Political Economy and Ecology in Southeast Asia 

12 October 2023

A Discussion with Faculty Director Tun Myint 

students ride on boat across water

Faculty Director Dr. Tun Myint, who leads Political Economy and Ecology in Southeast Asia, shares highlights of this winter’s study-abroad trip as well as the unique insights into themselves and the world around them that students will gain through their experiences.

What inspired you to plan Political Economy and Ecology in Southeast Asia? What did you hope to accomplish? 

photo of Tun Myint in front of chalkboard

I led this program for the first time in 2015, in 2020 the second time, and this is going to be the third time. What sparked this program was the sharing of local knowledge that you cannot deliver through either lecture or reading. People have to tacitly absorb, meaning absorption through the experience of being there, such as understanding local senses, like sound, smell, how people their daily activities in the markets and restaurants. This is also the anthropological and historical dimension of life in different settings that enacts in a daily manner. Almost everything that is happening with the people now, in the United States or any other country–they’re all moved or driven by historical, anthropological, cultural, and all those spontaneous conditioning factors. Those cannot be, in a neat way, observed and translated into written word. So, there’s so many steps of learning from tacit understanding to reading the book and discussing it in the classroom. There’re so many layers of this knowledge. So, my goal is to have students experience and feel it, so they can describe, in their own words, what it’s like to be a Southeast Asian farmer or gardener or political activist. Those kinds of things, we may claim that we can read through books and understand them. To me, that’s a very limited way of understanding the world. OCS is a very important instrument, a pedagogical approach of understanding innately, or with your own intrinsic experiences. 

What makes this program different from other study abroad programs? 

From the outset, this program is not like an OCS program where I would bring students from this campus to another campus in Thailand or Burma and place them in a classroom there, and some local instructors would teach them, or I would bring in local instructors into classroom. This OCS is going to be a mobile class, which means a restaurant, a tea shop, a good shaded tree, or any site that we are in could become spontaneously a classroom as we are engaging with local activities and local people. Also, there’s the research assignment. Here on campus, you have to go to the library and check reference books, watch videos, assign an online link to YouTube–things like that–and write a paper about it. With this OCS, the classroom is mobile in nature, and the assignments are also tied to their experiences, rather than what they would read from the reading package. I provide the background reading, but the background reading is just to give an overview of an area’s historical, anthropological, political, scientific, and economical factors. But until they engage with local people, they won’t know what the area is and actually is, so the assignments are very much tied to reflecting on experiences. Not as if you were writing a book, but actually authentically engaged and telling me what you think. So reflective essays are a part of this program, and the collection of those essays becomes a sort of ‘intellectual question’ as we call it here on campus. So, we connect to all of the pedagogies that we do on campus and then use your centric system of learning through experiencing. And they have to experience that, which they transmit through reflective essays, assignments, and final projects. Assigning papers to write through books from the library, YouTube, and all of that, is a powerful way of learning, but it is not a sufficient way to get a deeper understanding of who you are or what the world around you is. 

What does a typical day look like on your program? 

‘Typical’ is hard to say because every day is going to be different. During the two-week orientation period, a language instructor will come in and give us some basic language to communicate, like ‘I’m hungry, I need water, I want to sleep, I’m tired.’ They will be staying with host families who do not speak English at all, so they have to figure out how to communicate as well. This figuring-out of communication is fun actually, if you are into it, when you can’t use words. And you can use a lot of things: tools, sticks, drawings, you name it. Nowadays, you can also cheat with Google Translate. Some do and some don’t, and some intentionally don’t because they want to feel it, feel how people learned to communicate before written languages. Site-seeing and providing some background of the culture that we’re going into will also be experienced during orientation period. We’ll be going to local restaurants, so we’ll see how people go to the restaurants and enjoy how locals do that. So, I tend to avoid touristy places, touristy restaurants. I tend to bring students to a truly local place. Those kinds of activities, what you call traveling, learning, experiencing, those are typical in general. And the students have to take notes. I assign daily journal, and I tend to discuss with them through two or three journals, depending on my meetings with different individuals at different moments. This journal is important because they have to be able to remember and talk about it, and to also know what they are feeling, reflecting, absorbing or not absorbing, things like that. After each site, I issue a reflective essay assignment. So, there’s no typical day-to-day, but there’s sort of a day-to-day relation of what our experiences are going to be. 

What does the housing situation look like, and what are the benefits of this living arrangement to students? 

Housing is going to be from no stars to five stars. So, no stars in the sense of when you’re living in the villages, they do not have the amenities that we enjoy. There may be not proper bed. It could be a bamboo floor; it could be a wooden floor. There will be no shower in the villages, so you will be using buckets and cups to wash yourself, so you have to learn how to do it. And there will be no proper toilet, so you have to learn how to take care of yourself and your business. These are villagers who live in the forest and farm, and they have been doing it for their whole life, for some, so we have to experience how primitive homo sapiens did their business before toilets. We will also have three-star hotels whenever available, and then the river cruise for four days, just like a hotel. And then, the five-star hotel, and the final seminar will be in a resort by the beach. So, a mix of everything, from very primitive to all five-stars. 

What are you most looking forward to? 

I’m looking forward to having conversations with my students throughout the program as we hit the ground, from my first reflective assignment to their first essay. Even after they come back, several of them have continued the conversations with me in the spring term after the winter OCS. And all of their conversations are just invaluable to me. To hear the places that I am quite “familiar” with, that I was born and raised in, but seeing different views of this place, this culture, this food, that sound, that smell, that scenery through others–is just amazing to collect, especially from students who are thoughtful, deeply engaging with their material and experience on the ground. I had several of them from the previous program, and some of them have continued the conversations. Today, we still Zoom and talk on phone, emails as they have started moving into their professions, and some of them have started families. That is something that I’m looking forward to in the long-haul. 

What advice would you give to students to encourage them to study abroad during their Carleton career? What benefits do you see to the experience in general? 

The very basic and simple advice is that you won’t get this opportunity after Carleton. Not in graduate school, not in a PhD program, so take advantage of what we offer. That is the simple advice. The other advice is, since you are here at Carleton, you also want to deconstruct some of your assumptions about who you are and what you have been thinking. You cannot match OCS with a classroom reading, or even a short field trip to some site here in the United States. OCS gives you a full-blown, 10-weeks experience, outside of Carleton, outside of your comfort zone. That is something that, even if you don’t like that kind of thing, you will appreciate one day. So, just do it. Take advantage, and just do it. Based on the majority of my students in the past programs, and other students from other programs that I’ve met as well (because I teach “Coffee and News,” which is a class for OCS and international students), the benefits are enormous. You’ll be prepared to engage in a real-life situation in a different setting that you’re uncomfortable within, and that is quite important. The other benefit is, if you want to be a graduate student doing field research, you’ll get experience though OCS in how you can conduct field research. The other benefits are food, experience, and all that. That’s given; everybody knows that. But also, intellectually, I think, we have given so much privilege to writing and reading as an intellectual endeavor and a form of learning. There are many societies who do not appreciate writing and reading as the main mechanism for learning about themselves and society. How do they do that? So, we have to learn this too. 

Tun Myint is a Professor of Political Science and the Chair of Political Science and International Relations department. He has been at Carleton since 2007.