February 23, 2015
Missy Roser ’94, head of research and instruction at Frost Library, and
Rhonda Cobham-Sander, professor of Black studies and English
Thanks to the digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC), an entire collection on Panama and the Panama Canal is available online. For Rhonda Cobham-Sander, professor of Black studies and English at Amherst, the collection inspired a collaborative course—and promises a long-term international partnership.
Several years ago, Leah Rosenberg, associate professor of English at the University of Florida and fellow scholar of early Caribbean literature, introduced Cobham-Sander to dLOC, and Cobham-Sander was impressed: “They can digitize materials that were published long ago, or published in very small editions—the kinds of things that, when we were doing research as graduate students, we had to look long and hard to find.” Housed at the university, dLOC digitizes materials from libraries and archives across the Caribbean.
In fall 2013, Rosenberg, Cobham-Sander and Donette Francis, associate professor of English at the University of Miami, launched “Panama Silver, Asian Gold: Migration Money and the Birth of Modern Caribbean Literature.” About a third of the class sessions were live teleconferences between the three schools. Missy Roser ’94, head of research and instruction at Amherst’s Frost Library, helped Cobham-Sander develop the course and attended every session.
Using dLOC, students studied major migrations to the country through novels, oral histories, newspapers, photographs and other primary sources. Roser and Cobham-Sander offered critical frameworks for analyzing the content and “acclimat[ed] students to how history and narrative are presented over time, and what is left for us as researchers to interpret,” Roser says.
Ultimately, the students created their own digital projects based on dLOC content. Christine Miranda ’15, for example, built a website around a digitized collection of school yearbooks from the Panama Canal Zone. Miranda’s detailed annotations of the yearbooks allow visitors to compare life in the Zone over time for different populations. “Since this material was related to schoolchildren’s experiences,” she says, “I wanted to make this available to schoolchildren today.” Miranda travelled to Panama during the celebrations surrounding the 100th anniversary of the of Canal’s opening last summer to gather information and share her work with members of the Society of Friends of the West Indian Museum of Panama (SAMAAP).
This summer, the College’s Center for Community Engagement plans to send another Amherst intern to Panama to partner with SAMAAP on archival work. In the long term, Cobham-Sander and her colleagues hope to develop classroom modules with their students that can be posted to dLOC and shared with teachers in Panama. “The project also may give some of our students an opportunity to actually visit a place that they’ve studied and to get a sense of what’s involved in creating and maintaining an archive—both on the ground and digitally,” the professor says. “Panama Silver, Asian Gold”will be taught again in spring 2016.
For Cobham-Sander, co-teaching with fellow scholars of Caribbean literature “profoundly enriches my understanding of my field.” The experience has also enabled her to contribute to the region where she began her studies. “I’ve often wished, in my teaching today, that I could reach the kind of student I was as an undergrad at the University of the West Indies. The idea that my students at Amherst will be able to contribute to creating and preserving knowledge in another space where there are Caribbean students and teachers feels like a very tangible way to give back to the region.”