Zoom has opened up exciting possibilities for international collaborations in the History Department. This year, Professor Chad Bryant’s HIST 783 Colloquium on Russian and Eastern European History included a component the students in the course had not encountered before. As part of UNC’s COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning) initiative, Professor Bryant’s course was one of nearly 15 other courses throughout campus that capitalized on virtual learning by engaging in transnational seminars. Supported by the Chancellor’s Global Education Fund, the COIL initiative seeks to expand, reconfigure, or develop new methods of teaching as a commitment to pedagogical excellence among faculty and graduate students. Courses that qualify for COIL funding and aid engage in collaborative multi-week long modules with other universities, where students and faculty alike are given a chance to expand their global awareness, interact with like-minded scholars abroad, make scholarly connections, and, in the case of Professor Bryant’s course, compare and contrast methodologies or historical questions.
For four weeks, the HIST 783 seminar met with nearly 15 students and faculty from King’s College and Charles University in Prague. Participants discussed common readings, engaged in lively discussions, and benefited from the guidance of experts such as KCL’s James Bjork and Ota Konrád at Charles University. The class also nominated and voted on readings in an article prize contest, during which students reviewed a number of scholarly works in the field of Russian and Eastern European history. This allowed students a chance to read articles they might not have otherwise encountered, to consider the most salient factors behind a given nomination, and to compare and contrast the topics, methodologies, and arguments of each piece. This part of the course, meant to introduce new scholarly literature and hone students’ skills at crafting or critiquing arguments, also brought to the fore a few key differences between students’ respective academic environments, including language differences, funding issues, research questions, and one’s “proximity” to a given topic. The group converged around a love and deep appreciation for the field, a desire for more cross-cultural contact, and, in some cases, even similarities in participants’ research topics. These networks demonstrate the value of COIL in forging new ties between scholars and universities. Though some participants may never visit the home universities or countries of their new Transatlantic colleagues, this is of secondary importance to what Professor Bryant considers to be the real strength of COIL seminars: the ability to experience how people in another part of the world live, what histories these places may have, and how perspectives on key issues may vary depending on one’s academic environment or closeness to a topic or location.
Having had a year or more to practice, students came to class prepared and well acquainted with online functions or “Zoom etiquette,” thereby allowing conversations to develop organically without technical difficulties or confusion. In fact, Professor Bryant argues that such a model might not have “occurred to [him] in the pre-pandemic era,” when virtual functions were relatively marginal outside of hybrid or online courses. Now, however, virtual components are integrated into all aspects of learning, thereby facilitating otherwise difficult meetings and seminars like these. The ease with which transnational scholarly networks have expanded thanks to online modalities leads many to hope that a virtual component will remain after the pandemic, especially for large professional and organizational conferences and seminars. While Professor Bryant hopes to teach this course in-person next time he offers it, he is confident that a Zoom-based COIL component will remain part of the experience.
Global scholarly networks and exchanges, such as those that took place in Professor Bryant’s class, are crucial to the health and rigor of a field. COIL’s popularity and success underscores the vitality of UNC’s global connections as well as the university’s commitment to scholarly excellence.