Culture is a deeply challenging concept. Of course, it is easy enough to memorize many of the definitions assembled about it. The challenge is teaching about something so deeply embedded that it itself determines how we teach, learn, and think – and influences our abilities to attempt to see past it. That’s the fun and creative part too.
I’ll share some related resources and links below, including useful definitions, an activity, and a few audio and video pieces that are helpful for this classroom discussion. Of course, many of us prefer to engage the culture conversation by taking students out of the classroom, but as many colleagues have reminded me, that’s not always possible. The content below can be useful when encouraging students to explore their cultural frames of reference while staying inside the classroom.
The University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition shares many different definitions of culture before settling on this articulation:
“the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group.”
I also appreciate the rather concise, “culture is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another” from Hofstede’s 1984 National Cultures and Corporate Cultures. How do we see it though? And how do we help our students see it, particularly if they have not had the opportunity to travel far from home?
Teaching Activity: Culture Pie
One activity useful for beginning discussion and breaking ground on this topic is the “Unpack your cultural baggage or culture pie” activity developed by Kiely and Kiely. While the exercise (which includes facilitation instructions at the link) was developed as part of preparatory programming for intercultural experiences, I have also found it useful for unearthing cultural assumptions and demonstrating diversity within traditional courses as well. Important to that process is encouraging students to be open and honest about their influences and asking questions about what they mean by what they assert.
When I call attention to open and honest dialogue, I’m suggesting that students have frequently been conditioned to keep content relating to personal life, values, and faith out of the classroom. Interrogating culture requires naming many of these things. Therefore, it is helpful to signal that it is OK and even desired to engage in some “rule-breaking” by discussing these issues. In respect to asking questions about what students mean, I’m suggesting that it is important to interrogate abstractions. This also helps demonstrate diversity within sameness. What does “American” mean? What about “Christian”? If someone says “faith” or “spirituality” is extremely important to his or her worldview, we know very little about that person without hearing his or her articulation of those ideas. When conducted with clear and deep respect, this exercise is useful as an initial interrogation of the notion of culture and as a signal that the class will be a safe space for people coming from multiple different perspectives, worldviews, or cultures.
In the Classroom: Teaching Aids for Exploring Culture
It is often hard for students who have never left their communities to see their assumptions. This 10-minute clip from This American Life, Fleeing is Believing, provides an excellent opportunity to look in on US culture from the outside. Among the shocking and unbelievable information refugees coming to the US hear in their orientations before arrival:
“kissing in public and all of that is normal, you shouldn’t look … some people are very fat – you cannot imagine how fat they are …. when people become old in America, as they become seniors, they send them to nursing houses to live in…. when people go to the beach, they dress up in their swimsuit, which I call it underwear…”
There are many more examples. Listening to the clip provides not only opportunity to consider how others see the US, but also to listen to the defense mechanisms they use to refuse information about the US that they find unbelievable before seeing for themselves (homelessness comes up repeatedly in this vein).
If you choose to listen to this clip with your students, it may be helpful to clarify who refugees are and why they come. In the US, the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration handles refugee policy, while The US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants provides support for refugees and advocates for refugee issues. Most cities have some refugee resettlement, and resettlement agencies frequently have public education officers or outreach coordinators who are willing to come to your class to speak about refugees in the region.
Two additional pieces that are helpful for reflection related to culture and how we see ourselves are David Foster Wallace’s heralded commencement speech at Kenyon College and Chimanda Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story” Ted Talk, which I’ve linked to before. Here’s some relevant content from Foster Wallace (the full text, abridged version for the Guardian, and significant video is available online):
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
….The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude – but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let’s get concrete …. blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up…. A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.
Foster Wallace’s speech provocatively moves us to consider, in his phrase, what we worship. And I submit that this tells us a lot about our culture and cultural assumptions. What we say we worship, of course, is often quite different from what we spend our time and energies addressing. In other words, what we worship is frequently not what we profess to follow.
Exploring culture and understanding assumptions is an ongoing effort. Beginning a course with the activity linked above and providing opportunities to continue to explore the theme throughout the semester, (through the use of audio, video, and texts like those linked above) is one approach to continuously challenging and supporting students in their explorations of culture and cultural assumptions. Returning to the activity multiple times throughout the semester, or at least once again at the end of the term, helps students further unpack their assumptions and identify their own learning.
Many thanks to Harrisburg Area Community College for sponsoring a workshop I presented on Global Learning and Global Competency last week! Among other outcomes, it led to this blog post. If any readers would like to contribute any additional resources or questions on exploring culture in the classroom, we would appreciate the content and conversation!
Post by: Eric Hartman. In addition to being a co-founder of this website, Hartman holds a PhD in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and currently teaches at Temple and Drexel Universities.