Fulbright Scholar Stories | William Morris

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William Morris

Professor, Department of Biology, Duke University, Durham, NC
Lecturing/Research: Enhancing Training of Argentine Graduate Students in Quantitative Population Ecology; Assessing Impacts of Climate Change, Human Activities, and Species Interactions on Plant Populations
Host Institution: National University of Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
Dates of Grant: March 2008–June 2008

Professor Morris with students. Mendoza, Argentina

My Fulbright grant was truly a life-changing experience. Before receiving the Fulbright, I never lived for an extended period outside of the United States, and I spoke only one language. Now, I look forward to future extended visits to Argentina and Latin America in general, to improve both my Spanish and my understanding of the culture.

The graduate course I taught was one event that illustrates the grant’s impact. Teaching is not only an opportunity to inspire students about why the subject interests me, but also to learn more about the subject myself. (I’ve found that students’ questions are always the best probes for weaknesses in one’s own knowledge.) This was especially true in this course, because while the students were learning about quantitative population ecology, I was learning Spanish. I knew very little Spanish when I arrived in Argentina 5 months before the course began, but I worked with a teacher at Centro Regional de Investigaciones Cientificas y Tecnológicas (CRICyT) to improve as quickly as possible. Although I advertised the course as being taught mostly in English, I was able to deliver about 90 percent of the lectures in Spanish. My Spanish was far from perfect, but my limitation provided many opportunities to ask the students how to say something in Spanish, and they were glad to help. This mutual learning “leveled the playing field” and made it much clearer than usual that courses are an opportunity for everyone (including the teacher) to learn.

A second reason I feel the course had an important impact on me is that, like many graduate courses in Argentina, students came from all over the country to participate in an intensive and specialized learning experience. As a result, I now know an entire national cohort of ecology graduate students in Argentina. In coming years, I look forward to following their careers as they conduct and complete their dissertation research and go on to become independent researchers. This is an exciting time for science in Argentina, because more positions are available for young researchers now than ever before. Should anything the students learned in my course prove useful to the students in their future work, I will feel deeply honored.

I believe two additional experiences I had while in Argentina illustrate the Fulbright experience. First, when I was traveling in Tierra del Fuego for field research, I was surprised to learn that my taxi driver in Ushuaia knew all about the main candidates in the current U.S. presidential race. It is difficult for me to imagine that the average person in the United States knows much, if anything, about the politics of Argentina. To me, this asymmetry clearly illustrates the United States’ important role in world affairs and the important responsibilities of that role. The second experience also involved a taxi driver. After giving my seminar at the Universidad de la Punta, I returned from San Luis to Mendoza in a taxi. The driver spoke no English, but when she learned that I did, she expressed a long-held desire to learn English, especially to be better able to serve her clients. (This is another indication of the important role that U.S. citizens play—as tourists—in the world). So we spent the entire drive translating useful phrases between Spanish and English. Never before has a two-hour car trip gone by so quickly!