A hot issue in my workplace and its relationship to learning and identity

Intercontinental Master’s Program in Adult Learning and Global Change

Learner: Oscar Vallazza – Linköping University Group: The Koalas

Course: Fostering Learning in Practice, Monash University

Instructors: Dr.  Terri Seddon                                                  Tutor: Lorraine White

Assignment 1          Date: 05/30/2009                                Words: 3370 (11 pages)

A hot issue in my workplace and its relationship to learning and identity

TABLE OF CONTENTS: Each heading has a hyperlink to the relevant section


1.       HOT ISSUE

1.1     TOPIC





2.       ANALYSIS


2.2     Discourses and narratives


2.4     IDENTITY












This report will present my hot issue in the light of the readings and the discussions in the first part of the course.

It is divided into three sections. The first one will present my case, whereas the second part will examine its cross-cultural learning dimension. Specifically, it will present issues of personal and professional identity as aspects of intercultural communication discourses.

In the third section I will make suggestions derived from an action-oriented relational view of identity. They will address tensions and contradictions that emerged in the analysis of the case.

There are many definitions of identity. In this assignment I will consider Giddens’ definition: “Self-identity in not a distinctive trait, or even a collection of traits, possessed by the individual It is the self as reflexively understood by the person in terms of her or his biography.” (Giddens, 1991) This will allow me to adopt a flexible approach that is also supported by similar language found across the readings.


1.1      TOPIC

Given the demands placed on teachers in today’s hectic professional practices, introducing and fostering intercultural communication awareness and competencies into my current workplace is difficult. Unfortunately, unless such capabilities are anchored in the curriculum, chances for intercultural relativism and misunderstandings will float like mines. The hot issue emphasizes the need for both institutional and personal changes in areas relevant to intercultural communication competence.


I am a European teacher at an art college in Seattle (USA) that attracts many international students. I teach general education and foreign language courses. The latter ones are designed to provide an arena not only for language acquisition and practice, but also for the development of rudimental intercultural communication competencies.

As an instructor, I am acting at least at two levels. At the 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 discourses cover several areas of both personal and academic relevance.

I see my role as a mediator between these levels. This requires on my part a clear understanding of my identity and of how it relates to my current professional context and to other people acting within such context. My background in and exposure to a broad spectrum of intercultural communication literature and experiences make me particularly sensitive to many relevant issues. Unfortunately, the college does not recognize the need for intercultural communication competence, the general approach being that things will sort themselves out one way or another, as teachers are well-versed in dealing with all sorts of academic, pedagogical and cultural issues.


Last quarter an incident happened in my foreign language class. One day I asked two Korean female students to speak up a bit, as their voices were barely audible, and others had problems hearing them.  “Would you mind to speak up a bit? It’s difficult to hear you,” I said, and noticed how one of the students fell silent for the remainder of the lesson. 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 her classmates as a bad student.

Of course that 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 to speak a foreign language. I apologized to her if I had said something that might have upset her, but that did not 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 student did well in the class, although she remained barely audible till the very end.

1.4      The learning dimension: cross-cultural dimension

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 cultural identity in an alien environment, in a fashion very similar to that described in De Vault’s article on Ethnicity and Expertise.

Her reaction and personal narrative interface with current discourses of intercultural communication. Gee (1999) calls them “Discourses with a capital D, that is, different ways in which we humans integrate language with non language ‘stuff,’ such as different ways of thinking, acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, [and] believing.”  This in turn relates to my cross-cultural experience and studies of intercultural communication that cover a vast area that is both very personal, i.e. experiential, and academic, i.e. rooted in formal studies. Such complex discourses introduce a highly contested aspect into my hot issue.


My hot issue is relevant to my personal and professional experience at least at two levels:

At the micro-level, where we engage in identity building, i.e. the building of our autobiography, through the construction of a narrative made up of carefully selected episodes. Such narrative is likely to fit into existing discourses of education and actualization.

At the macro-level, where we need to engage in the contextual reality of our professional practice, which may result in having to negotiate our identity and “adjust” it to our workplace environment.

The opportunity to reflect on these issues is not just increasing my understanding of the critical incident; it also provides me with answers to action-oriented questions arising from a “pedagogical relational view” that will be discussed in section two. (Chappelll et. al, 2003)

2.      ANALYSIS

Next I will explore answers to such questions as:

  • What informs my identity and how does it interface with current professional context?
  • What are the contradictions/tensions between my avowed identity and my workplace context?
  • What discourses (institutional, academic, personal, cultural) provide the background software on which my hot issue played out?
  • What are the lessons to be learned and the actions to be taken?


In her research De Vault addresses the professional effectiveness of outsiders interacting with people from different cultures. This is known as the “emic” and “etic” perspectives, which relates to my role in facilitating within complex intercultural contexts and dynamics. Emic refers to the perspective adopted by a cultural insider, whereas Etic is used to define an outsider’s understanding of a certain cultural context. (Lett, ND)

How we see other cultures and how others perceive us is linked to issues of identity, representation and otherization. In De Vault’s study, for example, Janetta claims that her insider knowledge of specific cultures put her in a better position to provide effective counseling. (De Vault, 1999)

I am acutely aware of the implication of such dichotomy and the question remains on how my etic perspective may affect my professional effectivenes

2.2      Discourses and narratives

Watson (2006) presents “Foucault’s notion of discourses as positioning and constituting individuals within social and institutional frameworks.” (Watson, 2006, p. 510)  In section one I presented discourses as ways to integrate language and non-language “stuff.” A discourse must also be recognizable by others. (Giddens, 1991)

For Gubrium and Holstein (1997, p. 146) narratives are “accounts that offer some scheme, either implicitly or explicitly for organising and understanding the relation of objects and events described.” (Watson, 2006, p. 513) Furthermore, “people construct narratives and narratives construct people, and our identities emerge through these processes.” (Watson, 2006, p. 510)

In my hot case, the actors’ narratives play out against discourses specific to the academic environment. My student’s narrative may appear embedded in her cultural background and personal history. That intersects with my complex and composite narrative. They all interact with existing discourses of intercultural communication.

Risks entailed in metaphors should also be considered. (Mason, 2001) For example, the metaphor of “Asians” being reserved and their fear of “losing face,” which would seem to provide some guidance in this scenario, may not be appropriate for this particular student. Hence the usefulness of broader narrative analysis which, however, may be very time-intensive.


As pointed out earlier, the cross-cultural dimension of my hot issue is paramount. Intercultural Communication is an interdisciplinary, systemic approach to understanding culture and its impact on the human experience. It offers a valuable perspective for the analysis of complex intercultural issues such as identity, personal and cultural transformation.

My critical incident is characterized by several intercultural communication factors. They cover such issues as cultural differences, including values and beliefs; personal backgrounds, including learning and professional experiences; language differences, even though me were all using English as a way to communicate; Non-Verbal Communication patterns; power issues, and how the actors view them from their different cultural view points; and academic and institutional issues.

There are two aspects to the learning dimension in my hot case — firstly, at the personal level, i.e. at the level of my intercultural competence and effectiveness; secondly, at the institutional level, where my identity interacts with the context of my current workplace, striving to meet the specific challenges of my workplace.

2.4      IDENTITY

I consider identity as the ever-changing product of interacting factors. Identity construction is a process whereby people “inventively, judiciously, purposefully” select the components of their narrative, which are in turn the building blocks of identities. (Watson, 2006, p.510-511) Chappell et al (2003) also recognize that the building of autobiographies lies at the core of personal identity building.

Furthermore, they suggest a different way to look at the self, away from a coherent “authentic” self, towards a model based on “multiple subjectivities,” “multiple lifeworlds,’ or “multiple layers.” (Chappell et al, 2003, p. 8) Such flexible view allows me to better cope with intercultural communication issues and negotiate my identity within my workplace.

2.4.1 Avowed and ascribed identity

As seen earlier, we construct our narratives by collating selected episodes that we consider salient for our identity. In this case we talk about avowed identity. Conversely, others may see us as the product of their otherization and representation processes, and assign us roles and meanings that may be at odds with our avowed identity. That is a case of ascribed identity.

In our discussion forum, Terri described a two-level identity — one rooted in deeply entrenched cultural experiences, the other “lighter” one emerging almost on demand, as required by the necessities of a specific context. I see the first one as a version of ascribed identity that we derive from something external It has been embedded in us through processes of enculturation, education, up-bringing, of which many people may not be aware. It is important to recognize this when talking about “how the ‘outside’ gets ‘inside,’” i.e. how established discourses override one’s awareness of mechanism of power and discrimination. (Chappell et al, 2003, p.6)  The other, “lighter” level of identity resembles a form of avowed identity, one that we claim for ourselves to serve us in a variety of different situations. The ability to relate effectively to different cultural contexts is a very important intercultural competency.

Intercultural communication competence may be defined “as the mutual avowing confirmation of the interactants’ cultural identities where both interactants engage in behavior perceived to be appropriate and effective in advancing both cultural identities.” (Collier, 1989)

It is important to find ways to negotiate between avowed and ascribed identities. My supervisor talked about the “identity negotiation” process she engaged in to secure her role at the college. From an intercultural perspective, such negotiation would benefit from a context based on reciprocity and cultural sensitivity. Unfortunately, lack of reciprocity is often perpetuated in professional practices by overarching power structures. (Davies, 2002)

Cross-cultural contexts are brimming with identity negotiation processes. Stella Ting-Toomey defines them as “the smooth coordination between interactants […] that requires an individual to draw on a wide range of cognitive, affective, and behavioral resources to deal with novel, identity-improvisation situations.” (Ting-Toomey, 1993) I believe these definitions help clarify issues of identity and reinforce the importance of a common vocabulary.

2.4.2   My identity and workplace context

My intercultural experience informs my identity, which is multifaceted and may not conform to labels available to most people, being that nationality, social or professional roles. For this reason I favor a systemic approach to identity building that allows for shades, growth, reflection, and ultimately transformation. A salient part of my identity expresses my concern with the learning dimension presented in this report, which prompted my reflections on this particular hot case.

After reading Watson’s article (2006), I recognize a different kind of identity, closely linked to and influenced by the context of my professional practice. Both my personal history and the external context contribute to shaping and re-shaping my identity.

My workplace provides for a contested context where I engage in identity negotiations. In the academic work environment all actors are fulfilling pre-assigned roles derived directly from society’s rules. Teachers trying to escape their institutional role will likely face resistance, both from students and from the school. Students will try to fulfill their part of the educational contract and will likely find their teacher’s modified role confusing. It is difficult to create a learning environment that transcends such pre-defined roles. Even when we talk about student-centered education, the dichotomy between the expert providers (teachers) and the clueless recipients (students) stands. As a teacher I have to be mindful of this “binary approach.” (Davies, 2002)

In my hot issue, such considerations emerged at the following levels:

1) INSTITUTIONAL/CONTEXTUAL LEVEL: As a teacher I was expected to deal professionally, knowledgeably and effectively;

2) PERSONAL HISTORY: As a former international student, current “immigrant”, and learner of Intercultural Communication, I was expected to be mindful of my student’s perspective.

The critical incident occurred at the interface of at least these two perspectives/roles.

2.4.4   Contradictions

I interviewed my supervisor about how her professional role and identity have changed over time. She talked about a work environment that, at least at the departmental level, seems to embrace a new learning paradigm as highlighted in Chappell et al (2000): “Today, epistemological discourses emphasise knowledge constructed as practical, interdisciplinary, informal, applied and contextual over knowledge constructed as theoretical, disciplinary, formal, foundational and generalisable.” (Chappell et al, 2000, p. 2)

On the other hand, such process is not yet completed, and remains contested, both at the local and at the corporate level. It also remains unclear whether a different approach to the intercultural dimension can be negotiated, as corporate policies rest heavily on educational and pedagogical goals.

2.4.5   Oversimplification of roles, contexts, and cultures

There is a danger in oversimplifying one’s professional role and the context in which one operates, particularly in situations rich with intercultural dynamics.

Brookfield (1995) defines “teaching innocently” as “thinking that we’re always understanding exactly what it is that we’re doing and what effect we’re having.” I may 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 could have helped avert what happened.

I believe that I was trying to manage the high professional demands by detaching it from its intercultural context.

Another example of ineffective oversimplification is when a teacher patronize students based her perceived “knowledge” of a student’s cultural narrative. Such approach reflects a highly reductionist and essentialist view of cultures. (Holliday et al, 2004)


3.1      Mindfulness, Noticing, Reflections

Langer and Moldoveanu define mindfulness as “the process of drawing novel distinctions [that] can lead to a number of diverse consequences, including (1) a greater sensitivity to one’s environment, (2) more openness to new information, (3) the creation of new categories for structuring perception, and (4) enhanced awareness of multiple perspectives in problem solving.” (Langer at al, 2000)

I believe that my hot issue could have been dealt more effectively if considered from this viewpoint, as also emphasized by Mason (2001) in his support of noticing, mindfulness, and reflection activities.

By nurturing the discipline of noticing, i.e. the mindful ability to be present and attend to others’ needs, I can increase my professional effectiveness, similarly to what already happens in my private interactions, which are generally informed by this approach.

3.2      Relational view

Education influences processes of self-transformation and personal growth, as suggested by Foucault in his “technologies of the self.” (Chappell et al, 2003)

Several pedagogical traditions identify change as emerging at the interface between individuals and society. Chappell et al (2003) call this “dualism.” In many such traditions – however – the existing social frameworks remain unchallenged, as individual identities remain anchored in established socio-cultural assumptions. This in turn perpetuates issues of subjugation and domination resting on “false consciousness.” (Chappell et al, 2003)

I believe in a relational view of the self that changes “according to the relationship in which one is engaged.” (Chappell et al, 2003, p. 15) Identity, therefore, changes depending on and through the nature of relationships. We need to recognize the “relativity of meaning,” away from the notion that identity is fixed, towards an idea of identity as a process of exploration of a multiplicity of meanings that is constantly transforming itself through the unfolding of relationships.

This is particularly important for those, like me, who do not clearly identify with any specific culture. I have the ability to be a different person depending on the cultural context I am in. To strengthen the concept of an identity in flux, the pedagogy of self-reflection insists not on “discovering who one is, but on creating who one might become.”  (Chappell et al, 2003)

3.3      Action Plan

A personal biography works as “a lens through which the world is seen, or as an internal model which guides identity and action.” (Chappell et al, 2003, p.12) Such perspective establishes a link between reflection and action.

Injecting the intercultural learning dimension into my workplace will require institutional commitment. Firstly, with regards to the students, towards the recognition of the cultural differences embedded in their narratives. That could be done by implementing curricular changes in courses and by explicitly recognizing the intercultural communication competence. Secondly, with regards to staff/faculty, towards the implementation of appropriate initiatives such as professional development opportunities, aimed at creating and promoting an understanding and awareness of the intercultural communication dimension beyond the make-shift approach currently in place.

It is also possible to renegotiate my role within the college by promoting my level of “intercultural expertise.” That would require a shift in my role towards a more pro-active and solution-oriented approach.


The process of cultural identity negotiation and an attentive, mindful reading of students’ narrative may be valuable tools for dealing with comparable incidents, although a time-intensive, narrative-oriented investigation is not always feasible.

It is important to stress intercultural communication competencies that will give all actors a way to understand and appreciate the variety of cultural discourses that are by now part of our teaching and learning universe. Not everyone will become an intercultural specialist, but I hope that everyone may become at least mindful of the dynamics of cross-cultural interaction.

Embedding intercultural communication into the curriculum may enhance both the learning environment and all participants’ opportunities for personal growth and active citizenship. That will make them more mindful of issues currently occurring under the radar.

Finally, it would be helpful to adopt a vocabulary based on a non-essentialist view of culture, and explore and clarify issues of identity, assumptions, otherization, representation through thick description of discourses and personal narratives. This is a lot to discuss at this stage, but gives an idea that a long-term transformation of current approaches to education and identity building 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 globalized world.


Brookfield, S., (1995) ‘The Getting of Wisdom: What Critically Reflective Teaching is and Why It’s Important’ in Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass http://www.nl.edu/academics/cas/ace/facultypapers/StephenBrookfield_Wisdom.cfm

Chappelll, C., Rhodes, C., Solomon, N., Tennant, M. and Yates, L. (2003) “Selfwork”
in Reconstructing the Lifelong Learner: Pedagogy and identity in individual, organisational and social change (2003) by C. Chappelll, C. Rhodes, N. Solomon, M. Tennant & L. Yates Routledge Falmer, London

Chappelll C., Farrell, L., Scheeres, H. & Solomon, N. (2000) ‘Organization of Identity: 4 Cases’ from Working Knowledge: The New Vocationalism and Higher Education eds. Symes, C. & McIntyre, J. Open University Press, Milton Keynes

Collier, 1989, “International Journal of Intercultural Relations”, 13, 287-302 in Wijseman, R.L. and Koester, J. “Intercultural Communication Competence”, 1993

De Vault, M.L., (1999) ‘Ethnicity and Expertise’ in Liberating Method. Feminism and Social Research. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, pp.84-104

Davies, C., (2002) ‘Managing identities: workers, professions and identity’, Nursing Management Vol 9(5), September, pp.31-34

Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge: Polity

Gee, J.P. (1999) An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method London: Routledge, London pp.12-13

Gubrium, J. F., and Holstein, J. A. The New Language of Qualitative Method. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997

Holliday, A., Kullman, J., & Hyde, M. (2004). Intercultural communication: An advanced resource book. Routledge applied linguistics. London: Routledge

Langer, E. J., & Moldoveanu, M. (2000). The Construct of Mindfulness. Journal of Social Issues. 56 (1), 1-9 accessed on May 12, 2009 http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m0341/1_56/63716498/p1/article.jhtml

Lett, J.(ND) Emic/Etic Distinctions, accessed on May 5, 2009 at  Culture as constraint or resource: essentialist versus non-essentialist views http://web.archive.org/web/20080418104024/http://faculty.ircc.edu/faculty/jlett/Article+on+Emics+and+Etics.htm

Mason, J., (2001) ‘Forces for Development’ in Researching your own practice: The discipline of noticing., Routledge Falmer, London

Ting-Toomey, S. “Communicative Resourcefulness – An Identity Negotiation Perspective” in Wijseman, R.L. and Koester, J. Intercultural Communication Competence, 1993

Watson, C., (2006) ‘Narratives of practice and the construction of identity in teaching’, Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, Vol 12(5), October, pp.509-526


On Narrative


On Identity Theorie



One Response

  1. From Lorraine White (tutor and evaluator, Monash University):

    Oscar, I also teach many international students but have been given very little training in intercultural communication by my workplace that will help me address the very real issues that have emerged, so the concern you raise about the need to improve this situation has also become obvious to me. There are a number of strengths in this paper, so well done! You have put a great deal of effort into the paper, gathering a range of resources beyond the readings that support your theorizing well. Your understanding of the readings is obvious and you have thoughtfully considered the concepts outlined in the readings. This paper is very thorough, well organized and professionally presented, helping the reader to follow where you are going with the development of your paper.

    I can see how the incident with your student would have struck a chord, especially when you felt that you have certain experiences that put you in a position of being very understanding and supportive of students from a range of cultural backgrounds. I suspect that this incident made you question something that you had taken for granted about yourself, made you question your own assumptions (or is that my assumption?). You recount the event with the student but could have gone further in unraveling how this affected or challenged you and why. So I would have liked you to draw out further the assumptions, tensions and contradictions embedded in your case. My concern is that you do not analyze in quite enough depth where you and your identity fit into the case. That process of self reflection is not easy ? it can be quite confronting and challenging.

    Nevertheless, this is a fine effort, Oscar. Congratulations!

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