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How long is too long? 

A new Erasmus project explores the possibilities of blended mobilities in the middle of a worldwide pandemic

The Project

Even long before COVID-19 changed our world and our lives so fundamentally, the Erasmus program had designed a new program with an emphasis on inclusion and digitalization to test out new mobilities. As part of this new program, the project “How Long is Too Long?” (HLiTL) was called into being, with strong involvement of the International Office of Philipps-Universität Marburg and the Dean of the Department of Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, Prof. Dr. Carmen Birkle. The aim of the project is to improve mobility strategies in teaching contexts and develop new mobility programs that are ideally suited for students and their individual requirements, and as such implementing mobilities and combining mobility strategies in the most effective way possible.

But what exactly is mobility? In the context of the EU program Erasmus, mobility refers to all kinds of international and intercultural exchange; it relates most importantly to accessibility in academic and university contexts. One of the core missions of Erasmus is to bring students and teachers from all over Europe together and encourage and support international and intercultural exchange. As such, the program offers scholarships and support for students seeking a semester abroad, but even beyond that, Erasmus continuously searches for new ways to advance international exchange in academic contexts. The 2021-2027 Erasmus program focuses strongly on social inclusion as well as on digital transitions. As part of this new program, the project “How Long is Too Long?” contributes to the organization and execution of different forms of mobility in teaching and aims to collect data and statistics in order to evaluate and improve the options for mobility in university contexts. The goal of the project is to optimize forms of international exchange regarding length and structure, for which the project implemented three categories: physical, blended, and virtual mobility.

One section – or intellectual output - of the HLiTL project was a joint seminar with professors and students from three European Universities: Philipps-Universität Marburg (Germany), Universidade do Porto (Portugal), and Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (France). Prof. Jan Borm, professor of English Literature at Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (coordinating university of HLiTL), was joined by Prof. Fátima Outeirinho, professor of Comparative Literatures in Porto, and by Prof. Carmen Birkle, professor of North American Studies in Marburg. They first met in early 2020 to organize the seminar “Travel and Health in North American and British Literature.” The purpose of the joint seminar was to examine how universities can help prepare students interested in international exchange for a stay abroad and to test which projects might encourage students with different needs to make use of the varying forms of student mobility. The three professors compiled a syllabus and taught the classes jointly with support by Laura Hartmann as additional lecturer and Marie Zarda as student assistant from Marburg. Among the 75 participants were 48 students from Marburg (enrolled in the MA program North American Studies, the undergraduate program BA American, British, and Canadian Studies, or the teaching degree English), 18 students from France (enrolled in the MA program English Studies or the MA Cultural Project Management), and nine Portuguese students (enrolled in the MA Comparative Literary Studies). Hence, the syllabus and the seminar itself needed to be suitable to the students’ diverse backgrounds, courses of study, study levels, and varying language skills in English. Furthermore, as the purpose of HLiTL was to explore accessible means of teaching, the online teaching tools and platforms also needed to be accessible for all students. The seminar utilized the virtual conference tool Cisco Webex, which allows a large number of participants to join the sessions. Additionally, the online learning platform Ilias was used to organize the sessions, upload the students’ presentations and supply the students with the primary and secondary texts as well as with additional material and handouts. The Ilias group also enabled students to contact each other outside of the classroom and included a forum where the contents of the sessions could be discussed further, and questions could be asked and answered.

As the title of the seminar might suggest, and somewhat fittingly in regards to the ongoing pandemic, the texts that were read and analyzed in the seminar focused on travel literature of the 18th and 19th centuries and the role of health in these texts. Texts like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), Herman Melville’s Redburn (1849) or Mary Seacole’s autobiography Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (1857) were read and prepared by students and then discussed in the joint sessions. Other texts included Henry Fielding’s Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (1755), Henry Matthews’ The diary of an invalid, being the journal of a tour in pursuit of health in Portugal, Italy, Switzerland and France in the years of 1817, 1818 and 1816 (1820) and William Beckford’s Italy with Sketches of Spain and Portugal (1834).

Henry Fielding
Edgar Allan Poe
Herman Melville
Mary Jane Seacole

The class also looked at the historical and cultural backgrounds of the required readings as well as conventions of travel writing and different literary genres. The protagonists of the discussed narratives either traveled because of health issues—for instance to find medical assistance in another country or they became ill while traveling. In every joint session, groups of students from each university presented their analyses to the class, followed by a student-moderated discussion of the texts’ most important elements. Both the choices of literature as well as the students’ readings of it was impressively diverse and as such highlighted the merits of the international collaboration, and the heterogeneous learning backgrounds of the students enriched the discussions with diverse perspectives on the texts. To further support the students’ understanding of the material and to provide more opportunities for discussions and networking, Ms. Hartmann from Philipps-Universität Marburg offered additional virtual sessions every week, where the students could ask any remaining questions and discuss the texts in more depth.

The Travel and Health seminar was originally planned as a blended mobility seminar and its main teaching part was to be conducted jointly and virtually. As a conclusion and a variation of the virtual mobility, a final workshop in Porto, Portugal, where the students would have had the opportunity to come together as a form of physical mobility was planned for January 2021. In this case, the different forms of mobility would have been used for their respective advantages, especially regarding accessibility and inclusivity: The online teaching allowed students from the three universities to participate and encourage intercultural exchange, as the format of the seminar was easily accessible to all students that might not have been able to attend the seminar as a form of physical mobility. The winter school in Porto would have been a great addition to the virtual seminar with the international exchange in person, where the students would have had the opportunity to meet each other as well as the teachers from the other universities and experience each other’s culture and learning environment firsthand. However, while the seminar had been planned long before the dawn of the COVID-19 crisis, it took place during a time when the external factors of the pandemic had already fundamentally changed university teaching with a thorough and necessary switch to the virtual world. But the early and long planning phase had not been in vain: Since the seminar had always been planned as a virtual teaching experience, the conduction of the seminar was barely affected by the pandemic, with the unfortunate exception that the planned winter school in Porto had to be cancelled.

Bridging the gap between different universities and countries through the means of technology has proven to be a necessary development in teaching, but also one that can provide so many merits, even after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Especially in the context of blended mobility, the seminar proved to be a highly successful experiment in the exploration of innovative modes of international cooperative teaching. In a final survey, the majority of the students stated they were “very satisfied” or “completely satisfied” with the selection of the contents, the structure of the contents, and the forms of teaching and learning. Especially the performance of the teachers was rated extraordinarily high: When asked about the assistance provided by the teachers and tutors, most students stated that they were “completely satisfied,” and also when asked about the professional competences of the teachers, most students stated that they were “completely satisfied.” Furthermore, many students mentioned that they appreciated the international cooperative format of the seminar and wrote that they would not have been able to attend if the seminar was not a blended mobility project. It should also be noted that the seminar succeeded in the mission of the HLiTL-project, with 67,9% of students stating that the seminar encouraged them to seek physical mobility experiences and 87,5% stating that they would recommend the course to fellow students. The virtual format of the sessions, however, was probably the one aspect where there is still room for improvement: Teaching, communication, and especially time management is not the same in a virtual classroom, and as such, the means of teaching and structuring online classes can still be improved. One student said: “Unfortunately, online teaching cannot be compared to in-person teaching, as discussions do not happen the same way they would in a face-to-face class. However, this seminar was a great opportunity to have an interesting and new learning environment, while new technological resources were explored and put into practice at the same time.” The experiences gathered during the online teaching phase brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the information and data gathered by HLiTL, promise to be valuable resources for digital teaching and blended mobility in the future. In order to make these experiences accessible to other teachers and institutions planning blended mobility projects, the initiators and members of the HLiTL project are currently compiling a handbook in which the contents of the seminar, the teaching methods, and the evaluation of the gathered information are elaborated. Thus, the handbook will provide tips and guidelines for other blended mobility projects and encourage more modes of intercultural exchange.

The pandemic made it abundantly clear how necessary projects like HLiTL are in order to advance and broaden the possibilities of mobility in teaching and international exchange and cooperation, especially to maintain the accessibility of inclusive and international learning experiences. And this effort has been recognized by the students. In a final survey, one of the students noted: “We have brought together so many people. It's amazing to listen to so many opinions. Speak the same language, learn new things.”

The Team

Prof. Dr. Jan Borm
(Professor of English Literature at Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (coordinating university of HLiTL))

Prof. Dr. Carmen Birkle (Professor of North American Studies at Philipps University Marburg)

Laura Hartmann
(PhD candidate at Philipps University Marburg)

Marie Zarda
(Student assistant at Philipps University Marburg)

Prof. Fátima Outeirinho
(Professor of Comparative Literatures in Porto)

Further Information

More information regarding Erasmus can be found here

Further information on the “How Long is Too Long?”project can be found here

You are a student at Philipps-Universität Marburg and you want to study abroad? Check out the homepage of the International Office to find more information!

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