Faculty exchange connects communities across the Atlantic

When UNC-Chapel Hill history professor Sarah Shields recently watched students file into her classroom, it was a familiar scene: backpacks filled with text books, undergraduates with notebooks and laptops under their arms. But there was one particular difference: the sky outside was a muted gray instead of Carolina blue – and her view was of England’s sprawling capitol city, instead of the fall foliage blanketing the Carolina campus.  

Fac Ex STILLDuring the Fall 2015 semester, Shields was part of the first faculty exchange with the UNC-King’s Strategic Alliance. As Shields was teaching about the Palestine-Israel conflict from a U.S. perspective at King’s College London, King’s professor Jim Bjork led two courses at Carolina in modern Central East European history.  

The partnership between King’s College London and UNC-Chapel Hill originated in 2005 between King’s School of Arts and Humanities and School of Social Science and Public Policy and UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences. The UNC-King’s Strategic Alliance is one of the most ambitious partnerships between U.S. and U.K. universities, and includes longstanding and emerging joint activity in teaching, research, student exchanges and other initiatives in diverse fields.

“The sense of connection and knowledge between the two department communities is getting deeper and deeper,” said Adam Sutcliffe, head of the history department at King’s College. “The [faculty] exchange is a kind of glue bringing the two communities together.”

Classrooms on both sides of the Atlantic were filled.

“We have 60 students on that module,” Sutcliffe said of Shields’ course. “It’s actually been unprecedented for a module of that type. “

Students at King’s said the perspective of an American lecturer is what compelled them to take Shields’ course; they were learning from someone who had this history ingrained in their own culture and experience.  

“It helps to have this American view because Sarah was around [the United States] during events like Camp David or the Oslo Accords,” said second-year student Georgia Adebowale. “She has a direct line to those events that perhaps a British lecturer otherwise wouldn’t have. Memory is a very important part of history.”

Bjork and Shields agreed that teaching in a new environment made traveling abroad a great experience. Each also took away their own unique experiences — which they hope colleagues will share in future exchanges.

“It was really interesting to me that we all write histories in particular ways, but it was really helpful to learn from the students how they’ve learned history. How they’ve learned this [Palestine-Israel conflict] history,” Shields said.

While Shields’ revelations came inside the classroom, Bjork said it was time with colleagues outside the classroom at Carolina that will inspire him to share fresh ideas back home at King’s.

“It’s been a nice group of colleagues to get to know a little better,” Bjork said. “Particularly how the department organizes events internally to support research — that has been an inspiration,” Bjork said.

Shields is now back at Carolina; Jim Bjork is currently on sabbatical.

Another faculty exchange is in the works.

Story and video by Carly Swain, Office of Communications and Public Affairs

Contributing footage and interviews from King’s College London by Jonah Klein. Watch King’s College London’s take on this innovative faculty exchange program here.