Muhammad Zaman and Carrie Preston come from different backgrounds, both professional and personal. Zaman, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, grew up in Pakistan in the 1980s, when an earlier conflict in Afghanistan sent a flow of refugees across the border. Preston, a professor of English and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at BU, spent her childhood on a farm in Michigan, where migrant workers helped bring in the crops.
But the pair came together to create and teach a course on the global crisis of forced displacement
, a required class in BU’s honors college, where Preston is the director. With the potential of another refugee crisis in Afghanistan, I talked with the professors about why it’s important to bring current events into the classroom and the value of taking an interdisciplinary approach. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Why it is so important to tackle global problems like forced displacement in a multidisciplinary way?
MZ Historically, these things have been taught in political science, perhaps in anthropology and sociology. But there is a tremendous opportunity, and a role and responsibility, for sciences and health. I need to spend time with historians and gender theorists and critical-race theorists to understand the aspects of xenophobia, colonialism, and racism that permeate the conversation when it comes to refugees. My ability to work on these problems from a health lens would always be inadequate unless I work with colleagues from other disciplines, just as we do with climate change or racism or issues of poverty and inequity.
Why do you think the default is to see issues around displacement as belonging to a few disciplines?
MZ That’s how the university is organized. We are very tribal in the sense that we tend to hire people who we know, whose work we know and can analyze. When people speak a different academic language, it is hard for us to assess the quality. Both Carrie and I are at stages of our careers where we can take those risks, we are both tenured professors. But I think for younger faculty, working on issues of refugee health would be a lot harder. There’s still a disincentive for many people to go outside their domain.
CP I’ve gotten pushback: What do you know, as a scholar of performance and gender, about the Syrian refugee crisis? Wait a second, nobody knew much about that back when we were in graduate school. You couldn’t have had done your thesis on that. In the humanities, we are comfortable showing how history impacts the present and how crucial it is to know history to understand an emerging situation and emerging conflict. In the conversations I’m having about Afghanistan, you’ve got to know the history of this country, the history of the Taliban, the history of religious belief and conflict to understand what’s happening now.
How did you create the course?
MZ It took a couple of years for us to put it together. How do you cover something as complex as the global displacement crisis? Do you focus on a particular region? Do you focus only on the theory? And I don’t think we’ve figured it out completely. We are trying to create this environment where we’re learning from each other. The students are brilliant, and they come in with their own worldviews that enrich the discussion.
CP In an interdisciplinary team-taught class like this, it’s very crucial that we’re all contributing. There’s not a single lecturer. I spoke on the day devoted to gender but so did Muhammad. We asked each other questions, we try to point to how we are engaged with each other’s material and learning from each other and even disagreeing at moments. Those are very productive conversations, and some of what the students regularly comment on liking the best.
A big piece of the class is the students working in groups, identifying different problems, doing needs assessment, and proposing solutions to the challenges. While we were in class last spring, the vaccine became available. Many students were interested in the question of Israel’s responsibility to provide the Covid vaccine to Palestine, what an occupying force’s responsibility is to health during a pandemic.