Latin American Program Gives Students a Global Perspective

Program features interdisciplinary approach to learning

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Prof. Gordana Yovanovich

Prof. Gordana Yovanovich

There’s an old saying that warns against becoming a “Jack of all trades, master of none.” The idea is that choosing a narrow area of study and seeking to understand it thoroughly is more effective than dabbling in several areas.

On the other hand, sticking to a narrow focus has its limitations, and Prof. Gordana Yovanovich in the School of Languages and Literatures has a different perspective. “I like the idea of seeing the world holistically. When you study or research in more than one area, you don’t really become a Jack of all trades; you develop a different kind of knowledge and a broader view of the world. I think there is huge value in that.”

That’s the philosophy behind the Latin American studies master’s program, now six years old, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to exploring topics and themes. Yovanovich explains how one course is put together: “To look at Latin American identity in a time of globalization, we would study it from a political science perspective, and then use sociology to take a more global view, and then look at the arts to see how art comments on social issues.” This, she says, provides a fuller picture of a complex area.

Latin America includes the countries of Central and South America, which were colonized by Spain and Portugal, and where Spanish and Portuguese are spoken today.

The U of G program was developed, according to Yovanovich, by pulling together expert resources already on campus. “There are 21 Latin Americanists bringing their individual expertise and working on this program,” she says. “That’s pretty impressive for a university of this size.”

With the goal of allowing students to learn from as many faculty as possible, each course is taught as a series of modules. A co-ordinator oversees the entire course, but each module is led by a different professor who tackles the concepts from his or her perspective. That leads to a richer learning experience. “We all complement each other,” Yovanovich says.

The program has drawn students from across Canada, she adds. “It is very strong academically.” The majority of the graduates have gone on to work on PhDs or other types of continuing education, such as law school, but many have also found work with NGOs or governments.

Another option open to students in the program is spending a semester in a Latin American country, such as Mexico, the West Indies or Argentina. Additional programs in other parts of the Caribbean are in the works, Yovanovich says. Some students have already spent time studying in Cuba.

The advantages for the students are among the benefits of an interdisciplinary program, she adds. “At a faculty level, it gets us working together. We collaborate more. We discuss our work and our research.”

That collaboration has led to two conferences. The first was held at the time the program was being established and focused on identity and culture. It provided an important springboard to the development of the master’s program and led to the publication of a collection of essays called Latin American Identities After 1980.

The second conference, “Re-Imagining Communities and Civil Society,” was held in October 2013 and had a more international flavour with three keynote speakers taking part. A book based on the conference sessions is now being put together by the group.

As the co-ordinator of the master’s program, Yovanovich says pulling everything together can be quite demanding. “I need to know my colleagues and be aware of what everyone is working on in their different fields. I’m constantly in dialogue with the other faculty who are involved in this,” she says.

The challenges are worthwhile, she adds, because this interaction has spurred new research and areas of learning for her and others, and enrolment numbers continue to grow.