Cultural Issues in the Higher Education Classroom

By Connie Gelb
2012, Vol. 4 No. 07 | pg. 2/3 |

Case Study of the Hypothetical Discourse System In Action

During the beginning of the semester the teacher, a young inexperienced American female from a sparsely population Midwestern state, has noticed that the international students seem shy, unprepared and incommunicative. Only a handful of them participate in class discussions about the assigned readings while the U.S. students monopolize the conversation. Because of this, the teacher has made several attempts to encourage the international students to speak up while discouraging the U.S. students from speaking too much. She has also started writing the homework readings on the white board and includes weekly announcements in Blackboard about the assigned readings. However, the teacher’s interventions don’t seem to be producing the desired results. When she calls on the international students directly, some of them respond with nervous laughter, blushing and/or averted eyes. Others remain stone-faced and silent. The teacher has also received more than one email from some of the U.S. students complaining that the international students in their study groups aren’t contributing to the group project or don’t show up to meetings. What might be some of the cultural issues at play in this discourse system?

Cultural Issues of the Target Discourse

The author acknowledges that she will most likely make assumptions and generalizations about commonly held beliefs and values of both groups of students. Having been socialized into U.S. culture from birth, the U.S. students (and teacher) can be expected to share the ideological worldview described by Scollon & Scollon as the Utilitarian Discourse System (2001, p.110). Members socialized into this system would tend to value progress, egalitarianism, individualism, freedom of expression, competition and rationalism. Their preferred form of discourse would be exemplified by Lanham’s clarity, brevity and sincerity (C-B-S) style of speaking and writing (1983, in Scollon & Scollon). C-B-S’ linear communication style would be perceived as “normal” and correct by those socialized into this discourse system.

Regarding the notion of class participation, the teacher perceives that the U.S. students are meeting her expectations most likely because of their common primary and secondary socialization (Scollon & Scollon, p. 163)—they would have started learning how to “do” class participation at home around the kitchen table. The teacher perceives that the U.S. students always seem to have completed the required reading—after all English is their first language and they learned all about skimming and scanning in grade school. During class discussions the U.S. students answer the Teacher’s questions in C-B-S fashion, the direct style that has been drilled into them since elementary school as part of secondary socialization (p.163). In contrast, the international students’ infrequent verbal contributions are consistently off-topic and/or they never get to the point. This indirect style could be due to the fact that the Asian students are members of “high-context” collectivist cultures, as described by Hall (2010 in Samovar et al) that do not require as much background information as compared to “low-context” cultures like Western ones. The U.S. students express personal opinions and/or novel ideas. They casually challenge theoretical concepts of “the experts” and ask irreverent questions—after all the U.S. Founding Fathers deified dissent. Conversely, the international students from collectivist cultures seem to avoid conflict and/or controversial topics—a survival mechanism for students from authoritarian governments such as China or Iran. The U.S. students communicate in a lighthearted yet formal key that mixes critical analysis with humor and occasional references to popular culture. In contrast, the international students express themselves in a more formal key. The U.S. students take intellectual risks and challenge their peers in a kind of free-market exchange of ideas. With admiration the teacher notices an undertone of competition among the U.S. speakers, as if they are taking part in a debating contest. The U.S. students enunciate their words, emphasize salient points with appropriate gestures and make eye contact when speaking.

Familiar with the hidden rules of turn-taking, the U.S. students enter the ongoing discussion smoothly, anticipating their interlocutors’ pauses and other discourse markers. Conversely the international students haven’t yet learned these rules. As Leki claims, “rules for turn-taking vary among languages. A person speaking English is expected to heed verbal and kinetic cues indicating that the listener is now ready to speak, cues like taking a breath or making a sound toward the end of the speaker’s sentence” (1992, p. 52). An informal analysis of the 7,893-word MICASE transcript (Appendix B) of an undergraduate Anthropology class discussion includes the following formulaic expressions used by U.S. students when entering the conversation: okay, alright, well, that’s a good point, maybe, yeah, or, there’re also like, yeah that’s true, cuz they, that’s absolutely true, I mean, I think, right, so, well it’s like, that’s a good one, I don’t think, maybe so, I was gonna say, but I think, um as for like, I definitely think, that’s true, well my understanding of, that’s a good question, that’s really interesting. In addition to all of the unspoken communicative behaviors influenced by culture, there are multiple spoken utterances that U.S. students unconsciously know because they were socialized into the discourse system. All of these communicative behaviors must be learned. In addition, despite the fact that this is a formal university class, U.S. students use informal contractions such as cuz, gonna, wanna which international students may not be familiar with. And the U.S. students know not to use these conversational informalities when writing.

Disciples of monochromatic time, the U.S. students have perfect attendance and turn in their assignments on the due date, while the international students tend to straggle in and/or miss deadlines. When they are going to be absent from class the U.S. students send a polite email, a nod to power difference and face politeness strategies (Scollon & Scollon, 2001, p.54). As Scollon and Scollon point out (p. 57), miscommunications can take place when one group is using symmetrical face strategies (U.S. students and teacher) while the other is using asymmetrical strategies (Asian students). The U.S. students proofread their papers before handing them in—or at least they have mastered Spellcheck—while papers belonging to the international students are riddled with mistakes. Once in a while, U.S. females show up to class wearing skin-tight Daisy Dukes or flowery pajama bottoms and flip-flops, or males chow down on Big Macs, but other than that, the teacher is pleased with the U.S. students’ class participation. They make her feel as if she is doing a good job. On the other hand, the international students are not meeting her expectations. Nor is the teaching meeting theirs. Yet the international students fail to sign up for conferences. Mismatches in expectation are frequently at the root of intercultural misunderstandings such as these (DeCapua & Wintergerst, 2004).

Cultural misunderstandings can surface when there is a “clash of expectations” (Hoff in Damon, 1986p. 313). The U.S. students appear to be playing by one set of hidden cultural rules, while the international students are playing by another (Samovar et al,2010, p. 285). Since the teacher and the U.S. students share the same enculturation process, she views their behavior as normal and appropriate (Samovar et al, 285). Conversely, she views the international students’ behavior as not meeting her expectations. As DeCapua & Wintergerst point out, “when people’s expectations are violated, they often react negatively to the interlocutor” (2004, p.114). From the perspective of the international students, neither the teacher, nor the class is meeting their expectations. Feak, Reinhart and Rohlck concur that “instructors at U.S. colleges and universities expect students to demonstrate more individual initiative and be more involved in …class activities than may be expected in universities outside the U.S.” (2009, p. 120). International students may “view participation more broadly to include attending class, being prepared, listening, and doing all of the homework” (p.119).

In fact, many non-U.S. educational systems discourage oral communication in favor of traditional teaching methods such as rote memorization (Samovar et al, p. 332). Some foreign educational systems discourage independent thought (Damen, p. 315) and/or questioning by the students (1998, Beaven Calderisi, Panadda Tantral, p.2). “If you ask too many questions, classmates think you are just showing off,” said R. Chang, a Chinese student who is studying law at American University. “If someone speaks up in class the other students will really hate him…so students are very quiet. Very silent (Appendix).”

A recent New York Times article characterizes China as a “test-centric culture” in which high school students spend most of their time cramming for the gao kao, the Chinese college entrance exam (2011, p. 4). “Only way for poor Chinese to improve their destiny is to pass the gao kao,” said Chang, who aspires to become a law professor. “Nobody really cares if you are in class or not. If you just memorize textbook you get 100%.”

The concept of classroom participation in Thai classrooms is very different from that of U.S. classrooms, according to P. Rattanakosin, a Thai undergraduate student at American University. “Schools in Thailand do not encourage class participation,” Rattanakosin said. “Asking questions in class can send a negative signal to the teacher that the student who asks questions cannot comprehend the lecture well.” Rattanakosin complained that AU professors do not go over the syllabus with students because they assume that all students are familiar with activities typical of U.S. university classrooms. She also stated that she had never taken a class in which students lead discussions.

As this paper attempts to demonstrate, deeply rooted cultural beliefs, values and practices can influence class discussion style and group interactions, major elements of classroom culture in the U.S. International students from collectivistic cultures (e.g. China, Japan, Korea, Thailand) may view North Americans’ assertive communication style as disruptive to harmonious interactions, the cultural M.O. they are most familiar with (Samovar et al p. 290). Avoiding conflict would, therefore, be paramount to these students. “For the Japanese, conflict is seen as interpersonally embarrassing and distressing since it potentially disrupts social harmony” (Samovar et al, p. 321). As Samovar et al concur, “since many …cultures emphasize accord, harmony, and cooperation, students from these cultures may not possess the oral argumentative skills that are often required in U.S classrooms” (2010, p.347). In addition, many international students have come from lecture-style, teacher-centered classrooms in which students pass the course if they manage to pass the final exam (Smithee, Greenblatt & Eland, 2004).

Student-centered classrooms with desks arranged in a circle might be disorienting to international students from hierarchical cultures that are used to teacher-fronted classrooms. Also, international students tend to come from high power distance cultures, which could cause them to avoid approaching and/or contradicting their teacher or peers (Gudykunst, 2003). In addition, some international students might think that their U.S. teacher is incompetent because she dresses like a student, sits next to the students in a circle, and appears very young—symbols of low status to members of hierarchical cultures. In addition, the U.S. teacher lets students lead class discussions which might indicate to international students that she does not know her subject matter very well.

Other aspects of culture that could cause misunderstandings include whether or not communication is viewed as having primarily an information function or a relationship function (S&S, p.151). While Scollon & Scollon point out that both functions come into play to some extent with all cultures, members socialized in U.S. culture would tend to emphasize communication’s information function. In the classroom this might translate into international students from collectivistic cultures perceiving U.S. students’ communication style as rude or cold (Samovar et al, p. 219) while U.S. students (and teachers) might perceive international students’ style as off-topic, vague or incoherent. Scollon & Scollon also mention that some Asian cultures believe that language has a non-linguistic “direct transmission” (p.152) function in which members value silence and/or contemplation more than westerners. Samovar et al concur, “there is a belief in many Eastern traditions that words can contaminate an experience and that inner peace and wisdom come only through silence (281).”

Differences in non-verbal communication, another form of discourse, can also contribute to misunderstandings in the classroom. For example, when analyzing kinesics, the movement of our bodies, some cultures teach their children that eye contact is rude, while Western parents encourage their children to make eye contact from an early age—especially when greeting adults and/or shaking hands (Samovar et al, 2010, 62). U.S. teachers and students alike might be quick to negatively evaluate students who practice gaze avoidance as being untrustworthy, evasive or deceitful. As Samovar et al stress, “Teachers who recognize something as simple as cultural differences in the nonverbal use of eye contact can experience improvement in multicultural classroom communication” (2006, p.2).

Other examples of communicative behavior that can lead to misunderstandings during class discussions include differences in “back-channeling.” For example, while Westerners shake their heads back and forth to indicate disagreement during a conversation, East Indians make this gesture when expressing agreement. In addition, smiling and/or laughter, other aspects of kinesics, could be misinterpreted because in U.S. culture these behaviors generally have positive connotations whereas in some Asian cultures smiling and/or laughter can signal feelings of shame, confusion or difficulty (S&S, p. 156). In the U.S., smiling can also signal an informal greeting, while in other cultures, it might be reserved for close friends or family.

Use of space, another aspect of proxemics, can also come into play in the classroom. According to Samovar et al, different cultures have different notions of what constitutes personal space (2010, p. 270). Teachers and students may feel uncomfortable when their interlocutors violate their “individual bubble of space” as Hall describes in Samovar et al, (2010, p.270). Differences in “touching behavior” can also cause misunderstandings. For example, some students may get offended by those socialized in cultures in which kissing and hugging strangers is considered normal. In the classroom this might translate into U.S. students thinking that their international counterparts are aloof when in fact they may just have different culturally based norms of touching behavior.

Another major aspect of culture that can cause misunderstandings is the notion of politeness systems and “face,” defined by Scollon & Scollon as “the negotiated public image” (2001, p. 45). For example, members of collectivist cultures (China, Japan, Korea, Thailand) may be more inhibited than their U.S. counterparts when participating in class discussions because they tend to speak as a representative of a group whose behavior is prescribed by rigid hierarchical relationships as opposed to their U.S. classmates who might be more inclined to make verbal contributions as free agents exercising free will. Where U.S. students might view the instructor as a social equal, international students might be more deferential, assuming the teacher would fulfill their expected hierarchical role. As Scollon and Scollon claim, “The Asian is more likely to be conscious of kinship relationships, which will, in turn, lead to his assumptions of hierarchy. The American student on the other hand is likely to have de-emphasized such relationships, and therefore, to assume more egalitarian relationships” (2001, p.144). As part of face-saving strategies, members of collectivistic cultures may be more likely to avoid hurting the listeners’ feelings which could be manifested in the classroom as being indirect, quiet or evasive during class discussions or group work (Gudykunst, 2003).

Regarding use of time, another aspect of discourse, U.S. students would most likely adhere to monochronic notions of time in which time is viewed as a “scarce resource that must be carefully rationed and controlled” (Samovar et al, p. 278). On the other hand, relationships tend to take precedence over tasks and time (Samovar et al, p. 278) for cultures steeped in polychronic time (Arabic, Asian, Latin American). In the classroom this could translate into international students being late for class or study group meetings or expecting the teacher to stay late answering all the questions they saved for after class.

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