Breaking Down Walls

The humanities lab BorderWork(s) encourages faculty and students to explore what keeps people apart

Walls, partitions and borders separate people around the world more today than they did when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. A team of Duke faculty and students is working in an unusual setting -- a laboratory -- to understand why.

Borders and walls have evolved, explains Robin Kirk, an instructor in the BorderWork(s) Humanities Lab. "While they used to keep people in, now they are used to keep people out. And once they're up, they're hard to take down."

Both undergraduate and graduate students are working with Duke faculty in the lab -- a concept usually associated with the sciences -- to explore how society has "parceled the world into bounded communities," from physical maps to mental walls, Kirk said. They are learning how borders form and change, shaping nations and environmental rights.

Hillary Martinez

Hillary Martinez reads two poems from her collection created during the BorderWork(s) lab.


After Abyei:

Duke's Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI) launched the lab concept last spring with its Haiti Lab, and expanded it this fall with BorderWork(s) and Greater Than Games, a lab on digital storytelling. As in the sciences, all of the labs are experimental and collaborative. Students develop their own projects, pursue their own readings and work in teams. 

As in any laboratory, they also learn from their mistakes, said Philip Stern, BorderWork(s)' co-director. 

"Students are learning in a non-conventional way and there is lots of room for experimentation. Sometimes not all the questions get answered. Not every project produces what you might expect at the beginning. But there's no need for them to scale down a grandiose idea. They can form a team. Five heads are better than one," Stern said. "Part of the goal is to let natural intellectual curiosity grow organically."

The students, therefore, learn from each other, he said.

"The lab brings people together from different disciplines to ask questions in different ways with interaction, which is really the key," said Kirk, who added that humanities researchers often work in silos. "Group experiences enhance our research," she said. 

Kirk is teaching "At Home/On the Wall: Belfast and Durham," a weekly seminar where students can pursue their own projects around the theme of borders, both seen and unseen.

"Borders are not just physical things," said Kirk, who noted how an Internet firewall or a wide street can serve as a "wall." In Durham, she said, Duke students contend with invisible walls all the time. For some a wall could be the 9th Street shopping area; for others it could be Brightleaf Square in the downtown area. Either way, "there is a line some do not cross for whatever reason."

The students come to the lab from a variety of majors including English, engineering and biology, examining the divisions around the world through multiple disciplines. Their end project may be a research paper or something else, perhaps requiring more than one semester to complete.

For example, sophomore Stefani Jones, focused her project on conflict minerals and is working to raise awareness about how Duke and other universities may buy products that use minerals from war-torn areas. She wrote an essay about her efforts that was published in the Huffington Post. Senior Hillary Martinez is working on a book-length series of poems about borders.

"It's an experience that is maybe off the beaten path a bit, but it will encourage me in my artistic pursuits in ways that typical classes do not," Martinez said. "I hope I can continue to explore artistic projects when I get out in the real world, but it's so accessible right now."

Patrick Oathout, a sophomore studying philosophy and public policy, presented his independent study project, "Uhuru Mobile," last fall. He proposed a free, mobile phone application that allows users to communicate with refugees and aid workers in English, Arabic and Kiswahili. The service is designed to track drought conditions, report malnutrition or connect resettled refugees with their families.   

To see other student independent studies, visit the BorderWork(s) website.

BorderWork(s) Courses, Spring 2012

Several Duke faculty members lead the BorderWork(s) lab at the Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI) located in Smith Warehouse. Launched last fall, the lab is comprised of several courses across the disciplines of history, documentary studies, environmental studies and African American studies. Its courses and faculty members include:

  • The U.S.-Mexico Border; Charlie Thompson, Center for Documentary Studies
  • Breaking Sound Barriers; Ingrid Byerly, cultural anthropology
  • Rights of Immigrants, Workers and Prisoners; Bob Korstad, Sanford School of Public Policy
  • Refugee Camp Safety; Claudia Koonz, history, and Erika Weinthal, Nicholas School of the Environment
  • Black Europe and the African Diaspora; Jayne Ifekwunigwe, African & African American Studies
  • Maps, Exploration, and Empire; Philip Stern, history

Oathout participated in the lab through "Mapping the World's Refugees and Displaced Persons," a course taught by history professor Claudia Koonz and environment professor Erika Weinthal. Their course explored borders through the lens of human rights and environmental policy, asking questions such as how to protect the environment from damage caused by refugee camps, or how to assess the social and political effects of many people crossing borders en masse. 

Koonz and Weinthal have continued to work together this semester, designing a virtual, interactive refugee camp using Google Earth and other mapping applications. They envision the camp providing shelter to nomads fleeing famine in the Horn of Africa, and are designing it with variables such as changing water sources, to push students to respond to real-world problems such as food distribution, sanitation and, of course, uncertain borders. 

"Our goal is to supply enough knowledge for students to make inroads at NGOs," Weinthal said. "I would love for a student to say to an NGO, 'what's beyond your budget?' and then say 'here's what we can do.'"

Two other Duke historians, Stern  and Sumathi Ramaswamy, co-teach "The Empire Maps Back," an independent study that examines imperialism as a form of border crossing and maps as a tool of power over colonized people.

"We are interested in how borders are created -- who makes them, in what context and how people use them," Stern said.  "We're interested in imperialism and colonialism and how those kinds of power structures get articulated and expressed on maps."

His students are currently conducting research for an art exhibit related to historical cartography, which is tentatively scheduled to open at Perkins Library next January. 

"Artists, writers, can find ways of engaging with the map to question their lives," Stern said. "The group learns through doing as opposed to abstraction."

Some of his students are interested in library science and education. Others are interested in museum curatorial work and technology. 

"Each project has different tasks -- some heavy, some light. Students engage in a collective endeavor that teaches methods and has outcomes that are really important. But they can also do research that is interesting in itself and develop practical skills to take with them."