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Volume 9, Number 6: February 27, 2003

On the Road: Bringing the Maya World to UW Students

by Brett Greider,
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

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I am in Antigua, Guatemala, under a full moon and a towering volcano after a heavy rain and a big feast! How are you? I am in an internet cafe called "California," and will soon upload some pix from today from my new camera. It is so enchanting here and really it is a beautiful place and so many people here from all over the world and really lively. Many of the buildings are 17th or 16th century with thick walls and entries to buildings entered through arched doorways into homes with courtyards and fountains. The Institute Fellows are really fascinating and all very excellent scholars in their own fields of literature, archaeology, anthropology, philosophy or whatever, mostly Spanish speaking and very ethnically and gender diverse--a very hip group led by very fine people. I am feeling very grateful and excited for what is ahead for me and will try writing as often as I can. The Internet is available everywhere, and this cafe is open till 11PM so I will be here! But I cannot open my webmail for some frustrating reason--probably because of all the junk mail or the UWEC mail is down. Maybe I need another email program just to get mail here!

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This past summer, I taught my Indigenous Religions of the Americas course on the road in Guatemala and Mexico. I first taught an online version of the course Indigenous Religions of the Americas (Rels 330.001 / AIS 330.001) during the summer of 2001 using WebCT and an ongoing regular course website; for the road-scholar version, I combined that site with another I had developed on contemporary Mayan culture, Heart of Sky. The 2002 WebCT-based course was revised to be taught "on the road" while students participated in online dialogue, collaborative research, online tests, and other projects.

Professor Brett Greider at Palenque, Chiapas, MexicoI stayed connected with my class from Internet cafes. At every opportunity, I updated the course site to include discussion comments, and I kept a mirror site of the course on my laptop for running the course between online contacts. The web-based direct access to my course via WebCT was enhanced by email contact and web-based telephone communication with my research assistants and the CNS team whenever necessary. In addition to the laptop computer from our campus surplus shop, I already had a digital camera and PDA with a fold-up keyboard for fieldwork.

I brought my students with me into the virtual experience of an expedition to the Maya World by participating in a National Endowment for the Humanities Maya World Institute. My students and I met in an asynchronous discussion area with direct-experience dispatches from the field, lecture notes and journal entries (often stored on-site in my PDA and downloaded at cafes), along with digital imagery of my road-scholar expedition. The original WebCT course website was enhanced with an unfolding "real-time" Locations of Overnight Stays, 2002 Maya World Instituteexpedition in progress documented by my journal entries and notes, online readings, and digital imagery. Students had the experience of receiving first-hand teaching, fresh information, and direct responses to questions and comments.

The Institute traveled from June 22 through August 3, from Antigua, Guatemala, to Chiapas, Mexico, and then to Merida in the Yucatan, beginning ten days after the class began, and ending the last day of class. (See map at right.) Each site had web access and email, as well as telephones almost every day. The longest journey from an Internet connection was a two-day trip.

The electrifying sense of directly "connecting student and professor" across cultures online was enhanced by my direct transmission of the Mayan cultural context for this course via the "lens" of the Maya World Institute. The course site was updated with a new and comprehensive home page, featuring a virtual expedition component. Prior to leaving I integrated my Maya website, Heart of Sky, into the course site for Indigenous Religions of the Americas, and also created a gateway site for the virtual journey through the Maya World NEH Institute. Students applied the issues raised by my journey together with their reading assignments in their case studies of indigenous religions. My lectures--already online and ready to go--were enhanced by journal entries, lecture notes, and digital images produced on a laptop computer during the Mayan Institute and transmitted frequently from cyber-cafes and scholarly institutes en route.

The socio-cultural analysis of religion is exemplified in the full range of Mayan studies as an exquisite lens to understanding Indigenous cultures in the 21st century. I view our text--the website--as a very powerful illuminated manuscript. It is a multisensory text, driven as much by its hyper-interconnectedness to various pages and to people as it is also a deep and rich source of scholarly texts and information. My course website became a crossroads for diverse academic visitors, including my Institute Fellows from over twenty-five colleges and universities. It was also the ideal opportunity to update my research for a book-in-progress on Mayan religious revitalization, and portions of this contributed to online student discussion.

Pan-Mayan calendar from the Heart of Sky websiteInternet access in Guatemala and Mexico is widely available through "cybercafes" that frequently provide Ethernet access (a faster connection, in many cases, than my students could access the course site from Wisconsin). Public access to computers for web-based communication (e.g., cybercafes) is much more common than in the U.S. due to fewer personal computers in homes. Net Cafe Guide provides a sampling of the availability of web access around the world for scholars on the road.

As our teaching becomes more interdependent with the web of our student's cyber-learning, undoubtedly one opportunity academics may gain is our own freedom to combine our scholarly pursuits and research with teaching through the virtual classroom of an interconnected planet.

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Images courtesy Brett Greider, 2003.


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