Academic Migrants: A Digital Discussion of Transnational Teaching and Learning

July 19, 2013, 08:30 | Short Paper, Embassy Regents F

1. Overview

This short paper offers a progress report on the first digital humanities project being conducted at Nazarbayev University, a newly established English-language institution in Kazakhstan. During the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 academic years, international faculty members and Kazakh students have the opportunity to contribute personal narratives of academic migration to an open-access digital database. The ensemble of narratives documents personal experiences of migration while investigating how academic migration impacts teaching and learning on trans/national scales. Putting the digital accounts into dialogue with print research on academic migration and migration more generally, the short paper probes the following questions: How does the collection of digital narratives from the Nazarbayev University campus community enhance or problematize current research on migration? What does the digital collection reveal about the formation of individual and national identities in an era of increased migration and information technology? And, how does the project’s digital storytelling framework promote transnational dialogue about teaching and learning, thereby impacting trends in higher education?

2. Context and Content

“Academic Migrants” investigates experiences and impacts of academic migration through digital storytelling. The project focuses on the unique case study of academic migration to Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan. Migration for academic purposes is integral to the mission of this English-language university. In 2011, Nazarbayev University opened its undergraduate programs in partnership with major international institutions of higher learning including the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University College London. The faculty consists primarily of scholars trained in North America and Europe, while the student body hails from all regions of the vast country. Over the course of the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 academic years, students and faculty are invited to contribute personal accounts of academic migration to a project website.

This case study of academic migration contributes to developments in the field of migration studies. In the post-war period of the 1940s, the field of migration studies began to take root in the United States, the United Kingdom and other Western European countries. According to Castles and Miller, a great deal of research in the field has and continues to focus on the political and economic causes and consequences of migratory patterns implicating the U.S. and other global powers. Though much of this research has centered on the migration of unskilled laborers, more recent scholarship takes into consideration the migration of skilled workers. In the past five years, the subfield of “academic migration” has emerged to shed light on the experiences of educated individuals migrating because of academic pursuits. A growing number of social scientists are investigating the impacts of the migration of academics from “developing” countries to North American and European nations. An annual conference on the subject began in 2009 ( http://www.fbmk.upm.edu.my/ICAMM3/ ) and an anthology appeared in 2011 (Dervin). Existing studies overwhelmingly focus on what is termed a “brain drain” phenomenon, studying for example the movement of highly educated individuals from Africa to Europe or from former Soviet republics, like Kazakhstan, to Russia. “Academic Migrants” moves away from the “brain drain” framework to present a different narrative of academic migration. In offering a case study of academic migration that hinges on the movement of North American and European scholars to the post-Soviet capital of Astana, this project addresses new trends in both migration and higher education.

3. Methods

Essential to the project is its use of digital storytelling to document and investigate the causes and implications of academic migration on personal, national and transnational levels. The use of first-hand narratives is inspired by the work of scholars like Homi Bhaba, Stuart Hall and Avtar Brah who draw from their personal experiences of migrating from the “global south” to the “global north” to deconstruct problematic North/South and West/East paradigms. These authors’ cultural theories of hybrid identity and diasporic space challenge the Western-centric foundation and bi-directional focus of migration studies. Similarly, “Academic Migrants” draws from the personal narratives of students and faculty to challenge problematic West/Rest paradigms in its study of migration to and within Kazakhstan in the post-Soviet period. Participants have the option of contributing narratives in written, oral and/or visual formats, and contributions will be arranged on the project website according to particular themes or questions such as the home/land, language and translation, globalization, and so forth. The general public will have the opportunity to interact with the campus community by responding to the digital stories and contributing to online discussions about topics pertinent to academic migration.

4. Outcomes

In using interactive digital storytelling to document and generate discussion about academic migration, this project probes how life narratives can enhance our understanding of the causes and consequences of migration. Specifically, the ensemble of audio-visual and written narratives explores various reasons for which individuals become academic migrants, how personal experiences of migration overlap and/or vary, and how migration impacts teaching and learning on national and transnational scales. In addition to illuminating the varied experiences of academic migrants at Nazarbayev University and informing our understanding of migration, the digital collection invites public dialogue about migration that extends beyond national and academic frontiers.


Bhabha, H. (1994). The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.
Brah, A. (1996). Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. New York: Routledge.
Castles, S., and M. Miller (2003). The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World. London: Guilford.
Dervin, F. (2011). Analysing the Consequences of Academic Mobility and Migration. New Castle upon Thyne: Cambridge Scholars.
Hall, S. (1990). Cultural Identity and Diaspora. In Rutherford, J. (ed), Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. London: Lawrence. 222-237.