MIT News | MIT students build connections with Black and Indigenous Brazilians to investigate culture and the environment with Prof Terrones

Published on: November 29, 2023

The 2023 cohort of Race, Place, and Modernity in the Americas with Joaquin Terrones (left) poses at the Jabaquara Black Cultural Center. Started in 2019, the ongoing program has seen numerous benefits for students and faculty alike. Credits: Photo courtesy of the Jabaquara Black Cultural Center staff.

Travel offers students a chance to study how art and cultural activism can impact racial justice and environmental issues.

In January 2024, at the height of Brazil’s summer, a group of 20 MIT undergraduates will arrive in São Paulo, Brazil, for the Independent Activities Period (IAP) course WGS.247/21L.592 (Race, Place, and Modernity in the Americas) jointly offered by the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences’ programs in Women’s and Gender StudiesLiterature, and Writing.

Continuing a program developed in 2019 and launched as a special course in 2020, the three-week course offers students opportunities to study how American and Brazilian Black and Indigenous writers, artists, and filmmakers’ art and cultural activism — particularly women’s — can impact racial justice and environmental issues.

The class will visit historical sites, cultural centers, nature reserves, and museums while also engaging in conversations with local scholars, activists, religious leaders, community organizers, and artists.

By mixing classroom discussions with on-site exploration and cross-cultural exchanges, the course offers innovative pedagogy that is experiential (learning by doing), immersive (learning within an environment), and interdisciplinary (learning across different fields).

An immersive course, years in the making

Joaquin Terrones ’99, a lecturer in literature and women’s and gender studies, was already teaching this material when he considered expanding its scope. “It seemed like the natural next step was to take students to Brazil so they could experience its incredible culture, art, and activism for themselves,” he remembers.

In 2019, he and Wyn Kelley, a senior lecturer in literature, received a Higher Education Innovation grant from the MIT Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL) to develop the course and teach it as a special subject the following year.

Generous support from MIT-Brazil, the Office of Minority Education, and MindHandHeart completed its transformation into a full-fledged course in women’s and gender studies, literature, and writing as part of MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP) last January.

Helen Elaine Lee, a professor in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing program, co-taught the subject in its first full year, sharing her experiences using creative practices to further social justice.

Undergraduates from across MIT’s five schools, particularly Black, Latino, LGBTQ+, and first-generation college students, have enrolled. This outreach is important because some studies have shown students from these groups are underserved by study abroad programs, participating at significantly lower rates.

“Our students want spaces like the one created by this course to think deeply and collectively about the daunting array of crises we face, from catastrophic climate change to entrenched violence against communities of color,” says Terrones.

No day at the beach … well, maybe one or two

Although a few weeks in South America during January might sound like a vacation, the course is rigorous and intense, packing a semester’s worth of material into three weeks. Students spend mornings in seminar-style discussions, head out across the city for field trips in the afternoon, and return to their residences in the early evening for a few hours of readings or screenings.

For Tamea Cobb, a senior double majoring in chemical engineering and literature, the class trip to Rio led to an epiphany. “I remember waking up super early to watch the sunrise on the beach, where we saw a man practicing capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art form disguised to look like dancing by enslaved Africans forbidden from practicing martial arts. We had just learned about capoeira the week prior, so it was a beautiful full-circle moment.”

In addition to class outings in São Paulo and Rio, students also organize their own weekend trips within Brazil to places such as Salvador, the unofficial capital of Afro-Brazilian culture, and Inhotim, a vast open-air art museum and botanical garden in the middle of the Atlantic Forest. Read more here…