Cultural Issues in the Higher Education Classroom

By Connie Gelb
2012, Vol. 4 No. 07 | pg. 1/3 |

Multicultural and multilingual classrooms have become the norm in many educational (and professional) settings throughout the U.S. due to changing immigration patterns caused by globalization (Institute for Educational Leadership, p. 2, 2005). Subsequently, understanding the role that culture plays in the classroom is essential to effective teaching, learning and communicative interaction in general. Samovar, Porter & McDaniel provide a simple definition of culture as “the rules for living and functioning in society” (2008, p.10). The term, “issues” refers to the conflicts, misinterpretations and/or miscommunications that take place in the classroom. Analyzing cultural issues can shed light on some of the unconscious processes that shape individuals’ perceptions of reality as well as patterns of interaction, including language use and communication (Scollon & Scollon, 2001, p.268). This kind of analysis may benefit teachers as well as learners by raising awareness of the hidden cultural assumptions and biases that they bring to the classroom. Scollon & Scollon suggest that analyzing a discrete “discourse system,” such as a classroom, may be less daunting than trying to tackle the broad topic of “culture” (p.5).

Using Scollon & Scollon’s “Grammar of Context” framework as a guide (Appendix A), this paper discusses the four most significant elements of culture - ideology, socialization, forms of discourse, and face systems - that come into play in a higher education discourse system in which English is used for academic purposes (EAP). It focuses primarily on the communicative issues related to class participation. It concludes with instructional strategies to effectively address cultural issues in the higher education classroom. As Samovar et al stress: “teachers who understand cultural diversity…are more likely to be successful in their multicultural classrooms” (2006, p.2).

The following analysis is based on a hypothetical case study of a group of students modeled on those with whom I have worked as a writing counselor at American University. In addition to these informal observations of NNESs and NESs, I recently conducted interviews with several international students currently attending AU (Appendix). I also conducted an informal discourse analysis of authentic class discussion transcripts in a higher education setting from The Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English (MICASE). A link to the complete transcript is found in the Appendix.

Description of Students

The hypothetical student population is a diverse group of U.S. native English speakers (NESs) and international non-native English speakers (NNESs) who are first-year, first-semester undergraduates at a mid-sized suburban U.S. university. The majority of the NNESs plan to return to their home countries after graduation. The other NNESs plan to work for multinational corporations in urban centers throughout the globe where English is used as the lingua franca. Many of the U.S. students also plan to work for multinationals after graduation. The course is entitled Lit 101, a required class modeled after American University’s “College Writing” course. In addition to writing, the course includes extensive reading, group work, class discussion and oral presentations.

-Total number of students: 25

-Total number of NNES students: 5

-Age range of all students: 18-21

-Educational background: high school graduates

-L1s: Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean, and Thai

-Proficiency levels: intermediate – advanced; some of the NNESs display high-intermediate cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) and low-intermediate basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS), terms coined by Jim Cummins (1980); other NNESs have the reverse. All of the NESs display advanced BICS and at least high-intermediate CALP.

-Gender: half female, half male

-Socioeconomic status: about ¼ of the U.S. students receive some financial aid. The rest of the students pay full tuition. None of the international students receive financial aid.

-U.S. student ethnicity: loosely based on U.S. Census figures (2010), 72% are white (12), 16% are Hispanic/Latino (3), 12% are African American (2) and 5% are Asian (3).

-Other: The majority of U.S. students come from urban and suburban areas of the northeastern U.S.

Description of Target Discourse System and Context

In her description of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) Celce-Murcia (2001) provides a useful definition of discourse as being “concerned not with isolated words or phrases but with the interconnectedness of a series of utterances, written [and/or spoken] words, and/or phrases to form …a meaningful whole.” Taking this definition into consideration, this paper will examine how communication takes place rather than the products of communication (i.e. essays or presentations). The hypothetical target discourse system is situated in a higher education context at a mid-sized U.S. university in a suburban setting. The course is entitled Lit 101, and is loosely based on AU’s “College Writing” seminar, a required class for first-year students. This hypothetical class includes a mix of non-native English speakers (NNESs) from four Asian countries (China, Japan, Korea & Thailand) and native English speakers (NESs) to highlight potential intercultural conflicts. While the course emphasizes academic writing, class discussion based on reading assignments, group work and oral presentations are emphasized as well. In addition, students are assigned to one of five study groups and are required to meet outside of class weekly. This paper will focus on the tacit classroom interactions and communicative behaviors likely found in this type of discourse system.

When using a discourse approach to analyzing intercultural communication, Scollon & Scollon suggest that, “the most useful focus for research as well as for education and training are the actions people take in which differences produce sources of conflict in power or in understanding” (2001, p.267). Therefore, in order to analyze some of the cultural issues that might surface in this type of discourse system it is important to have a sense of what students will actually do in this particular classroom. The first hour of every class includes discussion of the weekly course readings with questions posed by the instructor. However, no explicit directions for this activity are listed on the course syllabus. The syllabus does state that class participation is weighted at 15% of the student’s total grade. However, no description or definition of “class participation” is provided. In addition to class discussions, students must complete a group research project by the end of the semester in which students must agree upon a topic and research question, divvy up the sections of the paper and create a companion PowerPoint presentation that will be presented to their classmates. As aforementioned, students are assigned to study groups on the first day of class and must make arrangements to meet outside of class on a weekly basis at a mutually agreed upon time.

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