Islamabad:Aimed at building bridges between Pakistani and American societies, Harvard University is offering a special South Asia course that will bring together Harvard Summer School students and Pakistani activists, advocates and scholars who represent an emerging and vibrant civil society.
The university will use video conferencing technology to connect the people of two countries. “An immediate objective is to highlight some of the vibrancy, diversity, constructive criticism, and potential of Pakistani society that often is ignored in the mainstream western media,” said Maggie Ronkin, the brain behind the course titled Social Development in Pakistan. She will be joined by the director of the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Centre, Fayyaz Baqir, and the director of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, Nadeem Akbar, in Pakistan.
This is the second such course collaboratively designed and produced by the same team. Maggie launched the first US-based course last summer in the Programme on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. This time, along with some changes in topics to be discussed, special arrangements create a bilocational classroom by selecting ten Islamabad-based Harvard Summer School student participants. “The interaction of these students with students on Harvard’s campus will foster communication among all, and, of course, create new opportunities for Islamabad-based students,” said Maggie.
Talking to ‘The News’, she said that video conferencing would enable interactions of US students with Islamabad-based implementers of solutions to inequalities and injustices, and with expert conservators, as well as with peers. “Pakistani students get opportunities to learn about US society as large numbers of them visit the US for education etc., but US students have few opportunities to mingle with members of Pakistani society. In part, that may be why they fail to notice admirable things happening in Pakistan’s development sector,” said Maggie, who is very excited about the upcoming course.
Maggie further said that often the mainstream US media seem only to project poverty, corruption, and extremism in grim stories sounding alarm over instability in this Muslim-majority state. “For a second year, we are proud to partner with many inspiring guest experts on the ground to focus on Pakistanis’ own narratives of identity through expert lenses of participatory development and community building. Inviting Islamabad-based student participants with concrete and varied experiences, interests, and questions to join us this year will prove to be an enormous asset for everyone involved,” she added.
She says that feedback that her team received from the participants in the last course shows that previous opportunities for interaction clarified many misperceptions that exist among the public, especially among the youth, of the two countries. The Pakistani guest experts also reported that they benefited from conversations with students enormously.
Quoting a student in the last batch from a small US liberal arts college, she said that the interactions enlivened student participants with hope for better communication and cooperation. The student noted, “The wide variety and diversity of speakers has really humanized the region for me. Each and every discussion we have with [an] Islamabad [guest expert] fills me with hope and makes me realize that there are very tangible things that can be done to alleviate poverty and foster peace throughout the world.”
These comments and many others give us motivation and energy to continue to develop and, especially, to deepen and expand the academic potential this unique course, said Maggie. “This year, Harvard also recognised team efforts in this area with the appointment of a teaching assistant, Wajiha Naqvi, a LUMS graduate who earned the Falak Sufi Scholarship to focus on Pakistan studies at New York University.”
Maggie is finalising course arrangements in the USA. She has taught anthropology, socio-linguistics, and communication at leading universities including Georgetown, the University of Texas at Austin, and LUMS. She also studied in the University of California’s Berkeley Urdu Language Programme in Pakistan and wrote theses on constructions of identity in a Lahori woman’s narratives. In addition to developing the videoconferencing initiative, Maggie is now co-producing two videos on performance traditions and lifeways of Pakistan’s Shedis.
Course partner Fayyaz Baqir directs the Islamabad-based Akter Hameed Khan Resource Center. The AHK Center was established in 2000 to preserve the legacy of Akhter Hameed Khan, a social scientist recognised globally for his contributions to the theory and practice of participatory social development. The Center maintains a collection of field reports, unpublished documents, and video footage. It also sponsors academic programmes, research, public lectures, and publications on poverty alleviation.The news.