Photo by Sebastian Freire
Today we are in conversation with NYU Alum and NYU Buenos Aires Professor Mariano Lopez Seoane, who has been teaching at Buenos Aires since the site was established in 2008 and who helped pioneer NYU’s first networked course, taught in both New York and Buenos Aires.
How did you come to teach at NYU Buenos Aires? I understand you pursued graduate studies and earned your PhD at NYU. Did your connection to the university influence your interest in teaching at NYU Buenos Aires?
Yes, totally. I got PhD at NYU in the Spanish and Portuguese Department. I had moved back to Buenos Aires for a while just to do research for my dissertation and while I was there doing research, a professor of mine from NYU contacted me and told me that NYU was opening a Study Abroad Center in Buenos Aires. He asked whether I had an interest in teaching. I had had such a wonderful experience at NYU that I was immediately intrigued. At that time, I was actually deciding between going back to the United States or staying in Argentina. Teaching at NYU Buenos Aires seemed to me the perfect opportunity: a combination of both things – staying in my home country but working in a foreign environment. So it was an excellent opportunity for me.
I had to go back to New York to defend my dissertation, but then I returned to Buenos Aires for good and immediately started working at NYU Buenos Aires. That first year, I was asked by a former professor to develop a course that would highlight some interesting aspects of the culture of Buenos Aires, which I did. It was a very successful course, popular among students. A year later, another NYU professor contacted me from the Spanish Department. She noted that the initial course was successful and asked me to develop another course. This course was to focus not only on Buenos Aires, but on Latin America in general. So I designed another course that was an introduction to Latin American culture. I have been teaching at NYU Buenos Aires continuously since 2008 when I developed the first course.
This spring will be your third time teaching the first NYU networked course, “Queer Cultures & Democracy” which started in the spring of 2015 and involves students in New York and Buenos Aires. Can you describe how this course came to be offered and how it is structured across the two locations?
Over the years, I developed connections with colleagues in New York. In particular, I was in contact with Gabriel Giorgi, a NYU professor and friend who is also interested in queer cultures. We started to do a series of small conferences, first in Buenos Aires, focusing on queer issues in Latin America, and then one in New York, focusing on what was going on there. Many students participated and so we thought, “Why not do a course?” We created this course together focusing on queer culture and queer theory, trying to compare and contrast what happens in New York and Buenos Aires. We have been teaching the course for the past two years.
The course, “Queer Cultures & Democracy”, highlights the important role of different queer cultures in strengthening our democracies. It provides a sense of the differences between North America and Latin America. However, we specifically focus on New York and Buenos Aires, not the US and Argentina. We really take advantage of our locations and ground the coursework in our cities. There is a strong research component to the course, so students need to go visit and look into archives, visit significant sites, conduct interviews. Students are required to draw from experiences in the field in each city.
We really try to make the most of being in two locations. We meet at the same time even with different time zones. The class is arranged so that the first part of the class is more like a lecture. We grapple with difficult concepts in gender theory and queer theory, and that portion of the class we do separately. Then there is a moment in which we want to discuss something with the entire class. This takes place during the second part of the class. For example, if some students are sharing the results of the research they have done – let’s say going and speaking to queer activists and connecting those conversations to theory – then we use technology to discuss that together. We have screens in both classrooms so we can participate in one conversation. So students in Buenos Aires can report on what they experienced and share their ideas with their classmates in both Buenos Aires and New York.
We also come together in other ways. For instance, if we watch a film and want to do a discussion, we connect and have a collective conversation. We also encourage students to write their final papers as a collaboration between sites. We try to facilitate this where possible. If we know of one student from New York interested in transgender rights, for instance, we try to find someone in Buenos Aires interested in the same topic and we encourage them to write together.
This kind of networked course is difficult to organize, but it is worth the effort. The students like it. It works in many ways. Sometimes students in New York have no interest in Latin America and then after the course, they want to come. Sometimes students in Buenos Aires discover things about the city in which they live, New York, that they didn’t know. We once swapped – Gabriel came to Buenos Aires for a month and I was in New York for a month – which was interesting and useful for the students and for the course. We both had a better understanding of the issues in the other city, and actually got to experience certain things – going to the archives, for example – firsthand.
What have been the greatest learning experiences of this course, both for you and for the students? How does the networked approach influence the course? How does teaching literally across cultures and countries in a course about cultures and democracy enrich the classroom conversations?
What has been most interesting for students, and what both we and the students have learned in the course is that we get a sense of how queer cultures and queer activism have been central in deepening and strengthening our democracies. We have more democratic societies because of the existence of these minorities and their struggles – for recognition, for rights – have made our societies and democracies more vibrant and strong. Not all students in the course define themselves as queer, so there are some students who have perhaps never had exposure to these issues. They leave the classroom with a sense of the centrality of queer issues to democracy. The networked nature of the course also encourages all of us – students and professors – to think with more intent on the comparison and contrast between the two sites. We know we are going to have group discussions and it is important that people have something to say. So the comparing and contrasting is developed in conversations. This becomes useful because students understand that it is something they need to think about all the time. This is an aspect of studying abroad in general – through coming to know another culture, you get a better understanding of your own culture – but in this course it is intensified.
From the perspective of someone who studies Latin America, I would add that there is an additional aspect of this course which is interesting. It is very typical that we see our own history or people from abroad see our own history in Latin America as a series of moments when we copied someone else, usually Europe or the United States. We see this in talking about independence, the constitution, and more. This idea of the US and Europe as models for Latin America, which they have been, is very common. But on the specific issue of queer cultures Latin America shows a unique vitality. There has been vibrancy among the activists and artists here such that sometimes things happen here before they do in the US. For example, Argentina had a same sex marriage law in 2010. The US didn’t have that possibility until 2015. This is very interesting because it is a topic in which traditional narratives about how Latin America works are challenged or subverted.
Photo by Sebastian Freire
I understand you have also been involved in launching the first Master’s degree program in Gender and Queer Studies in Argentina. Can you tell us more about that?
Argentina, specifically Buenos Aires, has many institutions with researchers or professors that are interested in these issues or teach these issues, but there was no institutional space where you could study, for example, a masters program on this topic. So if you wanted to do a PhD with a focus on queer studies, you could do it but you had to find the courses and professors yourself. So I worked with some other professors and Daniel Link, a public intellectual, to develop a program. We created a core program in this topic, from an interdisciplinary perspective – topics range from public health and politics to courses that deal with the history of cinema from a queer perspective, the history of the arts from a queer perspective, the history of activism from a queer perspective. We basically gathered all of the people working on gender and sexuality in different institutions and put them in the same place. The Master’s Program is at a national university, UNTREF . The university said we could have thirty students, and we received applications from more than sixty students, indicating that there was clearly a need. Classes are starting in March. The Master’s Program is connected to thinking about new policies on these topics and also connected to activism. We consider it a successful initiative thus far.
In addition to your research and work on LGBTQ issues, I understand you also research literature and are an accomplished translator. Can you share a bit about your work as a translator and about the kinds of literature you are drawn to?
Most of my translations have been on theory. I have translated Fredric Jameson, a cultural critic, and the books of philosopher Susan Buck-Morss. I have also translated the work of Avital Ronell, philosopher and literary critic at NYU.
My Phd was on Latin American literature. I am mostly interested in contemporary Latin American literature dealing with the problems most associated with Latin America – political violence, narco-violence and how it affects our communities, gender and sexuality. I am drawn to works that deal with these topics in an interesting and imaginative way. I am not looking for reports on these topics, but literature that offers something more while dealing with these topics. Works I appreciate may have an interesting use of language or literary images. Literature and the arts have to offer something extra. It cannot only be about the topic, what matters is what they do with it – offering us a different perspective that we haven’t thought about, for example.
What has been most rewarding for you about teaching at NYU Buenos Aires?
It’s a very welcoming and supportive atmosphere for working. As a scholar and professor, you feel welcomed and appreciated. You feel as though you can come up with ideas and projects and that they are welcomed – for example, proposing a new course, or changing a course. NYU Buenos Aires is a space in which you can be creative in your own field. You don’t need to follow what was done in the past or what is being done now. You can think of new possibilities and they are considered and often accepted. This is something I love about NYU. For me it is good to have the connection to NYU, my alma matter, of course, but being part of an international network is amazing. I believe that scholarship and teaching should be international and need to have a cosmopolitan horizon. In order to teach effectively, you need to understand what is happening in other parts of the world and to connect with others in your field. Collaborating with other researchers is already a given at NYU. This greatly enriches you as a scholar and researcher. If you work at a national university, it can be hard to get in touch with and collaborate with people from other places. At NYU it is a given. I am in constant dialogue with people in other places – NY, of course, but also at times Berlin or Madrid.
Do you think that time abroad is valuable for students’ academic and personal development? If so, how do you think that value manifests?
I think it is central. The students tell me all the time that coming to Buenos Aires has changed their lives. They say that time here is key to understanding their own culture in different ways, seeing things about the US and how they can be a part of their community and society that they couldn’t see before. I know this because I have studied abroad myself for five years. It changed my life and perspective completely. This is true whether you are abroad for many years, or for only a semester or a year. You denaturalize your own culture and life, recognize that there are other ways to do things and maybe other cultures have something to teach you.
This is important in many disciplines. It is important for the humanities of course, the humanities being the dialogue between cultures, but it is not only important for the humanities. It is also important in law, economic science, public health, and other fields. Seeing how things work in different contexts is also enriching. I also believe in the idea of experiential learning – here while experiencing a different culture you have classes to reflect what is going on with you in this different culture, and the courses use what is happening to you as a student to assist in your growth.
I also think that for people in the US going to a country in the developing world, here in Latin America or in Africa at our site in Ghana, is especially interesting. While of course you learn a great deal from going to a place in Europe, the contrast when in the developing world is starker for all kinds of reasons. It is a very specific type of difference and students are exposed to situations where not everything is taken for granted, where things are not working as they should be, where the political system is vastly different. In these places, students get a sense of how the world works and understand that the world is not limited to the so-called “North”.