Hot issue

COURSE: Fostering Learning in Practice

FORUM: Koala 5

TOPICS: Hot issue, Case study



TITLE:  Given the demands placed on teachers in today’s hectic professional practices, introducing and fostering intercultural communication awareness and competences outside the instructional framework provided in specific courses is difficult. Unfortunately, unless such capabilities are anchored in the curriculum, chances for intercultural relativism and misunderstandings will float like mines in the education field


I am a European teacher at an art college in Seattle, WA (USA) that attracts a good number of international students. I teach general education and foreign language courses. The latter ones are design to provide an arena not only for language acquisition and practice, but also for the development of rudimental intercultural communication competencies, which are – however – not specifically recognized in the academic syllabus.

Outside the technical role as a foreign language instructor, I am also acting at an institutional level – in that I am bound by college policies and educational mission – and at the interface of cross-cultural discourses – in that I provide my students with opportunities to recognize patterns and assumptions that relate directly to their identities and world views. These cross-cultural discourses cover several areas of both personal and academic relevance, and are not usually recognized as part of the learning context.


See my comments below.

My personal background in and exposure to a broad spectrum of intercultural communication literature and experiences make me particularly sensitive to all issues related to cultural diversity and differences. In my teaching experience – however – I have rarely witnessed any institutional recognition and support for intercultural communication classes. I believe that when it comes to that, the general approach is that things will sort themselves out one way or another, and that teachers are well-versed in dealing with all sorts of academic, pedagogical and cultural issues. I happen to dispute such view.


Last quarter an incident happened in my Italian language class, where over half of the students did not speak English as their first language.

One day I was trying to get two female students from Korea to speak up a bit, as their voices were barely audible, and others, including myself, had problems hearing them.

“Would you mind to speak up a bit? It’s difficult to hear you,” I said, and noticed that one of the two students fell silent for the remainder of the class. When I approached her after class, she broke down in tears. She was visibly upset, so I asked if there was anything I could have done. “There is nothing you can do anymore. You have already ruined everything,” she responded.  If I remember correctly, she even said that I had ruined her life because I had exposed her in front of the class as a bad student.

Of course it wasn’t true. I had not tried to make her look bad. My invitation to speaking up was directly linked to what it takes to learn how to speak a foreign language. I apologized to her if I had said something that might have upset her, but that didn’t seem to make her feel better, so I added: “If you want to talk about this, please come and see me whenever you’d like,” and I left it to that.

The situation did not occur again, and that particular student did rather well in the class, but she never quite changed the level of her voice, and remained barely audible till the very end.


The cross-cultural dimension of this case is undeniable. As a long-time learner of intercultural communication, I immediately recognized that the situation was presenting itself as difficult, ripe with the potential for intercultural misunderstanding, compounded by the danger of power issues that are present in a higher education context. The student may have been dealing with issues of asserting and negotiating her own cultural identity in an alien environment, in a fashion very similar to that described in DE Vault’s article on Ethnicity and Expertise. Hers is one of the discourses that I have identified in this critical incident. Another intersecting discourse is the one emerging from my own experience and studies, covering a vast area that is both very personal, i.e. experiential, and academic, i.e. rooted in formal studies.

GINGER: Which discourse are you referring to?  Is it at odds with De Vault or complementary?


The discourses I am referring to are those that emerge from the actors’ personal narratives. In this particular case, my student’s narrative embedded – I assume – in her cultural background and personal history, intersect my own narrative, which is the result of a multi-dimensional experience made up of a lifetime exposure to other cultures and of formal studies of issues of intercultural communication.

Said intersecting narratives are not at odds with de Vault’s ideas. In fact, she made it clear that, in order for us to be able to understand someone from a different culture, we also need to address our own biases and assumptions. To do that, I believe we need clarity about our own narrative and a mindful and noticing approach to understanding the other. I am also aware of the risks entailed in using metaphors, as described in Mason’s article. For example, the metaphor of “Asians” being reserved and their fear of “losing face” that would seem to provide some guidance in this case scenario may or may not be appropriate in the case of this particular student. That would be too easy. Hence the usefulness of broader narrative analysis which, as I pointed out, is unfortunately would require much more time than we usually have in our professional lives.

My understanding of the situational dynamics can also be considered within the “emic” and “etic” dichotomy discussed in De Vault’s article.[1] How equipped am I to be able to be effective in facilitating such critical cases with a high intercultural component? Is my intervention going to be only partly effective because of my etic involvement?

GINGER: I’m not familiar with these terms.  Maybe a bit of explanation?

Etic and emic

I learned these terms in class on cross-cultural counseling. In a nut shell, emic refers to the perspective of an insider, i.e. of people belonging to a specific culture.

Etic instead is the perspective of an outside observer who does not belong to that specific culture.

The issue is very important, as it relates to how we see other cultures and is directly liked to issues of identity, representation and otherization. It is particularly relevant to ethnographic research, but also to cross-cultural counseling, where very often the counselor is an outsider and lacks the personal connection to a particular cultural context. De Vault’s institutional ethnographic study is a good example. Janetta claims that her insider’s knowledge of specific cultures put her in a better position to provide effective nutritional counseling.

I had included a link for more information and emic and etic approaches.


This issue matters to me because I believe I have a high level of intercultural communication competency that makes me acutely aware of the difficulties experienced by international students, and nevertheless I apparently fell into a trap.

GINGER: Could you explicitly name the trap as you see it?

By trap I mean being caught “off guard.”  Here I mean the trap posed by the random occurrence of intercultural communication incidents when we least expect them and when we think we are doing everything we can to steer clear of them. Only after the incident happened I realized its intercultural dimension, even though I should have been aware of that.

I was not prepared to deal with this specific incident, also because, like De Vault says, I was distracted by other priorities.

I believe that the way I acted was an attempt to manage the high demands of my professional life and to oversimplify my teaching approach, detaching it from its cross-cultural context. In spite of my training, the level of my alertness was lowered.

GINGER: What do you mean by ‘oversimplify’ my teaching approach?

Brookfield defines this as teaching innocently, i.e. “means thinking that we’re always understanding exactly what it is that we’re doing and what effect we’re having.” I might have believed that by sticking to the lesson plan I was going to have a smooth ride. Instead, the incident proved that a state of mindful alertness would have been helpful in averting the surprise (what I described as being caught off guard).

I believe that this case could have been dealt more effectively if considered from the view point presented in Mason’s article on Forces for Development, one that emphasizes noticing, mindfulness, and reflection activities. All that took a back seat while I was concentrated on “teaching.”

Developing and nurturing the discipline of noticing, i.e. the mindful ability to be present and attend to others’ needs, allows me to act in a professional, appropriate manner. At a personal level though, my interaction and dealings with others are generally informed by this approach.

GINGER: How could it have been handled more effectively?  From your hindsight noticing and reflection, what could you do differently?

See my previous thoughts above. Briefly, I believe I should have kept in mind the powerful influence of intercultural nuances and the ever-present impact of the cultural dimension on everything we do in today’s globalized world. Even if such dimension is not explicitly recognized in the curriculum, I should have known better.

In this particular incident, I believe that – aside from a more mindful attitude on my part – there was little I could have done to turn it into a broader learning experience for my students. For that to happen, however, a much more persuasive approach would be needed, one that would make it possible for teachers to include such learning in their courses. This would require an institutional commitment and willingness to seriously sensitize teachers and staff. This is basically what I am advocating in this document. (see next section on What Next?)


With regard to cross-cultural communication awareness, the process of cultural identity negotiation and the attentive approach to someone’s narrative as presented by De Vault may be valuable tools for dealing with critical incidents like this one, although an intensive, narrative-oriented mode of investigation is not always feasible due to many other concurring commitments and lack of time and.

On the other hand, maybe there is a way to revive the importance of intercultural communication competencies that will give students, administrators and teachers a way to understand and appreciate the variety of cultural discourses that are by now a pivotal part of our teaching and learning universe.

Not everyone involved will become an intercultural specialist, but I sincerely hope that everyone would become at least mindful of the dynamics of cross-cultural interaction and of the traps that they can create.

I believe that designing curricula with an embedded cross-cultural dimension will enhance both the learning environment and the opportunities for personal growth and active citizenship of all the people involved.

GINGER: Can you give an example of ‘en embedded cross-cultural dimension’?

This is a great question! It links reflection to action.

From my point of view, I believe in adding cross-cultural communication awareness and competence to the college mission statement, including the list of graduation competencies. In so doing the learning environment would hopefully become more mindful of issues that are currently occurring under the radar.

The readings for this segment of our course are very helpful in identifying a framework for meaningful and effective intervention. In this case, however, I would need to refer to literature that is much more focused on the theme. It is necessary to adopt a vocabulary based on a non-essentialist view of culture; to explore and clarify issues of identity, assumptions, otherization, representation through an approach based on thick description of personal narratives and discourses. This is a lot to discuss at this stage, but it gives an idea that a long-term transformation of current approaches will require a convinced and convincing effort, otherwise we will have to resort – like I did – to a quick fix that does not really do justice to the complexity of our cultural diversity.

GINGER: Oscar, Your case is very clear and well presented.  What I like about the case is that you are addressing the micro level – your classroom – and seeking solutions at the macro level – embedding cross cultural dimensions in learning environments.  Your conviction about the need for intercultural communication is clear. What I think would strengthen the case is if you could make it more specific in terms of your learning and learning dimensions.  For me the interesting question is what will you do next time you are in a similar situation?  How will the noticing and mindfulness practically effect your actions?



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