By Nithya Ramachandran
What does it take to operate successfully in a university located in a different culture?
I am an Indian academician working in the Middle-East, specifically in the Sultanate of Oman and share four lessons about teaching and working in a different cultural context. Although the specifics will vary depending on the culture, the general lessons are likely to be more widely applicable.
The four general lessons are:
- Make the most of mentoring
- Be open and responsive to feedback
- Reinforce positive aspects of student behaviours and find ways to counteract the negative
- Enjoy the diversity.
Make the most of mentoring
Mentoring for new faculty is built into the Omani university system, as many faculty come from other countries. Mentors provide general guidance on the model of education, curriculum, course content, recent innovations, teaching methods and assessment methods, as well as providing a point of contact to help newcomers who don’t know anyone in the new country. More importantly, mentors from the same country can:
- advise on cultural differences in how students are educated and how the university works
- help develop case examples based on local experience to use in teaching
- help interpret feedback, as I discuss below.
In my case, a mentor from the same region in India guided me during my three-month probation period. He had been at the university for around ten years and was well versed in how the university teaching system operated. In turn, I have now become a mentor to a new colleague from India. As well as helping her deal with common issues, I have also been able to help her think through and respond to problems quite different from the ones I faced.
Be open and responsive to feedback
It can be hard to receive negative feedback when you are new and when you do not understand what the problem is, especially when it stems from cultural differences. This is where a mentor who has already navigated those differences can be very valuable.
In my case, students wondered why I was angry with them and not hearing them. They raised their concerns with the departmental administrator, who in turn raised them with my mentor, who then discussed them with me. It turned out that they were mistaking what would be considered to be normal behaviour in India with irritation and aggression.
My mentor helped me:
- speak more softly
- modulate my reactions to students
- ensure that I came across as polite rather than harsh
- slow down, so that I was not going too fast.
In addition, I made sure that I was available in the ten-minute break that was taken in each two-hour class. It was an opportunity to chat informally and get to know the students better, especially the young women in the class.
Reinforce positive aspects of student behaviours and find ways to counteract the negative
Student groups develop their own behaviours and norms, some of which are positive and to be encouraged and some of which are negative and to be counteracted. These also tend to be culture specific and it can require some effort to manage them appropriately.
In my case, a positive behaviour that I reinforced was that students did not make fun of mistakes made by others, for example in explaining a concept or pronouncing a technical term. Instead they encouraged each other to seek advice and learn from the mistake.
On the other hand, young women were reluctant to speak in mixed classroom environments. I encouraged them to speak by: a) adding class contributions to the assessment and b) handing out small gifts such as chocolate for good participation.
Enjoy the diversity
My faculty colleagues come from 16 different countries. Taking an interest in each other’s countries, cultures, food habits, lifestyles and so on helps smooth relations between us. An annual cultural night has become a highlight of the year and helps integrate newcomers.
One particular challenge is simple communication. Although English is used as the common language, differences in vocabulary, intonation, and other aspects of speaking style, mean that it is not always easy to understand each other. To counteract this we have staff development programs focused on presentations and a Toastmasters club. Ongoing interactions over time also help, especially by talking about things other than work.
What has your experience been of teaching, working and researching in a different culture? Are there additional lessons that you would add?