Diversity, revisited

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It’s been a rough ride coming to terms with new reflective insights about my teaching of a culturally diverse college class this past term (some 15 nationalities in a group of 25). But I feel much more awake to and aware of the challenges we teachers face in globalized classrooms.

It was clear to me that I would be teaching communication skills rather than English. I’ve skilled up academically in what constitutes English as a Lingua Franca, and how to focus on accent to improve intelligibility. But this term I learned that this is not enough: I need to be far more proactive in addressing differences in listening behavior (high-involvement vs. high-considerate) in multicultural groups, and also explicitly coach each student in impression management.

Dealing with large classes that will go their separate linguistic ways rather than moving collectively up to a common norm is a challenge. Here the key is to make explicit how we change registers and accommodate differently depending on whom we are addressing. I had the great good fortune to have Vicki Hollett, who is exceedingly knowledgeable in cross-cultural pragmatics, kindly point out to me what I was missing.

Still, intelligibility is key. At the end of term there was a critical incident, following the assessment, when I received an angry, wounded email from a student. He was responding to my gving him a 3 on his presentation because I had felt he was practically unintelligible. He called me a racist for marking him down based on his accent, and used very emotional language. I had obviously failed to make clear enough to him  that the participants were not studying the dominant colonial idiom of International English, but were in fact working towards their personal ability to communicate with each other across cultures. I had sent him extensive formative feedback right after the presentation, but now recognize that he did not, and perhaps could not accept it at the time, and so didn’t take any action or respond. The fact that I, a white native speaker, was assessing him, made the assessment suspicious and dubious. So that makes it even more important for me as the teacher to be absolutely straight and clear. I should have approached him, quietly, and repeated my feedback to make sure he took it the right way.

I empathize with his distrust, insecurity and sense of being treated unfairly, based on wanting to assert his cultural identity. There is an role for culturally definitive accents. But in international communication we all need the intercultural skills to step away from that sense of identity into the role of being a partner in a dialogue, and say “I am secure enough in my cultural identity to adapt my accent, my words, my tone, my way of taking turns, even my body language, so that my interlocutor from another culture understands me.” Being able to bridge the divide between cultures,  to accommodate for diversity, does not mean that we must give up our variety of English when speaking to those from our own cultural circle. On the contrary, that will often be highly appropriate.

I’m very unhappy that I failed my student by not getting this across to him. It makes me think very hard about my course management in general that this only came to light through his protest against my final assessment. This has been a real wake-up call.

This was my response to his complaint:

I am so terribly sorry that you have taken my assessment as a criticism of your accent. Nothing could be further from my intentions. I thought it was clear that in our communication skills class we are exploring what happens between people from very different cultures and linguistic backgrounds using the language that has become our international lingua franca. Standards of English are practically irrelevant, and certainly any considerations of what might be “good” or “bad English” are completely beside the point. All that counts is that we are working and communicating well together as a group. For such communication to work, people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds need to be able to make themselves understood to each other. Next to understanding the different communication styles each culture prefers, the important thing is to be intelligible to each other. When I wrote your feedback right after the presentation, I told you that I had trouble understanding you, as did others who are not from your country. And this is simply a fact: If you are not easily understood by others, they will not listen closely enough to pick up the important things you say. I would not be a good teacher to you if I did not point this out. I would congratulate you on your good ideas and send you out and there you would encounter people who don’t listen. Adopting a more international pronunciation in an international setting is key, because it will give you the audience you deserve and need.
Therefore, the grade of “3” is not a low grade, it is a reminder to you and an incentive to get down to work on this very important aspect of your professional development, and to take it seriously.

Teaching and giving critical feedback to students under pressure to earn excellent grades is a huge challenge. Teaching essay writing and presentations to relatively homogenous small classes means using more or less optimized content and methods, which makes for relatively risk-free teaching. Now I am faced with the real risk that someone will feel treated unfairly, and will launch an attack. This is certainly an incentive to do the best job I possibly can – as if I needed more motivation! –  but it also puts the psychological pressure on. So I need to reboot more frequently, to get a surge of positive energy from some essential source that gives me the strength to continue.

The crazy thing was that while I was teaching, I generally had a good feeling. It was only after the fact, thinking through how I had done things, that I started to recognize that things were off. I have therefore  learned this semester to be exceedingly reflective and to look at what I am doing under bright lights, to recognize issues more quickly and to address them right away, or they will come back to trouble me. Using a camera to log lessons is very helpful toward this end. I must also make sure that any critical formative feedback I give is actually registered by the learner in question. This means that I may very well need to adapt more to each learner’s expectations of how feedback is given (e.g. orally and face-to-face rather than writing via email, at least in some cases), so I may have to have real office hours, even where I am an external trainer. In addition, I need to push for improvement more, to avoid leaving willing learners frustrated and angry.


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