Washtenaw Community College professor’s sabbatical takes her around Asia

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By Brittany Dekorte

Elisabeth Thoburn’s travel schedule is grueling. When she is out, she is out for eight or more hours a day: walking, shooting photos, asking questions. When she goes back to her hotel, she doesn’t relax; she writes, processes her photos, publishes on her blog, a process that can take four hours.

“I don’t like to travel with anyone, I don’t even bring my husband with me on these trips,” Thoburn said. “Other people slow me down, they can’t keep up with my schedule.”

Thoburn’s life has never been a sedentary one. She grew up in East Germany, and spent time in the ‘70s and ‘80s hitchhiking through the former Soviet Union. Even after she came to Michigan, to teach first at Eastern Michigan and then here at Washtenaw Community College, she made sure to schedule time to travel.

She never visits the easy places, either. North Korea. Pakistan. Egypt, at the beginning of the Arab Spring. Cuba, knowing virtually no Spanish.

It’s never daunted her, though. In her travel blog, she says simply, “My life is teaching, my love is traveling. Ever since childhood have I ventured as far as I could to experience other places, other people, other customs. All along people were worried about me. But my history is good: I have come back safe and sound from everywhere.”

Her good fortune in travels continued this past winter, when she took her sabbatical from the college. Sabbaticals are periods of paid leave given to professors, during which they are expected to travel, do research, or produce materials that can be brought back to enrich the college.

Thoburn initially desired to use this sabbatical to return to a great love of hers, the Middle East. Her humanities class, HUM 175: Arts and Cultures of Middle East, is based off of her extensive travels and first hand study in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria. Because of the threat to travelers caused by ISIS and other factors, the school denied that request.

“I was disappointed, because I have traveled there before and I love it, but I am so grateful to the college for allowing me to cross some other destinations off my bucket list,” said Thoburn.

Her most recent destinations were Nepal, Tibet, and northeastern China.

Thoburn visited China in the past, and was able to revisit some of her favorite places, along with some new ones. One thing that really surprised her about returning to China was increased popularity in some previously more obscure sites.

“The Terracotta soldiers, the museum built around them, years ago it was a small dirt parking lot, only really archaeologists there. It’s tripled in size, a sea of cars, a real circus,” said Thoburn.

Another class that Thoburn teaches at WCC is ART 150: Monuments and Culture, which ‘focuses on the comparison of diverse architectural, religious, cultural and individual ideas.’

“That class has no textbook. I teach it out of my own experiences, my travel photography,” said Thoburn. She rotates the curriculum, based on her most recent travels. Updated pictures from this China trip, along with pictures of religious sites in Nepal and Tibet, will be rotated into the curriculum in the coming semesters.

Another thing Thoburn does with the knowledge she gains is offer community lectures. Most recently, she did one entitled “Cuba Liebre: From Batista to Bacardi,” where she discussed Cuba’s communist revolution, and what it’s like to travel there. These community classes are open to the public for a fee, and are free to WCC students. Thoburn holds these lectures about once a year.

Thoburn also reflected on some of the more obscure places she visited, places that tourists usually shy away from. One was the Xinjiang Province in China, home to a large population of Chinese-Muslims, the Uighurs.

“No one really knows about Uighurs, or sees what they go through. It looks like a war zone, the way they are policed by the government and Han majority. Big, guarded fences around playgrounds, tanks at the train station,” said Thoburn.

Shining a light on dirty secrets, and their effects on local populations, is important to her and her travels. Because they are so difficult to reach, and so few people document them, according to Thoburn, few people understand those struggles. She makes sure to incorporate these first hand accounts with locals into all of her materials, whether it be in photographs of daily life, or anecdotes of shop owners, families and tour guides.

One of her hopes is, after some more personal research and travel in Asia, she can create or teach a similar class to her humanities on the Middle East based on Asian arts and cultures. For now, she is taking a moment to breath, and focus on her students, and the rest of this semester’s classes.

To read more about Thoburn’s travels, you can visit her blog at www.elisabeth-thoburn.com



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