Taking a Critical Look

Taking a Critical Look at the Caribbean

To many people around the world, the islands of the Caribbean Sea are idyllic tropical playgrounds, exotic destinations for vacationers to find sun, beaches, pleasure and native authenticity. Faculty member Tom Womeldorff sees them quite differently.

As a scholar of Caribbean studies—whose interest in the region was sparked by a program he took at Evergreen in the late 1970s—Womeldorff examines the region through a broad interdisciplinary scope, taking into consideration a whole range of historical, cultural, economic, political and ideological contexts.

Tom WomeldorffWith the help of a Foundation Faculty Grant, he spent a 2010 sabbatical conducting on-the-ground research that has enriched his teaching, helped him build two new programs, and enabled him to pass on to his students a deeper and richer understanding of the region that goes far beyond prepackaged tourist experiences.

For five weeks, Womeldorff traveled to Puerto Rico, Dominica, Guadeloupe and Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands. He discovered the transformative works of other scholars, learned about current political debates and studied the evolution of Caribbean tourism given the colonial legacy of the region.

Last fall, he brought the fruits of his research to Caribbean Cultural Crossings, a program he taught which examined the various powers and forces that remade the region in the late 18th century and continue to shape it to this day, from the sugar plantations of the French, English, Spanish and Dutch to modern migration and globalization. "I could not have developed such a geographically, culturally and disciplinarily broad approach without the sabbatical experience," he says.

In the winter, he taught Caribbean Tourism: A Critical Analysis. This program covered the development of the travel industry in the region, focusing in particular on its economic impacts, the shaping of the tourist experience, impacts on local people, changing Western perceptions of the region and the tourism mentality.

Womeldorff, who has taught at Evergreen since 1989, credits the Foundation Faculty Grant with not only allowing him to develop more fully as a scholar and update his knowledge, but also with enabling him to do more on his sabbatical than he could have otherwise and helping him to shape his teaching and build different academic programs.

"It was crucial for my development as a Caribbean Studies scholar. I have been transformed from a scholar of Puerto Rico to a nascent scholar of the Caribbean, a scholar in the Evergreen sense of crossing many more boundaries than most people who focus on the Caribbean," he says. "I was able to broaden myself in a way that channeled into my teaching at Evergreen and connected back to the students. The biggest sign of the success of my sabbatical, supported by the Foundation, was the success of my fall and winter programs. They have been the most successful experiences I've had in teaching about other cultures."