, as well as asking for revision after contemplative work in order to allow students to reevaluate “tidy” responses (22). Similarly, exploring students’ own positionality in preparation for exposure to others’ trauma and creating opportunities for more extensive interaction with difference during the trip can enable students to “identify from difference rather than similarity” (23). Gindlesparger finds these pedagogical choices important as composition increasingly engages with audiences and experiences outside of the classroom (23).