Engaging Haiti

April 27, 2011

The work of a Northeastern professor has engaged teachers and students in Haiti, and soon, through the creation of a new course, she will be doing so with the help of her students at Northeastern.

Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, associate professor of English in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, recently returned from a research and teaching trip to Haiti, where she assisted in developing teaching curricula for schools in tent communities and also taught a course for secondary-school teachers on narrative and trauma at the Université Caraïbe.

Dillon, whose field of study focuses on early American literature, had never visited the country until she became involved with the “Haiti Empowerment Project,” an initiative that connects with teachers and principals in Haiti. She said the experience was amazing, but was struck by the lack of resources.

“Very little public schooling is available there,” she said. “Most schools are private and cost money; only about 50 percent of Haitian children can afford to attend school.”

Dillon visited elementary and middle schools, some of which were preexisting, while others had just recently started in the tent communities and had no books, no electricity and no chalkboards or chalk.

The purpose of her visit was to help children in tent communities gain a sense of hope by telling stories about their lives.

“As a literature professor, I was working on issues around narrative and storytelling,” she said. “I found that a lot of the students in the tent communities had trouble telling stories about themselves — the trauma of their circumstances made it difficult for them to put together a narrative of past, present and future. It soon became clear to me the importance of storytelling for developing hope and a sense of the future.”

During a seminar at the Université Caraïbe, Dillon spoke to high school teachers about the relationship between trauma and narrative. Trauma can leave you fixed in a moment of violence and narrating a story of trauma together with others can help you to move beyond the moment of the traumatic event, she said.

This fall, Dillon will debut a new experiential education class called Engaging Haiti, which she describes as an intersection of literary and cultural studies. The course will guide students through the history of Haiti and the country’s literature up to the present.

The experiential components of the course include student-conducted interviews with scholars and activists, meeting with members of the Haitian community in Boston, and building a website, called U.S.-Haiti Academic Network, about historical and contemporary work in Haiti.

“The site will provide resources for academics and possibilities to set up collaborations between Haitian and U.S. students and professors,” said Dillon. “Students will help to build the site, interview scholars and post videos. The website will also provide a comprehensive listing of projects taking place in Haiti.”