Organisatie - 13 februari 2014

Bridging the gulf

Nicolette Meerstadt

Wageningen sees itself as an international university. But teaching in an international environment is not always easy. Cultural differences can hamper communication with foreign students, and teachers are not always very flexible. Time to do something about it, according to some.

These are figures Wageningen University likes to bandy about: one quarter of its students are international, with 143 nationalities represented in all. Who can beat that? What is seldom reported, however, is that there is a downside to such an internationally diverse student population. Teaching groups full of different nationalities and cultures can be a lot harder for teachers than dealing with the homogeneous Dutch groups they were used to. Teachers in Wageningen face an extra challenge, as Katja Teerds well knows.

An associate professor of Animal Sciences, she remembers well how a foreign student burst into tears when she got a 6.5 for her dissertation. ‘In view of her attainment level and the progress she’d made, I thought it was a very reasonable grade,’ says Teerds. ‘It is true that a 6.5 means you are not there yet, but all in all it wasn’t bad.’ But the student saw it quite differently, recalls Teerds. ‘At home they would consider a 6.5 as a fail grade. It was dramatic.’ Another lesson they learned was about personal space. The Dutch are not used to a student coming to stand very close to you when you are explaining something. In secondary schools in China that is perfectly normal.’ These are familiar situations, says American professor Mick Vande Berg, author of the standard text Students Learning Abroad. ‘If we are not aware of the different nationalities in the class, we won’t be able to pass on knowledge very effectively.’ At the end of last year, Vande Berg was the guest lecturer on the Teaching International Classroom course which is run annually for Wageningen teachers to help them deal with multicultural groups better.

Students come to Wageningen with high expectations, says Vande Berg. ‘This may be a Dutch university, but the language of communication is English. Foreign students are attracted by the description ‘international’. So everyone here should be prepared to adapt – not just students but teachers too. To Vande Berg, it is not only for the sake of a smooth learning process that this is important. It is also a skill in itself, and one that is becoming increasingly important. ‘A recent study showed that in many countries intercultural competencies are more important than technical knowledge. Technical knowledge becomes out of date quickly, anyway, but the ability to collaborate across cultures is a competence that makes you more effective all your life.’

According to Vande Berg, many problems and misunderstandings stem from divergent attitudes, to authority for example. It is well known that Asians are used to hierarchical relationships, unlike the Dutch, for instance. Another issue is whether people are used to direct or indirect communication. ‘North Europeans are generally extremely direct and call a spade a spade. Asians are indirect and skirt around the issue without stating it in so many words,’ says Vande Berg. ‘Only when they are talking to children or animals do they get straight to the point. So if you speak to them in a very direct way they can feel belittled.’

Discussions in a class can easily get out of hand, says Vande Berg, because of different customs regarding the pace of the dialogue. ‘In western countries people let each other finish what they are saying before answering them. In Latin countries people interrupt each other as a way of encouraging them and stimulating new ideas. But in Japan it is customary to fall silent when the other person has finished speaking, for as long as 30 seconds. You can just imagine what happens in a class where these three cultures are represented.’ Vande Berg emphasized that these are stereotypes. Culture is not the same thing as nationality and individuals do not always match these standard images. The last thing you should do is to attack people for their culture, advises Vande Berg. As soon as you do that, they become less flexible. ‘They get the feeling: this is part of me; I can’t change it and I don’t want to.’

One of those attending Vande Berg’s masterclass was Katja Teerds. Since the course, she is more aware that her actions may come across differently to the way she intends, and that some students may consider her blunt, or may misunderstand her. Also since the course, she has been considering stimulating students to get into groups with mixed nationalities. ‘You notice that students often stick together with their fellow countrymen, and then there is always a leftover group. Now I am thinking about what I am going to do about that. It could be a nice learning experience.’

Yet there are limits to how far she can adapt to the cultural backgrounds of her students, thinks Teerds. ‘I remain who I am. And anyway it is impossible to know exactly who is in a class and what their attitudes are.’

The time for analyses is past, and the policy must be put into practice now

Nor does she expect her students to adapt completely. Her PhD student from China is becoming more outspoken, but will always remain very respectful towards anyone higher up the hierarchy. ‘You cannot expect that to change, but you do have to learn to work with it.’ These are words after Marijke van Oppen’s heart. It was Van Oppen who took the initiative to address the issue of intercultural communication within Wageningen UR, and she is responsible for the Teaching International Classroom course.

Too few people attend it for her liking. ‘Teachers are enthusiastic but it is voluntary and they are incredibly busy,’ she says. In her view it is time the university went a step further and made learning to teach multicultural classes more obligatory. ‘Very good policy documents have been written and the executive board has put internationalization high on the agenda. But the time for analyses is past, and the policy must be put into practice now.’ The current course is a good start but it could be taken further. Van Oppen: ‘Of course it is a myth that you can become culturally competent in just one workshop. It has got to be embedded in the organization. And to achieve that the policy has to be adopted and acted on in the higher echelons.’

Katja Teerds agrees with that. ‘I think it’s a good idea to make intercultural teaching a set part of the basic teacher training qualification. That knowledge is crucial to getting through to our students better and for preparing them better for an international future.’

Illustration: Kito