How to listen

April 15, 2005

When teaching students from a range of cultural backgrounds, it's vital to ensure all voices are heard without being obsessively PC, says Harriet Swain

An Englishman, an Irishman, a Scotswoman, a Pole, an Israeli, a Chinese woman, two Japanese, three Pakistanis, an American and a man from Equatorial Guinea walk into a seminar room. It's yours. And today you're discussing the politics of globalisation. You're a bit worried you might say the wrong thing.

First, have you established what the wrong thing might be? Talking to your students long before you try to teach them - especially if you are going to be discussing something potentially controversial - is never a bad thing.

It is even more important if you have little experience of what their educational or cultural background may have taught them already.

Pav Akhtar, National Union of Students black students officer, says you must define your terms from the beginning, without being frightened of expressing something controversial.

"If you are going to use the word 'black', say what it means," he says.

"Give the context and explain why you are using it."

Simon Smith, centre manager for the Higher Education Academy's Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies, who has surveyed staff on the challenges of working with students from a range of cultural and religious backgrounds, says communication should be a priority.

This should be done in a proactive rather than reactive way, he says. He advises asking students at an early stage to inform you if there are any particularly difficult issues for them, and says that it is important to educate yourself about any possible cultural sensitivities.

These can range from students being used to fundamentally different teaching styles, to being tired if they have fasted all day for a religious festival, to being unwilling to write up notes in a pub after a field trip.

His subject centre team will soon provide an online resource giving information about important religious festivals and holy days as well as explaining differing dress and dietary customs.

Barbara Korner, lecturer in social sciences at the Open University, who is writing a paper on teaching race in higher education, suggests not only setting agreed ground rules with the seminar group before a session, but checking on their feelings after a particularly heated session has finished to give students a chance to talk about any difficult issues it might have raised.

However, she says it is possible to be too sensitive. Lecturers can sometimes be so preoccupied with not appearing racist that their teaching is adversely affected, she says.

It is also important to prevent over-concern with "politically correct" language getting in the way of an interesting discussion or making students feel inhibited - as long as use of such language is not preventing others from speaking out.

She says it is important to remember that students' views that appear prejudicial or offensive may simply be explained by lack of knowledge and critical awareness. She warns against taking for granted basic historical knowledge about, for example, the Cold War or the background to black immigration and colonialism.

Akhtar says it is vital not to make generalisations or presumptions. Some academics won't talk to women students wearing the hijab without bothering to find out whether or not they would object if they did, he says. "Engage with the students," he says.

"The worst thing is if people say 'they never asked the black kids'."

He says there should nevertheless be structures in place to reassure students that the system isn't going to be working against them. Boundaries have to be defined from the beginning and they need to know where to go for support if they need it.

An important area where this may apply is language. Akhtar says that although he read English literature at Cambridge University, even he still sometimes has problems recognising idioms or references.

A regional consortium session on teaching international students, held recently at Loughborough University, found that it was important to speak clearly and at a reasonable pace, repeat questions from the group, use standard English, avoid jargon and recognise that communication is about culture as well as language.

Katharine Slade, marketing and business development manager at Wolverhampton University, says it is important to remember that humour may not always come across.

She says Wolverhampton provides language support for all students outside their courses so they do not feel they are put on the spot in the classroom.

Involving students from all backgrounds by getting them to share their experiences of a topic from their own cultures is useful, she says.

However, Korner warns that you need to take care not to single out students as more generally representative if this makes them uncomfortable. What you need always to ensure is that everyone's voice is heard, says Smith. "You have to develop an atmosphere of mutual respect."

Further information The Higher Education Academy's Subject Centre for Philosophy and Religious Studies website: www.prs.heacademy.ac.uk .

Is it Wrong to be Racist? Dealing with Emotion and Discomfort in Classroom Discussions of Race and Ethnicity , by Barbara Korner and Diane Garrard.

Reflections on Practice: Teaching Race and Ethnicity in Further and Higher Education , edited by Steve Spencer and Malcolm Todd.

TOP TIPS

* Define your terms and boundaries at the beginning

* Communicate clearly

* Find out about different cultures

* Be aware of language problems

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