Pedagogical Research Fund in Languages
, Linguistics and Area Studies
Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, www.lang.ltsn.ac.uk
Teaching across Cultures: Anglophone Area Studies and Student Diversity in an International Context
Dr Andrew Hassam (University of Wales, Lampeter)
Dr Ros Jennings (University of Gloucestershire)
Dr Clare Spencer (Open University)
Table of contents
Teaching and Learning Contexts
Key Issues under Investigation
Review of Existing Relevant Research
Discussion of Research Methodology
Results and Analysis
Conclusions and Suggestions for Further Research
Our project aimed to investigate classroom practices in Anglophone Area Studies programmes as they related to student awareness of cultural difference. We wished in particular to examine how programmes addressed student diversity and the relationship between the cultural composition of the learning environment and the culture and society being studied. We devised an on-line questionnaire designed to examine the multiple cross-cultural relationships between teachers, their students and the societies being studied and to invite Area Studies colleagues to reflect on whether their learning activities and assessment methods fostered cross-cultural awareness and engaged the identity consciousness of their students. The number of respondents was disappointingly low, which we tentatively attributed to the gap between subject-centred research and pedagogical research. In addition, Area Studies is being insufficiently recognised as a category relevant to those teaching in subject fields like American Studies, Canadian Studies and Australian Studies. The responses themselves seemed to point to a pedagogical black hole in terms of Area Studies and issues of classroom diversity and reflections by our respondents on the process of completing our questionnaire did indicate that we had posed some interesting questions.
Teaching and Learning Contexts
The contexts for this project are threefold. First, we were interested looking at how some of the defining principles, pedagogical methods and subject specific skills endorsed by the QAA Area Studies Benchmark Statement (QAA, 2002) relate to the realities of classroom practice in UK higher education Area Studies programmes. Secondly, the project was designed as a follow-up to the team’s ILTHE-funded investigation of the background knowledge and learning experience of UK students engaged in the study of an area that is predominantly Anglophone: Australia. And thirdly, we wanted to focus specifically on UK colleagues’ perceptions of how the cultural diversity of their own teaching environment intersects with the pedagogical aim of promoting student awareness of cultural difference, when the context of study is an Anglophone area.
Enshrined in the Area Studies Benchmark document are a number of statements about the need for students to acquire what might be called intercultural or cross-cultural understanding (slippery terms whose uncertain definition is addressed later in this report). Area Studies programmes should be ‘fostering a critical awareness of diversity across societies’; curricula should be explicitly or implicitly embedding ‘comparative analysis or understanding’; and students should attain ‘an informed sense of the differences and similarities between areas, thus fostering cross-cultural and international perspectives’. One of the departure points for this investigation was our own hypothesis that such issues of diversity and intercultural awareness begin at home, in the sense that student groups in the UK are likely to be characterized by regional and ethnic diversity and to include international students who belong neither to British society nor to the area being studied. How far is such diversity within the student cohort being activated by teachers as a lens that will bring cultural difference between the local and target areas into clearer focus ? In addition, the Benchmark Statement refers to the ‘synthesizing impulse’ of Area Studies and recommends as a subject specific skill that students should be able to apply concepts from different disciplines and/or interdisciplinary approaches as a means of understanding the area under study. Do UK Area Studies educators make any attempt to develop and assess the ability of students to reflect on, compare and synthesize differing disciplinary approaches ?
Our earlier project on the student experience of Area Studies drew on the learning context of individual modules with Australian content delivered in UK HEIs, whether by departments of History, Literature, Film, or in just one case as part of a dedicated Australian Studies programme. We invited students to complete an on-line survey which included a question about the students' own cultural backgrounds, a question about how their perception of Australia had changed since formally studying the area and. questions about perceived similarities and differences between Australian culture and British culture. One of the interesting findings of this project was an apparent tension between student responses to these last two questions: a significant proportion of respondents expressed their changed perception as a result of learning about Australia in terms of disillusionment or disappointment. However, when asked how Australia differed from Britain their responses conveyed a much more idealistic view of Australian culture, reasserting popular images of fairness, egalitarianism, optimism and so on. It seems that when specifically asked to think cross-culturally (‘what are the differences ?’) aspects of the students’ own identity come into play and they feel free to voice their personal investment in a positive image of the area they have chosen to study. Are the designers of Area Studies programmes building the element of students’ own identity consciousness into the learning experience ? The European Studies module to which one of us contributes, for example, includes as its first assessed element an essay in which students are required to reflect on and theorize the constituents of their own identity.
Our research focus for this project moved on from the student experience to that of the Area Studies educator, with an on-line survey cascaded to teachers in the American, Canadian and Australasian Studies communities. Our concentration on Anglophone Area Studies was strategic and intended not so much to limit our scope as to focus on unmarked or conceptual areas of cultural difference, rather than the marked language difference which enables both teachers and students in practice to envisage themselves either outside or inside the taught language group. The divisions between UK and other Anglophone cultures are less marked and intercultural learning within American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Studies needs therefore to be brought to the surface. As teachers, do we need to consider our own cultural context (in most cases we are not from the areas we teach) ? How sensitive are we to the cultural diversity of our own classrooms ? And do we need to be ready to broaden our notion of Anglophone Area Studies itself ? Not only are other languages employed in predominantly Anglophone societies, but there are of course subtle differences between cultures in their use of English. Does our teaching address these issues ?
We had expected the majority of our questionnaire respondents to be working in American Studies, representing as it does the most widely taught area that does not place language at the focus of the curriculum. In the event, however, relatively few American Studies practitioners perceived this survey as relevant to them. In addition, we had responses from unanticipated sources in Caribbean Studies and Latin American Development Studies. Our attempt to tap into, consolidate and generate a dialogue within what we felt ought to be a cross-cultural teaching community among Area Studies practitioners proved the greatest obstacle for the project. In this respect, our experience perhaps echoes the findings of the External Evaluator’s report on the Subject Centre which cites the view that when confronted with an Area Studies initiative, teachers in American Studies ‘don’t see it’s for them and they don’t think “this is ours” (Aub Buscher, 2003). The same may apply to a research initiative in cross-cultural teaching.
Key Issues under Investigation
Our on-line survey of teachers in Anglophone Area Studies comprised 45 questions designed to elicit responses that would help us to address the following issues:
- How culturally diverse is the Area Studies classroom in UK higher education ? Our interest here was in the ethnic, national and age mix of student groups and whether it makes any difference to cross-cultural perspectives if the educator originates from the area studied.
- Is the cultural diversity of the classroom overtly deployed in Area Studies pedagogy and if so, how ? Here we were interested in whether the learning group is itself problematized as a source of intercultural difference. How do our students negotiate cultural difference among themselves and are they made aware that they are doing this ?
- Is reflexivity being promoted in learning activities, assessment methods and programme outcomes and if so, how ? We wanted to investigate whether Area Studies students are encouraged to address questions about the construction of their own cultural identity.
- How far is interdisciplinarity integrated into Area Studies Programmes and in what ways ? We wanted to assess the relationship between intercultural and interdisciplinary teaching.
- What role if any do international partners play in Area Studies programmes, other than as facilitators of study abroad semesters ? Are students taught by visiting lecturing staff from the area studied ? Do their teaching groups include exchange students from the area studied ?
- How far and in what ways are Internet resources being used to facilitate intercultural learning in Area Studies ? We were interested in the ways in which global digital media could be employed to encourage students’ reflection on cultural difference.
Review of Existing Relevant Research
We undertook a preliminary survey of published research into cross-cultural teaching as a means of situating our own research. The main education databases to which we had access were ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center (http://www. eric. ed. gov)and ultiBase (http://ultibase. rmit. edu. au). We also conducted a series of Internet searches for relevant conference papers. We discovered that research into cross-cultural teaching had three main focuses:
* teaching students from ethnic minority backgrounds within multicultural societies
* teaching visiting or international students
* teaching indigenous students
This research was instructive primarily for the way in which it failed to address the issues of cross-cultural teaching which arose from our own teaching situations and which motivated our investigation.
Previous research (in English) conceives of cross-cultural teaching in terms of an ethnographic model of discrete cultural difference between two (or more) cultures. Within the classroom, this is perceived as a difference between a White/local student cohort and an ethnic/overseas student cohort. The research typically, though not always, is undertaken by those from the dominant White/local culture and is aimed at helping Us teach Them.
For example, one Australian research project on teaching electrical engineering to a mixed first-year group of Australian and international students came to the conclusion that,
The most effective teams seemed to be those containing one Australian and two Asians, the alternative mix of two Australians and one Asian sometimes led to the Asian feeling excluded
(W. B. Lawrence, 1995)
No account is taken here of some Australians regarding themselves also as ‘Asian’ (and hence also excluded), or for students from Japan, for example, regarding Korean students as ‘Asian’ but not themselves (and so considering themselves included). The paper simplistically divides Us and Them according to whether the student’s first language is a variety of English and so creates a methodological distinction between a normative student and a non-normative student. In so far as such research is focussed on, as one paper puts it, ‘dealing with minorities in the classroom’, it presupposes that the ‘problem’ lies with the minority rather than with the dominant or normative group, despite the fact that in the case of the electrical engineering laboratory the minority clearly spoke the language of the dominant group, but not the reverse.
We also discovered that cross-cultural research did not address the relationship between the cultural composition of the classroom and the culture and society being studied. The pedagogical implications of this can be seen most clearly in Area Studies programmes that are primarily language programmes: students from culture A study culture B, or again, We study Them. Such a paradigm explicitly shapes the ethnographically-defined notion of intercultural learning underlying the LARA (Learning and Residence Abroad) project: ‘Ethnography’ is the study of another group’s way of life from their perspective. It is the fundamental method of anthropologists who seek to understand the cultural practices of others’ (LARA Project, 2000). This is not to suggest that such research is worthless, but cross-cultural research projects often fail to scrutinise their concept of culture and by employing simplistic models of cultural identity, they do not address the issues with which we were concerned. Our concern is with a more active (and more untidy) concept of cross-cultural interaction, which allows for:
* the dynamic, plural nature of individual cultural identity;
* the slippage between globalised cultural forms and versions of national cultures;
* the different (cultural) varieties of English.
In teaching terms, we are concerned with the multiple cross-cultural relationships between teachers, their students and the societies being studied.
Discussion of Research Methodology
In order to avoid the construction of normative cultural categories from which colleagues or students might depart, we tried to avoid prior labelling of the ‘problem’ in terms of local versus international students, or non-ethnic versus ethnic students. On reflection, this might have contributed to the uncertainly that some respondents expressed about our definitions and focus. We also became aware that because we did not explicitly define what we meant by the notion of ‘cross-cultural’, respondents were forced to use their own definition. The result demonstrated there was no consensus about what ‘cross-cultural’ means.
We divided our survey into sections, in the following order:
1. Your involvement in the area studied;
2. Your students;
3. Your Area Studies programme;
4. Your classroom practice;
5. Your assessment methods;
6. Your use of resources;
The first three sections aimed to triangulate the lecturer’s background and involvement in the area being taught with that of their students. Lecturers were asked to describe their own cultural background as well as that of their students, though rather than require detailed statistics, we relied on the lecturer’s impressions and memory. We felt this would make completion of the survey less arduous, with the compensating advantage of foregrounding the fact that we were looking at the students through the lecturer’s eyes. Our survey would reveal not so much a series of statistics as lecturers’ own engagement with and understanding of, the backgrounds of their students.
The following three sections aimed to examine best practice in relating student diversity to teaching and assessment strategies in Area Studies programmes. The section on classroom practice was primarily designed to identify teaching strategies that encourage students to reflect on cross-cultural differences and their own cultural identity, such as role play, as it is our belief that Area Studies needs to develop teaching methods and assessment instruments which will invite students to reflect on the construction of their own cultural identity as a starting point for the study of ‘new’ and ‘different’ cultures. In this way, programmes would more effectively build on, rather than undermine, what students bring to their learning situation by way of prior knowledge of the Area being studied.
In terms of assessment, we wished to investigate whether any specific assessment methods were aimed at fostering cross-cultural awareness. All too often, much of what we profess to be distinctive about Area Studies programmes is ignored when assessment schemes are being devised. Given the range of readily available Internet resources to support Anglophone Area Studies programmes, we were specifically concerned to discover not only which resources students found useful, but whether Area Studies programmes taught students to evaluate the ways in which Internet resources construct cultures and their varying degrees of cultural inclusivity and exclusivity (i.e. their assumed audience). The treatment of the Internet as merely a repository of non-scholarly material from which students need to be protected underestimates its value as a resource for the study of cultural slippages between Us and Them. That is, the study of precisely those interconnections between globalised and localised cultures that exist in our culturally diverse classrooms.
The final section of our survey asked respondents to reflect on two questions. The first concerned the kinds of support of which they had actively made use in the previous two years to develop their teaching practice and assessment strategies. It seemed to us that this might supplement attempts by the LTSN Area Studies Subject Centre to identify the effectiveness of teaching enhancement support. The final question on the survey offered respondents the opportunity to reflect on whether the process of completing the survey had generated any new perspectives on their programme and their teaching. Our view of surveys is that they should stimulate as much as investigate. We are quite content to have our own presuppositions challenged by our respondents.
Our survey was hosted on-line by Open Learning Australia, who kindly granted us access to their survey software. We publicised the survey using a number of established networks and an e-mail request was circulated via Canadian and American subject associations, as well as the Area Studies Network list. We also identified and e-mailed 60 Area Studies heads of department and programme co-ordinators in the UK asking them to forward details of the survey to colleagues. Our initial requests were sent out in September, with a follow-up in November. In total, we received 7 responses to our survey.
An associated conference, ‘Teaching Across Cultures: Interdisciplinary Thinking and Student Diversity in an International Context’, was organised for 28 July at the University of Gloucestershire. It was advertised using the same networks but postponed until 1 November due to a low level of interest. It was eventually abandoned for the same reason.
Results and Analysis
Although the survey did not produce a statistically significant sample, it did produce some thought-provoking responses. Considering the breadth of subjects and approaches that are apparent across the Area Studies domain, it is not surprising that the respondents indicated that they had come to their present position via a wide variety of academic routes; for instance: ‘History combined with gender studies, Caribbean studies and American studies’, ‘Geography’ and. ‘Politics/Social Policy’. All the respondents were currently involved in the delivery of modules focussing on the Americas. One respondent taught in a Centre of Canadian Studies and the rest lectured on American Studies programmes (responses were divided exactly between integrated programmes in Area Studies and pathways in Area Studies based in a range of academic units/departments). The majority of responses did not qualify the term American Studies in any way but several respondents chose to explain their role and/or programme more specifically. For example:
* American Studies (minor) and I run a year long course on the Caribbean which is multidisciplinary and serves practically as an introduction to Caribbean Studies. ’
* American Studies (with a pan-American focus) Latin American Development Studies shares many of the same units.
* Comparative American Studies …The Latin American Studies aspect of the CAS degree is taught within an Area Studies Dept; the North American end is largely taught outside.
In describing their cultural background, the majority of the respondents put forward a range of diverse cultural identities; for example:
Born and brought up English; now I consider myself to be Irish/Northern Irish having lived in Belfast for c. 30 years
I’m Northern Irish born and bred until adulthood; thereafter resident for lengthy periods in England, Spain and Chile. While not quite bilingual, I have near-native competence in Spanish and have English as a mother tongue, although in my home town a dialect of Scots is spoken. Overall, I am a cultural and linguistic mix through choice..
The respondents also articulated some quite complex identifications between their cultural identities and their Area Studies subject area; for example:
British (English/West Indian descent); Canadian-identified in my head; British in my citizenship. Anglican, Middle Class. Well educated.
The survey indicated that all the respondents belonged to their Area Studies Association and that they all had regular contact with both academics from the area that they studied/taught and also the area itself (though ‘not often enough’ and ‘Not as often as I’d like’ were indicative comments). In terms of their authority within the subject area, slightly more (4 of 7) respondents stated that they believed that their students regarded lecturers/tutors from the area being studied as offering a more authoritative/authentic perspective on the area being studied.
The section of the survey designed to capture the respondents’ perception of their classroom situation (who was in their classroom and studying the modules) suggested that generally the classroom was marked by diversity (classrooms containing mixtures of Asian-British, White-British, White-European, Black-British, Black-African and Black-Caribbean students). Adding to this diversity was the respondents’ perception that their Area Studies programmes attracted slightly more mature students than average compared to other programmes in their School or Faculty. The classrooms included in the survey all regularly included international students and/or temporary/visiting students from abroad.
Information generated about students when taken in conjunction with the self-reflexively diverse set of identifications and cultural backgrounds of the tutors would seem to point towards a classroom situation where multiple identities and identifications are present and it belies the existence of the more homogenous White/local student cohort that has been the object of previous research. Despite the existence of differences in the classroom, the data produced by the survey suggested that the majority of tutors were not conscious of having to adjust their teaching methods to accommodate cultural/ethnic diversity amongst their students. One question in the survey was designed specifically to try and probe issues around diversity, curriculum, inclusion and exclusion. We asked:
‘Are there any particular topics that you think attract or exclude students from particular cultural/ethnic backgrounds ?’. One respondent replied that she/he did not know, but the majority of the responses were an unqualified no. One respondent, however, indicated, that: ‘popular culture, literature and history attract[ed] across the board’ and ‘as above for exclusion’. Here, acquiring enough cultural competency and familiarity to engage with narratives and texts from other cultures was attractive to students but at the same time was perceived by the tutor possibly also to act as a barrier because of a lack of cultural background/competencies. Another respondent, however, pointed out the possible ambiguity of the question that we had set by giving the following answer:
I have no knowledge of anyone feeling excluded from certain topics because of background. I am at a loss as to imagine how someone might BE excluded although I can well appreciate someone might FEEL excluded.
To be truthful, it would appear that the conception of ‘cross-cultural’ that drove our design of the survey was problematic for the majority of the respondents in the survey and it was clear that overall the responses suggested that there was no consensus in the survey data about what the term cross-cultural might mean.
In a supplementary question that was designed to explore pedagogic issues arising from a cross-cultural learning process, we asked our respondents whether they felt that unmarked cultural differences, such as the shared use of English with the area/region studied, inhibited students’ understanding of the region ? This question proved less successful than we had hoped. Several of the respondents answered no. One stated that she/he did not understand the question and another interpreted the question quite narrowly and indicated ‘No comment’ as languages other than English were pertinent to the programme. One respondent reflected, however, that the ‘common use of English means that students are often not challenged to comprehend the “foreign-ness” of the USA’. In this instance the respondent was aware of intercultural differences in the teaching/learning situation and this was a factor that we tried to explore expressly in the following question: ‘Please describe any teaching strategies you employ that encourage students to reflect on intercultural differences ?’ In response, it was clear that a range of techniques were employed from ‘role play involving ‘real life’ situations of a polemic and political nature’ to the use of ‘… a lot of fiction and personal accounts. This helps them to put themselves into the shoes of those from other cultures’. However, when we enquired about assessment strategies that might foster intercultural awareness, the majority of the respondents did not explicitly set out to address this in their pedagogic practice: for example, ‘I don’t know as it’s not something I explicitly aim to address through my teaching and assessment’ and ‘no link—has to be organic with themes of modules’.
Conclusions and Suggestions for Further Research
Although it is evident that the survey did not produce a large number of responses overall, the responses (and also lack of responses to certain questions) would seem to point to a pedagogical black hole in terms of Area Studies and issues of classroom diversity. A close reading of the responses indicated that the majority of those who replied to the survey were either unaware of any support for pedagogical development in Areas Studies teaching (though some resources such as the LTSN and various funding initiatives from individual institutions were mentioned) or had not actively used support resources in the last two years. Our final question, which asked respondents to reflect on the process of completing our questionnaire, did however indicate that we had posed some interesting questions for the respondents (even if ‘some of the assumptions behind some questions’ were themselves questioned). With regard to American Studies programmes that formed our responses, there was a sense that diversity of the area itself poses some particularly interesting issues for further research related to teaching and learning strategies that engage with student diversity within the UK classroom.
Aub-Buscher, G. (2003). External Evaluator's Report. Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies.
Hassam, A et al. (forthcoming). Article to be published in ILTHE Newsletter.
LARA Project, (2000). Learning and Residence Abroad in Practice. 109. Oxford Brookes University.
Lawrence, W. B. (1995). ‘A Cross-Cultural Curriculum Development Project in Electrical Engineering at Curtin University’ (http://cea. curtin. edu. au/tlf/tlf1995/lawrence. html).
QAA. (2002). Area Studies Benchmarking Statement. http://www. qaa. ac. uk/crntwork/benchmark/phase2/areastudies. pdf