Web Writing as Intercultural Dialogue

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Introduction
There are two clear and abiding trends in American higher education: internationalization and increased use of web-based technology. According to the Institute for International Education, the 2011-2012 academic year was witness to the largest ever enrollment of international students in the United States, with nearly 765,000 students from primarily China, India, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea. 1 At the same time, it is estimated that by 2014, 81% of post-secondary students in the United States will take one or more of their classes online, and 95% of teachers believe that online tools increase student engagement. 2

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 On first glance, these two trends would seem to confirm the early “global village” hypothesis regarding the growth of technology: the Internet was supposed to blur cultural and geographical boundaries and open up a digital space free of prejudices where ideal intercultural deliberation can take place. 3 Yet, as Selfe points out, this metaphor may have been less about dissolution of borders and more about the age-old American belief in technological progress as social progress. 4 But if we have learned nothing from the explosion of the web over the past twenty-odd years, the relationship between culture and technology is complex at best. At worse, the interaction between the two can actually intensify stereotypes and stifle intercultural dialogue. However, after six years of living, studying, and teaching in international settings, I have not completely abandoned the possibility that technology holds for cross-cultural communication. But instead of relying on technology exclusively to deliver on this promise, we should instead rest our hopes on the globalization of education as a facilitator of cultural exposure and understanding. There exists very little research on the extent to which students of different cultures utilize digital tools. 5 Therefore, this chapter will not only serve as a call for more research in this area, but will also explore the use of web writing as a way to take advantage of the diverse classroom to mold culturally-aware and critical global citizens.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Why Internationalization?
I have lived and studied in the United States, Germany, Hungary and Israel. Now, as a doctoral candidate, I am both student and teacher in what are always very diverse classrooms. One of my main goals when I decided to directly enroll in a foreign university was to learn international relations not just academically but personally, by surrounding myself with students and faculty from around the world and simply engaging with one another. However, at times I have been disappointed by the approach of some my colleagues, who seemed to take for granted that there existed a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the state of world affairs by tapping into the vastly diverse personal and cultural experiences of their students.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 Discussions of internationalization tend to revolve around visa and immigration issues, cultural integration of foreign students, and the economic benefit that international students bring to the university. 6 Regardless of the institutional motivations, instructors need not only recognize the needs of international students, but also the way in which their perspectives can enrich how we teach our subject matter. 7 Research indicates that despite our best efforts to create a safe and respectful collegiate environment, students of similar cultural backgrounds gravitate towards each other—therefore the best intercultural dialogue that takes place is in fact in the classroom. 8 But such dialogue is neither automatic nor determinative; it requires rigorous and engaging teaching methods, and instructors who adopt culturally responsive pedagogies. The trend towards more internationalization is a powerful medium towards fostering creative, sensitive, and critical students. This, in my view, should be our goal as educators, and is a far more admiral goal than achieving a homogenous “global village,” and is also a far better medium for bringing culturally divergent people together in meaningful ways than the World Wide Web alone.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Challenges for International Students
Still, the web is not a complete dead end for meaningful engagement.  While it is fraught with pitfalls, the proliferation of web-based tools over the course of the decade or so has hopefully taught us some lessons.  The turn towards web writing as one of the many teaching tools in a 21st Century classroom is an exciting development if approached cautiously and with eyes wide open, especially as it relates to cultivating more cohesion among diverse students. As an international student and teacher, I have noticed several challenges that occur in diverse classrooms that I think web writing has the ability to address.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I wish to offer a few caveats before I continue. For the purposes of brevity, I will be using terminology that isn’t always the most politically correct. I’m assuming a mostly American readership and therefore the term “international student” applies to any student whose primary cultural orientation is outside the United States, but most of the recommendations herein apply best to non-Western and non-native English speakers. At the same time, much of what I might say could equally apply to American students who come from traditionally under-represented groups, including women and those from economically disadvantaged areas. With this in mind however, I will still use the term “domestic” to refer to students who identify as culturally American. I will also at times invoke the term “Western” students to refer to students more broadly from North America and Europe. I will also in turn speak of “non-Western” students, fully aware that this is painting with a rather broad brush. I will also use that same broad brush when referring to large regions of the world, which are extremely diverse in their own right. Therefore, I ask the reader to keep in mind that I’m speaking in generalizations.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Considering these caveats, students I have worked with from Asia, the Middle East and Africa tend to shy away from rigorous in-class discussions, which is at the heart of the liberal arts model. This observation is supported consistently by research aiming to identify challenges that international students face. 9 Simultaneously, Western students feel very comfortable sharing in class, even if it exposes the fact that they haven’t read the required reading. This anxiety over in-class discussions is related to several factors including language ability, culture of learning, and general social adjustment. 10 Students from instructor-led traditions can find class discussions overwhelming, especially if their English language skills are not superb.  Of course, what we are trying to cultivate are students who see themselves as contributors to the field, but my experience teaching students from other learning backgrounds has led me to suspect that we might have oversold ourselves on oral defense as a learning method to the detriment of reflection and simple, raw writing. While a silent classroom is a thing of dread for most Western instructors, it is important that we reflect on our own cultural anxieties regarding the value of mere talk and the meaning of silence. 11 Indeed, silence should not always be interpreted as a lack of interest or motivation.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 On the flip side, the writing I get from international students consistently surprises me. Despite occasional language difficulties, and the application of theory to unique examples is always challenging and engaging. While the literature on international student output doesn’t reflect this observation perfectly, I think it is a function of what the literature has identified as a generally higher desire on the part of international students to achieve as compared to domestic students, as a technique to prove their worthiness for the Western university. 12 Taken together, these two observations produce a culture clash that stands in the way of the kind of dialogue I see as so promising to the cultural development of university students. Domestic students don’t get the chance to hear their international peers’ point of view due to lack of discussion participation, and international students are subjected to culturally-narrow class discussions.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 1 Web Writing as Intercultural Dialogue
It is here that web writing may be an invaluable tool to the diverse classroom. I argue for web writing over the traditional writing assignment due to the fact that it integrates a collaborative and social element.  Traditional writing assignments, whether they are small reflection pieces or final theses, are a mostly lonely endeavor and especially at the undergraduate level, are done with a very limited audience in mind—the professor. When students write on the web, they have instant access to their colleagues’ work and learn to write for a larger audience. When conducted on a collaborative forum, students can also make written comments on the work of others, much like an in-class discussion but with the added benefit of having the distance and time to make thoughtful and well-crafted responses. This is particularly important for non-native speakers who often feel more comfortable communicating on “paper” rather than orally. The professor can also monitor the discussion to make sure it stays on-topic and remains respectful. The professor also has a record of the evolution of student’s thoughts. Furthermore, engaging in some pre-discussion before class convenes may give shy students, non-native speakers, and others the opportunity to better prepare for a face-to-face debate. It can also help a professor know in advance how students are understanding the assigned reading. Writing on the web exposes students to a wider audience, and forces them to consider a pseudo-global audience and thus how they may be interpreted, as well as their own political and social biases.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 7 Thus, after several failed attempts at encouraging more thoughtful intercultural dialogue in my international classroom and some mild successes, I am arguing for a web writing infrastructure that is user-friendly and rather simple in its interface, especially to accommodate students from places that are not so well-connected.  I ultimately chose WordPress to set up a blog for each class and used a plugin to restrict access. Students need nothing more than an email address and regular access to the Internet to use WordPress. The advantage of WordPress is that it requires no real technical skills, but is also versatile enough to be more dynamic for the tech-savvy students in your class. These elements are essential if the goal is to create a space for intercultural dialogue. I believe that any platform an instructor chooses must be able to accommodate our existing pedagogical orientations and desired learning outcomes, instead of deferring to the technology to create the end goals for us. This is a serious pitfall in which I have occasionally found myself: some digital tools can be seductive in the sense of producing professional-looking and sleek end products. These tools, however, may force students and teachers into strict workflows that stifle rather than engage critical thinking. We should not confuse design with evidence of intellectual growth.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 6 I am also arguing for web writing that is closed rather than public. There may very well be classes that would be more suitable to web writing in a public fashion, such as journalism. I am particularly intrigued by Storify, a platform that allows users to create interactive digital magazines by collecting media from around the Internet and contributing original editorial content for more public writing. 13 However, classes such as mine—gender and women’s studies and feminist international relations—require students to deeply interrogate privilege and power structures, structures of which they are both beneficiaries and subjects, are better suited to web writing that is not at the mercy of the depersonalized and often knee-jerk nature of public web discussions, particularly when it comes to gender-related issues. 14 On the other hand, the forum need not be closed to the immediate class only. While I haven’t experimented with this yet myself, I imagine that professors could collaborate and encourage on-going web-based collaborative projects between classes.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The web writing aspect must be built into the syllabus in such a way that students see the purpose behind the project. They need to know that some of the in-class discussion is being outsourced, but that their writing has a purpose beyond free association. In my experience both as teacher and student, Western students are oddly resistant to digital tools if they perceive that they are simply guinea pigs, while non-Westerns students tend to enthusiastically embrace non-traditional writing projects. I think this reflects young Westerners’ experience with the web as a primarily social space rather than something with professional and academic possibilities. One way to encourage students is to work small, regular writing assignments into the syllabus, which are to be conducted online. Each piece should be viewed as incremental steps within a larger research project such as a term paper or an independent study project. These small writing assignments I have found work best as “think pieces” designed to propose questions and provoke discussion. However, unlike Twitter, the writing style should be academic, between 400 and 1000 words, but need not be well-researched. This is important because there is a tendency by especially Western students to treat writing online as automatically less formal than that which they would produce as part of a traditional writing assignment. It is also important so as to keep the verbiage comprehensible for non-native speakers, as overly colloquial language and specific cultural references can hinder their ability to effectively participate. 15 While some studies have cited online language use as a major obstacle to international students success, I think that there is a bit of an advantage to online discussions as supposed to face-to-face conversations. 16 Students aren’t under pressure to immediately understand and respond appropriately. A final strategy for encouraging web writing is to grade participation sensibly. While it depends on the context, I have found that it discourages substantive conversation if students think they can inflate their grades by overloading the blog with content and comments. Thus, the percentage of the final grade that depends on web writing is relatively low in my classes, and in-class participation can only improve one’s grade, not hurt it.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 Web writing doesn’t completely replace in-class discussions, but the dynamic during class will likely change after introducing web writing, opening up time for other activities. Online collaboration has its advantages but also disadvantages such as the lack of visual and social cues, and therefore intercultural dialogue should be seen as an on-going process between the classroom and the digital space (and hopefully extending into campus social life and perhaps other online mediums). But with more time in class, instructors can experiment with other teaching tools such as role-playing, games, and viewing of documentaries.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 What is extremely important to the success of web writing as intercultural dialogue is the active and consistent participation of the instructor. As Arena points out, blogging doesn’t “just happen.” 17 It requires constant prompts by the teacher, and initially s/he may have to be the primary content producer. This is reflective of both my personal experience as well as the findings of several inquiries into online intercultural activity. 18 The work of the instructor is also necessary so as to encourage the intercultural dynamic I am arguing for. As is the case for the wider World Wide Web, contact between culturally diverse people doesn’t automatically translate to dialogue. A strategy I have found that works well is to ask students to apply what they read to something specific in their lives and then blog about it. In the process of developing intercultural dialogue, there is often a temptation to ask specific questions of the international students. But we can’t ask that our international students be de facto spokespeople for their countries. Rather, questions that are designed to promote intercultural dialogue should be formulated in such a way that every student regardless of background can produce something meaningful. We shouldn’t forget that even students from small Midwestern American towns can make interesting cultural contributions, and this is especially useful for the international students who are attempting to assimilate into and understand everyday American life.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 For example, when talking about how gender impacts the perception of leadership, I will ask students to contribute small written pieces on the blog from their hometown about prominent female figures (they need not be politicians). I encourage small and local examples, rather than instances that are already heavily reported (the first time I asked students to do this a good third of them wrote about Sarah Palin). This created a very interesting “ethnography” of under-researched female leaders from all over the world. I considered it a resounding success when several students chose to write their mid-term papers about some of the female leaders introduced by other students. Because these figures were often very local, the students writing the term papers had to rely on their peers as primary sources, and these students directed their colleagues to local newspapers to further their projects. 19 Some of the international students later reported to me that they were completely taken aback by the fact that someone might find a local leader in their communities worth writing about. Once their peers took a genuine interest in their lives and cultures, I noticed some of the rather shy international students tentatively participating in face-to-face discussions on a more consistent basis. Due to the interactive nature of this project, I consider it a good example of intercultural communication and learning that can result from web writing.  As a result of this project, I was introduced to Atifete Jahjaga before she became the president of Kosovo, and inspired a new research interest of my own on the role of women in post-conflict Balkans. 20

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 1 In future classes, I am hoping to build on the success of this project by utilizing the platform of Global Voices Online. 21 This community of international bloggers brings together young voluntary writers who contribute unique stories from under-represented parts of the world.  Not only does the site provide a wealth of unique stories to inspire further inquiry by my students, but students may also suggest topics from their own countries and maybe even make contributions.  Global Voices, in my view provides a model for how intercultural web writing should be done.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 2 Some Conclusions and Cautions
Web writing may provide the basis for a more inclusive and culturally sensitive classroom. I think the liberal arts approach is an effective one, but isn’t always as culturally-sensitive as we might always like. Integrating web writing into our existing pedagogy has the potential to accommodate different learning backgrounds and develop better dialogue among diverse students. These techniques must be purpose-driven and approached with caution, however. I have outlined some basic parameters that I believe will give students the framework in a web environment for critical and culturally aware discussions, but much more research and experimentation is needed in this area. While web writing in my view shouldn’t displace traditional teaching methods, demands on student and instructor time may force us to modify our syllabi and expectations when web writing is first introduced. Students (as well as teachers) shouldn’t perceive web writing as busy work, and in order to avoid this, it needs to be approached with a long-term perspective. Short contributions taken individually will not be particularly astute, but these short interactions will produce a more lengthy discourse over time where, in theory, more in-depth thoughts are in constant development. Finally, we should approach web writing with the full knowledge that the web isn’t a value-free or powerless environment. Even the most well-designed online forums can be just as intimidating as face-to-face conversation, and the voices of traditionally under-represented groups can easily dissolve into consensus as defined by all the usual power structures from the “real world.” As web writers, we must resist the utopian and indeed Western perception of technology as the “great leveler.” Web writing is just one of many tools, and the tool should be not be mistaken for the goal.  Thus, as students write more on the web it is essential that we constantly interrogate our relationship to this medium and make our students not only culturally sensitive individuals, but critical users of technology as well. 22 The web itself is not an agent of intercultural understanding; thoughtful and reflective individuals are.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 About the author: Holly Oberle is the author of College Abroad, a guide for American students who wish to fully enroll in university outside the United States.  She is an aspiring professor, but more importantly a life-long international student dedicated to international education.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Notes:

  1. 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0
  2. Institute of International Education, “Top 25 Places of Origin of International Students, 2010/11-2011/12,” Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, http://www.iie.org/opendoors; Institute of International Education, “International Student Enrollment Trends, 1949/50-2011/12,” Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, http://www.iie.org/opendoors.
  3. “The State of Digital Education,” Knewton, http://www.knewton.com/digital-education/.
  4. Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (New York: Random House, 1996).
  5. Cynthia L. Selfe, “Lest we Think the Revolution is Revolution: Images of Technology and the Nature of Change.” in Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st Century Technologies, eds. Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1999), 292-322.
  6. But see Sigrun Biesenbach-Lucas, “Asynchronous Discussion Groups in Teacher Training Classes: Perceptions of Native and Non-Native Students,” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 7, no. 3 (2003), 24-46, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=
  7. Maureen Snow Andrade, “International Students in English-Speaking Universities Adjustment Factors,” Journal of Research in International Education 5, no. 2 (2006), 131-154, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1475240906065589.
  8. NAFSA, “In America’s Interest: Welcoming International Students. Report of the Strategic Task Force on International Student Access,” Association of International Educators, http://www.nafsa.org/uploadedFiles/NAFSA_Home/Resource_Library_Assets/Public_Policy/in_america_s_interest.pdf
  9. Rona Tamiko Halualani et al., “Who’s Interacting? and what are they Talking about?—Intercultural Contact and Interaction among Multicultural University Students,” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 28, no. 5 (2004), 353-372, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijintrel.2004.08.004.
  10. Holly B. Tompson and George H. Tompson, “Confronting Diversity Issues in the Classroom with Strategies to Improve Satisfaction and Retention of International Students,” Journal of Education for Business 72, no. 1 (Sep, 1996), 53, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08832323.1996.10116826; Paula D. Ladd and Ralph Ruby Jr, “Learning Style and Adjustment Issues of International Students,” Journal of Education for Business 74, no. 6 (1999), 363-367, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08832329909601712.
  11. Andrade, International Students in English-Speaking Universities Adjustment Factors, 131-154
  12. Adam Jaworski, “Introduction: Silence in Institutional and Intercultural Contexts,” Multilingua-Journal of Cross-Cultural and Interlanguage Communication 24, no. 1-2 (2005), 1-6, http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/mult.24.1-2.1; Ikuko Nakane, “Negotiating Silence and Speech in the Classroom,” Multilingua-Journal of Cross-Cultural and Interlanguage Communication 24, no. 1-2 (2005), 75-100, http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/mult.24.1-2.75.
  13. Chun-Mei Zhao, George D. Kuh and Robert M. Carini, “A Comparison of International Student and American Student Engagement in Effective Educational Practices,” Journal of Higher Education 76, no. 2 (2005), 209-231, http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/jhe.2005.0018.
  14. I am grateful to Dr.. Margrit Schreier of Jacobs University, who recommended in a personal communication that I look into Storify, https://storify.com/.
  15. See for example the thoroughly researched piece on misogyny on the Internet and how anonymous attacks online haunt victims in their “real” lives at Jill Filipovic, “Blogging while Female: How Internet Misogyny Parallels Real-World Harassment,” Yale Journal of Law & Feminism 19 (2007), 295-303.
  16. Siobhan L. Devlin, “Investigating the Effect of Language and Culture on Student Interaction with and in WebCT,” Innovation in Teaching and Learning in Information and Computer Sciences 6, no. 2 (2007), 22-30, http://dx.doi.org/10.11120/ital.2007.06020022.
  17. Ibid.; Ling Thompson and Heng‐Yu Ku, “Chinese Graduate Students’ Experiences and Attitudes Toward Online Learning,” Educational Media International 42, no. 1 (2005), 33-47, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09523980500116878.
  18. Carla Arena, “Blogging in the Language Classroom: It Doesn’t ‘Simply Happen’,” TESL-EJ 11, no. 4 (2008), 1-7, http://tesl-ej.org/ej44/a3.html.
  19. See for example Peter J. Smith et al., “Learning through Computer‐mediated Communication: A Comparison of Australian and Chinese Heritage Students,” Innovations in Education and Teaching International 42, no. 2 (2005), 123-134, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14703290500062441.
  20. Somewhat regrettably, I no longer have access to this blog where the female leader discussion took place. Because this was entirely experimental and some of the discussions that took place included very personal stories from students, I asked the students after class what they preferred I do with the blog, and several students asked me to permanently erase it. Instructors should be clearer than I was with their students when their courses commence regarding the ultimate fate of their online writing.
  21. Atifete Jahjaga, President of the Republic of Kosovo, http://www.president-ksgov.net/?page=2,92.
  22. Global Voices Online, http://globalvoicesonline.org/.
  23. Cynthia L. Selfe and Richard J. Selfe, “The Politics of the Interface: Power and its Exercise in Electronic Contact Zones,” College Composition and Communication 45, no. 4 (1994), 480-504, http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/358761.
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Source: https://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/crossing-boundaries/oberle-2013/