Global classroom: Yale instructors open courses to students in post-coup Myanmar
Erik Harms always likes to get to his “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology” class 20 minutes early. Like many other Yale instructors, he’ll often lay out materials for his students before each lecture and prepare a set of PowerPoint slides.
Then Harms, a professor of anthropology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and chair of the Council on Southeast Asia Studies, sets up a small camera at the front of the classroom in Harkness Hall.
Once class begins, he says, “I wave to my friends on the other side of the world and thank them for showing up.”
Joining his regular Yale lectures this semester is a group of students from Myanmar. While the Southeast Asian nation has struggled with unrest and political instability since a military coup in early 2021 ousted the country’s democratically elected government, educators across the country are trying to keep students in classrooms, often through fully online programs.
Supporting their efforts are instructors like Erik Harms at Yale. Working with the Virtual Federal University, an online-only university that is part of a civil disobedience movement against the military junta, Harms has opened his classroom to supplement the education of Burmese students. Meanwhile, two other Yale instructors are working with Parami University, an online-only liberal arts college led by Kyaw Moe Tun ’11 M.S., ’14 Ph.D., for the same goals.
“Education has been really decimated since the coup,” said Frances O’Morchoe, a postdoctoral associate in Yale’s Council on Southeast Asia Studies who has also opened her classroom. “Civil society is filling the gaps that the state left.”
O’Morchoe, along with David Moe, the Henry Hart Rice Postdoctoral Associate at Yale, who is also participating in the collaboration, teaches more specialized courses about Myanmar and Southeast Asia. As part of the partnership, both O’Morchoe and Moe have incorporated students from Myanmar into their seminars, allowing for direct interaction between Yale students and their Burmese counterparts during classroom discussions.
“Yale students are able to just literally put up their hand and ask a person currently in Myanmar, ‘So how does this issue play out today?’” said O’Morchoe.
For the students from Myanmar, these interactions with Yale students reveal important insights into how certain issues are interpreted and understood in the United States, O’Morchoe said.
Beyond that, she said, the opportunities simply allow for “fantastic conversations” among all the students participating from both sides of the world.
“Yale students and the Parami students can really exchange their ideas,” agreed Moe, a Myanmar native who is at Yale for a one-year postdoctoral foreign residence fellowship. “People in Myanmar have their firsthand experience. So it’s really a helpful way of teaching these courses.”
Erik Harms, meanwhile, has “open-sourced” his course, allowing students anywhere in the world to listen in — and other instructors to adapt his work for their students. And because the class is recorded, students from across the world who may face bandwidth challenges are able to access the course without having to attend live. Harms hopes this versatile structure will enable instructors to “substitute” or “transform” his curriculum as needed for a more Myanmar-specific context.
“Everything’s recorded. They can watch it, distribute it, download it, and translate it for free,” he said. “The idea is that my [Burmese] students will then take those resources and teach more students in various contexts.”
For the instructors, the opportunity to engage with students in Myanmar is one of the positive outcomes of pandemic-era innovation in digital learning. A reconfiguration of educational systems, borne of a public health disaster, O’Morchoe said, has allowed them to help alleviate sociopolitical pressures for students thousands of miles away.
“If anything good comes out of the pandemic, let it be this.” she said. “We’re already trained in [digital learning]. So let’s make use of that.”
Beyond these efforts to open Yale classrooms to Burmese students, individuals and groups across campus are also working to increase awareness about the crisis in Myanmar. The Council on Southeast Asia Studies has incorporated discussions about Myanmar into its broader work by participating in Yale’s Scholars at Risk program, which aims to create a safe, unfettered space for scholars facing dangerous conditions worldwide. The council has also featured several prominent scholars in monthly events like its Brown Bag Seminar Series.
“It’s hard to describe how gratifying it is to know that education is actually important,” said Harms. “We talk about it all the time, but you see it in action in this way. To see people who are struggling with bandwidth but are still willing to do all that work to listen to me talk about anthropology is one of the most gratifying things I can imagine in the world.”
For Moe, this focus on Myanmar is deeply personal, and an important shift after years of “neglect” of Myanmar in the greater field of Southeast Asian studies. “Now, because of this coup, people are paying new attention and students are learning the story of Myanmar,” he said.
Harms says he hopes instructors from other universities will join the effort.
“You can do this for close to zero money as long as, as a professor, you're willing to do a little bit of logistical work.” he said. “You don’t need to wait for a million-dollar grant to make it happen. You just show up a few minutes early to class and set things up.”