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International students are legion in the student bodies of colleges and universities in the United States; according to the Institute of International Education, their number now stands at more than a million. Such students are an important feature of American higher education institutions. It means all students are exposed to a kaleidoscope of cultures right on their campus.
At least, that is the nice little story that colleges and universities tell. We pat ourselves on the back for socializing our students within a framework of diversity and cosmopolitanism as if we were composing Benetton ads. (I realize that I am dating myself with this reference.)
But at the risk of stating the obvious, the truth is murkier. In Rhetoric and the Global Turn in Higher Education, Christopher Minnix lays out some key inconsistencies in the cosmopolitan mission of American higher education institutions. He labels the idea “hegemonic” and argues that it papers over fundamental contradictions between our representations of global learning in university contexts and the actual experiences of our students, both domestic and international. The truth is that large gaps are emerging in meaningful cross-cultural interactions as institutions focus increasingly on teaching job skills, seeing the messy and immeasurable quality of genuine and deep learning as too costly and immeasurable.
From the domestic perspective, this gap lets antiglobalist sentiments and the parochiality of American culture rush in and reproduce the ambivalence and defensiveness about cultures that we in higher education claim we want to address. From the perspective of international students, it leaves many confounded at the social problems of the country they find themselves in—reifying an essentialist notion of the United States as a homogenous, acultural space, a Hollywoodland of big people, big money, big everything.
Moreover, it is too often the case that the college or university’s institutional structures and curricula tend to promote a stick-to-your-own mind-set. When students declare their major, they identify themselves with one group of people and one set of faculty. As we become more and more socialized into these disciplinary silos, we rarely interact with anyone outside our academic kin, even when we have made our home in the academy as professors and university professionals.
In that environment, and fearing to seem awkward or ignorant, students become especially wary of engaging with people from different national backgrounds in the deep and authentic ways that lead to genuine friendships and personal growth. While studies on this are relatively rare, the work that I am aware of on this topic confirms the obvious: building social connections and friendships is a hard process involving a complexity of factors, including students’ personal backgrounds, intercultural experiences and language and intercultural competencies, as well as when and how interactions among them occur.
Take my own experiences as an international undergraduate student. Privileged enough to have received a private English-medium education in Bangladesh and as a voracious consumer of American culture, I thought I would fit right in when I arrived at my small liberal arts alma mater outside of Philadelphia in 2003. I watched Friends and The X-Files. I had stayed up till 5 a.m. to see Michael Jordan lead the Bulls to a second three-peat. I even got myself a black trench coat before coming to the United States, because I thought The Matrix was cool.
Yet I was, in fact, quite ill prepared for the culture shock I encountered upon arriving. When I got here, I struggled to connect with the domestic students who were my new classmates. It was not that English was not my first language; rather, it was that my classmates and I did not speak the same language. They spoke Northeast American, with its references to local indie bands, American football and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
I had to learn this language on my own and by overhearing what others around me were talking about, often feeling left out. To be clear, it was not the fault of the college or the administration. They did provide classes to those who needed them (based on tests). But it seemed that no one had thought about the particulars and the difference between what international students think the culture of the United States is and what it actually is.
I now clearly understand that cultural competence is as important, if not more so, than linguistic competence when connecting with domestic classmates. More important, I now recognize that, as a faculty member, I can play a role in helping students gain that competence.
What is most needed is for students to interact with other students across different backgrounds and learn to talk authentically and curiously about who they are and where they are from. Thus, it behooves those of us who work with international students to create situations where such cross-cultural interactions can be fostered—along with ways to grasp and disentangle culture distinctions and engage effectively and respectfully across them.
I also recommend that such interactions especially happen in the first-year writing classes, as a professor of such courses. They are the most common classes that both domestic and international students attend—and usually during the first year—which means they can significantly influence the rest of a student’s academic experience. The dawn shows the day, as they say.
A Framework for the Classroom
One of the most widespread models for understanding cultural distinctions and fostering interaction among people from different counties and backgrounds is the intercultural competence framework. Developed by researchers and experts across the social sciences, it is now common in corporate training and higher-level university management and communication classes but is new in the writing classroom. Curricula within this framework typically combine Geert Hofstede’s six-point approach to understanding cultural practices and values with Milton J. Bennett’s developmental model of intercultural sensitivity.
Fundamentally, the framework provides a way to consider cultural particulars and differences, as well as gauge growth in intercultural understanding. It allows instructors to teach international and domestic students in different sections so that the needs of, say, ESL students can be met through a distinct curriculum. Yet at the same time, it encourages interactions across sections as a part of the curriculum. The writing program at Purdue University found that a pilot of the model proved to be useful and informative, especially because the framework promotes thinking about, responding to and identifying with differences—inclusive of language, identity and culture—and can effectively support internationalization within a university.
The model sounded promising, so a colleague and I tried it out in a pair of first-year writing classes this year. I took on the section populated mostly with international students, and my colleague taught a section of mostly domestic students. Different advisers and staff in living-learning communities on the campus helped us recruit each student based on their stated interest in improving their intercultural competencies. The curriculum had three notable aspects.
- A cultural inquiry project. Students in the course had to interview a student from the other section as a part of their first major assignment. We taught them how to compose interview questions and conduct interviews and then to connect their analyses with our course readings on intercultural competence. We also asked them to collaborate with those peers in subsequent assignments, either as sources of expertise and cultural informants or as peer reviewers with whom they might exchange papers if they chose.
- Regular interactions and cultural scaffolding. Our two classes met in joint sessions every few weeks, which helped make intercultural interactions a regular and normal part of our course activities. We also provided readings on cultural differences and asked students to engage on those topics. During one section, for example, a student discussed the concept of Buddhism, specifically the practice of Tibetan sky burials, which many outside the community find hard to comprehend. I had never heard of it before, and as I listened to a student speak about it, I was taken aback and had to rethink much of what I thought burials could mean. (I encourage readers to find out more.) Many people in the class were also surprised when they heard it, but due to the students’ presentation and the readings provided, they were able to contextualize this cultural practice and understand the deep values underlying it.
- Intracultural competence as intercultural competence. Many of my students also decided to try to better understand their own domestic communities broadly speaking within this mind-set of cultural distinction, whether across genders, linguistic backgrounds or otherwise. They applied concepts we learned in class, such as Hofstede’s six points, to interpret the things they observed in their own culture. For example, students studied aspects of the high masculinity culture to interpret the language habits of their cohorts, understanding how the gender values in American culture influence their speech and even how they dress. Or they examined group eating habits and the differences in how male and female students ate in the dining hall. They found students who identified as female more often ate in groups and regulated what they ate.
The situations and the vocabulary in the classroom helped everyone approach unfamiliar customs and ways of being as an object of inquiry. They also encouraged students to question their assumptions about different cultures and engage in dialogue with others from different cultures. End-of-semester student responses and reflections noted that the curriculum and the interactions provided them spaces to ask questions about other cultures they could not have asked on their own because they did not want to appear insensitive or prejudiced.
I plan to teach more classes with this framework in the future. The class was the most fun and gratifying experience I have had teaching in a long time. I think other faculty members, regardless of their disciplinary membership, should try to create these connections between different groups of students. It would make for more interesting experiences for them as well as for their students.