Learning Across Cultures: Disciplines Unite to Create Shared Opportunity

Posted: February 4, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Catherine Ferraro

Being able to communicate effectively across differences of age, gender, language, culture and political orientation is a highly useful skill. Just as important is the ability to understand culture and its influence on our perspectives.

Students were given the opportunity to learn these essentials when the undergraduate Conflict Analysis and Resolution (CAR) Program and the English Language Institute (ELI) partnered last fall to create a shared learning opportunity in cross-cultural communication and dialogue.

Leila Peterson
Leila Peterson
Photo by Catherine Ferraro

Students enrolled in CONF 202 Dialogue and Difference and ELI 089 Dialogue with Americans met together for most of the semester.

“It was important to us that we offer the class to both CAR and ELI students because it meets two needs,” says Leila Peterson, an adjunct professor for CAR who teaches CONF 202.

“First, it was a good opportunity for ELI students to practice their language skills and understand American culture better, and second, it allowed CAR students to design and implement various dialogue models in a cross-cultural environment.”

Although the Dialogue and Difference class has been offered in previous semesters, the idea to create a joint class for CAR and ELI students originated when Michael Smith, core instructor and graduate studies advisor for ELI who also teaches ELI 089, met with ELI Director John Pope and CAR Undergraduate Program Director Susan Hirsch. Peterson and Smith then got together, discussed their ideas and decided they wanted to try it.

Michael Smith
Michael Smith
Photo by Catherine Ferraro

At the beginning of the semester, none of the students in the two courses knew they would be meeting together. After several classes of preparation, the first common experience was a workshop on cross-cultural communication led by Susan Trencher, chair and associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

After coming together, the students participated in several workshops on active listening and set their own ground rules that would facilitate free and open discussion. With so many students from different backgrounds, notes Peterson, it was important that every student feel comfortable speaking, despite their classroom experiences, which differ culturally.

Some of the topics covered were the presidential election, religion, immigration, race and nationalism. For each topic, Peterson and Smith gave students some background, sometimes bringing in a guest speaker or showing a film. Then students used one of several discussion models ― working in small groups, using a moderator to facilitate discussion or incorporating food ― to explore how these techniques can enhance communication and understanding.

Dialogue and Difference class
Dialogue and Difference class

“This course created a new atmosphere where everyone had to look at where they came from,” says Smith. “Students realized that, depending on their backgrounds, they all had different perspectives on events such as Sept. 11 and the election. Sometimes they didn’t agree, but everyone was very open to understanding what others were saying.”

One project required ELI students to choose a topic, such as the election or health care, interview other Mason students and analyze their opinions on the subject. The purpose was to enforce the theme that all students have similar problems and concerns regardless of their cultures.

CAR students were required to choose a topic and develop a discussion model to create dialogue among students in the class. Then they were evaluated on how well that model impacted the discussion.

At the end of the semester, the students participated in a dialogue panel that was open to the Mason community. The students shared their opinions on various topics and experiences throughout the semester.

“The performances of students from both programs greatly exceeded our expectations, and we were so happy that they were willing to be open and take risks,” says Smith. “This class helped them understand that there are so many factors that make up their identities and that these factors influence their perceptions of the world.”

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